Even though the current state of TV isn’t perfect by any means, I would consider the mid and late 2000’s to be the dawn of a new golden age. Even though we still have to deal with Two and a Half Men, Glee, Honey Boo Boo, The Real Housewives and other such ilk, this is also the era of some of the best shows in decades. (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Office, Louie, Mad Men, Sherlock, Downton Abbey, the list goes on.) Thankfully more and more shows are putting a bigger emphasis on better writing than ever before, but while I love serious shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad as much as the next guy, sometimes all I want is a show that can make me both think and laugh, preferably at the same time. (Or at least something to tide me over when South Park is between seasons.) In 2009, NBC gave us what the doctor ordered with Community.
A masterpiece of post-modernism, a cavalcade of pop culture savvy and wit, and a deconstruction of meta narratives, Community wasn’t the first show show to do this shtick, but is one of the few to perfect it, making it one of the best sitcoms of the past decade. For a while it seemed like the show was poised to become the next Arrested Development, and it would be if the gods were merciful and decided to end it at Season 3. (Season 4 was, how do I put this politely… the worst.) I’m not here to lament the show’s dramatic drop in quality, though, but rather celebrate its achievements. While not every episode was a winner, there was a time when the antics of the students and staff of Greendale Community College was one of the most consistently funny and well written things on television. Today I’m here to count down the best adventures of Abed, Annie, Britta, Jeff, Pierce, Shirley, and Troy, exploring the ingenious character relationships and clever scenarios that go well above and beyond what you see in your normal sitcom. These are the Top 10 best episodes of Community! (in my opinion)
10. Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples
Shirley asks Abed if he’d like to help her make a movie about the life of Jesus Christ for her church. Abed is intrigued by the idea, but the film quickly goes completely off the rails, turning into an overblown, pretentious art film that portrays himself as a Christ figure.
Abed is hands down my favorite character in the show, mostly because I see a lot of myself in him. It’s hinted early on that Abed has some sort of mental disorder, most likely Asperger’s Syndrome. As someone with the same affliction, I think Abed and I have a lot in common. Like me he sometimes have a lot of trouble relating to others, he has a deep knowledge of pop culture, and he sees the world through a different lens. Of all the characters on the show, Abed is the one that warrants the most analysis, and there are a lot of episodes like “Introduction to Film”, “Aerodynamics of Gender”, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, and “Virtual Systems Analysis” that really delve into his psyche. I singled this one out because out of all the Abed-centric episodes, I thought this was the funniest. It’s a great example of how he’s able to lose himself in his own imagination, it feeds off his love of film, and reading too much into something and making a bloated, overindulgent passion project out of his findings seems like something someone like Abed would do. The movie is his Tree of Life, his Holy Mountain, his End of Evangelion. It’s also a big highlight episode for Shirley, the group’s surrogate mother who comes off as preachy at times but only has the best intentions at heart. At this point in the show, Shirley and Pierce (who got his own B-story where he hangs out with a group of rowdy old people) felt like the only two characters who didn’t completely fit into this kind of show. It was here that Shirley’s faith was put to good use and not just as joke fodder, and it was nice how in the end she and Abed were able to find humility in each other.
9. The Science of Illusion
It’s April Fool’s Day at Greendale. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and cadavers and mace are flying through the air. After Britta’s attempt at a prank backfires and sends the whole school in a frenzy, Annie and Shirley become volunteer security guards and investigate while Abed watches. Meanwhile, Jeff and Troy use Pierce’s new found religion to convince him that he’s a wizard.
