Top 10 Community episodes

From Goodfellas spoofs to Halloween zombies and yes, paintball, Megan counts down the ten best Dan Harmon-era episodes of Community...

This feature contains spoilers.

With the sad news that Dan Harmon will no longer be the showrunner for Community, it seems to be as good a time as any to look back on the best bits of a show that really is streets ahead of any other.

10. Contemporary American Poultry (1.21)

There is a crisis at Greendale Community College. The most popular lunchtime food of the college – chicken fingers – has been stolen by a corrupt system of favouritism. To overcome this ‘regime’, Abed formulates a plan from his knowledge of gangster movies for the study group to get back what is rightfully theirs. Providing the first ever appearance of the beloved Annie’s Boobs (the monkey), a character who would soon become crucial in the show (See Cooperative Calligraphy), Contemporary American Poultry channels elements of American crime movies from Goodfellas to The Godfather and American Gangster to create an episode unlike any other.

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Over the duration of Contemporary American Poultry, Jeff gradually loses control over the study group who once admired his famous ‘Winger speeches’ and were silenced by a single hand gesture. They become corrupted by the power they receive through the chicken business, each with their own use in the trade. In the case of Abed he becomes the new crime lord of Greendale, trading chicken fingers for favours and holding the students in the palm of his hand.

It’s not to say that Jeff becomes the moral compass during this episode, but as he loses his power he begins to see more clearly the corruption that’s happening around him and decides to stop it (for his own gain, of course). Jeff becomes Kay Corleone as Troy closes the door on Abed being praised by his loving public, and he makes his mission to remove the favours that have appeared in his group’s lives: Troy’s monkey, Annie’s backpack, Pierce’s entourage, Britta’s PA, Shirley’s crush and Abed’s power.

But why is this episode so good?

Purely for being structured differently to the ones previous and for the rest of the show’s run so far, showing Community‘s potential. There is only one storyline throughout compared to the usual handful, and it all concludes at the end quickly (with a Sixteen Candles reference), rather than having a story that permeates into the next episode. Change may not always be good, but in this instance it created one of the best episodes by providing us with something different: an almost direct homage to Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Writers Emily Cutler and Karey Dornetto would come back to write the episodes Modern Warfare and Epidemiology respectively.

9. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (2.16)

Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking is, indeed, a documentary filmed by none other than Abed as a ‘dying’ wish of a hospitalised Pierce. However, Pierce isn’t dying and the episode revolves around yet another plot to get his own way and force the group to argue amongst themselves. He gives each member of the study group a gift that forces them to bring out the worst side of themselves, an example being a tape given to Shirley ‘apparently’ containing the other members saying unfair things about her. She is forced to choose between her need to know everything and her trust for her friends, the tape turning out to be Pierce saying the unfair things whilst everyone else sticks up for her.

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Arguably, this is one of the more serious episodes of Community, dealing much more with reality than any of the others in the season. The mockumentary format allows the pace of the show to slow down and show emotions as they are actually happening, rather than cutting to the moment from another. It also allows for other characters to reference Abed’s filming of events, reminding us that this is indeed (to an extent) a recording of a recording, something self-referential that Community does so well.

But why is this episode so good?

Firstly, the appearance of LeVar Burton. Secondly, Troy’s reaction to the appearance of LeVar Burton. That alone makes this episode great and provides one of Donald Glover’s best performances yet. However, more importantly, Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking as a whole focuses on the weaknesses of the members of the study group and makes them altogether more human, less like characters of a TV show but more like people we as an audience can relate to. Jeff is conflicted about his feeling towards his absent father and Shirley is still unsure whether her friends are really her true friends. With problems real people can relate to, this episode gives us something to grasp which we share with the characters and brings the show even closer to our hearts.

8. Cooperative Calligraphy (2.08)

Next on the list is a self-confessed bottle episode of the show, taking place solely in the study room and telling the story of Annie’s lost pen and an abundance of accusations. Very little happens in the duration but somehow everyone in the study group ends up in their underwear with their bag emptied and civil rights tampered with.

Now everyone who’s seen the episode knows the perpetrator is indeed Annie’s Boobs (the crime can be seen briefly at the start of the episode if you’re watching closely) who has been missing since Abed freed him in Contemporary American Poultry. Accusations fly as each member is cornered and their motives questioned, Pierce immediately assuming it was Troy and Annie sparking a catfight with Britta, who turns on Shirley.

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During the episode it is also revealed that Shirley is pregnant and, thanks to Abed’s menstrual cycle tracking, that conception must have happened on Halloween. At this point only Troy is aware of her hook-up with Chang at the party (see Epidemiology), shown by a brief look of horror on his face, and the issue is, to an extent, glossed over for now. The episode ends showing how close the group has become over the duration of the show so far, deciding that it is more logical that a love-sick, letter-writing ghost stole the pen than a member of the group itself, showing once again how close their ties have become over the past year.

But why is this episode so good?

