*Pre-Season 6. This was originally published Jan 30. 2014 on The Artifice. I’m migrating my article here as well. Some images have been changed.
NBC’s cult comedy Community has undergone a recent paradigm shift. With the departure of Donald Glover, who played the lovable and vibrant Troy Barnes, the show loses half of its bromantic duo alongside Danny Pudi’s Abed Nadir. The exit of a principal cast member from any show tends to be a somber affair, but showrunner Dan Harmon didn’t allow the sentiment to drag down Glover’s final episode, entitled Geothermal Escapism. In fact, last Thursday’s episode recieved universal acclaim, with positive reception from The A.V. Club, IGN, and TV.com, among others.Community is a refreshing sitcom, joining the NBC greats such as The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation. What sets it apart, however, is the focus it puts on post-modern meta-fiction, often satirizing cliches and tropes in television by playing them completely straight (though not without self-referential jokes).
The debut episode has everything go south for protagonist Jeff Winger. A formerly-successful lawyer disbarred for faking his credentials, saying they were from Columbia (“…now I need to get one from America”), he decides to attend a local community college, Greendale, in an attempt to breeze his way to a real-life, actual Bachelor’s. A beautiful classmate catches his attention, but his rebuffs his advances, so he fakes being a tutor to get alone time with her. She, in turn, invites another student from their class, who then invites four others. Jeff, now given an unintentional family, has to make the best of this situation. This is where the show gets most of its meat–from exploring the interpersonal relationships between the characters.
10. Physical Education (Season One, Episode 17).
“Now are we gonna stand around and talk about clothes like a girl, or used tapered sticks to hit balls around a cushioned table, like a man?” -Jeff Winger
Disguised in a shell of pool and seduction, this episode carried a powerful message of self-affirmation. Two stories, seemingly separate, but intertwining their themes toward the end, run throughout it. In the first, lazy and narcissistic Jeff Winger enrolls in a pool class, believing his apparent skill will earn him the admiration of his classmates, all while looking cool in a leather jacket and designer jeans. He comes across trouble, however, when his instructor makes the inclusion of running shorts the mandatory class uniform. To image-obsessed Jeff, this is off-putting and after an argument with his professor, he angrily storms out.
In the B story, Jeff’s study group finds an exceedingly-accurate drawing in a textbook in the likeness of Abed, the groups pop-culture obsessed and socially-awkward member. In (silent) disbelief that anybody would ever find Abed a viable romantic partner, the study group sans Jeff, all conspire to A) find Abed’s secret admirer and B) hook them up. Over the course of the episode, Jeff boils in his insecurity and the group in their eventual failure to secure Abed with a girlfriend. He drops a pearl of wisdom to his friends: “When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for others isn’t such a big deal.” The affect this has on Jeff–though lasting only for the duration of the episode–is what motivates him to challenge his instructor to a match which escalates into nude pool.
This is all par for the course. If this doesn’t strike you as too odd, keep reading and you may feel inclined to give Community a shot.
9. Introduction to Film (Season One, Episode 3).
“Our first assignment is a documentary. They’re like real movies but with ugly people.” -Abed Nadir
Though hilarious to the uninitiated, the third episode of Community really shines if you’ve seen Dead Poets’ Society. Lampooning the idea of a creative, rebellious teacher, one who doesn’t put grades before life, is Professor Whitman. Whitman teaches accounting, but his maverick teaching is what attracts Jeff to the class. He persuades the study group to take it alongside him, as a way to get an easy A. This segues into the secondary story of the episode. Abed is unable to enroll with them because his father only pays for classes that will help further his [Abed’s] career in the falafel industry. Taking offense to this is Britta, the exceedingly liberal granola girl. She pays tuition for what Abed wants to take: film classes. Abed’s story ends with a sobering look into the reality of raising a child like Abed, all while retaining its signature comic timing.
