THE AVENUE SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
Last night marked the debut of a new NBC sitcom, “Community.” Normally these things come and go in my household—and the rest of the nation—without too much notice (remember “Kath and Kim"? I didn’t think so).
But this one hit close to home, because it’s set at fictional Greendale Community College. We’ve been working closely on federal policy around community colleges in the past year, and President Obama announced a proposal in July that would make a considerable new investment in the sector, with the goal of graduating 5 million more students by 2020. Yesterday afternoon, the House passed legislation that would provide about $10 billion over 10 years to community colleges, financed by converting a private subsidized student lending program to direct lending by the federal government.
I was a little fearful that the show would be over-the-top snarky about community colleges, and continue a longstanding tradition of belittling the contributions of the sector (even as it accounts for nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates). After all, star Joel McHale makes a living being snarky over on the E! network. (Yes, I watch "The Soup," but it’s an efficient aggregator.)
In the end, though, it was tame, and mostly goofy. McHale’s character, a discredited lawyer returning to Greendale to get a degree, belittled the college a few times (at one point referring to it as a “school-shaped toilet”), but the script meant for him to come across as a bit of a jerk. The ensemble cast of students was diverse by race, ethnicity, age, and educational background, much like community college students overall. John Oliver’s dean’s office wasn’t much more than a large broom closet, true to the sorry state of infrastructure on many campuses (which the legislation would help address). The American Association of Community Colleges is blogging on it, too, and doesn’t seem too ruffled by what it saw.
The show did perhaps make Greendale look a little too much like the stereotype of a four-year college, with a leafy green campus and a track team. But what do you know—it was filmed at Los Angeles City College, a community college just north of downtown LA, which does have a leafy green campus and a track team, and more than 15,000 students.
So if “Community” survives more than a few episodes, it might just end up being OK for an educational sector that is rising in enrollment, value, and public policy prominence. If not, at least it went further than McHale’s last network sitcom effort ("The I.T. Crowd," anyone?).