The television landscape has changed almost completely since the turn of the century. Ratings juggernauts like Friends, The Simpsons, NYPD Blue, and Lost molded TV culture from the mid-90s well into the 2000s. Near the end of the first part of that decade, however, a shift began to occur. Cable television shows began trending toward more stylized, serial storytelling. Series like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad began to garner acclaim from critics and audiences alike. It was heralded as TV’s new “Golden Age”. Suddenly, movies had been replaced as the most respected American entertainment medium. Will Walter White’s wife find out he secretly deals meth? What is Don Draper’s true identity? House goes to jail! Television, it seemed, was were the best storytelling resided.
Enter “Community”. The series about seven students from random walks of life and the study group they form at a Colorado community college premiered in the fall of 2009 and borrowed from nearly every TV show, movie, and random piece of media before it. At times deconstructing even the very idea of television, Community filtered the randomness of pop culture through the lens of meta comedy and group dynamics. The show never attained the mainstream popularity of the topics it skewered (big budget action movies, “serious” cable dramas, romantic comedies, everything in between). Nevertheless, it developed a massive cult following for its willingness to merge silliness with reverence and to transform itself into numerous genres with any given episode while remaining a 30-minute sitcom. What follows is a personal ranking of the five best episodes of the series; a celebration of a show that at its peak was the most creative and ambitious on television.
5. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” (Season 3, Episode 8)
IMDB Summary: Dean Pelton is given the task to make an updated Greendale television commercial, but the shoot soon goes over budget and spirals out of control, descending the dean into madness–with Abed documenting the entire experience.
One of the central themes of Community is that the school itself is its own entity; a living, breathing manifestation of the students and faculty who inhabit it. Greendale Community College represents a person’s desire to re-do the mistakes in their lives (Jeff becoming a lawyer again after losing his license for cheating on the bar exam, for example). It also represents our dissatisfaction with our station in life and how our attempts at self-importance can blow up in our face. “Documentary Filmmaking” covers both of these ideas through the prism of Dean Craig Pelton. The Dean is given permission from Greendale’s board of directors to make a new recruitment commercial to air on local TV. What starts as a simple remake of an outdated 90s ad turns into the Dean shutting down the school for over a week in order to execute his mad vision of a perfect piece of art. There’s some great parody here of Hollywood movie making; the meta comedy that is Community’s bread and butter really shines in this episode. At the beginning of the episode, Abed references “Hearts of Darkness”, the acclaimed 1991 documentary about the making of “Apocalypse Now”. “Redux” is essentially Community’s “Hearts of Darkness”, zeroing in on the Dean’s descent into creative madness after he learns that former Greendale student Luis Guzman (playing himself) has agreed to appear in the commercial. Guzman’s “celebrity” participation reveals Dean’s love for Greendale also coincides with a shame that the school is merely a community college and he tries to compensate for this shame by making the outlandish commercial. Guzman reminds him that it’s not the people who leave Greendale who are special, it’s the people who are already there.
Heart is as important to Community as comedy. Although the dean pushes the study group, and by extension the entire school, to its breaking point with his ridiculous artistic demands, the study group ultimately forgives him because, as Jeff says, “We’ve all been there. Which is why we’re all here.” The school is shut down for a week, chaos ensues, an epiphany is reached, and it’s all chalked up to someone having a bad day. What’s more Community than that?
4. “Pillows and Blankets” (Season 3 Episode 14)
IMDB summary: The United Forts of Pillowtown, headed by Abed, is at war with the Legit Republic of Blanketsburg, ruled by Troy. Annie sets up a hospital zone to treat casualties on both sides. Britta takes a stab at war-photography. Jeff tries to reunite two former friends turned mortal enemies using sarcasm.
From the first frame of this episode, you know you’re in for something good.
The Troy/Abed friendship, perhaps the central relationship of the entire show, forms the backbone of Pillows and Blankets, and it’s examined in the context of a giant pillow fort. Pillows and Blankets showcases another strength of Community—the ability to take an absurd premise and morph it into a format that forces you to take it seriously while also laughing at it. This time the show becomes a Ken Burns style PBS documentary, in the vein of his classic, “The Civil War.” In a callback to the season 2 episode “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” (which almost made this list), Troy and Abed decide to once again create a giant pillow fort inside of Greendale. Somehow the officials from the Guinness Book of Records get wind of the idea and Dean Pelton informs the school that they are coming to document what could be the world’s biggest pillow fort. Troy and Abed reach a breaking point however when their visions for the fort don’t match up.