Professor Whitman is the true star that makes the episode glow. He’s a man who makes his students toss away one-hundred dollar text books and has them stand on their desks. He’s a man who orders birthday cake from a university coffee shop and cries at sunrises. He’s the reason Introduction to Film is on this list.
8. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (Season 2, Episode 16).
“It’s called a Complisult. Part compliment, part insult. He invented them. I coined the term. See what I just did there? That was an explainabrag.” -Britta Perry
The mockumentary has been a comedy staple for much of the 2000s. The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation: all positively-received shows and all taking advantage of the documentary format. Community decides to adopt its methods for an episode, all while mercilessly referencing the idea in increasingly meta commentaries, as the show is wont to do. Pierce, the offensive elderly man turned villain of the group, in the hospital after an overdose at the end of the previous episode. He has called his study group in to let them all know he’s dying and this is a last chance for him to make peace with each of them. In truth, he’s well on the road to recovery and is using his weakened state to toy with the minds of his friends, torturing them with guilt and self-doubt.
The only one exempt from all this is Abed, who is an objective and omniscient fly-on-the-wall. He watches as the group’s turmoil grows, while relentless pointing out and satirizing documentary cliches. Troy’s bequeathal is particularly funny; instead of receiving his dream gift (a signed, framed photo of LeVar Burton, the man of Roots and Star Trekfame), Pierce uses his connections as a former CEO to actually bring in Burton. Troy goes catatonic at the sight of his idol, and the quick cuts Abed makes to his documentary to observe Troy’s breakdown are hilarious. The amount of self-referential humor in the episode is staggering, though not in any way an isolated incident with a show like this.
7. Mixology Certification (Season 2, Episode 10).
“I want to bathe in manhood.” -Troy Barnes
Unlike many other comedies about college, Mixology Certification steers away from the riotous romping that is expected to come from a twenty-first birthday. Instead, it is an examination of what truly comes first when ushering in adulthood: self-control and cherished friendships. Troy Barnes, ignorant of his true age, discovers he is turning twenty-one that very night and the two “cool” members of the group, Jeff and Britta, decide to take him to a bar and impart adult wisdom, which he eagerly laps up. Annie, the only underage member of the group gets access by way of a fake I.D., provided by Britta.
Indicative of his staunch morality, Troy refuses to order a drink until midnight, even as his friends all get intoxicated. He becomes increasingly excited as the night drags on, even as his friends all progressively feel worse. Shirley, the sweet motherly one, storms out, Annie and Abed both are moping around, nursing their drinks, and Jeff and Britta’s usual banter has evolved into a drunken argument. Deciding his friends’ well-being is more important than his midnight drink, Troy escorts them all home in Jeff’s Lexus, which he’s been dying to drive (which tastes especially sweeter after Jeff’s steadfast refusal earlier on). The episode ends with a heartfelt motivational speech from Troy to Annie, who spent the episode in an quarter-life crisis regarding the path her life was taking, proving (not for the last time) that Community can do funny and heartwarming.
6. Modern Warfare (Season One, Episode 22).
“Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.” -Abed Nadir.
I know I’m going to catch flak for this, putting Modern Warfare so low on the list. For many, it was the episode that introduced them to the wonder that is Community; it was for me. As a gateway episode, there is no better, but this list isn’t called The Best Gateway Episodes of Community, so I’m bumping it to 6. Modern Warfare was the first high-concept episode of the show; there have been a number of imitators trying to capture the glory of this one, but none can quite reach it. The school’s increasingly incompetent Dean has thought of a fun contest to bring to the campus: paintball assassin. He couldn’t have the original prize, a Blu-Ray player, come through so instead chooses to award priority registration to the game’s winner.
This ridiculous concept works, as the entire student body scrambles to eliminate one another for the chance to have first pick of their classes. Jeff, through whose perspective we are tied to, wakes up an hour after the game is put into motion, only to find the campus an apocalyptic, paint-filled wasteland. He creates an alliance with the study group to ensure they are the only seven remaining. Hilarity ensues. Modern Warfare is a conglomeration of several action and apocalypse film tropes, which it spoofs magnificently. A pop-culture aficionado will have a great time finding all the references in this high-adrenaline episode.