This one stands out a bit among the rest of the episodes on this list. It’s not exactly the smartest or cleverest, nor does it really explore any of the characters much. No, I picked “The Science of Illusion” simply because I find it to be one of the funniest. Absurdity has always been one of the show’s trademarks, and even though they’ve taken it farther later on, for the first season this was pretty damn impressive. It takes the classic prank gone wrong premise and takes it to hilarious extremes. How extreme? Shit starts hitting the fan when Britta’s harmless prank involving frogs in sombreros leads to a dead body getting ejected from the window. There are plenty of moments in this episode that leave me in stitches every single time, from Annie accidentally spraying mace in her face while chasing Jeff, to Troy tearfully confessing that he had no idea that the Cookie Crisp mascot used to be a wizard. (It was originally, but then it became a cop and a burglar, then the burglar and a dog, then just the dog, and now it’s a wolf in a sweater. Trust me, I know my cereal mascots.) Sometimes I want something smart or clever, but when I just want something funny, this is the episode I turn to.
8. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
In order to humor a depressed student named Fat Neil, Jeff feigns interest in his favorite pastime, Dungeons & Dragons, and brings the whole study group (except for Pierce, knowing he’d just screw things up) to play with him. When Pierce learns he was left out, he goes out of his way to make their game miserable.
If it hasn’t already caught on, Community is a pretty nerdy show. So it would only make sense that they’d present their take on the nerdiest pastime of all. Although they don’t completely adhere to the rules of the game (they skip on a lot of the intricacies a bit, but unlike other shows that tackled this topic, you can tell that some of the writers have actually played the game before), they still manage to accurately capture the feeling of a D&D campaign with a group of friends where anything can happen. There have been shows that had episodes where characters were playing a fantasy game of some sort before, and a popular approach to that scenario is to show them in character the way they imagine it. Not here. The whole episode is shot almost entirely from the table, and all we know about their adventure is from Abed’s description, leaving the rest to our imaginations. The writers use this tactic to its fullest advantage, especially during the more colorful parts of the game. (Let’s just say that Annie seems well versed in a different type of role playing.) Despite my love for this episode, there’s one thing that really holds it back for me. They basically reduce Pierce’s character to the point where his usual meanness crosses the threshold of being funny and becomes needlessly nasty. I know that Pierce has developed a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group, but his cruelty to Fat Neil kept making me wonder why they keep him around at all. And trust me, this is not the first or last time they do this.
7. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking
Pierce has had enough of the study group not taking them seriously, so he decides to get his revenge. He pretends to be dying and bequeaths gifts to all of them (except for Abed, who’s recording the whole thing), each one specifically designed to torment them with their own insecurities.
I’ll be completely honest, I hated this episode the first time I saw it. As you could probably guess, my opinion on Pierce wasn’t very high at this point and seeing him do these things to the rest of the group did nothing to raise it. I thought his actions toward them were unnecessarily cruel, but unlike “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, this time it’s not without justification. Even though Pierce’s ideals and mindset are decades out of touch, all he really wants is to make friends. That’s the reason he’s been going to Greendale for twelve years. He lashes out and acts cruel because he’s old and lonely and he knows it. In the past his attempts to make things hard for the study group only tried my patience. Here is one of the few times it actually worked out for me. It helps if you’re familiar with what’s going on behind the scenes, specifically that Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon have been butting heads for practically the show’s whole run. I can see why Chase was frustrated with his character constantly getting pigeonholed as a self centered old man, but at the same time he fits the role perfectly since he’s essentially playing himself. After considering this, I was able to look past my hangups and appreciate how ingeniously diabolical his trials were. (I think Troy came out of it the worst.) Pierce been following these characters long enough to know what will make their house of cards fall, and he executes them brilliantly. Regardless, it did take me a while to realize this episode’s genius and my original dislike for it was mostly consequential. But in all seriousness, Troy’s reaction to Pierce’s gift is absolutely priceless.
6. Documentary Filmmaking: Redux
When the Greendale County Board approaches Dean Pelton to direct a new commercial for the school, he enlists the help of the study group. The Dean goes way over-budget trying to perfect it, and his descent into madness is all captured by Abed to create his own version of Hearts of Darkness.
