Community’s fourth season is currently in progress and, unfortunately, feels like some less good alternative timeline version of the show than the series we fell in love with. Perhaps it’s getting monotonous at this point, but the easiest issue to point to as being most responsible for this change is the firing of creator Dan Harmon. Regardless of how much stock you might put in this impacting the current season, the show still feels undeniably different, so much so that comparing episodes from the first three seasons to those of Season 4 would be like comparing apples to some kind of artificial apple substitute.
I do believe that, even at its most disappointing lows, there was a vision guiding the show along a path more solid and sure than the strange one it’s on now that dips up and down irregularly, occasionally loops back on without warning, and sometimes loses sight of altogether. When the Community of the past made mistakes, it felt like my favorite show letting me down. Season 4 feels like a subpar series that occasionally references this show called Community that I used to love a lot.
So, in an effort to quit wallowing in whiny negativity for just a little bit, I’ve revisited the salad days and put together a list of what I consider to be the ten best and ten worst of the first three, Harmon-filled seasons of Community.
Please note that I have often (though not always) found myself to be at odds with other Community fans in what I want from the show and in my assessment of what makes an episode good. As a general rule, my favorite episodes are heavy on developing the characters and their relationships, so, if nothing of great importance is going on between the principals, the novelty of a genre parody or homage isn’t necessarily enough to win my favor. I recognize that awesome homages are sort of Community’s specialty, so, basically, what I’m saying is I am here to fight all of you.
Also note that Community’s worst episodes are (or at least once were) still better than a lot of other television. So it’s not as though I hate any of the episodes I placed in the Worst category. They were just disappointments in a series that set such high standards for itself.
#10 WORST: “Basic Rocket Science” – Season 2, Episode 4
This one is truly not that bad and is on here for just being sort of average. This season was still mining the oft-repeated “Jeff is trying to pretend like he doesn’t care about what happens to the school and/or the study group, but then he steps up and does his part” storyline and this episode returns to that well when the study group gets locked inside a mobile space simulator (sponsored by KFC), which then gets towed. The gang needs to get the vehicle back to the Greendale Community College campus in time to have its first fake launch to beat out rival community college, City College, which plans to unveil its own space simulator.
Jeff is initially the voice of grounded apathy, reminding everyone they’re actually just stuck in a Winnebago and that Greendale is a craphole, so who cares if they get back in time? But this time he flips the switch from “don’t care” to “care” with very little coercion about halfway through the episode. It feels a bit like the writers figured we already knew it was going to happen so why not just speed it along?
The bigger problem is that, though a lot of highly implausible and ridiculous events take place in the show’s world, the concept of this one just feels a little forced. Dan Harmon claimed that episodes were always crafted with the focus on the characters, their relationships, and their development. If all of that was locked down, only then would they take into consideration whether an homage or parody could be built around it. But I can’t help but cry shenanigans on this one. It feels a lot more like someone badly wanted to do an Apollo 13 homage and then thought of a convoluted way to get the gang involved in one.
As far as positives there are definitely still a number of great small gags and awesome lines, like Jeff saying into his headset: “Hey, terrible dean.” Plus, it is the episode that introduces the E Pluribus Anus flag with the image of a butt on it that becomes Greendale’s official logo. And I do recognize this as no small contribution to the series.
#9 WORST: “Contemporary Impressionists” – Season 3, Episode 11
This is the episode where Abed’s friends have to come to his aid because he’s deep in debt to a company that rents out celebrity impersonators who he’s been hiring to live out climactic movie scenes with. It’s an important episode because it’s the beginning of the show sincerely addressing Abed’s self-centeredness and it plants some of the seeds for the falling out he’ll later have with Troy. But the plot is just a little too dumb.
Jeff is seeing a new shrink so he’s on pills that render him an even more extreme narcissist than he already was. As Britta explains with her limited knowledge of psychology and a poor analogy of an expanding apple representing his ego, if Jeff gets too full of himself, his ego can take over… or something. Though I think this episode is more supposed to be about Abed, Jeff’s plot feels like it gets more of the spotlight and it’s what I remember most. It ends with Jeff hulking out, ripping off his shirt, and ruining a kid’s bar mitzvah. What I’ve described in the previous sentence is the sort of thing that can technically work in Community’s universe, but it just felt lazier and stupider in this case.
