In case you missed it, Donald Glover and his musical alter-ego, Childish Gambino, took over the media’s attention this week with all the shock and awe of a presidential tweet. From his hilarious hosting of Saturday Night Live to rather ironically becoming the face of Disney’s Han Solo Star Wars movie, Glover was already having a moment. And then “This is America” happened. A stunning piece of political art that directly challenges his and his audience’s distracted place in our current (and eternal) cultural crises, Childish Gambino’s music video earned Glover a cascade of new fans overnight.
But for those who have been following his career since Community, none of it is entirely surprising, even if the exact directions his talent takes can rarely be predicted. Originally cast as a jock archetype named Troy Barnes on Dan Harmon’s demented sitcom, Glover transformed the character through his sheer personality and ingenuity into one of the many stealth weapons in the cult geek series that always deserved a larger audience. For in a series flush with current and future star talent—including GLOW’s Alison Brie, Love’s Gillian Jacobs, future Oscar winner Jim Rash, future Avengers directors the Russo Brothers, and even future Oscar winner Brie Larson in a recurring role—Glover still stood out with a constant mischievousness and intelligence that allowed him to thread a needle between Troy Barnes’ overeager optimism and sudden, crashing bouts of self-doubting despair.
It was a comical whiplash act that only strengthened the ensemble the more he cemented his on and off-screen screen bromance with co-star Danny Pudi, who played the series’ fourth-wall breaking “innocent,” Abed Nadir. This apt since when you consider the best Troy Barnes episodes, you’re also mostly considering the best Troy and Abed episodes.
Recently, Harmon told The New Yorker that despite his controlling sensibilities, he’d often let Glover improvise jokes (especially in post-credit “buttons” or stingers) on the fly. That creative trust obviously in hindsight is well-founded. Before Community, Glover was the 25-year-old wunderkind hired for 30 Rock’s writers room and afterward he’d create the Emmy winning Atlanta. Still, it’s rewarding unto itself revisiting the goofy, happy-go-lucky charms of his Troy Barnes. It reminds fans of Community’s glory days (it was never the same after he left a year before its final season). And for newcomers, below you can find a guide to some of the best glimpses of the early comic chops that are now just one of many threats in Glover’s arsenal.
10. Aerodynamics of Gender
A good place to start is in this whacky and somewhat uneven episode that nonetheless is a major highlight for both Donald Glover as Troy and Joel McHale as Jeff Winger. Because unlike so many other episodes, Troy is neither partnered with Abed or Chevy Chase’s pernicious (apparently on and off-screen) Pierce. Instead he gets to spend some quality time with the series’ ostensible lead. While the two are supposed to have an unspoken rivalry given that Jeff is an alpha male—which is Troy also strives for in spite of his natural geekiness—they spend this episode as simpatico because Troy inadvertently discovers a secret garden hidden in the midst of Greendale Community College.
Yep, behind the dumpsters there is a cartoonishly oversaturated garden, complete with its own Zen-like gardener and a trampoline with Lotus-eater qualities. It’s a charmingly nutso premise that allow Glover to slouch into one of the most lovable sides of his character. All easygoing smiles and with more un-introspective cheer than a Hallmark greeting card, Glover’s ability to disarm is comic dynamite here… right up until his world is shattered by realizing the secret gardener is racist with the kind of delayed horror reserved for children discovering Santa’s costume in their parents’ closet.
9. Basic Lupine Urology
One of the famed high-concept episodes of Community, “Basic Lupine Urology” is best remembered as the series’ pitch perfect satire and loving ode to the Law & Order formula. In this vein, Troy and Abed play the hardboiled detectives trying to figure out who “murdered” their yam in Biology 101. Abed is Jerry Orbach to Troy’s Benjamin Bratt, but what makes this a great one for Glover is his character relishing his posture as a hardass “bad cop,” all while still having a nerdy marshmallow center at his core. After all, he is wearing a Spider-Man tie beneath his leather jacket, and given that Glover is a lifelong wall-crawler fan who even campaigned to play Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man before cameoing as one of the best bits of Spider-Man: Homecoming, that extra bit of intertextuality makes this a highlight.
8. Introduction to Finality
In a refreshingly more direct and less frilly Community finale, season 3’s last episode acted as a pseudo-series ender when the show’s writers had no idea if they would get another season. Hence it dispenses with “concepts” in favor of just mostly exploring who these characters are and how they’ve grown, and perhaps few changed as much as Troy Barnes.
