I regard Community as a work of genius, one of the greatest sitcoms ever. Creator and writer Dan Harmon is an asshole auteur – difficult and eminently worth the difficulty. (You might want to read my overview of the show before continuing.)
The show always maintained a meta awareness – the characters knew they were characters on a sitcom, and half of what they did was some kind of parody. That awareness is never smug, however. Somehow, the performers and Harmon maintained the show’s title throughout every interaction – this is a community, a dissimilar group of people who watch out for each other. The emotional content of the show is the secret sauce – the element that holds everything together.
Community was cancelled by NBC after season 5, but Yahoo picked it up and recently wrapped season 6. I think the show’s pacing suffered because of the switch to Yahoo – episodes that had previously been ruthlessly edited to 21 minutes now stretched to 30 minutes or more. Dan Harmon and company seem to work best within a rigid format. (I fear what a Community movie might look like.)
Here’s the basic premise: Jeff Winger is a former lawyer who was disbarred for pretending he had a college degree. He attends a community college to work on a legitimate degree, and constructs a make-believe study group while hitting on a woman. That woman invites others to the study group, forming the main cast. The study group format proves remarkably flexible for launching just about any story Harmon can imagine; the real subject of the series is Harmon’s imagination.
Most Community episodes contain moments of brilliance, and have certain rewards. Deciding on a top-ten list was fun and challenging – several of my favorites were left off. In most cases, one doesn’t need to understand any more than the show’s basic premise to enjoy these episodes. However, a wide-ranging interest in popular culture makes every joke funnier. (Amy Sherman-Palladino’s scripts for Gilmore Girls dropped endless pop culture references. The difference between her approach and Community is that Dan Harmon actually makes jokes out of the references, instead of just listing and forgetting them.)
Season 6 episodes are available free on Yahoo Screen, Seasons 1-5 are available on Hulu w/ subscription, and iTunes.
10. Virtual Systems Analysis (S3/EP16)
Includes an affectionate send-up of Dr. Who, and Star Trek The Next Generation (the holodeck episodes), but mainly focuses on male friendship. A daring, potentially abstract construction from Season 3, which was the show’s most audacious (Harmon was fired when the season concluded.) Community at its most emotional, with real psychological concepts played out via stunningly representative imaginative leaps. As always, the actors dig in to playing variations – acting their own characters’ interpretations of how the other characters might act. Everything is reflected via metaphorical mirrors and refracted through character-based lenses. If that sounds too intellectual, it’s also very funny – Alison Brie does fabulous work playing a conversation with herself-as-Abed-as-herself.
9. Modern Espionage (S6/EP11)
Community is probably best known for its “paintball episodes,” which are no-holds-barred parodies of various genre movies by way of campus-wide paintball tournaments. When this episode was announced for Season 6, there was some concern the formula had worn old. Instead, this episode marked a return to genius for Harmon and company. It’s still too long at 28+ minutes (the beginning and ending bits could have been lopped off, and individual scenes tightened.) Still, great video editing and use of montage, great music and sound editing. Several moments are breathtaking in their function as homage and also as a dramatic scenes in their own right.
8. Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design (S2/EP9)
A brutally funny send-up of the double-cross heist genre, with a hilarious B-story about a campus-wide blanket fort. (The blanket fort concept later yields one of the series’ greatest moments.) Jim Nash has some of his best moments in this episode, as the cross-dressing dean; while Nash’s comic bearing and timing is always fabulous, he gets to run the gamut here.
7. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (S2/EP14)
One of the mysteries of Community is the great use it makes of Chevy Chase, perhaps the greatest overrated asshole performer in television history. On the show, he plays a clueless idiot – it’s the most brazenly meta thing Harmon pulls off; Chase routinely complained to the media that he didn’t get the humor of the show, and he eventually quit. For his part, Harmon always said he admired Chase, but Chase is often used as the (apparently willing) butt of any number of jokes.
This episode is a parody of Lord of the Rings, complete with spoken introduction/summary. It becomes a tribute to imagination and to (what else) community – as the study group plays a game of Dungeons and Dragons to prevent another student from committing suicide. Chase’s character takes the role of villain, who is eventually revealed as a kind of unexpected hero. The sound effects and music in this episode are outstanding.