This episode also has a lot of weird graphical jokes, with Britta’s terrible analogy represented visually by a ballooning apple we revisit periodically throughout the episode. Some cartoonish thought bubbles also pop out of Chang’s head at one point and what they were attempting to convey was unclear enough that I didn’t quite get it until I watched the episode over again. Evidently, a lot of people got huffy over the use of graphics in this episode and with good reason. It felt like a new, ill-fitting style of humor that hadn’t been a part of Community in the previous seasons. However, I also believe this humor showed up (though less overtly) in an earlier episode and it bugged me then too. But we’ll save that for later.
#8 WORST: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” – Season 2, Episode 11
Controversy! I could be wrong, but I have this suspicion that this is one of those episodes that holds a prestigious spot in the fan pantheon (fantheon) and DVD special features inform me that the crew is definitely proud of it. But, oddly, me and just about all my Community-watching friends are pretty unmoved by this homage to Christmas Claymation specials.
It probably stems mostly from the fact that this episode just isn’t very funny. I’ll admit I have a bit of a grudge against Abed because, when an episode focuses so directly on him, it feels as though the writers forget to make jokes and suddenly we’re just mired in Abed’s sad, sad psyche. There are times this works fine for me. For example, I thought Abed’s weird film about his parents’ divorce in Season 1’s “Introduction to Film” was incredibly emotionally effective, but that was only one part of a plot that also focused on Britta and Jeff. So maybe I just have an issue with Abed’s issues dominating an entire episode.
Another problem is that the moral of this episode seemed to be that people shouldn’t be trying to fix Abed, but should just let him be his detached, TV-influenced, whimsical self. And this moral felt like it had already been served up back in, again, “Introduction to Film,” and even referenced occasionally after that, like, for example, in “Introduction to Statistics” when Abed first dressed up as Batman and Jeff insulted him for it.
I also find the musical numbers largely corny and this episode didn’t trigger the nostalgia in me that it was probably meant to. Sure, I watched all the old specials it’s honoring, but those had a more naturalistic look to them. You could see how everything was handmade. I’m sure this episode took loads of time and effort all the same, but the look is more artificial than those old specials ever were. I’m not sure entirely what it is but I do at least know that the characters’ heads, rather than entirely made of clay, were plastic with clay molded over them. That one feature in itself probably contributes toward making the characters all look sort of like the same action figure differently customized.
As for things I like, Pierce as a teddy bear is pretty adorable and I did find Jeff’s total lack of interest with the adventure funny, I guess because I empathized with him. But, because Jeff doesn’t care, he gets almost completely written out of the episode only 10 minutes in. I, however, watched the whole thing through. It wasn’t great.
#7 WORST: “Digital Estate Planning” – Season 3, Episode 20
It saddens me that I’m putting this episode in the Worst pile because I’d long thought that the gang should somehow end up inside a video game. However, though there was a slight charm to seeing little avatars of my favorite characters run and jump about a pixelated, 2D world, this is another case where the homage seems to have trumped the writing. There’s even behind-the-scenes proof of this as Dan Harmon states in the commentary that he wrote this episode in an overworked rush and thinks it could’ve been something a lot more special if the proper care and time had been devoted to it.
There just aren’t many good jokes and the episode is ostensibly about Pierce, but it doesn’t feel like there’s all that much of a change or growth for him. It ends up being more centered on Gilbert, a character confined to this one episode who we aren’t given too much cause to sympathize with. I liked some of the imagery like the little 8-bit Abed clones with pickaxes and some of the digitized sounds like the Jive Turkey boss saying “gobble, gobble, gobble” cracked me up. But this episode is just a disappointment, made even more disappointing by the fact that it squandered a concept that really should’ve been something great.
