On TV: Community

Movieline Score: 5

Joel McHale is a winsome, smart-ass altar boy as host of The Soup, the improbably hilarious E! program that skewers all daytime programming but specializes in the insanity of Tyra Banks. Having conquered comedic quips on the Seacrest network, McHale now ventures to NBC with his new sitcom Community, which follows a group of community college students with storied pasts and plenty of pent-up ambitions. Some have called this the season's funniest pilot. Is it?

McHale plays Jeff Winger, a suspended lawyer whose degree is deemed invalid, forcing him to re-enroll in school. There, he attempts to woo fellow student Britta (Gillian Jacobs), meets Pierce Hawthorne (a very turtlenecked Chase), an older, monotone student who's been married seven times, and befriends Abed (Danny Pudi), a neurotic, fast-talking, gratingly quirky peer. The plot of the pilot is actually inconsequential when compared to its purpose -- uniting a klatch of unlikely colleagues within the parameters of a Colorado college campus. Things ensue!

McHale is a stand-up comic, which means he's just one cadet in an endless militia of funnymen to win a sitcom. But while Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano succeeded in primetime by relating to the audience beyond the microphone, McHale -- whose shtick is commentary delivered from an ironic distance -- can't manage the same. He is sane, but puckish; smart, but silly. Community casts him as too conventional a protagonist, considering how off-the-cuff and flippant his humor really is; when Jeff sizes up his peers and nicely joshes them, it runs counter to McHale's cutting strengths. Frankly, McHale must realize this, because he's the most visibly uncomfortable member of the cast.

Community needs much more than it currently has to succeed -- a magnetic supporting cast, reasons to like McHale's blandly condescending character, and something for Chevy Chase to do other than pretend to care. It's hard to judge an entire show based on a pilot, but Community seems like a semester's worth of discomfort and missed potential.