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'Community': 10 essential episodes

A pre-Yahoo primer

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Community
NBC

After half a decade of constant cancelation anxiety, Community airs its 98th and 99th episodes today. Well, “airs”: The show has left old-fashioned television behind, and is now a flagship killer app for Yahoo’s new original-content initiative. (Community is to Yahoo as Arrested Development is to Netflix.)

The show debuted back in the late glory days of NBC’s Comedy Thursdays, running alongside The Office30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation. Community has lived many lives since its debut—cult sensation, critical darling, mascot for our new era of TV fandom, shell of its former self, resurrected recreation of its former self—and the show’s creative output reflects the curious circumstances of its continued existence.

Community has always been willing to change itself, adopting radical structural conceits and transforming Greendale community college into a theater-kid’s fantasia of pop culture parody. What follows should not be considered a “ten best” list, but rather, an attempt to describe the different faces of Community. If you’re a newbie, consider this a quick sampling to get ready for the new season. (The first five seasons are currently streaming on Hulu Plus.)

“Introduction to Statistics”

In its relatively modest first season, Community felt like a very good version of a very standard sitcom set-up: A bunch of familiar archetypes in a familiar setting get together each week for a half-hour of resolvable subplots that bear a strong resemblance to things that could happen in reality. This first-season episode is a fine example of the Friends version of Community, with caddish Jeff Winger initially refusing to participate in his friends’ Halloween celebrations.

But said Halloween celebrations are an early sign of Community‘s freak flag flying: A Beastmaster homage here, an extended Dark Knight parody there. And “Statistics” also finds the writers starting to get a handle on the peculiar eccentricities of the supporting cast: Shirley, nominally the sweetheart den mom, reveals a barely-repressed firestorm of post-divorce rage; Britta, nominally the will-they-won’t-they Rachel to Jeff’s Ross, shows up a purposefully un-sexy squirrel.

“Modern Warfare”

Justin Lin directed four Fast & Furious movies; he also directed three episodes of Community. “Modern Warfare” is the Venn Diagram crossover point: An epic-in-miniature, with Greendale college descending into action-movie anarchy during a particularly devastating paintball battle. Community never settles for easy parodies—its spoofery is descended from the early Mel Brooks and Zucker Brothers canon, which captured the unique look and feel of whatever it was spoofing. So “Modern Warfare” brings in all the tropes of the action canon—Jeff rocking a Die Hard tank top, John Woo slow-mo gunshots.

The legacy of The Paintball Episode looms large over all the conceptual parodies that followed. Community wrapped its second season with a two-part Paintball series, the first parodying spaghetti westerns and the second spoofing Star Wars. More successfully, Community‘s fifth season featured a non-paintball paintball episode: “Geothermal Escapism,” wherein a game of Hot Lava transforms Greendale into every post-apocalyptic adventure of the last thirty years.

“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”

The cult of Community often gets tied together with the cult of Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and extremely vocal showrunner, whose hard-charging style is the stuff of legend. Harmon’s legend is such that an outsider might assume that Community is another inquisition-into-the-mind-of-a-troubled-man psychodrama—the comedy sibling of SopranosMad Men, or Breaking Bad. But the show’s fundamental spirit is spiky generosity: The title is meant sincerely.

That comes through in episodes like season 2’s “Messianic Myths,” which largely focuses on Shirley and Pierce—the spiritual turmoil of the former, and the encroaching mortality of the latter. I’m not sure “Messianic Myths” would appear on anyone’s top ten list, but it’s a weirdly perfect demonstration of how Community at its best could take jokey premises—Abed becoming a Jesus figure, Pierce joining a group of senior-citizen bad boys—and plumb those premises for genuine emotional depth.

“Cooperative Calligraphy”

If the legacy of The Paintball Episode hangs over all the conceptual episodes, then the legacy of The Bottle Episode hangs over pretty much everything else. “Calligraphy” finds the group trapped inside the study room after Annie throws a fit over her missing pen. It’s a showcase for the dynamite cast—and a Patient Zero example for how quickly Community could spin from sorta-reality into Sartre-esque allegory.

