The latest in The TDF Top 10, Ben Ingham covers the ten best episodes of Dan Harmon’s hit sitcom, Community, which is now airing on Netflix in the UK.
In our next TDF Top 10 we turn to Dan Harmon’s meta sitcom that hit Netflix recently, Community…
Community was always one of those shows I’d heard about, but knew practically nothing about it.. The cult sitcom, created by Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon, followed a group of misfits studying at a community college. The show was heavy with pop-culture references and thematic episodes from paying homage to Westerns or Goodfellas one week, to Law and Order or multiple mockumentary-style episodes the week after – when the show committed to a bit, it committed and committed hard. Harmon’s meta-humour and ambitious plots are matched by the team he had around him. The show was as meta as it gets, being incredibly meta to that point that Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) exclaims “Stop being meta. Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.” Add to image
Acting as executive producers and directors for the early seasons of the show, before The Avengers duties took them away, the Russo brothers touch can be seen especially on some of the bigger episodes. While they only directed one episode together (the pilot), individually they directed 34 of the 110 episodes) – I just checked, and three episodes Joe Russo directed made it onto this list.
It is genuinely difficult to narrow down Community to just ten episodes, there are some episodes that were automatic picks but the last three or four places were tough to choose. I could easily pick a top 10 episodes from just seasons two and three and it would be a pretty amazing list; those two seasons are well represented here still. Every season bar the sixth, which was released on Yahoo Screen! (anyone remember that), and the fourth aka ‘the year of the gas leak’ (the only season without involvement from Harmon), has an episode on this list.
I finally manage to settle on a definitive list, so allow me to present The TDF Top 10: Community…
10. Digital Estate Planning (3.20)
We never got a Community video game, I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but Digital Estate Planning is the closest we’re ever going to get. The majority of the episode is shown as a 16-bit game, with the characters taking on avatars as they explore a 2D world created by Pierce’s late father, Cornelius Hawthorne. Abed finds virtual love in the form of a villager NPC in the game (obviously) while Pierce finds family he didn’t knew he had, the care and attention that went into creating this virtual world for twenty minutes of television is there for everyone to see.
A late entry into the Top 10, I don’t think I could pop-up in the Gaming section of the website Slack without adding this one in. Community often explored the relationship between its characters and their fathers, with this episode late from season three is the best of them.
The last episode shot in season three, Digital Estate Planning would see the tension between creator Dan Harmon and Pierce Hawthorne actor Chevy Chase finally boil over, leading to the previously mentioned ‘gas leak’ season four without Harmon.
9. Anthropology 101 (2.01)
The first on this list directed by Joe Russo, we didn’t know what to expect of season two of Community. Thankfully, the opening episode of season two set the tone for the season, with the romantic relationship set up throughout season one between Jeff and Britta making way for more high-jinx as the two compete to win public favour among their college classmates.
Culminating in Britta admitting she never loved Jeff, Pierce confronting Troy over his Twitter account “Old White Man Says” and Abed ‘cancelling’ the group. All of this with a George Clooney impersonator standing by and a wedding-themed version of The Cranberries ‘Linger’ being performed in the background.
The best opening episode throughout Community’s run, the opening shot of Donald Glover dressed in Spiderman pyjamas ended up being one of the main inspirations behind Miles Morales, as well as spawning the #donald4spiderman campaign. He found his way into Spiderman: Homecoming I suppose right?
8. Cooperative Polygraphy (5.04)
The only episode from season five to make this list, although it was a close-call between this one and the hot-lava episode that follows, Geothermal Escapism. Both episodes deal with the departure of a cast member, with this one following the funeral of Pierce Hawthorne, after he departed the show during the fourth season.
Essentially a ‘bottle episode’ the group find themselves hooked up to a polygraph machine, as they answer questions from the will of their deceased millionaire friend. For all the big set-pieces, some of Community’s best episodes are the simplest, with the group quickly turning on each other, as the information they trusted Pierce with comes out.
Turns out Annie drugged the group one night, Abed has hidden GPS trackers on everyone in order to track them – oh Troy and Abed have been using Jeff’s Netflix. Harmon and Chase may have ended on a sour note, but here Harmon gives Chase’s character a worthy send-off, as Pierce’s final act is to tell the group what he admired about them all. As well the ‘obligatory vial of semen’ he leaves each of them.
7. Basic Lupine Urology (3.17)
The first of two episodes on this list with Megan Ganz as the credited writer, Basic Lupine Urology sees the cast assume the role of detectives in a homage to Law and Order. The mystery of the squashed yam sounds ridiculous at the start, and yet what unravels is a better police crime drama than most you’ll find on TV.
Whether it’s Abed and Troy as the bad cop/good cop duo (of course they switch half way though) or the excellent Michael K. Williams as Professor Kane who serves as the judge, no one ever seems to be taking themselves too seriously, all while really committing to the bit.
The previous episodes on season three focused more on character development or setting up larger plots. Here, the cast seamlessly slot into their roles and just seem to be having fun, and the pay-off is a downright hilarious 22 minutes of television.
6. Critical Film Studies (2.19)
Billed as the “Pulp Fiction” episode, Critical Film Studies saw Richard Ayoade step into the directors chair with Sona Panos as writer and give us a My Dinner with Andre tribute. With the gang all geared up as various characters from Tarantino’s flick (Pierce naturally dresses as the man in the gimp suit), all they need is birthday boy Abed to turn up to his surprise party.
While Basic Lupine Urology was all about the laughs, Critical Film Studies hits a different note, with Panos and Ayoade presenting something that tugs at our heartstrings, as we learn the reason for Abed’s own birthday date with Jeff.
That’s not to say the episode doesn’t have its funny moments, with the ultra-met reference to Abed on Cougar Town (Danny Pudi did appear on an episode of the show as Abed) or the only real Pulp Fiction side story, “what’s in the briefcase?” being standouts.
