List ‘O the Week: Top 15 episodes of Community

Choosing my favourite episodes of Community is both quite simple and quite problematic, because of the way creator Dan Harmon seems to pitch his show. Harmon is someone who tries so hard, some would say too hard, to produce a show that is more than ‘just a sitcom’. As such there are several episodes each season which will emerge from Harmon saying, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…..?’. These episodes tend to be high-concept parodies of specific films and television shows or a mere riff on the conventions of film genre and form. Such episodes started being produced towards to end of season 1 and really thrived in season 2.

There is nothing wrong with these sorts of episodes, in fact these episodes are undoubtably some of the best produced episodes on TV of the last 5 years (I would say of these types of episodes, only Basic Rocket Science truly fails to engage because it abandons realistic characterisation in favour of paying homage to a movie that never gives the series anything interesting to play off). However their existence makes it hard to create a top 15 list, as the high-concept episodes are crying out for attention which tends to make one overlook the simpler, less immediately exciting ‘we’re a diverse group of students at a community college’ episodes which more effectively carry the conceit of the series.

Anyway after that pointless preamble, let’s get into it.

15. Comparative Religion (1×12)

There was a lot of competition for this last spot but I went with this episode because it’s one that finally cements the study group together, bringing Jeff once and for all down to the level of the rest of the group and allowing him to accept his place as part of his new family. It’s also a fine showcase for Shirley, allowing greater shades for a character that was often relegated to a one-dimensional Black Christian mother stereotype. Here, the show takes her traits as a divorced Christian mother and uses them to explore the way she treats the other members of the study group. But this episode isn’t all moralising on the importance of acceptance within your family; the scene where Troy and Pierce are teaching Jeff to fight, including Troy showing Jeff the ole Forest Whitaker eye technique is particularly hilarious. And it all ends in a highly satisfying, highly ridiculous, christmas-themed group fight scene.

 Jeff: To me, religion is like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal, and I 
would never take it away from anyone. But I would also never stand
 in line for it.

Jeff: As an agnostic, I'll be bringing my winning smile.
Everyone: BOOOO!!!

Annie: Shirley, you are a guilt machine.
Pierce: And Annie knows a thing or two about guilt. Am I right, Jew?
Annie: Say the whole word!!
Pierce: Jew-ie?

14. The First Chang Dynasty (3×21)

Just plain fun; a stylish, exciting Ocean’s Eleven style heist episode that almost makes you forget how ill-conceived the entire Chang-in-charge story arc was. This episode is a clever take on the heist movie with most of the heist preparation and exposition taking place through slick montage under a pulsating score. The episode successfully manages to cram in a whole movie worth of planning and execution into a breezy and fun 22 minute caper.

This is also another episode that establishes Troy as the most responsible and selfless member of the study group, sacrificing his own freedom as non-airconditioner repair student (a normie) in order to help his friends escape. Although this is definitely an ensemble episode, Troy really does get the greatest moments, like when he is trying to hide his excitement at all the cool things that Chang has organised for his party, ‘Dance off? Sundae bar? One of those Ed Hardy magicians?…….What kind of monster would… booths with props!!’ and his departure at the episode’s end is genuinely moving; a testament to Donald Glover’s ability to play both the silliest and most respectable member of the group.

Pierce: A, that is racist. B, swamis can't drive, they're Indians.

Jeff: Um, I just want to reiterate that this should be the only 
time you seduce a child over the internet.
Britta: I know that!

Pierce: Never wear a rubber.
Jeff: Never listen to Pierce.