#6 WORST: “Virtual Systems Analysis” – Season 3, Episode 16
I have the same problem here as I did with “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” Annie and Abed simulate an imagined, visual romp through Abed’s psyche in the Dreamatorium and, as usual, when we analyze Abed on his own, we discover he’s a friggin’ downer, so there’s just not much in the way of laughs. Also, in the Claymation episode, at least there was some kind of continuing storyline. Here, though this is perhaps being reductive, it feels as though any old sequence of imagined events could’ve taken place to lead to the eventual catharsis. Furthermore, though all the main characters technically show up, most of the time it’s not actually them, but Abed’s perceptions of them, so none of what happened felt of consequence to me and I stopped caring.
Britta and Troy (the real Britta and Troy) do get a really, really minor B-plot with them going on a date at a Mexican-themed restaurant, Señor Kevin’s. Nothing of real importance happens, but it at least features the funniest aspect of the episode, the one-off character of the manager who can’t stop talking about why he hates Die Hard. I also like Dean Pelton’s tiny, weird arc about going to the bank.
#5 WORST: “Advanced Gay” – Season 3, Episode 6
This episode introduces Pierce’s father, a thoroughly bizarre character who’s racist in such a convoluted manner that every time he launches into an explanation of his definition of “purity,” he might as well be talking gibberish (although maybe that was the idea). The character is just weird and I never believed in his existence in the Greendale world. For one, though there is some dialogue directly addressing this, how the hell would Pierce’s father still be alive, not to mention walking upright? The actor playing him is actually younger than Chevy Chase and, well, yeah, it’s obvious, making the character all the less believable. He also wears a wig made out of ivory, again, because of something to do with purity and just seeing that stupid thing on his head any time he’s on-camera makes it hard for me to be invested in whatever’s going on.
In the commentary, the cast repeatedly brings up their love for the actor and his performance, but I found him hokey and over-the-top. Really, this is the big problem about Pierce’s dad: everything about him feels silly and overblown to the point that I just don’t feel he fits into the show, rendering the episode dumb and unbelievable. This episode also introduces the season story arc about Troy and the Air Conditioning College and brings some funny lines and moments along with it (like when Troy and Abed have a conversation in which they switch roles and also do Han Solo impressions), but it was a surreal plotline and this introduction to it doesn’t give us a great idea of how we should feel about it yet.
#4 WORST: “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” – Season 2, Episode 5
Abed is really taking a pounding in this list. This is the episode where he makes some weird meta-movie about making a movie that he’s making… or something. And, in the process, he develops a Jesus complex, which, naturally, rubs devout Christian Shirley the wrong way.
My problem with this one is that, though maybe the concept of Abed’s movie was supposed to be so circuitous as to be nonsensical, I never knew what the hell Abed was doing and the movie was just this nebulous… thing. It felt like the writers didn’t fully know what was supposed to be going on with it so I didn’t follow it either. The bigger crime is that this one is such a non-episode to me that I barely remember it. Almost every episode of Community has something that sticks with me, but this one just kind of happened and then it was gone.
#3 WORST: “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” – Season 3, Episode 5
This is Community’s version of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes with the gang sitting around the study room telling lame scary stories. There are a couple of good jokes here and there, but the whole thing is too silly and incidental for me to care. Also, the whole episode rides on the premise that Britta calculated the results of an anonymous psych test the entire group took and one person came out insane. Thus, they must all tell scary stories to see who the psycho is. If the premise wasn’t flimsy already, even flimsier is the way Jeff buys into Britta’s nonsense within the first third of the episode. Sure, Jeff cares about the group’s well-being by this point, but Britta hasn’t proven herself to be the most astute of psych majors and Jeff chucking his skepticism out the window so readily just feels out of character.
#2 WORST: “Geography of Global Conflict” – Season 3, Episode 2
I specifically remember this episode worrying me because it was the first time Community’s writing had ever felt just plain sloppy. This is a debate episode (technically the third in the series with a debate at its center) about Annie wanting to win the right to start a model UN before Annie Kim, another overachieving (Asian) Annie. At the same time, Britta worries she’s lost all the activism she once had in her and begins committing ridiculous, misguided acts of rebellion around campus in an effort to cheese off Chang, now the newest campus security officer.
