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The pilot episode of the NBC sitcom Community aired on Thursday September 17, 2009. Written by Dan Harmon the show's creator the episode was directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. The episode introduces Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) as he tries to cheat his way to a community college degree. Viewers also got to know the show's other main characters, including Chevy Chase as retired entrepreneur Pierce Hawthorne.

Critics were generally favourable to the episode, and praised both the actors and the comedy writing. The show received good viewership, and was a bright spot in NBC's Thursday lineup, where the other shows suffered declines in ratings.

Plot

In the episode's cold open, the college dean gives new students a welcome speech that ends up being unintentionally offensive. As he mentions various community college stereotypes, we see some of the main characters looking shocked and offended: "remedial teens" (Troy), "twenty-something dropouts" (Britta), "middle-aged divorcees" (Shirley), and "old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drains of eternity" (Pierce). Meanwhile Jeff is talking to the overly loquacious Abed, and is mildly annoyed until he discovers that Abed has already gathered intimate information about the beautiful Britta. "I see your value now," Jeff says, to which Abed replies "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me." Jeff then meets with Dr. Ian Duncan, whom, as a lawyer, he once helped get off a DUI charge. The state bar has suspended Jeff's licence, since he does not have a legitimate college degree. He now wants Dr. Duncan to provide him with answers for every test in the classes he is taking, and Ian says he will look into it.

Jeff meets Britta in the cafeteria, and tries to strike up a conversation. She initially thinks he is hitting on her, but he claims to be a Spanish tutor and asks her to join his study group. He proves his proficiency by speaking a few Spanish phrases, and Britta does not realise it is all gibberish. As the study group convenes, Jeff complains that no-one else showed up, and the two start talking. It comes across that she is strongly concerned with honesty, and that she will not take lightly on anyone lying to her. At this point Abed arrives, as Britta has invited him. Jeff tries to make him leave, but fails to get the message through. He then gets called to the football field by Dr. Duncan, who initially tries to appeal to Jeff's sense of right and wrong. When this proves futile, he agrees to provide the answers. Jeff returns to the study group to find that Abed has invited Troy, Shirley, Pierce and Annie, while Britta is gone. Jeff makes an excuse to leave, runs into Britta, and suggests the two study on their own, but she persuades him to go back in.

The group now does introductions, and the viewer gets to know a little more about the individual characters. Pierce is a retired entrepreneur, Shirley "has made some bad life choices", Annie got addicted to pills and had to drop out of high school, while Troy was a high school football star who got injured and failed to get a scholarship. Jeff, eager to get away, deliberately stirs a fight among the group, then leaves once more to get the test answers. Dr. Duncan hands him a sealed envelope, but only in return for Jeff's Lexus. When Jeff returns, the group is in turmoil, and Britta promises to have dinner with him if he can restore order. He then gives an inspirational speech about compassion and forgiveness, and the others are deeply moved. Britta, however, sees through his vacuous rhetoric and asks him to leave. Jeff then comes clean about everything, and adds that since he now has the test answers he does not need the study group. Abed is disillusioned with him and says that he though he was like Bill Murray in any of his films, but he turned out to be more like Michael Douglas in any of his films.

Leaving the building, Jeff finds all the pages in the envelope to be blank. It turns out Dr. Duncan was only trying to teach him a lesson, and Jeff gets his car keys back. As he is about to leave campus he runs into Pierce, then Troy, and shows his ability to make people feel better about themselves by dispensing advise and encouragement. The others join, and Jeff admits to being a fraud, says that he does not have the test answers, and that he will probably flunk next day's test. The group has now taken a liking to him, and they invite him back in. Abed says "I'm sorry I called you Michael Douglas and I see your value now," to which Jeff replies "Well that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me." As the episode ends a dedication is shown to the recently deceased John Hughes, whose film The Breakfast Club has been repeatedly referenced throughout the episode.

Cast and characters



Casting

Harmon has emphasized the importance of the cast to making the premise of the comedy work. "Casting was 95 percent of putting the show together," he said in an interview. He had worked with several of the cast members earlier; both Joel McHale, John Oliver and Chevy Chase had cameo roles in episode 9 of Water and Power, the short film series produced by Harmon for Channel 101. Actor Chevy Chase Had long been a favourite of Harmon. Though principally not very partial to sitcoms, Chase was persuaded to take the job by the quality of the show's writing. Harmon saw similarities between Chase and the character he plays on the show. Though Chase has often been ridiculed for his career choices, Harmon believed this role could be redeeming: "What makes Chevy and Pierce heroic is this refusal to stop." Harmon had to warn Chase against playing a "wise-ass" the way he often does in his roles, since the character of Pierce is a rather pathetic figure who is normally the butt of the joke himself.

McHale known from the E! comedy The Soup was also, like Chase, impressed by Harmon's writing. He commented that "after reading Dan's script it was so head and shoulders above everything else that I was reading." McHale appealed to Harmon because of his likeable quality, which allowed the character to possess certain unsympathetic traits without turning the viewer against him. For the role of Annie Harmon wanted someone who would resemble Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon's character from the 1999 movie Election. Originally the producers were looking for a Latina or Asian Tracy Flick, for greater diversity, but could not find any. Instead they ended up casting Alison Brie, known from her role as Trudy Campbell on Mad Men.

Production

The show's creator, Dan Harmon, was himself enrolled at a community college for a period.
The premise of Community was based on Harmon's real-life experiences. In an attempt to save his relationship with his then-girlfriend, he once enrolled in Glendale Community Collegemarker, north of Los Angelesmarker, where they would take Spanish together. Harmon got involved in a study group and somewhat against his own instincts became closely connected to the group of people with whom he had very little in common. "...I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them," he explains "even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them." With this as the background, Harmon wrote the show with a main character largely based on himself. He had, like Jeff, been self-centred and independent to the extreme before he realised the value of connecting with other people.

About the creative process behind the writing, Harmon says that he had to write the show as if it were a movie, not a sitcom. Essentially, he says, the process was no different from the earlier work he had done, except for the length and the target demographic. Filming the show involved a lot of improvisation, particularly from Chevy Chase. About Chase Harmon said that he "tends to come up with lines that you can actually end scenes with sometimes." He also mentioned Joel McHale and Donald Glover, the actor who portrays Troy, as adept improvisers.

Reception

The pilot episode of Community received generally favourable reviews from critics. The aggregate review website Metacritic gives the show a score of 69 out of 100, based on 23 reviews. TV Guide's Matt Roush called it "One of the best new comedies of the season". Heather Havrilesky, writing for Salon.com, agreed with this assessment, and commended the "alarmingly smart writing". Others were less impressed; Variety's Brian Lowry found the satire wanting, and did not much appreciate McHale's performance.

Premièring in the 9:30 spot on the evening of Thursday September 17, the pilot episode had a viewership of 7.680 million. In the 18–49 audience, it had a rating of 3.7. As such, it held 93% of this audience from The Office, which had been in the previous time slot. The show was called the "bright spot for the night was" for NBC, seeing how The Office was down 18% from the previous the year's première, while Parks and Recreation, in the preceding time slot, was down 30%.

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