13. Contemporary American Poultry (1×21)

Essentially the first of Community’s homage episodes and a great one at that. Even if you’re not completely familiar with mafia movies, especially Goodfellas, which is most directly referenced through the narration and use of montage, one can at least appreciate how the conventions of a mob movie have been used to explore the character dynamics of the study group, namely between Jeff and Abed, an always interesting pair. This episode works because it has a feasibly low-stakes premise regarding the prestige of chicken fingers at Greendale and works in the genre conventions with a relatively straight face. Abed is a hard character to centre an episode around because he is both the most superficially simplistic character who has his ‘wouldn’t it be cool if life was like a movie’ schtick and the character with the most deep-rooted pain of someone who will always be an outsider (as season 3 explored in most detail). This episode, like the best Abed episodes, shrewdly choose to allow Abed to remain somewhat of an enigma, while also making his somewhat dispassionate mindset more tolerable by having him connect with Jeff. Abed realises that Jeff needs to be the leader, while he is simply happy knowing that he is able to connect with others and play a role in their lives. The mafia movie tropes allow Abed to perform these roles as he is able to follow movie archetypes in all their seeming perfection and formula. He knows movies back to front and he believes that performing these established roles will allow him to make people happy.

The musical montage (set to the outro of Layla) of Abed taking his revenge on the rest of the study group is perfection in its low-stakes evocation of a Scorcese mafia thriller and it’s one of the joys of seeing these high-concept homage episodes done right.

Jeff: Oh, and for your information, I don't even *have* an ego. My
 Facebook photo is a landscape!

Jeff: Why do you have a monkey?
Troy: It's an animal that looks like a dude. Why don't I have ten
of them?

Troy: He released Annie's Boobs. Annie's Boobs could be anywhere. 
Annie's Boobs could be on the streets...
Shirley: Okay, we get it. The monkey's name is Annie's Boobs.

12. Paradigms of Human Memory (2×21)

This is community at its silliest and most fun. This episode is a clever spin on the standard ‘clip show’ where instead of existing to save money by revisiting scenes from previous episodes, the show created what must have been one of its most expensive episodes by having the clip material be taken from adventures that we have never seen, necessitating a huge amount of new sets and costumes to be constructed for a simple 5 second scene. But outside of this commentary on the clip show tropes and its occasional meta commentary of the occasional repetitiveness of the show (i.e. the Winger speech), this episode is really just an excuse to throw in as many fun, weird scenes as possible, while acknowledging that all of these characters are flawed and more than a little selfish. My favourite vignettes are probably the parody of the Jeff-Annie shipper videos and the examples of Britta and Jeff’s selfish behaviour.

I also enjoy the reveal that Jeff and Britta have secretly been hooking up all year. I enjoy this revelation not only because it has been cleverly hinted at in previous episodes but because the series takes a realistic tack and allows two main characters to hook up and not feel the need to turn them into a ‘couple’, something quite rare on network television.

Troy: Didn't we decide at the beginning of the year that, for the 
good of the group, we wouldn't allow any intimacy between each 
other or ourselves?
Jeff: Troy, we never said ourselves.
Troy: Ok, now I really mad.

Jeff: Harrison Ford is irradiating our testicles with microwave 
satellite transmissions.

Shirley: Can we please stop fighting? We're starting to hurt
innocent perverts.

11. Debate 109 (1×09)

The first great ‘normal episode’ of the series, perfectly utilising the cast in telling a relatively down to earth story that centre around the character dynamics of the study group and the realities of studying at a community college. More problematically though, it sets off the very underwhelming Jeff-Annie coupling which the show never really knew how to handle in the long-term, especially after it became clear that Jeff and Britta had better chemistry as friends who call out each other’s shit and occasionally hook-up, leaving Annie as the group’s only romantic option for Jeff.

While the debate against City College is appropriately over the top while still retaining some tension, the other 2 subplots also have their fun, especially the C-story involving Abed and his films that seem to be able to predict the actions of the study group. It’s a clever plot that looks at the archetypes that sitcoms produce and the predictability of character which is often utilised to provide us with a comfortable sense of familiarity and the expected. The Britta-Pierce psychology subplot is weaker but it’s worthy purely for showcasing some of Chevy Chase’s better pratfalls in the series.

Jeff: What do you mean I can't beat him? You and I are going to study
 harder than we've ever studied before and beat City College tomorrow
Annie: Really?
Jeff: No. Who am I? iCarly?