This episode marked the appearance of two Season 3 problems. One was the use of graphic-based humor with Garrett’s head bouncing around the screen shouting “CRISIS ALERT!” I didn’t expressly hate it, but it did seem like a strange new element (and it ended up being something that showed up more blatantly in “Contemporary Impressionists.”) The other recurring issue that was kicked off in this episode was the characters’ craziness ramping up abruptly, rather than building gradually. Though some of it’s really funny regardless, Britta and Chang’s plot is extreme nonsense from the get-go. But worse is when Annie suddenly freaks out and throws a tantrum in front of everyone during the debate. Furthermore, right after this scene of her acting totally irrationally, we get a heart-to-heart with her and Jeff that is just impossible to take seriously at all, especially when he makes the claim that Annie’s maturing into a woman.
This final chat is emblematic of the sloppiness of the episode. Whatever the message of it is becomes lost and, on the DVD commentary, the writers of the episode actually admit to not really knowing what the hell they were saying in it and that it just kind of got away from them. So, see? I’m right.
#1 WORST: “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” – Season 3, Episode 12
Ugh, you’re the worst.
This one originally aired earlier than it was supposed to as NBC shifted it around to make it the first one to air after the lengthy midseason hiatus. The reason for this was that they hoped to snag new viewers as this episode presented a kinder, gentler, more accessible Community. It also sucked.
The focus is on Shirley getting remarried to her ex-husband Andre (played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and this plotline meant next to nothing to me. I like Malcolm-Jamal just fine, but he’d only showed up a few times throughout the series and I had no huge feelings on his character one way or the other. Furthermore, we’re told Shirley and Andre divorced because Andre cheated on her with a stripper, but Malcolm-Jamal seems like such a wholesome guy (an image his years with Cosby probably helped bolster) that I never believed in his backstory.
This episode feels like a glimpse into Community as it might look in the Britta of Timelines. The plot is boring, the jokes are corny, and the dialogue is forced. For one example, just watch the crappily choreographed bit at the end where Andre and Shirley explain to Jeff and Britta respectively how relationships should work.
I’ve heard people who don’t get Community compare the show to Scrubs and, if this is the episode they saw, I can maybe see where they got that idea. Just like that show, this episode has moments where cleverness peeks through, but, mostly, all the humor falls flat.
Now that the Worst list is out of the way, lets bask and reminisce on the Best episodes.
#10 BEST: “The First Chang Dynasty” – Season 3, Episode 21
Contradicting my introduction and what I just said about the last episode almost entirely, this one makes it onto the best list basically just for being a solid genre parody. Season 3 struggled some to find homages and parodies to work with after the series sort of shooting its wad one season prior. Stuff in this season like Chang’s half-hearted venture into film noir and the mostly boring Glee episode just didn’t land for me. So it was a refreshing surprise when this episode squeaked in as the penultimate to the season finale. It suddenly seemed like a no-brainer; why hadn’t Community done a heist episode?
With Chang as an insane dictator who has kidnapped the dean, has taken over the college, and is genuinely planning to blow it up, this just might be the show at its most ridiculous and unrealistic, especially considering the first season had episodes with plots about studying Spanish and joining football teams. But it’s just such a wonderfully executed homage, hitting all the right notes, as we get Jeff, in voiceover, narrating the steps to foil Chang’s plan while we watch them get carried out. It even has a “the plan seemed to fail, but that was all part of the plan” twist.
This one is not hugely about watching these characters grow or any of the touchy-feely junk I usually like, but it’s still just so fun watching everyone get a role in the heist (Troy and Abed’s plumber characters are consistently funny and everyone loves Goth Britta). Plus, though it’s a small part of it, this episode does mark a big moment in the season story arc of the Greendale Air Conditioning Repair School’s pursuit of Troy’s enrollment. And that bit manages, as only Community can, to be simultaneously stupid and moving.
