Like many shows in their first season, "Community" took a while to find its footing. It was a tonally unique show that was more dramedy than comedy and it was capable of surprising the viewer with emotional depth. At the same time, it could be clumsy and rush us through its character beats too fast. The ratio of one-line jokes per episode was also unusually low.
I fell off "Community" somewhere around Season 2 but I remember watching the pilot and thinking "Hmmm, what comes next?" Not only did I want to see more of the characters but I also was engaged in curiosity over what the format would be.
I just rewatched the pilot and definitely noticed a few awkward notes:
-Extremely inappropriate and moderately offensive way that "Aesperger's" is used as a casual insult. I have no idea how the show got away with that. That's like saying "Hey, Abed, you have leukemia! You suck!" Get it? Me either
-The "charisma" of Jeff doesn't realy translate as well as it should. I don't buy that the group would quit their squabbling in the 3rd act with a speech like that. The shark week and Ben Affleck references are a little too specific to be timeless.
-The 3rd act is way too melodramatic. Chill out everyone, it's just a study group, you just have to learn to conjugate a few verbs with each other, not live together in a commune for the next six years.
-It's the first week of school and they're already having a Spanish exam?
-Why is Jeff admitting he made the whole study group up and why is he naive enough to think that deserves redemption from a girl who flat-out says the only thing that turns her off is lying?
-Some of the profound and deep conversations that they have at the staircase a the end are jarring. Troy suddenly asking him about why he wears a jacket and Pierce confiding to him on his divorces like he's established himself as some wise sage are a little ridiculous.
On the plus side, I'd say about 5/7ths of the characters have some genuine depth which is pretty impressive for a pilot episode. I appreciate that Pierce has been established as a bit out there so these kinds of out there emotionally raw interactions the show is going fits in well with Pierce's character. Troy in that last moment shows he's pretty vulnerable. Britta is extremely fleshed-out (it helps that her life story is explicitly stated) but she's smart, sexy, playful, and can go toe-to-toe with Jeff. Annie already gets a nickname that says a lot about her ("Annie Aderrol") and in a relatively short amount of screentime, she earns that moniker. Jeff thinks he's the shit and it's only annoying if his in-universe charisma isn't matching with what we're seeing on screen, but he still has depth. I would have hoped they'd tone him down but if memory serves, I don't think that wish was ever granted. Of the other two characters, Shirley is a stereotype (more so in the next few episodes) and Abed is just bizarre, but at least Abed can inject humor into the situations (looking at you Shirley). Plus, John Oliver (playing himself) is always a pleasant surprise.
The story is clumsily told but has an arc that shows some of that emotional depth that sets the show apart. It's also pretty intriguing that we're going to see a school-type drama transplanted to an extremely unique setting. At a community college, you can do "The Breakfast Club" with all walks of life: People who need school more than school needs them, and the show teases at that pretty well.
Lastly, let's talk about the elephant in the room: How much of the dialogue is flat-out funny? The show has always treaded in a low laughs-per-minute ratio. I think that could have prevented some viewers early on if it stuck a few more jokes. The screwball comedy dialogue between Britta and Jeff is where most of the humor lies in the episode in addition to John Oliver whose role on screen is synchronous with his comic persona.
A typical example of one of the jokes not relating to the Britta-Jeff dynamic (which unfortuantely would be overshadowed by a high amount of age-inappropriate shipping in later seasons) is Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, now an Oscar-winning writer) forgetting one of his cue cards in the middle of a public announcement so that his speech reads awkwardly. It's a character-based joke because that is SOOO Dean Pelton. It works mildly well but it would have really hit once people got to know the character. The humor on "Community" was always character based, but the show makes an odd choice to put the cart before the horse in that instance.
With time, the show would go on to merge character-based humor and story better and pick up quite a few fans.