Prof. Whitman: Little trick for achieving the proper competitive
 mindset: I always envision my opponent having aggressive sex with 
my mother.

Dean Pelton: The best compliment our sports program gets is that
 our basketball team is really gay.

10. Digital Estate Planning (3×20)

Definitely an example of a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ episode. This is a completely standalone episode dumped without context into Community’s most serialised period of storytelling. Despite this, the episode is an incredibly fun romp, as fun as you’d imagine a 80s style video-game version of Community would be. As ridiculous and unfeasible as the seemingly ever-expanding ‘Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne’ game may be, we can overlook this for the sheer hilarity of seeing Shirley’s adorable video-game avatar clean up Annie’s mess of accidentally killing the blacksmith and by killing the blacksmith’s wife and burning down their home. Yvette’s Nicole Brown reading of the line ‘Oh my. What an unexpected tragedy’ is genius and a testament to her fantastic comic timing.

I also love the little touches within the game, like Troy’s avatar constantly jumping up and down (something which I would definitely do) and all the bigoted, right-wing touches that Pierce’s dad threw into the game, like Free-Ride Ferry and the dangerous jive turkeys. Giancarlo Esposito also does great work as Pierce’s step-brother, managing to play several sides of the character with very little screen time.

Abed: Where are your clothes?
Troy: Pierce taught me poker. I'm not good at it.

Shirley: What are you doing?
Annie: He was suffering!
Shirley: Yeah, from axe wounds.

9. A Fistful Of Paintballs (2×23)

The first paintball episode ‘Modern Warfare’ is one of the most memorable episodes of the series. It turned an engaging, fun, bright sitcom with a great ensemble into a cult hit that was capable of going to places that no others had the balls to dare tread. Of course, trying to repeat such an episode would be foolish, but Dan Harmon sought to prove everyone wrong. The biggest mistake one could make in a follow up paintball homage episode would be to lose sight of the characters and the writers of Community realise that. Where the first paintball episode was a great showcase for Britta and Jeff’s chemistry, so is this episode a showcase for Annie and Pierce’s relationship. Using a western motif allows this episode to not feel like a simple retread of ‘Modern Warfare’ and gives it a unique look and atmosphere. It’s less cartoonish, more down and dirty.

It also features some very clever storytelling whereby the flashbacks of a card game amongst the study group (sans Pierce) is seamlessly interspersed throughout the narrative, slowly filling us in on the story and the mindset of the characters – allowing the episode to start in media res – and explaining the reason for everyone’s card-based name in the opening credits. I tend to prefer this episode over the season finale because it focuses more on character and atmosphere whereas the finale is forced to deal more heavily with plotting and ends up getting bogged down in the City College rivalry that we don’t really care about.

Jeff: My forehead's not that big right?
Troy: It's not small.

Abed: Jeff wants to see you.
Annie: Yeah? And I want pants. A lot of people want a lot of things.

Jeff: I'm not risking my butt hauling ammo back for the guy who has
 Vicki dancing for twinkies.
Pierce: She's a dance major, Jeff! And she likes twinkies.

8. Pillow and Blankets (3×14)

One of the most ambitious episodes of the show. Not because of scale, or budget or wackiness, but because of its confidence that it can can tell an engaging story mostly through the voice-over and still photography style of PBS historical documentaries. Not only does this episode take its storytelling cues from historical documentaries, but it’s an historical documentary about a bloody pillow fight. And it works!

Much of the reasons this works comes from the authenticity that Keith David’s voice lends to the voice-over. Yes there are some jokes in the voice-over, but for the most part, he plays it straight. This isn’t the gaggiest episode of the show but it’s impressive how well the show can sustain such a sober, serious tone while still delivering laughs. It’s also an episode that cleverly utilises all the different tools of re-creation documentaries – voiceover, talking heads, amateur footage, security footage – to add variety to what could have been a rather boring endeavour.