5. Introduction to Statistics (Season One, Episode 7).
“I was so unpopular in high school, the crossing guards used to lure me into traffic!” -Annie Edison
The first holiday-themed episode of Community also remains its greatest. This Halloween-romp explores the multi-faceted depths of no less than three of the main characters, a notable achievement so early into a sitcom’s life. Professor Chang, the premier–and only–Spanish teacher at Greendale Community College must chaperone a culturally-sensitive Halloween party put together by the high-achieving Annie Edison. Jeff, on the other hand, would rather spend his time trying to seduce his statistics professor, Michelle Slater. After spending the first few episodes unsuccessfully trying to entice Britta, he changes gears, which suits her just fine. Shirley, however, isn’t so happy. She spends the entire episode bitter at Jeff and his hopeful lay, for reasons unknown to all. Annie spends the first half of the episode desperately trying to persuade Jeff to attend her party, because he’s evidently cool enough to motivate attendance for the other students. He’s the crux. Without his presence, the party sours. And it does, through a combination of his leaving mid-party and the drug-induced breakdown of Pierce, who has spent the entire episode hiding the fact that he needs to take medicinal pills.
Of course, Jeff returns, reluctantly forsaking a night with Slater to rescue Pierce and save the party. Towards the end of the episode, we learn that Shirley’s separated husband asked for her wedding ring (in truth, it was his mother’s) back to give to his new lover. She admits to projecting her pain onto Britta to make herself feel stronger, but gets through it with the help of her friends. So by the end, we learned that for all of Jeff’s posturing he contains some selflessness, Pierce has a crippling fear of being seen as old and incompetent, and Shirley has a bit of pride underneath her sweet, Christian, motherly demeanor.
4. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (Season Two, Episode 9).
“My family name was Professorberg, but we changed it when we were fleeing from the Nazis.” -Professor Professerson.
Never before has Community done such a mind-bender–or rather, a parody of mind-benders. Taking cues from The Da Vinci Code, this episode revels in spoofing cliches that are indicative of conspiracy cinema. The Dean has caught Jeff faking credits to a non-existent class in an attempt to weasel out of any actual schoolwork. Not taking this heat lying down, Jeff decides to prove to the Dean that his class about conspiracies is real and takes both him and Annie to his classroom, which turns out to be a broom closet. Just as Jeff looks finished, however, out walks Professor Professorson, Jeff’s, uh, professor (normally a night school instructor) who vouches his claim. Cleared of any crimes, the Dean saunters off and Jeff drops the bomb that he’s never met Professorson in his life, much to the Annie’s shock. She decides to investigate the night school at Greendale and get to the bottom of this mystery, dragging Jeff into her investigation.
While all of this is going on, Troy and Abed create an enormous blanket fort, one that covers nearly the entire campus, weaving around hallways and rooms. It’s become it’s own city, one where Jeff and Annie give chase to a suspicious Professorson, finally tracking him down and getting answers. As it turns out, though, the mystery runs deeper.
Doesn’t it always.
3. Cooperative Calligraphy. (Season Two, Episode 8).
“I wanna see if those wiener dogs are born that way, or if they start off normal and then get wiener.” -Troy Barnes
Stomping gleefully atop tried and true television tropes is Community, and they’ve never done it as well as this episode. The group all prepares to leave the library in order to watch a “Puppy Parade,” when Annie realizes her pen is missing. This isn’t a first offense, or a second or a third, so she’s convinced that somebody in the study group has been stealing from her with malicious intent. She has a brief freakout and forces her friends to stay in the study room until her pen is found. And just like that, Community has wormed its way into creating its first “bottle-episode.” A bottle-episode is used to describe an inexpensive, location-restricted episode, with little effects so as to save money. Usually such episodes spend time furthering character development and every once in a while, spectacular plots are manufactured under bottled-conditions.