Cooperative Calligraphy takes a traditional bottle-episode of a sitcom or television drama (a popular example being the Breaking Bad episode Fly, which takes place in the lab as Walt and Jessie hunt down a rogue fly for the entirety of the episode) and makes it self-aware, Jeff slamming the doors in fury, exclaiming “I’m doing a bottle-episode!” to his date down the phone. It is Community’s self-awareness that makes it unique and holds a firm place in the hearts of its fans, so this episode in itself embodies that charm. It focuses on human emotion and the ties that hold the group together, but through a seemingly unimportant event, something that Community has come to do very well.

7. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (2.09)

Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design is yet another example of Community taking a specific movie theme or genre – in this case, the conspiracy thriller – and making it into something completely new whilst keeping the parody intact. What writer Chris McKenna does with this is genius and provides a thoroughly enjoyable episode, also introducing the wonder that is the blanket fort (to be seen again in the season three two-parter episodes Digital Exploration of Interior Design and Pillows and Blankets).

As a quick summary, Jeff has signed up for an independent study course with Professor Professorson on conspiracy theories in the USA, much to the disbelief of Annie and the Dean. When the ‘Professor’ appears, Jeff quickly admits he has no idea who the man is and they set off to discover what’s really going on. Things quickly begin to become more complex and spiral out of control with the introduction of guns and a growing list of deception.

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All important elements of a conspiracy thriller are cleverly weaved into this episode, from a tiny car in a diorama exploding to a dramatic chase scene through the fort of blankets (only to be thwarted by a Latvian Independence parade passing through). There are fake guns and mistaken identities, mysterious classes and sexual tension, topped off with the breakdown of the Dean (“Would that this hoodie was a time hoodie!”).

But why is this episode so good?

Like the paintball episodes, the blanket fort episodes of Community will go down in the history of the show as its greatest creations. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design shows the ability of Community to take one simple theme and making it, for lack of a better word, different. No other thriller before has taken place in a school with blanket forts in the dorms, fake classes created by drama professors and exploding cars (“a thoroughly underwhelming message”).

6. Epidemiology (2.06)

With zombies, vampires and all forms of the undead coming into massive popularity over the past few years, it’s no surprise that Community included a zombie-themed episode in which the entire school is taken over by a deadly virus (hilariously to a soundtrack of ABBA and the Dean’s voice notes). Plot-wise, this is the episode in which Shirley and Chang hook up in the bathroom, sparking the story over the doubt of the paternity of her child, which crops up in later episodes. There’s also a great deal of bromance felt between Abed and Troy during the chaos, with allusions to Han and Leia in Star Wars as they part ways and Troy tries to become, in the words of Abed, “the first black man to make it to the end”.

In the end none of the characters have any awareness of what actually happened to them, concluding someone (Chang woeful that it wasn’t him) ‘roofied’ the entire Halloween party as a prank.

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But why is this episode so good?

Zombies and a voiceover by George Takei. The perfect combination for such an odd episode of the show. The episode shows perfectly how the Community writing staff manage to take a completely unbelievable situation and make it so us as the audience still care about the welfare of our favourite characters. Of course you can’t get a deadly zombie virus from eating toxic meat from a box of bad army surplus leftovers, but we still don’t want Abed to succumb to it.

5. Paradigms of Human Memory (2.21)

Paradigms of Human Memory serves as yet another example of how the fun of Community comes largely from how self-referential it is, as well as its pop culture allusions. As the group is making a diorama of themselves making a diorama, Annie’s Boobs appears yet again, sparking a chain of events which leads to them finding his stash of stolen belongings (including Annie’s pen from Cooperative Calligraphy). As they rifle through the pile of ephemera they begin to reminisce about events that have happened during the time they’ve known each other, good and bad, and arguments inevitably erupt.

One of the funniest points of the episode occurs when Jeff and Britta come across the trophy they won filling in for the glee club. They relish in the fond memory only to be jolted back to reality that the only reason they had to fill in was because the previous members of the club all died in a bus crash. Troy, completely missing the point as usual, goes on to comment on how they now have a cool new bus driver. The episode ends with another classic ‘Winger speech’ which, once again, brings the group back together and receives an ‘aww’ of approval from Shirley.

But why is this episode so good?

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Many people see flashback episodes as a way around having to make another episode, merely slicing together a few clips from previously shown and allowing the characters to reminisce about the past. But, as this is Community, things are done a little differently. The flashbacks featured in the episode are of the group’s past exploits, but not ones that the audience has seen before: the time they were put in an asylum, the time they filled in for glee club, the time they went to the ghost town…

As a whole the episode reinforces the strength and friendship of the study group by showing that in fact they have a life together outside of the study room and aren’t just together because they have to be. They need to be together as they bring out the best in each other.

4. A Fistful of Paintballs (2.23)

Both season two paintball episodes of Community are superb, but for showing the group as separate people in conflict rather than an entity, A Fistful of Paintballs makes its way onto the list. Fighting over Pierce’s exclusion from the group (and a rather large amount of prize money for the overall winner), the group split up and take up their positions in the second paintball war of Greendale.

Pierce has created himself a sanctuary in which he is finally king (Fort Hawthorne in the cafeteria), complete with exotic dancers (Garrett and Becky) and toilet privileges for the cost of a few bullets. With an appearance from Lost’s Josh Holloway, the episode oozes Wild West shootout style and class, with a hint of mystery and betrayal.