Dean Pelton: Well, that's it. I just heard from the Guinness rep. 
He's not coming. He's been fired, in what he described as the world's
 biggest mistake. I doubt that will make the next edition.

Narrator: The North Cafeteria named after Admiral William North is 
located in the western portion of East Hall, gateway to the western 
half of North Hall, which is named not after William Hall, but for 
its position above the South Wall. It is the most contested and 
confusing battle field on Greendale’s campus, next to the English 
Memorial Spanish Center, named after English Memorial, a Portuguese
 sailor who discovered Greendale while looking for a fountain that 
cured syphilis.

Narrator: Pierce Hawthorne suffers broken glasses, a hurt finger, 
and erectile dysfunction, which in his words, has never happened 
ever before that battle.

7. Intro To Statistics (1×07)

The first classic episode of the series. The first 6 episodes laid the groundwork for how the show would function week-to-week and explores the various character dynamics of the study group, slowly fleshing out each of the 7 main characters. This episode is when they truly establish themselves as a study group. By having Jeff interact with someone outside of the study group, in this case Ms. Slater, it only serves to highlight how dependent these people are on each other and how Jeff has a well-defined patriarchal role within the group whether he likes it or not. One strength of this episode is that is gives nearly all its characters something to do. Annie, Pierce and Shirley are significant significant emotional arcs, while Troy and Abed get to provide the biggest laughs of the episode, with Danny Pudi nailing his Batman at a time when everyone thought it was hilarious to make fun of Christian Bale’s Batman voice. My favourite storyline is probably Annie’s which pushes her neuroses to 11 and which dominates the first half of the episode. One of my most loved scenes is Annie trying to convince Jeff to attend her ‘Day of the Dead party’, thus making it cooler; revealing that she was so unpopular in high school that the crossing guard used to lure her into traffic.

Jeff: Batman, are you staying for the party?
Abed[in Batman costume] If I stay, there can be no party. I must 
be out there in the night, staying vigilant. Wherever a party needs 
to be saved, I'm there. Wherever there are masks, wherever there's 
tomfoolery and joy, I'm there. But sometimes I'm not cause I'm out 
in the night, staying vigilant. Watching. Lurking. Running. Jumping. 
Hurtling. Sleeping. No, I can't sleep. You sleep. I'm awake. I don't
sleep. I don't blink. Am I bird? No. I'm a bat. I am Batman. Or am 
I? Yes, I am Batman. Happy Halloween.

Troy: That's one of my biggest fears.
Abed: What is?
Troy: If I ever, like, woke up as a donut...
Abed: You would eat yourself?
Troy: I wouldn't even question it

Troy: (To Pierce) Dude, you have a full-on erection.

6. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (2×11)

Why does a Rankin Bass-style Claymation Christmas episode exist for a sitcom about a Community College? ‘Well why not’ would be Dan Harmon’s response. The more important question is, why does it work so well? There are several reasons: Firstly the show understands the inherent sadness and loneliness of Christmas and doesn’t turn this episode into a Dreamworks-style gag machine. Indeed there are surprisingly few laughs in this episode. Despite it being a colourful, childlike animated fantasia of an episode, it is perhaps (along with the next episode on the list) the most serious-minded episode of the series and the episode most willing to go along with the melancholy of the Christmas season.

Secondly, this episode is actually about the meaning of Christmas, or more accurately, about how the only real meaning of Christmas is that we give it meaning, through our own individual rituals and events. Lastly, this episode just ‘feels’ Christmassy. From the score and the songs, to the tone, to the visuals, the episode has a heart and soul of Christmas. Unlike most sitcoms who merely use the holidays as an event or an initiator to wrap a storyline around and as an easy way to add diversity to a 22 episode production order (and Community certainly does this too), episodes like this one and ‘Epidemiology’, really feel like episodes that deserve to be re-watched because the holiday they’re representing is approaching; they understand that ‘holiday episodes’ should represent the holiday, not simply acknowledge it.

Ian Duncan: Abed, how many fingers am I holding up, and more 
importantly, are they still made of clay?