#9 BEST: “Origins of Vampire Mythology” – Season 3, Episode 15
I’ll admit this feels like sort of an odd one to choose. On the DVD commentary, Dan Harmon seems to kind of dismiss it as an average episode, but it managed to hit a lot of right notes with me. Maybe it was because it was coming right off the heels of a two-parter about a giant blanket and pillow fort war and was an episode with a much smaller, simpler scope. The premise is that a carnival has come to town and, with it, Britta’s carny ex-boyfriend, Blade. Britta can’t resist Blade when he’s on the scene and insists Annie hold onto her phone and keep her under lock and key in Troy, Abed, and Annie’s apartment.
This made for an episode focused almost exclusively on these characters’ friendships and resulted in fantastic performances from everyone. The bizarre noise Annie makes when she tries to impersonate Blade probably made me laugh harder than anything else Alison Brie has ever done on the show. I might have also liked this episode so much because it recalled character aspects from Season 1, as Shirley and Jeff team up (as they did way back in the episode that introduced Vaughn) so Jeff can visit the carnival and learn what it is about this Blade guy that makes him so irresistible. It’s also something of a return to Jeff as he once was because, though he admits he’s not in the least in love with Britta, he still cares enough about her tastes in men to feel inadequate when stacked up against a carny who shares the same name as a kickboxing vampire.
Speaking of which, hearing the name “Blade” makes Troy and Abed think of the movie Blade, so, throughout the episode, they’re watching it. Dean Pelton is around as well, mostly for comic relief and gives the astute sum-up of the film: “Boy, this guy doesn’t give vampires a square inch of leeway.” Pierce and Chang get a silly, throwaway plotline in this one, too. It holds no weight, but it’s still charming enough.
#8 BEST: “Debate 109” – Season 1, Episode 9
Sometimes I admire an episode simply because of how well-crafted it is and “Debate 109” pulls off a sitcom favorite of mine: the dovetailing of storylines. Something Seinfeld became basically the poster child for, it’s when multiple seemingly dissimilar plotlines somehow all intersect by episode’s end.
Here, we learn how Abed has been making films about his friends that appear to predict what they will do next: this includes Annie and Jeff kissing, Pierce being declared a genius, and Shirley getting chased down by a werewolf. Meanwhile, in the present, Jeff gets roped into helping Annie win a debate against City College and Pierce tries to help Britta quit smoking by way of really bad hypnotherapy. Additionally, Shirley is all the while fearful of Abed’s psychic abilities.
Abed’s prophetic films are a brilliant device because Jeff and Annie kissing isn’t even something either of them conceives of until they’re made aware of Abed’s prediction, which suddenly renders their attraction to each other plausible. The plots all come together and Abed’s predictions all come true when Annie kissing Jeff becomes integral to winning the debate; Pierce manages to (accidentally) get Britta to quit smoking, resulting in her calling him a genius; and we hear a side character mention there’s a full moon out. The cherry on top is that Shirley is worried throughout that Abed can tell the future, but Abed repeatedly assures her he’s just an astute study of character. However, at the last moment, when Abed overhears Britta calling Pierce a genius, he believes in his powers and runs off after Shirley to save her from a potential werewolf (which is the one thing that doesn’t actually come to pass… not that we see, anyway).
While it’s true this episode came so early in the series that the characters weren’t even really entirely themselves yet, I get a lot of joy purely out of seeing the beginnings of what the Greendale Seven would eventually evolve into and this episode is a big milestone, being really the first time an attraction between Jeff and Annie is addressed. It also helps us better learn about Abed and how he envisions his friends having natural character arcs as though they exist within a sitcom.
#7 -BEST: “Critical Film Studies” – Season 2, Episode 19
My reasons for loving episodes run a funky gamut and this particular one gets on here foremost for being so ambitiously strange. This episode is maybe not a good one to introduce someone to the series with as even describing it (a Pulp Fiction parody inside of a My Dinner with Andre homage) would likely just make them say, “What? Why?” But, if you’re down with the show’s experimental nature, this is a hugely impressive half-hour. It’s amazing this episode works at all, let alone works as incredibly well as it does.
