Dobrow Finds Something Other Than 'Mad Men' to Watch

Media Reviews for Media People: NBC.com's 'Community,' 'Chuck'

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Great news: I just now received a State Department waiver to discuss a media property other than "Mad Men." Granted, I can only do so between the hours of 1 p.m. and 1:10 p.m. EST, and I have to imbue my commentary with the type of fawning, almost-smart critic-speak that "Mad Men" automatically triggers (By showing us how we were then, it tells us so very much about how we are now). But for a few minutes, at least, I can escape the suffocating media blitz and meditate on something other than the nuanced depiction of how longstanding gender roles mutated in the ad-agency workplace. I feel as unfettered as an Ebert.

'Community'
'Community' Credit: NBC
The shows I settled on, tragically, don't offer any insight into our gradual evolution into a blithe consumer culture, nor do they wow us by depicting the precise appropriate brand of stainless-steel teapot used during the eras chronicled therein. What they do, easily and unabashedly, is entertain. That's why I turn on the Telly Vision: to be entertained. If I wanted to learn about the sexual-politico-societal shifts of the early 1960s, I'd stalk Joan Baez.

Anyway, the two shows that lured me and promptly won me over are laugh-track-retardant newbie "Community" and quirky-little-spy-yarn-that-could "Chuck." But I'm just as interested in discussing the ways that their dunce-cap network sugar daddy is attempting to promote them.

Early reveal on Facebook
"Community" formally debuts on Sept. 17. But realizing that it has something special on its hands, NBC has first unveiled the show on Facebook, kinda like how Fox quickly gleaned the breakout potential of "Glee" and rushed it onto the airwaves in May.

I don't understand the strategy, especially since anyone who visits the logical nesting spots for "Community" (Hulu and NBC.com) will come away empty, but anything that gets the show in front of a wider audience can't be a bad thing. So a bunch of would-be watchers will have to join Facebook and then disable its disclose-embarrassing-things-you-bought function -- that's a small price to pay for a six-weeks-early preview. It only airs on Facebook through tomorrow afternoon, so get on this pronto.

Whether the Facebook intro generates the OMG LMAO buzz that NBC so clearly craves, "Community" arrives as fully formed as any comedy since the dearly departed "Arrested Development." Set at a community college outside Denver, the show follows a ragtag collection of self-unaware narcissists as they stumble from one merrily idiotic scenario to the next. I cannot understate the skill with which it's crafted. For instance, "Community" succinctly defines each of its central characters within the show's first 90 seconds (I was most tickled by the description of Chevy Chase's Ty-Webb-at-65 buffoon as a member of a group of "old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity"). It somehow mines fresh giggles from such tired targets as text messaging and Ben Affleck, all the while strenuously eschewing everybody-hugs-at-the-end sentimentality.

The cast handles the material with great care, underplaying its absurdity. You won't find a better comic ensemble on TV outside "30 Rock." Chase, for all his unfortunate career choices and public assholery, remains one of the most sublime deadpan bumblers of this or any other era. If the pilot episode is any indication, "Community" should lap the stillborn "Parks and Recreation" and "The Office" (boring now that it wants us to simultaneously care about and laugh at its characters) by early October.

Good news for latecomers
It's too much for me to ask that NBC would pair "Chuck" with "Community" and "30 Rock," I imagine. I say that as a complete newcomer to "Chuck," which I'd been avoiding mostly out of stubbornness. After being told by 203,847 people that failure to watch the show would render my life humorless and incomplete, I went out of my way to avoid it. Of course, that stroke of self-defeating brilliance came from a guy who withheld attention, affection and/or alimony payments from anybody who refused to lap at the trough of "The Wire."

I sure wish I'd checked out "Chuck" earlier, because now I've got 42 hours of DVD consumption ahead of me. The central premise may seem like high-concept goofballery -- government secrets are accidentally downloaded into a nerd-boy's noggin -- but "Chuck" doesn't take it too seriously. Yes, the show has a bit too much heart for its own good and features the obligatory love triangle, but the cliché nature of those elements is more than neutralized by an easy rhythm all its own. It's one part "Get Smart" and one part "Ed" (a show, incidentally, from which "Chuck" could learn a few "here's what not to do after season two" lessons).

'Chuck'
'Chuck' Credit: NBC
Happily for latecomers like me, NBC has stuck with "Chuck" and seems intent on growing its cult audience into a ... uh, slightly larger cult audience. The latest volley in that campaign is an unprecedented second network-sponsored website, ChuckMeOut. With its polls about plot developments and videos featuring show insiders, the site caters to the core believers. At the same time, it highlights for newbies the tone and 'tude that make "Chuck" so compulsively clever.

ChuckMeOut.com is neither unique nor spectacular, but it's reassuring to see a media behemoth like NBC lift more than a token pinky to celebrate a property in which it believes. Combined with its continued support of the ratings-challenged "Friday Night Lights," NBC is fighting the good fight on behalf of the shows that deserve it. It's too bad that most everything else is about to be buried in the polite-laughter avalanche that Jay Leno's nightly whimsyfest will unleash.

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