Community (NBC, Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET) arrives blessed (and burdened) by advance publicity declaring it the most promising new comedy of the fall season, rightly so. Though uneven, the show is fast and frisky and notably better than not bad. Also, an overwhelming majority of its competition promises only to induce ennui.
The star is Joel McHale, best known as host of The Soup, a superfluously clever weekly summary of reality-show happenings and celebrity-culture debasements. There—dashing in his cynicism, cheerful in his schadenfreude, respectful of the audience's intelligence—he lifts his sarcasm above mere snark and emerges as a heroic wit. Here, he brings much the same energy to his role as Jeff Winger, a handsomely unrepentant smartass. Jeff has earned a law degree and launched a distinguished career as an amoral shyster by BS-ing that he had earned a B.A. Found out, he is condemned to begin working toward a degree at the lowest tier of higher education, a community college where students pay tuition in an express aisle and where a Spanish professor concludes an unhinged monologue by fondly stroking the cheek of a random student. The offhand hilarity of this infinitely gentle back-of-hand caress is indicative of a comedy most hilarious in its details.
Acrobatically, the show manages to mock to the low status of Jeff's classmates without sneering. They are enrolled, after all, at a "college of last resort," to use a phrase from "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," a sad Atlantic article written by an anonymous English instructor. "I don't have cause to use much educational jargon," professor X wrote, "but deficits has often come in handy." The students here are appealing as underdogs—especially, as the pun of the title suggests, because of the bond among them. Each of the first two episodes offers something like a moral lesson, one made all the more palatable for the counterpoint of Jeff's great glib weaseling.
Jeff displays a conspicuous interest in approaches to theology that justify cheating on tests, exploiting alleged friends, and wooing a cutie-pie with exuberant lies. One hopes that future episodes will find him enrolled in a philosophy course where he adheres to principles of moral skepticism and further rocks ontology like a Bertrand Russell with gelled hair. At one point, he scoffs, "I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I could make anything right or wrong. So either I'm God or truth is relative." Elsewhere, he rounds out a pickup line by asking, "Is God dead?" The mind struggles to recall any other sitcom pilot riffing on the existence of a Supreme Being, only those so dreadful as to disprove his benevolence.
One such refutation of divine goodness, Cougar Town (ABC, debuts Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 9:30 p.m. ET), stars Courteney Cox as Jules Cobb, a 40-year-old verging on a nervous breakdown. That Jules runs a real estate agency in contemporary Florida is the least of the indignities heaped upon her.
In the first scene, Jules assesses her figure in the bathroom mirror and frowns disconsolately. The millimeters of saggy skin around her elbows are Cox's own, but it is unclear to whom the (very minor) flab witnessed in extreme close-ups belongs. Perhaps she has a gut double. Divorced from (and paying alimony to) a chowderhead who lives across the street, convinced that her shortage of suitors verifies her unlovability, psychotically gauche in social situations, she embodies every familiar trope of an unmarried woman approaching menopause. The situation demands that she seek out a lover half her age. She clumsily wrangles herself a fellow who has only his pecs to recommend him. She lays him rather in the manner of a succubus leeching a victim's energy.
Cougar Town's stabs at edgy verbal humor rely on subjuvenile lines about reproductive anatomy. A passenger in an abruptly braked car complains, "My uterus almost shot out." More creepily, when Jules' teenage son heads out to meet a friend, she warns, "If I ever catch you two drinking and driving, I'ma show everyone that baby picture of you two holding each other's penises. So small!" What? Why? Must they? This column knows cougars, and Cox's is among the dreariest prowling their habitat.