The core plotline sees Abed and an unknowing Jeff acting out a personalized facsimile of the events in My Dinner with Andre or, in other words, they have a lengthy chat in a nice restaurant (at Abed’s request as it’s his birthday). Very unlike My Dinner with Andre is that the rest of the study group are in a retro diner dressed in Pulp Fiction getups (Pierce is the gimp) waiting to throw Abed a surprise party. It’s just such an intensely bizarre concept to tackle such dissimilar (though, I suppose, both quite chatty) films and it perfectly captures a number of the important details from both. If you’ve seen Andre, the tone of this homage is shockingly on point and the Pulp Fiction side of the episode becomes largely centered, as it should, on a mysterious briefcase (which, here, contains Jeff’s birthday present for Abed).
This episode is also expressly about analyzing and deepening Abed and Jeff’s relationship, so it ticks the character development box for me, too. I also love when the show skews darker and the confessional story Jeff gives about his childhood is so messed up that it visibly freaks Abed out. On a lighter note, Chang and Troy are great together here with Chang tempting Troy to look inside the briefcase and find out if Jeff’s present makes him a better friend to Abed. Chang even does this awesome, over-the-top serpentine slither as he comes up from behind the diner counter to influence Troy. If there isn’t a .gif of this yet, someone should make room for one amidst all those images of Alison Brie running in slow-mo.
#6 BEST: “Mixology Certification” – Season 2, Episode 10
As mentioned before, I love when the show isn’t afraid to go darker and this is probably the most overtly dark episode the series has done. Troy’s turning 21 so the gang goes out to a bar so he can celebrate alcoholically. That’s effectively the whole plot. It stays simple and down-to-earth in a way the show never did before or ever again. It’s like watching the Community homage to an HBO dramedy.
This episode does a fantastic job of subverting fan expectations. The bit where the gang finds out about Shirley’s alcoholic history has no actual comedy going on in it and just gets sadder and sadder. Beyond that, all the other characters get in arguments or learn things about themselves they seem to wish they hadn’t. Maybe it just comes off like an anti-drinking PSA to some, but I find it a very relatable episode painting a pretty accurate picture of what a night at a bar can be like. Drinking is nice, but it also has the potential to make us all turn into stupid assholes who argue about and make fun of things we wouldn’t normally.
Am I contradicting myself by saying that I don’t like the Abed episodes with too few jokes while I like this one? I don’t really think so. Again, I’m happy to see these characters presented in a more serious light; I just don’t care for it when one of them (i.e., Abed) dominates an entire half-hour with sadness. In this one, literally everyone gets an arc. Even Pierce, who is basically sidelined to a one-joke storyline, has a moment of change where he swallows his pride and asks Shirley for help. Besides, there are a lot of good one-liners here too, like when Britta and Jeff make-out in front of Abed and he later remarks, “Why would you do it in front of me? I’m not a coat rack.”
Troy and Annie’s heart-to-heart near the end is so honest and open it feels like it could be from a totally different show, but I believed in everything in the episode prior to this point, so I was willing to buy this, too.
#5 BEST: “Cooperative Calligraphy” – Season 2, Episode 8
The famous bottle episode that introduced most of us to what a bottle episode is. Annie goes nuts over losing yet another pen, convinced a member of the group stole it, so they all hunker down in the study room and try to hash out what happened. This episode is not unlike a play and is hinged on how masterfully the actors are at playing off of one another. The whole thing is a character study and is just as engrossing as a balls-to-the-wall homage episode. It does have a surprise monkey hiding in the school’s ventilation system at the end, which would be a completely random occurrence if you haven’t been a series regular, but, well, that seems like a personal problem.
It also has one of the best Britta and Shirley exchanges ever after Britta refers to Shirley as “Mother Hen:”
Shirley: “Mother Hen? I think we’re about the same age.”
Britta: “Sure, unless time is linear.”
Shirley: “I’ll make your ass linear.”