Cooperative Calligraphy gleefully skewers the concept of a bottle-episode, while still revealing new facets of the characters. These can be small and inconsequential, like Britta’s constant carrying of condoms, or game-changing, such as Shirley’s surprise pregnancy. Other times, it may just be downright weird, as the revelation that’d Abed had been tracking the girls’ menstrual cycles can attest to. The pen is never recovered, the Puppy Parade never attended, yet the friends are able to put behind all the nastiness revealed in the course of the episode, and grow together, spending its last few minutes conversing in a turned-over study room.
2. Geothermal Escapism (Season Five, Episode 5).
“I’m not afraid to push a girl into make-believe lava. In fact it’s been my primary strategy.” -Professor Ian Duncan
We come to it at least. After months of foreknowledge, Donald Glover is finally saying goodbye to Community. After many missteps wherein decent, but not excellent, episodes seemed to be par for the course, I admit I had a bout of fear that this episode wouldn’t be as good as it needed to be. Never before have I been so happy to be proved otherwise. Troy’s last adventure with the study group entails a school-wide game of “Lava Floor,” which is exactly what is sounds like. Before long, the school is trashed, terraforming it into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, akin to Modern Warfare’s set. Every member of the study group goes wild with lava abandon, save for Britta, who instead tries to make everyone, but particularly Abed, come to terms with the fact that Troy is leaving, instead of retreating into a game.
The episode’s antics take a turn for the somber when it’s revealed Abed has been having a breakdown the entire time, truly seeing the floor as molten fire. Though he acknowledges his illness, he still maintains that he can’t make it disappear. By the end, with Britta’s assistance, Abed is able to let go of Troy (though not without great reluctance).
Taking the audacity of Modern Warfare a step further, Geothermal Escapismexpertly combines the sheer fun and hilarity of Community with true, emotional nuance.
1. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.(Season 2, Episode 14).
“I’m sick of you threatening me and talking to me like a kid, and giving me that look you give me like I can’t get erections.” -Pierce Hawthorne
This is the episode that marks Pierce’s true descent into villainy and yet, both the audience and the characters can’t help but pity him. Jeff, acting more nobly than usual, notices the internalized pain of a student dubbed “Fat Neil.” He engages with Neil, trying to help him, but it’s not enough. The episode all but says Neil is suicidal and his decision to end it all is tipped off to Jeff by the transferring of his Dungeons and Dragons books. Fearing the worst, Jeff organizes a game of Dungeons and Dragons with the study group and invite Neil, deciding that what he needs is to feel like a winner. For reasons obvious if one has noticed Pierce’s growing unpleasantness, he has been excluded.
Most comedies dealing with heavy psychological material such as depression or suicidal feelings tend to either play them off as a joke or transmute the episode into a more dramatic one, wherein they speak candidly about such issues. Not so with Community. It deftly balances the drama of suicide with the inherent humor of amateurs playing Dungeons and Dragons. The entire episode has the feel of a high fantasy: an evil dragon, battles with goblins, narration by a British woman–even the opening credits shifted into an orchestral piece. Pierce, despite doing his best to ruin the fun, and far overstepping the lines a sitcom character should, actually assists Neil more than anybody else–albeit unintentionally.
It’s a wonderful insight into how comedies can handle sensitive subjects: not by changing the tone, but by making it real. Sounds counter-productive, but the accuracy doesn’t need to detract from any humor, instead it gets enhanced. That’s also the reason why this episode has earned it’s spot as number one.
A New Frontier…
It remains to be seen how Community will fare without Donald Glover–and Chevy Chase, who played Pierce Hawthorne, having left at the end of last season–but if the show has proven anything with its excellent fifth season, it’s that it has the capacity to bounce back extraordinarily.