While the camera work in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” was a jab at mockumentary style shows like The Office and Modern Family, “Redux” uses the fly on the wall documentary format to capture the insanity of Greendale at its most hilariously horrifying. Dean Pelton is definitely the most theatrical character in the show (Have you seen his wardrobe?), so naturally one of the show’s running gags is his overblown attempts to make Greendale more like a real college, going so far as to focus on ludicrous attractions like a space program or making a politically correct mascot, and ignoring important things like forming a student counsel or hiring competent teachers. Here they take his obsession to its most logical extreme and drags everyone down the rabbit hole with him. It’s also important to note that this came out at a very uncertain time for the show, with NBC announcing that Community was going on hiatus, infighting between Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase, and speculation that the show might get canceled. It also came out around the time that Jim Rash, who plays the Dean, was nominated for an Oscar for his script of The Descendants (which he eventually won). Even though it’s a TV show, Rash turned in an Oscar caliber performance, transforming a character no one took seriously into something evocative. Hell, if he can learn to sing and dance, he could probably shoot for a EGOT.
5. Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps
For her psychology class, Britta has her friends take an anonymous psycho-analysis test. When she finds out that one of her friends might be insane, she has them all tell scary stories to find out who.
One of the best things about this show is that it can be seen as one big psychological case study. When you get right down to it, none of these characters are exactly sane. Jeff is a narcissist with daddy issues, Abed lacks empathy and has almost zero understanding of social interaction, Annie is a highly competitive perfectionist and a recovering Adderall addict, and Chang is, well, Chang. The stories they tell in this anthology are a great window into how each character sees themselves and the rest of the group. Sure, it reinforces things we’ve known all along like that Pierce is shallow and self centered, Shirley loves Jesus and that Britta sucks at storytelling, but at the same time these stories couldn’t come from anyone else. Of course Annie would tell surprisingly gory Anne Rice vampire romance. Of course Abed would tell a story where he takes all the logical precautions to reduce the chance of getting killed. Of course Troy would make up a ridiculous adventure where he and Abed get back at Pierce in the most childish way imaginable. Of all the Halloween episodes, this one his hands down my favorite, which is saying a lot considering that the one before that involved a zombie outbreak and was narrated by George Takei.
4. Intro to Political Science
When the Dean learns that Vice President Joe Biden will be visiting Greendale, he holds an election for a new student body president. The competition quickly becomes a two horse race between Annie and Jeff, with Annie being serious about wanting to improve the school, and Jeff only running to prove that politics are nothing but a popularity contest.
I don’t follow politics that much. To me, presidential elections are treated more like sporting events than the important rituals they are, and almost every political debate I’ve ever seen can be summed up by Magnitude and Leonard’s showdown at the end. But even an ignorant yokel like me knows all the evils that can be expected in the game of politics: the corruption, the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the ulterior motives, the mud slinging, the inflated egos, all that jazz. When you think of it, every type of political candidate can be summed up by the runners in this election. Some are idealistic young innovators who just want to be taken seriously like Annie, some are silver tongued bullshit artists like Jeff, or mindless slogan chanters like Magnitude, or incompetent messes like Garrett, or uninteresting nobodies who bring nothing new to the table like Vicki, or old men out of touch with modern times like Leonard. Even though I never liked the idea of Jeff and Annie as a couple, I can clearly see the admiration they have for each other. The B-story, where Abed is being shadowed by a FBI agent and starts flirting with her, is really cute, especially when you realize that Abed is oblivious to the fact that he’s being racially profiled.
3. Modern Warfare
Greendale holds a friendly game of paintball that quickly escalates into all-out war when the Dean announces priority registration as the grand prize.