When the series began, Troy was (apparently) an uber-geek unknowingly trapped inside a jock’s athletic talents. But after years of playing one half of Troy and Abed’s absurdly intimate nerd-bromance, “Introduction to Finality” shows Troy dealing with growing up and being comfortable in who he is. There are no major outbursts of crying or screaming, which had become Glover’s go-to for Troy’s overly emotional swings in hysteria. In fact, he is trapped in what should be a “concept,” as the air conditioning repair school annex at Greendale is trying to indoctrinate them into his cult, complete with a gladiatorial death matches, and he simply will not have it. In retrospect, it might be an indicator of Glover’s mood about the show’s typical hijinks, as there is a sudden matured weariness to all the silliness around him, as well as an implication that Troy and Glover has outgrown the show’s weirdest tangents. But that just makes them both stronger.
7. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design
A personal favorite, “Conspiracy Theories” is one of those brilliant concept episodes that also works as a great character study and ensemble for everyone involved. While the A-narrative is a wonderful mockery of “twisty” conspiracy movie plots, the B-storyline is just as strong if not stronger since Troy and Abed’s desire to spend the weekend building a blanket fort inadvertently turns the halls of Greendale Community College into a thriving and eclectic society greater than anything Dean Pelton could build. Within a day, Troy and Abed’s fort has neighborhoods, implicit sex cults, and a Latvian Independence Day parade that Troy and Abed lead a chase right through the heart of. Glover’s deadpan earnestness of spotting his target while saying, complete with Slavic pronunciation, “Isn’t that him playing the Trejdeksnis?” is the stuff comedy dreams are made of.
6. Pillows and Blankets
Generally, I was only trying to include one “blanket fort” concept episode on this list, and “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Designs” is the stronger episode. However, “Pillows and Blankets” is too important of a Troy and Abed episode to leave off this list, and is downright hilarious in its own right. Presented as Ken Burns-styled documentary in the vein of his Civil War miniseries, “Pillows and Blankets” follows an epic fallout between Troy and Abed after they disagree on what their next fort that will go for the world record should be constructed out of—pillows or blankets.
It’s worth noting because Glover brings a pouting dimension to his relationship to Pudi’s Abed, as he is aware that he is able to gain the perspective that this is not normal, and Abed is not. It’s just enough of a scrap of reality to add some real anger and tension to their dynamic. It also features one of Glover and Pudi’s best stinger as they hilariously mimic, right down to the inflections, the wide-smiling PBS faces plastered on public television during pledge weeks.
5. Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts
Not necessarily one of the most beloved Community episodes, this one still has a crackerjack premise for actors Donald Glover and Danny Pudi. After three seasons of playing the resident weirdos, the duo agree not to embarrass Shirley on the day of her wedding, so they overdose for an extended period of time in their glorified playroom (the “Imaginarium”), so as to normalize for adult company. But the results are naturally eeire and unnatural, as both Troy and Abed as supposed adults come off as creepy and sarcastic. A subtler episode for Glover and Pudi, they get to underplay the characters in order to accentuate their large peculiarity and inherent hilarity.
4. Regional Holiday Music
Remember when Glee was a thing? Me neither, but once upon a time it was the hottest show on television. Like the hottest. And as it shot on a soundstage right next door to where Community was filmed, Dan Harmon ground his axe maybe a little too viciously in this delirious send-up. On second thought, that deceptively cynical musical revue had it coming right between the eyes.
A mean-spirited deconstruction of the phoniness of Glee, “Regional Holiday Music” also makes for a better musical episode than that brief Fox darling because, unlike Glee, it had original music. And none of those tunes were quite so brilliant as Harmon letting Glover unleash his Childish Gambino alter-ego on the set when Troy and Glover’s backstories of being raised a Jehovah’s Witness merge. Like Glover, Troy wasn’t allowed to celebrate Christmas, which turns his Yuletide rap, featuring Danny Pudi on the bridge, into a giddy self-aware explosion. It also sets-up Glover and Pudi doing a medley of music inspired by Baby Boomers’ lifestyles, from the Boogie Woogie of the 1940s to the electronica of the 1980s. I’m sure they’re good enough still for Regionals!
