Ah, now this is more like it.

I was beginning to hate you, 2009 fall television season, what with your moderately entertaining musicals and comedy scourges who were supposed to go away, but with the series premiere of Community (NBC, debuts tonight at 9:30; moves to 8:00 on October 8), you’ve finally given me something I can enjoy. The schedule still has plenty of sitcom debuts left to air, but if any of them are funnier than Community, I’ll be pleasantly shocked.

The setup is pretty brilliant for a sitcom, and here it is: Jeff, an unctuous lawyer (Joel McHale), is disbarred when it’s discovered that he lied about his degree (Colombia, not Columbia), and in order to work his way back into the legal profession, he heads to community college — and immediately sets about trying to get test answers out of a professor (John Oliver) who happens to be one of his former clients. He also takes an immediate liking to a no-nonsense blonde named Britta (Gillian Jacobs, whose physical resemblance to Elisabeth Shue quickly turns into a running gag), going so far as to pretend to set up a Spanish study club so he can be alone with her.

Things don’t quite work out as planned, of course; Britta tells Abed (Danny Pudi, doing his best Maulik Pancholy impression) about the study session, and he shares the news with a group of students that includes Chevy Chase as a dimwitted entrepreneur named Pierce Hawthorne. If you’ve seen McHale as the host of the E! Network’s snarky The Soup, then it should come as no surprise that teaming him up with Chase is a stroke of genius; their comedic styles are very similar. (At one point, Pierce tells Jeff, “You remind me of me when I was your age,” to which a dejected Jeff quips, “I deserved that.”) McHale’s better at playing self-aware than Chase ever was, which should help keep Community from wearing out its welcome quickly — as should Chase’s still-precise comic timing, enlivened here by some of the best gags he’s touched in 20 years.

But it isn’t just McHale and Chase’s show; in fact, neither of them dominate the pilot episode, instead relaxing in the comfort of a terrific cast that also includes 30 Rock writer Donald Glover and veteran character actor Yvette Nicole Brown. Each of them gets a chance to shine during the opening 30 minutes of the series, and although that can change, most sitcoms do their best work after the pilot — and Community‘s directors, Arrested Development vets Joe and Anthony Russo, are no strangers to juggling terrific ensembles. Every other night of the week, NBC might look like a network on the verge of selling its lights and fixtures, but Thursdays are still rock solid — with Community moving alongside 30 Rock, The Office, and the emerging Parks and Recreation, they might just be able to resuscitate Must See TV.

Can’t wait for tonight at 9:30? Download the first episode now — free from Amazon Video on Demand.

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Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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