Britta: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Shirley: “I’ll make your ass sense.”
#4 BEST: “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” – Season 2, Episode 14
This is effectively another brilliant bottle episode (not counting the opening montage and some of the parts with Pierce) and, not for nothing, I love those, so it was a matter of deciding which bottle episode to rank higher. I gave the edge to this one because, first, I was super-impressed that, in an episode about playing Dungeons and Dragons, they didn’t wuss out and do visual representations of all the imaginary stuff the characters describe, which would be an act of the crew fearing people would be too bored with the episode’s premise. Instead, they relied on the strength of their cast, the score, and a handful of sound FX cues. It all works wonderfully.
This was the series of Pierce’s character arc as a villain, which a lot of fans hated him for, but I found to be genius. This episode in particular features Pierce at his most villainous and it rocks. We’re also introduced to Fat Neil (at whom Pierce cries, “Baste your chubby cheeks in tears of gravy!”) and, unlike with Gilbert in “Digital Estate Planning,” he gets a nice little arc that makes us care about him, probably because we care about the study group and the study group’s goal here is helping Neil.
#3 BEST: “Remedial Chaos Theory” – Season 3, Episode 3
This one got the biggest reaction out of all the Season 3 episodes and with good reason: it’s extraordinarily ambitious and introduces a unique concept that I’m going to go ahead and assume hasn’t shown up in any other sitcom. Frankly, it’s such an ambitious concept that synopsizing it takes some doing.
Abed and Troy have just moved into their new apartment and hold a housewarming party, inviting the whole gang over. They’ve ordered pizza and, when the delivery guy arrives, someone needs to go downstairs and get it. Jeff gives everyone a number from one to six and rolls a die to see who has to go get the pizza. Abed declares that this action will create six different timelines. Jeff throws the die and we get to see the events of one of these timelines, followed by five more (well, actually six once Abed realizes Jeff has rigged it so he never has to be the one to go get the pizza).
The concept of simply removing one member of the group from the equation in each timeline then seeing how this affects the events in the apartment is an absolutely brilliant plot device. This way, we get to see a vast collection of different interactions: Jeff and Annie hook up in one of them; Britta and Troy have a heart-to-heart in another; Pierce gets shot in the leg (yeah, that last one’s a bit extreme).
The other supercool thing is that certain elements are brought up in earlier timelines (the first timeline introduces us to the fact that there’s a gun in Annie’s purse), but they don’t actually payoff until later (Pierce gets shot by that same gun much further into the episode). This is so impressive because, even though we’re seemingly watching seven unrelated stories, the repetition and referencing of elements in the later timelines to the previous ones ends up forming a linear narrative, just like a more conventional episode.
#2 BEST: “Modern Warfare” – Season 1, Episode 23
Duh-doy. “Modern Warfare” is typically the episode that really stuns viewers and allows Community to burrow irretrievably deep into their hearts. This is the first genre parody the series ever did and it’s still the best one. The first Halloween episode, “Introduction to Statistics” (which had the same director) has some parody elements and then there was “Contemporary American Poultry,” but that was more specifically a Goodfellas homage. However, this is the first time they really went all-in and focused on one genre.
The grand prize of allowing a student to be first to craft their own schedule for next semester turns what’s supposed to be a friendly game of on-campus paintball into an all-out war. This makes for a pitch-perfect, half-hour action film that crams in various homages from John Woo to The Warriors to Die Hard. A lot of the credit should probably go to director Justin Lin, who also did the last Fast & Furious movie. I haven’t seen it and I expect it’s not exactly high art, but the guy clearly knows action, so I bet it’s actually a suitably thrilling film.
The other reason this episode is such a masterstroke is that it’s also a solid episode of Community that never forgets to be about the characters. We learn new stuff about everyone and, most importantly, Britta and Jeff finally have sex (in the middle of a warzone, action movie style). It’s an episode climactic both in style and characterization. We’d previously had hints that Community could do something this impressive and a continuing will-they-or-won’t-they Jeff and Britta plot and both paid off here in an orgy of action and sex (well just an orgy of action, really; the sex was more conventional).