Throughout the episode, we find ourselves feeling sorry for Pierce being kicked out of the group and being treated badly by everyone (except Annie, the only member who voted to keep him in). He is, beneath the surface, only an old man with an outdated sense of humour (which to an extent is just an act to get people to like him).

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But why is this episode so good?

Seeing the group as separate beings allows us to see what motivates them to do what they do and how they function alone under pressuring circumstances. Most noticeably we for once get to see things from Pierce’s perspective, the one of an isolated outsider pushed away by the only people that used to accept him. He shows emotions we haven’t seen yet that come from a place of hurt, rather than his usual choice of acting from a place of manipulation. This new perspective lets us see him in a different light for future episodes, and this allows us to understand why exactly he acts like he does.

3. Modern Warfare (1.23)

This is the episode that introduced it all. The episode which created one of the most exciting storylines of the show. The episode in which Jeff and Britta finally hooked up. The episode that introduced Greendale to the terrors of paintball.

A friendly game of paintball goes awry as Jeff sleeps soundly away in his car, only to awaken to the signs of absolute chaos. The prize? Priority registration for the next semester’s classes. All except Jeff decide Shirley should get it if they win so she can spend more time with her children, and arguments set in. The entire episode is a frenzy of groups from different areas of the school (glee club, roller skating junkies, the chess team) entering into an all-out battle, broken up by finally-resolved sexual tension between Jeff and Britta, and Mexican stand-offs.

But why is this episode so good?

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There isn’t much to say about Modern Warfare that hasn’t already been said before. It is superb in its simplicity. It brought Community to a whole new level, with the paintball episodes all proving to be some of the most popular of the show in its history. The complete ridiculousness of it, but also how plausible it could end up being, is what makes it great and a solid favourite for every Community fan.

2. Remedial Chaos Theory (3.04)

Remedial Chaos Theory is arguably one of the most intelligent episodes of a television show ever. A night at Troy and Abed’s new apartment turns into a look into multiple-timelines and what could happen to the future if one small detail was changed in the present, in this case a dice-roll. The group come together to play a game of Yahtzee and eat pizza, a different member collecting the food from the door on each dice roll resulting in a different chain of events. This episode also sets up the whole theme of the darkest timeline which recurs throughout the third season of Community, where the group falls into despair and tension runs high between each character. Jeff loses an arm, Pierce gets fatally shot, Annie ends up in a mental institution, and Shirley is an alcoholic…all because Troy went to get the pizza.

One of the greatest achievements of the episode is creating jokes before they happen, setting it up in one time line only for the punchline to be given in another. Remedial Chaos Theory has been nominated for both a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, highlighting exactly how good it actually is and giving Community the chance to be positively in the spotlight as it well deserves.

But why is this episode so good?

Remedial Chaos Theory provides another example of a concept episode, introducing one simple idea and running it throughout to show what Community can handle. The idea of multiple timelines may seem boring at first, seeing the same actions repeated over and over, but it’s the variation of the things that happen sparked from one event which makes the viewer stick with it. It is yet another episode which deals with human relations and emotions, something Community deals with very well, and although this list seems full of those sorts of those episodes, they are the ones that will stand the test of time.

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Never will you be able to listen to Roxanne in the same way again.

1. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2.14)

Very few Community fans would disagree with the placement of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons at the number one spot of any top list regarding this show. The episode stands out amongst the rest as one brimming with true emotion that tugs on the strings of even the coldest of hearts and manages to centre around one life-saving game of Dungeons and Dragons.

At this point in Community’s run, we have all already heard of the character ‘Fat Neil’ (he’s appeared once before in Asian Population Studies) and few batted an eyelid at the less-than-kind nickname given to him by the characters. Now we are being told that this nickname, and the ridicule of his fellow students, has driven Neil to the brink of suicide and it is only on Jeff receiving his old D&D books that he “wouldn’t need anymore” that it is noticed that something needs to be done.

The start of the episode is narrated in a Lord of the Rings-style fashion, introducing the fantasy theme that shall surround the events to follow. The college is mapped in a fantasy table-top fashion and the sad tale of Neil begins. The study group, after some discussion, put their hearts and souls into helping Neil become happier (all except Pierce, an utterly abhorrent character in this episode) by taking part in a game of D&D, and helping him realise he has friends as well as a reason to live. Although it is startlingly revealed that is was the one and only Jeff Winger who bought Neil to the brink in the first place by coining the name ‘Fat Neil’, everyone clubs together and Neil comes out on top, even teaching Pierce a lesson about himself, something the group and thus far failed to do.

But why is this episode so good?

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Few television shows manage to put this much love and emotion into an episode, but Community achieves it in such a wonderful way in this episode, it immediately goes to the top of the list. It’s hard for a television show to light-heartedly approach the subject of suicide but still make an important point of it. Community takes the love of an underappreciated character and uses it to help not only the main characters bond, but a secondary character see that he is appreciated in his life by his peers. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons embodies everything that Community is and everything that makes it brilliant.

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