Troy: Who taught you therapy, Michael Jackson's dad?

5. Mixology Certification (2×10)

This episode makes for a great 2-parter with ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ not only because they come one after the other in production order but thematically they represent two of the most serious takes the show has ever done on growing up (for Troy and Abed respectively), and the inherent sadness that comes with entering adulthood. Despite this episode very broadly centring around Troy, it’s a fantastic episode for the entire ensemble. For Jeff and Britta, this episodes highlights their fantastic, vaguely antagonist chemistry, their pettiness and their imperfections as the ostensible father and mother figure of the group. The realisation that the two bars that Briita and Jeff were recommending were the same bar is a thing of beauty (as was Troy’s reaction to said realisation) and is incredibly telling of the different ways they look at the world. Annie allows herself a night off from her over-prepared and well behaved persona by adopting an, at first ridiculous persona of a Texan anti-Annie, someone who drinks alcohol and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and eventually begins to think of this persona as an acceptable replacement.

The best thing about this episode is that every character strand has its hilarious moments and yet there is a sadness behind everything that happens to these characters; they never feel more like real people in this episode and that isn’t easy for a sometimes wacky sitcom to pull off. For example, the pictures of a wasted Shirley posted around the bar are indeed hilarious, but the moment where she angrily storms out tells us more about her character’s dark history then any other moment of the series. Lastly we have Troy, a character who sometimes feels like his main traits seems to be screaming and crying a lot, finally getting to establish himself as the leader; the responsible, stable one, something that earlier Season 2 episodes like ‘Basic Rocket Science’ and ‘Epidemiology’ were working towards.

Jeff: Then you were born 21 years ago
Troy: Which would make me 20, because everyone is 10 for two years...
because fifth grade is hard for! HOW MANY LIES HAVE

Troy: Hello during a random dessert, the month and day of which 
coincide numerically from your expulsion from a uterus.

4. Epidemiology (2×06)

Oddly enough, this may be the most perfect episode of Community. It’s a full blooded (pun-intended) zombie movie and a Halloween classic that creates genuine tension and naturally draws as many laughs out of the tension as possible. While the first Halloween episode still had the challenge of establishing these characters, ‘Epidemiology’ is able to take a more plot driven focus, that pumps up the atmosphere and moves swiftly into its zombie story. The episode is quite surprising in how far it goes into genuine zombie territory, with beloved characters actually biting and drawing blood from other people. But the seriousness of the threat to the characters is part of fun.

There are some great running gags that carried over from the first halloween episode, especially in terms of the costumes: Jeff, of course has to look as handsome and tight-shirted as possible, Annie is always something seemingly innocent, yet deceptively sexy (well Alison Brie could make anything sexy), Britta tries to de-sexualise herself as much as possible and Shirley is something ambiguous (“I repeat, she is not Miss Piggy”).

The decision to pepper this halloween affair with ABBA songs is such a weirdly inspired idea, which just works so well, contrasting the incoming zombie hordes with impossibly upbeat pop tunes and lending the episode a big budgeted sheen to suit its considerable ambitions. And just like Modern Warfare’s Jeff-Britta hook up, the story aims to be more than a standalone episode by introducing the season long Shirley’s baby arc. Oh the scene with the cat is so fucking hilarious in its utter ridiculousness.

Abed: Make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end.

Troy: Witness the power of imagination
Zombies easily tears of Troys armour
Troy: Okay. I don't know why I thought this would work.
Troy: Annie. My, what big fists you have. In your face! (punches her)

Troy: Is someone throwing it?

3. Modern Warfare (1×23)

This will always be the standard bearer for the Community episodes which follow it. Probably the most widely popular episode of the show, and the one which had the greatest chance to turn the show into a crossover mainstream hit, despite or perhaps, because of the fact that its success comes from its willingness to do things that mainstream comedies would never dare attempt.