Every once in a while, Community will do an homage to certain genres of film or television, whether it be turning into a Rankin Bass Christmas special, paying homage to Goodfellas with chicken fingers, or writing a musical dedicated to ripping on Glee. In the case of “Modern Warfare”, the order of the day is action movies. The paintball battle royale is laced with references to practiacally ever action movie of the last 25 years, from Die Hard, to The Warriors, to The Matrix, to 28 Days Later. Before this episode, most of the episodes were all contained and miniscule. Even if some of the scenarios were absurd, some of them were situations you could actually see happening to real people. “Modern Warfare” upped the ante by just throwing it’s arms in the air and shouting “Screw it, let’s just have a big ass paintball fight!”. Plus, it paved the way for a lot of the show’s future big scale episodes. With any other show, this would’ve been its shark-jumping moment. Here it was just a taste of things to come. Sure, everyone knows this episode had a sequel with the two-parter “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “A Few Painntballs More”, but without it we wouldn’t have episodes like”Epidemiology”, “The First Chang Dynasty”, or my personal favorite…
2. Pillows and Blankets
Abed wants to build a fort out of pillows. Troy wants to make a fort out of blankets. Neither one of them is willing to bow down to the other. They got everyone in the school involved, creating a rift and causing Greendale to break out into civil war.
Of all the big blowouts in the show’s history, this was one of the biggest. More than anything else, I have to admire the creativity of this episode. “Pillows and Blankets” was made when they were behind schedule and over budget, so they recycled costumes, props and sets from the previous episode and the B-story in “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”. For them to not just pull off an episode with this kind of scale at the drop of a dime, but also film it in the style of a PBS documentary is pretty astounding. The episode also has a lot of the show’s funniest moments, like Britta’s constant failure at photography, the Changlorious Basterds, and especially the reveal of Pierce’s doomsday machine. But the thing that really made this funny for me was that they decided to play Troy and Abed’s feud over something so trivial and silly completely straight. (But then again this is the show that dedicated a whole episode to finding Annie’s lost pen and played it straight, so it’s kind of a given by now.) By this point in the show, their friendship had become the greatest TV bromance since JD and Turk, so knowing how these two like to take silly things seriously, it was hard to tell if this was really the end or not.
1. Remedial Chaos Theory
Troy and Abed invite the study group to their new apartment. When the pizza guy rings their doorbell, Jeff rolls a die to determine who has to answer the door. We then see the possible result of every outcome.
This is, without a doubt, no hyperbole, one of if not the greatest episode I’ve ever seen of any TV show. Community’s greatest strengths are its great comedy, clever writing and brilliant character interaction, and the best episodes are the ones that balance all three. This one has all of those elements in spades, but the writing is where it really shines. Where “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” explored how each member of the study group sees themselves and each other, “Remedial Chaos Theory” goes way above and beyond that by dissecting the whole group dichotomy and revealing the importance of each member to the group itself. Shirley is the group’s moral guardian. Without her, everyone is lost. Troy is the most sensible character despite his childish demeanor. Without him, everything completely goes to Hell. Abed, despite his perpetual poker face, is the emotional glue that holds the group together. Without him, everyone starts fighting. Jeff is the black sheep, the darkness in the middle of the rainbow who wants to be connect with the rest of the group and attempts to do so through manipulation. Without him, everyone has fun. Equally interesting were the little things that remained the same in every timeline (Jeff hitting his head on the ceiling fan, Pierce telling everyone that he had sex with Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom, the boulder rolling off of Abed’s diorama, Britta trying to sing “Roxanne” only to get cut off by Jeff) which has no significance in certain timelines, but are crucial in others. It reinforces the fact that everyone is needed for a group to properly function. Take one cog out of the machine and the machine stops working. I have never seen a group dynamic explored this way, and that is why I consider it Community’s best episode, as well as a perfect piece of television.
Honorable mentions: Debate 109, Investigative Journalism, Basic Genealogy, Contemporary American Poultry, Epidemiology, Aerodynamics of Gender, Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design, Competitive Ecology, Regional Holiday Music, Virtual Systems Analysis, Digital Estate Planning, Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.