#1 BEST: “Anthropology 101” – Season 2, Episode 1
Lately, I’ve seen lots of people making the claim that Community’s season premieres have never been very strong, but evidently I’m all wrong in the head because I love this episode to death.
Season 1 ended with what, at the time, seemed like the most unearned bit of plot the show had ever done. Britta had for some reason suddenly declared her love for Jeff and then Jeff up and made out with Annie. What the what? Why was this crap happening?
So when the Season 2 premiere happened and managed to not just rectify, but even justify, the wrongs of that finale, I fell deeper in love with this show than I had fallen in love with anything in a long time. I just think this is, first off, a great introduction to the second series. It starts by showing us the interiors of all the characters’ homes, in contrast to the first series which never went off-campus, and it’s an episode just full of new developments for everybody. The competitive, dysfunctional nature of Britta and Jeff’s relationship is brought out in the open, we get an idea of what Troy living with Pierce has been like, and everyone is forced to address that Jeff is still a pretty self-centered jerk.
Again, I love when things get dark and, though it’s not as obviously dark as “Mixology Certification,” I think this episode is a strong candidate for the darkest of the series. In “Mixology,” everyone just got a little drunk and acted like asses. Here, for at least a little while, everyone actually kind of hates each other (or at least everyone hates Jeff). There’s even an awesome moment of bloodshed when Annie clocks Jeff in the face.
It’s also a hilarious episode. Britta and Jeff claiming to love each other just to one-up each other makes for one of the best worst relationships in sitcom history, beginning with their completely non-sensual kiss. There’s also everyone getting grossed out and screaming when they learn Britta and Jeff had sex on the study room table (except Troy who is actually saying “Awwwwwawesome!”). We also get a cameo by Betty White as an anthropology professor who drinks her own urine and strangles Jeff until he passes out. One other fantastic aspect is the introduction of Chang’s new arc of wanting to join the study group, which ends the episode with a scene of Ken Jeong doing his Gollum impersonation. This scene remains incredible no matter how many times I watch it.
Granted, this is a crazy way to start a season, considering it’s got the lead characters being awful to each other throughout and its greatness rides, in part, on its coming off the heels of the Season 1 finale (and, also, it has Betty White drinking her own pee). But, for fans, for those of us who were with the show from the beginning, this depicts the friendships of Jeff, Britta, Annie, Troy, Abed, Shirley, and Pierce being truly tested and it’s an absolute joy to watch.
In conclusion, I would say my favorite period of the Dan Harmon era of Community is actually the latter half of Season 1. I ended up with more best episodes from Season 3 than Season 1, but then Season 3 had the majority of the worst episodes by some distance, too. There were so many moments in Season 1 that I think are some of the best Community there is; just to name one thing, there’s the sequence in “Romantic Expressionism” that contains no dialogue, consisting solely of the study group giving each other suggestive looks. However, moments like these showed up in episodes where the show was still in its infancy. It was still working at locking down its style and tone and the characters weren’t yet completely defined. These aspects found solid footing and reached a confluence of quality in multiple episodes of Season 2, hence why most of the best episodes come from there. In Season 3, the show often got too comfortable with itself. It got a little lazier in building the craziness of an episode up gradually and would instead just blow character traits out of proportion without warning. Britta would act really dumb, Shirley would get preachy, and Jeff hulked out a couple of times (though only literally once).
As a fan, I love Season 1 the most for being a simpler sitcom with characters so lovable I wanted to hang out with them, but I recognize the characters were still in a genesis state through much of the season. In fact, part of why I love it is that I get to watch them develop the defining traits that would be perfected later in the series. However, if I were to attempt to demonstrate to a newbie the show at its most impressive, I would probably start off with some of the themed episodes from Season 2. And, when it comes to Season 3, I could still feel Community generally swinging for the rafters, but there were a number of miscalculations.
Still, I will always admire Community for and will define it by its ambition. Sadly, that ambition is what’s missing from Season 4.