The ambitiousness of Community and Dan Harmon’s artistic vision is paramount to what sets this show apart from everything else on TV. And the creation of an elastic universe where anything can happen tied to a fantastic ensemble who can play many different angles to their characters is what makes Community one of the best shows on television. ‘Modern Warfare’ was the point where the show put its foot down on the accelerator and said proudly ‘yep, we’re doing this. An action epic set around a game of paintball’ and the rest is history.

But this episode is more than just a cool action homage of action films like The Warriors, The Terminator or every John Woo movie. At it’s heart it’s an episode about the relationship between Jeff and Britta. This is the episode that finally realises how to use this pairing properly as they fail as a traditional romantic couple – as the sometimes painfully generic season 1 finale can attest to.

Abed: Come with me if you don't want paint on your clothes

Jeff: There's no 'Jeff and Britta'
Pierce: He said fully erect.

Jeff: Wait, it's blood. I thought it was paint but I'm just bleeding.
 Talk about luck!

2. Remedial Chaos Theory (3×03)

Season 3 occasionally gets a bad rap, but I think it’s a mostly successful blend of the back to basics season 1 community college set episodes and season 2’s ambitious storytelling. Whatever your opinion, there is no doubt that this episode represents the best of season 3.

This is simply a perfectly crafted episode, managing to splice together 8 different stories, all of which build upon the next. It’s also a very clever way for the show to comment on it’s characters by what happens in their absence. When Troy goes downstairs all hell breaks loose. When Jeff leaves, the group is allowed to let loose and have fun in the absence of a sarcastic naysayer. The episode allows the writers to peddle in some what-if storylines and show that Troy and Britta and Annie and Jeff pairings are definitely possible under certain conditions.

The darkest timeline capper at the end is both hilarious (- YOU DIED YOUR HAIR!        – That’s right, things got dark) and unfortunate in how it gets abused by the season 4 finale and to a lesser extent, the season 3 finale.

Britta: Ropes? Vines. Vines? Let him finish!

Annie: That pizza guy was so creepy.
Jeff: So you're saying he was a pizza guy.

Troy: One word, two syllables.
Jeff: Please don't say Charades.
Troy and Abed: Yahtzee.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2×14)

What makes this episode better than the ones which preceded them? I honestly couldn’t tell you. This episode certainly isn’t without it’s flaws: Pierce’s characterisation probably went too far in this episode (and the season as a whole) in order provide the study group with a villain of sorts and although it almost works in the context of this episode, its hard to see him as the same person who, for example gave Jeff a hug at the end of ‘Basic Genealogy’. Britta characterisation probably also dips too far into a caricature of the too-well-meaning white woman, something that becomes more of a problem in season 3 when she’s dumbed down and starts using words like ‘therapise’. But overall, this is one of the funniest and most exciting episodes of television and and all the more impressive because it essentially takes place entirely within a single room.

This episode just feels epic, with Ludwig Göransson‘s typically great score working overtime to add sweep to a bottle episode. It also features some of the funniest gags of the show like Annie gesturing a wide variety of sexual acts inaudibly, and the reactions thereof, and Chang’s over-dramatised departure from the game. Beyond the funny, there are also some clever story turns such as the fact that Fat Neill’s name was shockingly, but not surprisingly, coined by Jeff Winger. This episode is also a great introduction to Fat Neill who becomes a beloved background character, up there with Magnitude and Quendra with a Q.

Annie: I am... ew, Hector the Well-Endowed? Abed.
Abed: I didn't know you'd just grab one at random. I made that with 
Troy in mind.

Britta: I want to know why these goblins are attacking us. Maybe 
these woods are their rightful land and respectively...
Everyone groans
Troy: You are the AT&T of people.

Pierce: I'm sick of you threatening me and talking to me like a kid,
 and giving me that look you give like I can't get erections!

Honourable Mentions: Romantic Expressionism (1×15), The Science of Illusion (1×20), Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (2×09), Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (2×18), Critical Film Studies (2×19), Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism (3×09), Regional Holiday Music (3×10), Basic Lupine Urology (3×17).

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