6. Remedial Chaos Theory (S3/EP4)
Community at its most conceptual, which is saying something. The group plays Yahtzee, and every throw of the dice spawns an alternate reality for the characters, each of which is explored to riotous (and disturbing) effect. The alternate timelines are periodically reintroduced in other episodes, but this is the best treatment of the subject.
5. A Fistful of Paintballs (S2/EP23)
The second major paintball episode, the first part of a 2-part season finale. This episode parodies spaghetti westerns, as always filtering the concepts through the community college lens. The second part of this episode sent up Star Wars and other science fiction epics; both are worth watching, but this is the installment that cracks the top ten. The lighting in this episode is particularly great.
4. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (S2/EP11)
Community has embraced different visual mediums – one episode was mostly felt puppets (Muppet-like), and another was in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon. This episode is the best of those – animated in stop-motion like a Rankin-Bass holiday special. That would have been enough to land it on this list, but the episode also features great songs. (And wait, that’s not all!) The emotional content of the episode is amazing, as Danny Pudi’s Abed tries to reconcile his desire for a wonderful Christmas with the fact that his family is not what it used to be when he was growing up. As if all that wasn’t enough, there are several lines that eviscerate what Fox News calls the war on Christmas, that is, the predominant evangelical Christian ideal of Christmas. One of the great holiday-themed sitcom episodes ever. (It works better if you know the characters before you watch the episode. This was the first episode of Community I saw, and the emotion didn’t register with me until I saw the characters in other episodes.)
3. Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television (S6/EP13)
If Community never returns, this episode should go down as one of the best series finales ever. There have a been a few everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Community episodes over the years, but this one scores on almost every count. The rallying cry of Community became #SixSeasonsAndAMovie at the end of Season 3. Like so much of Community, it was meta, and the joke became bigger outside of the show itself. This episode is literally the last of the sixth season, and it behaves like a finale.
The school year is over, and the former study group (now the “Save Greendale Committee”) has run its course. Several members of the cast have left over the years, and the remaining characters are now going their own ways. That allows Harmon and company to explore what we love about television itself – and it’s more positive and moving than you might expect.
Every character gets the chance to “pitch” their own version of a 7th season of Community, with hilarious and moving results. The opening title sequence is re-worked several times, to reflect the character delivering the pitch (Britta’s is best.) The cumulative effect of the various pitches, on anybody who cares about this show, is laughter strained through tears. If Episode 11 of this season marked a return to form for Dan Harmon, this episode confirms his genius.
The tag is a great send-up of series finales that re-define everything that’s gone before (think Newhart’s “everything was a dream,” or St. Elsewhere’s legendary snow globe.) A family plays a Community board game, which at first seems to be a simple commercial tie-in. Then the boy reveals he has a script for everything the family is saying. The father gets very serious, and explains to his son that this means the family never even existed. Then an announcer lists a Chuck-Lorre-esque rant/disclaimer (which unsurprisingly namedrops Lorre) that summarizes Harmon’s hopes/dreams/ambitions/failures over the previous 6 seasons. Trust me – you’ve never seen anything like it.
2. Pillows and Blankets (S3/EP14)
The second of a 2-parter. Troy and Abed have built a Guinness Book-worthy pillow/blanket fort, but have a disagreement over whether pillows or blankets are better. The episode is told as a Ken Burns-style documentary, with sepia-toned moving photos and voice-overs from the characters. The best-friendship between Troy and Abed drove a lot of Community’s best moments, and this episode is the greatest representation of that.
The stylistic discipline (also on display in another episode, modeled on My Dinner With Andre) is stunning and hilarious. Very little of the episode is live action, instead relying on still photos and re-creations, exactly as Burns does. The Americana fiddle as accompaniment is icing on the cake. Arguably the best writing in sitcom history – layers-upon-layers, jokes within jokes, all filtered through a pristine pop-culture reference.
1. Modern Warfare (S1/EP23)
One of the great sitcom episodes of all time; immensely satisfying. Sends up Die Hard and 21 Days Later, also every movie John Woo ever made and probably a dozen other sources. The first Community “paintball” episode, and still the best. A model of writing, pacing and editing, with every scene building on the last and adding to the humor. I’ve watched it 25 times and keep returning to it.