‘Community’: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs On Season Three & Its Unique Place On TV

"I'm really glad that I'm on this show because it is continuously surprising," Gillian Jacobs says, marveling her career's good fortune. "It's definitely a bonus feature to me, I'm not wearing a suit and reciting legal jargon every week; that, I wouldn't be excited about."

She better not give anyone any ideas; on NBC’s “Community,” anything is possible.

Greendale College, the setting of the cult hit comedy, is the land of possibilities, brimming with smart pop culture references, uniquely warm characters and irreverent adventures through genre and form. Just a few examples from last season include an episode modeled after a zombie attack film, with a school cafeteria serving as the breeding ground; an entire episode that revolved around an intense game of Dungeons and Dragons; and a claymation Christmas cartoon that saw its characters share form with Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

All told, it’s easy to make a case that it is both the smartest and most eccentric show on network television.

“Some of the things that we have done, whether it be the paintball episode… like I can’t believe my good fortune,” star Joel McHale told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. The paintball episode to which McHale refers is the critically acclaimed two-part season finale that saw the show turn into a sort of teenage/western film mashup that was half MTV, half Sergio Leone. The school transformed into a post-apocalypse western town with cafeteria forts, old time western music, and gangs running amuck, showcasing just how far they push the limits of the sitcom.

“I mean, some of these [other] shows are just kind of walking around and tracking shots, but with this, we got to pretend we were all in an action movie or the Dungeons and Dragons, some of that stuff. Some of the things we get to do, I would pay to do this, this is crazy.”

Now going into its third season, the show has, through all the madness, entrenched its characters in story lines that are as high stakes as those of most other TV comedies. For Winger, reckoning with both his lost career — he had an illegally accredited law degree, leading to his disbarring — and unresolved issues with his father will lead to a season of turmoil, McHale revealed.

“According to Dan, I think he’s going to send my character into hell. I think my character will be tortured this year, to which I look forward immensely,” he teased. “Already, in the things we’ve shot, physically and mentally, Jeff Winger has been stretched quite a bit. The first episode is nuts. A lot of shit happens. Because he came into the series being wildly arrogant and selfish, those were broken down a little bit last year as he really began to care about the group, and I think he will be faced with a lot of the things that he ignored, such as father issues and his relationship to women and things like that.”

That being said, McHale promised that Winger’s development will not be a conventional, magical sitcom one-episode arc; his character cannot entirely transform upon receiving one splash of cold water or life lesson.

“I’m sure it won’t be one of those things, because Dan is so adept at this; with so many shows, all of a sudden, one thing happens to a character and all of a sudden, they’re changed! And they’re now changed forever,” McHale said, drawing a line between the story standards set by “Community” and those set by other network comedies. “And what’s been great is that it’s like a glacier in the winter, that’s very hard to melt. Just like any human being, [Winger] doesn’t make about faces that quickly.”

On the other hand, Jacobs’ Britta, a well-meaning but largely lost soul, will be actively looking for change this season. Whether she finds it or not, that’s another story.

“I think a lot of Britta is going through this season is trying to figure out her major, and have that kind of structure to her life or that drive or focus,” Jacobs told HuffPost. “She’s never had that before, this is a new one, but in typical Britta fashion, I don’t know how well things are going to go for her. Things never go smoothly.”

It’s not all existential crisis, though; Jacobs also promises more of the same from the confused co-ed.

“I think a lot of her charms are lost on the group. I dont think they’re as interested in her politically correct, socially aware point of view,” she laughed. “I think they find her a little tiresome, but hopefully we mine the humor in the disconnect between who she thinks she is and who she is, and the real pettiness that she does have, and the fact that she does really want people to like her at the end of the day, and that will drive her to do pretty bizarre things in her request for approval.”

Like, for example, date a girl who she thinks is a lesbian, just to seem open and accepting. “She’s just so excited about the idea of throwing into the groups’ face of how enlightened she is and she can’t wait to prove it to Annie what an evolved person she is, but she’s actually just a dummy,” Jacobs laughed.

McHale and Jacobs are just two of the members of the quirky ensemble cast that makes up the study group at the center of creator Dan Harmon’s experiment in television. They’re joined by Donald Glover as the lovable dunce Troy, Danny Pudi as pop culture savant Abed, Alison Brie playing sweet and naive Annie, a sweet and fierce Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley and Chevy Case — yes, that Chevy Chase — in episodes that are one part plot-driven, one part off-the-wall comedy and all parts dissection of the limits of a sitcom.

One of the show’s great strength is its deep cast; aside from the study group, there’s a whole host of recurring players, including the preppy, catchphrase-slinging Magnitude (who only says the words “Pop pop!”) and a guy named Starburns who, unsurprisingly, has sideburns shaped like stars. McHale had particularly rave reviews for Jim Rash, who plays the uncomfortably quirky Dean Pelton, and Ken Jeong as Chang, the maniacal former Spanish teacher who constantly tries to get into the group.

“I am always very tickled by the Dean and by Chang. I think, with the Dean, his sexuality is so funny and so odd and you don’t know, basically last year he said he was a furry. There’s no other show on TV doing that,” McHale laughed, recalling the bizarre episode in which the Dean dresses like a dalmatian in search of sex. “They’re both like Rumpelstiltskin, in that where there is no comedy, they will spin it out of nothing right in front of you.”

Jacobs, for her part, is most enamored by an octogenarian pervert misanthrope character named Leonard. Something for everyone.

In seeking to bolster the show for a pivotal third season, Harmon added some heavy hitters to the lineup, too. Michael K. Williams, of “The Wire” fame, will play an ex-con biology teacher, while John Goodman, who McHale calls “one of the best actors of our generation,” will have an arc as the tough-as-nails Dean of the Air Conditioning repair department.

Whether those big names help the show gain traction remains to be seen. That “Community” is on its third season is very much, as McHale called it, “an incredible accomplishment,” given the show’s low ratings. Slotted in at 8pm, without a lead-in and competing against some of the top shows on television, including “American Idol” and “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s the show’s small but fanatical fan base that helps keep it on air.

Devoted and creative, “Community” obsessives assemble mashup videos, Tumblr blogs and collect other ephemera featuring memorable quotes, in-jokes and fiction all their own.

“You see that people are as invested in the show as you are and that they are obsessing over the little details like we are,” Jacobs beamed, “and all the little things that we put in the show that we hope people will notice, they pick up immediately.”

McHale’s favorite, he said, are the videos dedicated to the fleeting romance between his character and Brie’s Annie — and the videos that set the show’s opening credits to music from “Battlestar Galactica.”

“Our fan base is mighty, thank God, and I think most of them are young, because no one appointment views the show, and I feel like, if they figure out a way to measure that and keep it all together, then our ratings might go up,” he said. “But thank God the fans love the show. Hopefully it will keep us on the air, we’ll see. I think if we get through this third season, we’ll be okay — oh, who the hell knows.”

One thing McHale does know: no matter the fate of his character or the show as a whole, he won’t be second guessing Harmon and his creative staff.

“I trust Dan and the writers implicitly and I’d say, I’d follow them into any creative battle and have him command me,” he declared. Which, in that case, means he better get his cowboy hat and paintballs ready.