The Troy/Abed relationship had been trending towards conflict prior to this episode; two episodes before in “Contemporary Impressionists” Troy has to conduct an elaborate scheme to help pay off a loan shark when Abed gets in over his head. The “Abed has a social disorder” troupe had been played mostly for laughs until this point but here it’s suggested that it puts a strain on his relationship with Troy, which is a realistic issue to tackle. Students who side with Troy’s vision (more blankets!) and those who side with Abed’s (more pillows!) are split into factions, and I think the fact that the entire school ends up warring with itself at the will of these two characters is a commentary on the depth of their relationship and how important it is to the show. The rest of the main characters also shine in this episode, with each person taking on their study group role within the framework of the war. Annie is the caregiver, aiding injured students with Gatorade IVs. Shirley becomes the fierce warrior, breaking with her soft outer persona to reveal the fierce competitor that’s always hinted at. Jeff is the guy who wants to keep the war going for as long as possible to avoid actually going to class. Pierce keeps switching sides because he just wants to be involved and important, and Britta tries to document the war through photography but keeps Britta-ing it with out of focus pictures.
The war comes to a head during the third part of the episode when Abed sends out an email to his lieutenants outlining Troy’s weaknesses (one of which is him being distracted by the color red, which leads to the best sight gag of the episode).
This leads to the Battle of Greendale in the cafeteria, the climax of the war. Eventually all is settled when it’s learned that the Guinness people won’t be coming, rendering the war meaningless. After continuing to fight when for fear that it will be the last thing they do together, Troy and Abed realize their desire to remain friends. Despite the simple resolution, Pillows and Blankets does a remarkable job of critiquing the Troy/Abed dynamic while also celebrating it. It is one of the best character driven episodes of the show’s entire run. Also, make sure to stay for the tag of this episode because it is really, really funny.
3. Basic Lupine Urology (Season 3 Episode 17)
IMDB summary: Presented like an episode of Law & Order (1990), the study group attempts to find out who squashed their biology project: a yam. Troy and Abed become detectives, Shirley is their boss, Jeff and Annie pose as prosecuting attorneys, while Pierce is an informant and Britta a lab tech.
“Pastiche”, noun: an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.
Can something go beyond this? Is there a word for it? That’s the question you’ll ask after watching Basic Lupine Urology, which is a pitch perfect send up of the seminal NBC franchise “Law and Order.” Spoiler alert: this is my favorite episode of the entire series. To parody a show as ubiquitous as Law and Order requires painstaking attention to detail, and this episode absolutely crushes it. Take a look at the opening frame showing the title of the show in L&O style.
There’s the voice-over describing the premise, followed by a cold open with two random companions having a seemingly innocent conversation only to suddenly stumble upon a dead body (or in classic, ridiculous Community fashion, a dead yam from a biology project). Next up is the credits with muzak mixing and mashing the Community theme song with the L&O theme song. Beat for beat this episode nails everything. This is an example of how a show can be in such a zone that it can do anything it wants. Each study group member blends seamlessly into L&O prototypes. Troy and Abed are the Jerry Orbach/Benjamin Bratt or Jessie L Martin detective pairing investigating the murder of the group’s yam, Shirley does her best S. Epatha Merkerson Lieutenant Van Buren impression to keep them in line, and Jeff and Annie are the Sam Waterson/Angie Harmon (or Carey Lowell or Jill Hennessy or…) lawyer duo, who try the case in court. The pacing is also spot on, condensed from the typical hour of a L&O episode into just 30 minutes. Even the end reveal that the yam was killed in an accidental act of passion seems textbook. Who hasn’t sat on their couch on a Saturday and watched at least 12 consecutive episodes of Law and Order? It’s a franchise that 90% of TV watchers are familiar with, and Community pays homage to that familiarity by essentially delivering a straight forward episode of the crime procedural, while still maintaining its own crazy spirit. A masterpiece.
2. Remedial Chaos Theory (Season 3, Episode 4)
IMDB summary: At Abed and Troy’s housewarming party, Jeff decides to let the decision on who gets the pizza rest on the roll of the dice, leaving Abed to contemplate six alternate realities.