5. Pillows and Blankets (3.14)
Community took on pretty much every genre or trope they could fling a joke at, but one form of film-making was treated to a few episodes of parody, that of the documentary. Presented in the style of a Civil War documentary, Abed and Troy find themselves as leaders of opposing forces; Troy leading the citizens of “The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg” and Abed “The United Forts of Pillowtown.”
Despite being a tale about two best friends, who let’s be honest, we all know are going to be reunited at the end of the episode, everyone else really has their moment to shine. Annie and Jeff’s text conversations give us a glimpse at life on the front, and a look at Jeff’s “Ferris Bullerian” attempts at avoiding schoolwork. Oh and let’s not forget the introduction of “The Changlorious Bastards” or Pierce’s Michelin-Man inspired ‘weapon of mass pillow destruction.”
The stakes feel real in this episode, which in an episode as silly as this, is a testament to all involved. Oh and Britta as the wartime photographer who fails to catch anything on camera is just perfect. She’s the best at being the worst.
4. Modern Warfare (1.23)
If you only watched the first half of season one, you could be forgiven for thinking Community was like every other sitcom that had come before it. Other episodes in the debut season had branched out, the Goodfellas-inspired Contemporary American Poultry narrowly missed out on this list, but Modern Warfare is the standout episode in the shows opening season.
Moulding action movie tropes with high school and well you get this paintball-laden episode, with the whole campus turning into a war-zone, while Jeff naps in his car. We get the answer to Jeff and Britta’s “will they won’t they?” flirtation that’s been happening all season, the fantastic Ken Jeong channelling his inner Tony Montana at the end and a whole lot of fun in between some crazy action set-pieces.
The first of many episodes that saw the campus get transformed or trashed, Modern Warfare could very well be at the top of this list. It set the bar high for the rest of the show’s rush, with Harmon’s circular story structure allowing a full-scale action movie in 22 minutes, stacked full of jokes and references throughout. The show would bring paintball back a few times, but none of the episodes were as impactful or impressive as Modern Warfare.
3. Cooperative Calligraphy (2.08)
For all the homages and parodies, it can be easy to forget that when Community brought everything together, they just need the cast in a room for 22 minutes and to commit to one idea: who stole Annie’s pen?
The second “bottle episode” on this list, Abed and Jeff calling it out for what it is early on, sees the study room in lock down, as Annie won’t let anyone leave without finding out who stole another of her pens. Everyone shines here, predictably everyone turns on each other, for an episode that’s entirely contained within the study room it’s an important episode for season two.
We see Pierce in his wheelchair, following his trampoline-spoiling shenanigans, popping pills as he gradually moves to serve as the antagonist of the show later in the season; or as Abed puts it, “I’m afraid we’ve gone too far, this is how super villains are created.” Shirley’s surprising (or changlorious?) pregnancy is announced to the group, as well as her new relationship with her ex-husband.
Credit to Megan Ganz and everyone else who wrote this episode, it’s chocked full of character development that pays off later in the season, as well as everyone zinging out one-liners throughout, even if Britta can’t think of a celebrity that rhymes with try (“Stephen Fry” Pierce mumbles later). The most important episode up until this point, the pay-off for a lot of the character interaction and jokes carrying on well after they head off to the puppy parade.
2. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2.14)
If you’re trying to find this one on Netflix, you will struggle, as the episode was removed earlier in the year due to Ken Jeong’s Ben Chang use of blackface while cosplaying as a Dark Elf, or Drow. Shirley refers to the act as a “hate crime” at the start of the session and I am not qualified to comment on it really, except saying that the episode isn’t available on most streaming platforms.
All stories need stakes, and in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the declining mental health of “Fat Neil” is a serious concern for the group, especially Jeff, for reasons we later learn. Bullying is one of the biggest problems in schools, and Community tackles it head-on with a medium that allows anyone to be who they want, Dungeons & Dragons. Abed shines as the dungeon master, a role his character is born to play within this group, but it’s Chevy Chase who steals the show once again.
The episode pushes Pierce further into the role of the group’s villain, as he seeks to sabotage their game and focuses his anger on Neil, who Pierces sees as the one replacing him in the group. It’s explained at the start of the episode, in a very The Lord of the Rings-style introduction, that Pierce wasn’t invited for obvious reasons. He ended up being the best D&D player of the lot, thanks to a little bit of cheating.
1. Remedial Chaos Theory (3.04)
The episode that spawned a podcast (The Darkest Timeline) and one of my all time favourite GIFs, it couldn’t have been anything else at number one. The premise is simple, Abed and Troy are hosting the group for an evening of board games, when the pizza arrives downstairs. Deciding that the best way to decide, Jeff assigns a number to each of the group and rolls a die to decide.
As we follow each timeline, we discover how differently the group reacts when one vital part of the jigsaw is missing, or in Britta’s case, what happens when she’s left alone. Like Groundhog Day, we get the musical cue when time has reverted back, with The Police’s Roxanne doing the job this time.
You’d think that watching the same few minutes happen over and over with slight variations would get boring, but if anything it gets better the longer it goes on. Pierce’s constant bringing up of his dalliance with Eartha Kitt (“It came up naturally”) to the hilarious discovery of Annie’s gun, or as Troy puts it: “Uh, guys…what does a pregnancy test look like…Okay, so this is definitely a gun.”
Remedial Chaos Theory was Community at it’s highest, before cast members began to leave or Dan Harmon’s ‘gas leak’ year, and this episode shows it. When the show committed to a single idea, in this case Groundhog Day, and just ran with it, the results were some of the best television this guy has had the privilege to watch.
What are your favourite episodes of Community? Let us know in the comments below…
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