3. Remedial Chaos Theory
Arguably the best episode of Community ever produced, “Remedial Chaos Theory” was a hint of the timey-wimey narrative twists Dan Harmon would fully embrace in his next series, Rick and Morty. Set during Abed and Troy’s housewarming party, a chance roll of the dice by Jeff Winger creates seven different timelines that within minutes diverge lightly from the mundane to the sublime… and then to the darkest timeline.
In Glover and Community’s great contribution to meme culture, the guffawing climax of the episode is discovering how dark the darkest timeline can be, especially for Troy. Set-up in previous vignettes that Pierce, being the warped old bastard that he is, was giving Troy a supposedly cursed Norwegian troll doll as a gift, in the ugliest timeline, Troy comes back to see his friends bleeding, dying, and burning while that evil doll watches on. The earnest conviction of total desolation and despair on Glover’s face is, to this day, used as visual shorthand for how “Woke Twitter” feels about all political news post-2016. And on its own, it remains one of the most hilarious uses of Chekov’s Gun in Harmon and Glover’s repertoire.
In my favorite episode centered on the Troy and Abed relationship, “Epidemiology” is the finest non-paintball high-concept laugher in the series, as well as the one where Troy gives up all pretense at trying to still be the “cool kid” from high school. He’s full geek after this one.
He reaches that epiphany after trying to distance himself from Abed since their Aliens-themed Halloween costumes (Troy was Sigourney Weaver) fail to impress the ladies. But after a zombie outbreak, that becomes moot. All that matters are the things that are important to us when faced with apocalypse: things like friendship, Aliens, and imagination. Indeed, as the sole survivor of the study group to not get infected with the zombie virus at a Halloween party already trapped in another Sisyphean Hell of only ABBA music playing on the sound system, Troy dares to reenter the party in his cardboard costume to the refrains of “Mama Mia.”
The sheer happiness Troy and Glover share by being the hero and dressed as Ripley in the third act is as infectious as any zombie bite. When Dean Pelton demands to know what Troy’s plan is, Glover squeals, “I’m going to be a nerd!” And then upon seeing the zombies, he next enthuses, “Prepare to meet the power of imagination!” It of course ends horribly for him as his cardboard shield is shredded. However, Troy and Glover embracing their inner-fanboy—a personality tic Glover has openly mused about in his stand-up and music as being a real-life source for alienation growing up—gives a texture to Troy and Abed’s friendship, and Glover’s overall brief but convincing fliration with being adorkable on this series.
1. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking
Another, gentler ribbing of Community’s popular competition, this deconstruction of the mockmumentary formula utilized by Modern Family (and all workplace sitcoms produced after The Office) is still comedy gold. When Pierce attempts to fake his death so as to play mind games with the rest of the study group, he also has Abed film their reactions—all while illustrating how “fish in the barrel” easy this sitcom plotting can be. Nonetheless, it also leads to gangbuster results, especially when Pierce attempts to ruin Troy’s childhood.
In what is seemingly a sweet gesture, Pierce has invited Troy’s hero LeVar Burton, star of Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Reading Rainbow, to the hospital to meet Troy. But as we later learn, Pierce knew Troy only ever wanted an autographed picture (because you “CAN’T DISAPPOINT A PICTURE!”). Thus Glover is provided a showcase for his finest comic instincts. Hyperventilating between impotent rage at Pierce and a hysterical mental anguish over being in the same room as his hero, Glover is allowed to rely merely on physical comedy for much of it. Proving that even without a squealing outburst, he can be brilliantly funny while expressing sheer terror in his eyes to be in the same room as dear LeVar, the humor is devastating.
Of course that imitation of a star struck five-year-old does eventually give way to how naturally gifted Glover is at mining his own inner-anxiety and emotional hang-ups in order to construct a comical caricature of such narcissistic sensations, as seen with Troy ultimately collapsing in the bathroom to whimper-cry himself to sleep to the lyrics of the “Reading Rainbow Theme.” It’s okay Troy, LeVar understands.
Community was like a candle that burned bright and quickly, fading away far too soon. Before it was over, Glover himself had already jumped ship to bigger and artistically more fulfilling things. Yet it remains still one of the few sitcoms that can be revisited endlessly due to its boundless energy and creativity, including on the part of Donald Glover himself. These are just 10 great episodes for Glover. They could have just as easily been 10 other favorites for him, Pudi, and the whole gang. Let us know in the comment section below if you have any you’d prefer to recommend yourself.