When I started the prep for this article, this is the episode I knew had to be on the list. I didn’t know if it would be number one or not, but it had to be here. The plot is relatively simple: Troy and Abed throw a house warming party at their new apartment. A pizza is delivered and Jeff rolls a six-sided die to determine which member of the group will go downstairs to get the pizza. What happens next is more complex—the episode splits into seven segments (the last of which is Abed catching the die in midair to note that as the die roller, Jeff never has to go downstairs) about what happens when each individual group member leaves the room. I mentioned earlier with “Lupine” that the show was in a zone at the time of that episode’s airing. “Chaos Theory” is Community at its creative apex. What other comedy show, what other show period, could do an episode that’s essentially “Roshomon” crossed with “Run Lola Run”? What separates this episode from the others on this list is how intricately it’s structured, but also how thoroughly it examines each character. The episode immediately before this one, “Competitive Ecology”, looks at how a Greendale student outside of the study group interrupts the cohesion of the group. “Chaos Theory” examines the effect that each individual group member has on the group as a whole by removing each member from the same event 6 different times. There are recurring plot points that vary based on who is or isn’t in the room. Shirley overzealously bakes due to her wanting a specific role in the group (Jeff, to the rest of the group when Shirley leaves to get the pizza: “Remember, no one eats those pies”). Pierce gifts Troy with a scary looking troll doll, Jeff hits his head on a ceiling fan (which leads to an examination of the Jeff/Annie romance), Britta goes into the bathroom to smoke weed.
It’s Interesting to note the two extremes of the group, Pierce and Troy. When Pierce leaves to get pizza, it seems all is well with everyone. They might be even more happy then when they started the night. When Troy leaves, the group descends into complete chaos. Also, when Abed leaves, the animosity between each group pairing (Shirley/Britta, Jeff/Annie, Pierce/Troy) intensifies. Are these metaphors? Is Troy the group’s heart while Abed is its brain? Even more interesting—when Jeff leaves, each group member is their least inhibited and most pure. What does this mean? “Chaos Theory” invites you to observe each group member and ask these questions, even if you may not be able to answer them. You won’t find a more comprehensive study of interpersonal group dynamics in any other 30-minute sitcom, ever.
1. Modern Warfare (Season 1, Episode 23)
IMDB Summary: Greendale Community College is transformed into an apocalyptic war zone when the dean promises the winner of a paintball competition priority registration, and it could fan the flames of sexual tension between Jeff and Britta.
The one that symbolically started it all. Despite coming late in the first season, it would set the tone for the remainder of the series while becoming arguably the most popular episode of the entire run of the show. The first and second segments of the first act of “Warfare” are radically different. The episode opens on Jeff and Britta arguing on their way to the study room. The group appears frustrated with their constant bickering, which is a clever meta-observation on the show itself up to this point. It’s the first time the writers of the show reference outside fan commentary through the characters themselves. Community’s pilot finds Jeff creating the study group as a means to woo Brita, who constantly rebuffs his advances. But when the show branched out from that and invested in the rest of the characters, it became clear that the Jeff/Britta pairing wasn’t really necessary as a plot function. (Full disclosure: I was always team Jeff/Annie. The chemistry was obvious.)
Fast forward to the scene immediate following the theme song. It’s jarring, almost like the beginning of a completely different show:
On display in this shot, and in this entire episode, is another one of Community’s great strengths: world building. Each “concept” episode established a framework within everything had to work. There had been rumblings from different entertainment magazines and websites that this episode would be different from the ones that came before it, but I doubt anyone could have predicted this result. An innocent campus-wide paintball game is taken to the extreme when the prize is announced: priority scheduling (“But you could take all your classes on a Monday! And take a six-day weekend!”). What follows is a parody of various action movies from the past 30 years, done more effectively than every action show on air at the time. Directed by Justin Lin of “Fast and Furious” franchise fame, this was the first episode that showed that Community would re-write the rules of what a sitcom could do. 28 Days Later, Terminator 2, Die Hard, Predator—nothing is off limits in this episode. It showed that the creative aims of Community were boundless. It also showed that even with a context outside of its traditional comedy format, the show would still take the time to reveal new layers of their characters and follow many of their actions to their logical conclusions. Instead of a prolonged “will they or won’t they” between Jeff and Britta that could have potentially last for multiple seasons, they act on their physical attraction, comment on it, and go about their day, which just happens to include a standoff with their Spanish teacher who has an automatic paintball gun. This is the greatest 30 minutes of the show; its mission statement and its blueprint for every concept episode to follow. There were many brilliant moments for five more seasons, and even more great paintball episodes. But this is the one that started it all.