Bizarrely, “Calligraphy” hit screens the same year as two other Hall of Fame bottle episodes: Breaking Bad‘s “Fly” and Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase.” Community quickly followed up “Calligraphy” with another great one-setting character play, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” Both of those episodes were sequelized in the show’s fifth season, with “Cooperative Polygraphy” and “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Mixology Certification”

Troy’s turning 21; let’s take him out for a drink! That’s the simple idea behind one of Community‘s quietest and darkest episodes, which sees the study group leave school for a night on the town. It’s easy to praise Community when it goes way out there structurally, but the boldest decision in “Mixology Certification” is to play the characters completely straight—and gradually coming unglued, as a night of drinking reveals all their worst selves.

Community has trended toward straight-out fantasy in recent years, and Harmon has talked about getting back to the more character-based vibe of the earlier seasons. When he says that, he’s talking about “Mixology Certification.”

“Critical Film Studies”

Like My Dinner With Andre, except with more Pulp Fiction.

“Remedial Chaos Theory”

The Bottle Episode On Steroids: The study group lives through the same few minutes seven different times, with each timeline reflecting how slight shifts within the group’s infrastructure can have massive butterfly-effect ramifications for each character’s own life. “Chaos Theory” was a struggle to make—when I visited the set recently, Gillian Jacobs remembered it as the hardest episode on the actors, who were frequently reshooting scenes for this episode much later in the season’s production cycle. It’s also unquestionably the show’s magnum opus, a summation of its weird, cerebral humanity.

“Basic Lupine Urology”

Parody, spoof: These words don’t quite capture just how effectively Community could capture the precise rhythms of other movies and TV shows. It’s more apt to compare Community to the films of Edgar Wright or even Quentin Tarantino: Filmmakers who honor the hyperbolic stylings of genre junk while also raising creating movies that are smarter, funnier, and wilder than their inspirations. So Community could do a Glee parody (“Regional Holiday Music”) that skewered but also celebrated Glee; so Community could do an Office parody (“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”) that critiqued the mockumentary trend while also delvering an expert analysis of how to make a good mockumentary.

If someone has never seen Community before, it can be hard to point them in the right direction: So many of the show’s best episodes depend on a willingness to follow the characters down meta-rabbitholes of insanity. Weird as it sounds, I always point newcomers to “Basic Lupine Urology,” an episode which is a direct parody of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise. But again, calling it a “parody” doesn’t quite do it justice: “Urology” is an insanely specific lampoon of the cop megafranchise. Play it in the middle of an afternoon Law & Order marathon and it could almost feel like an episode of a never-aired L & O spinoff

“Digital Estate Planning”

The 2000s saw the full flowering of a generation influenced by The Simpsons. Live-action sitcoms started to depend more on sight gags, rapidfire jokes-within-jokes, and worldbuilding large supporting casts. Community might be the most cartoonish non-cartoon of its comedy era—and occasionally the show just became a cartoon. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is the unquestioned classic of this sub-subgenre, with the gang thrown into a stop-motion yuletide fantasy; Season 5’s “GI Jeff” captures the rigid weirdness of ’80s saturday morning cartoon shows.

But for my money, “Digital Estate Planning” is the show’s kid-in-a-candy-store High Nerd masterpiece. The gang gets thrown into an NES-flavored videogame, an epic journey that homages beloved early videogame tropes while also inverting them, transforming its 8-bit gamescape into a horrifying world of inadvertent death and Freudian psycho-fantasy. I have no idea how “Digital Estate Planning” looks if you didn’t grow up playing videogames; I did, and “Digital Estate Planning” looks a lot like hell and a bit like heaven.

“App Development and Condiments”

Harmon was fired after season 3, then rehired for season 5. His return season has several fantastic episodes, most of which probably play best if you’re a longtime fan. (I wrote about the fifth season last year, back when it seemed like the last season.) But “App Development and Condiments” requires no explanation and needs no context. A new social media application arrives at Greendale, a kind of combination Facebook, Yelp, and Foursquare called MeowMeowBeenz. In no time at all, the campus has descended into a Zardozian dystopia. Community has gotten a bit sentimental in its later years—perhaps justifiably, given how long the show had to fight to stay alive. But there’s nothing sentimental in “App Development,” a raucous episode filled with fascist cliques and outsider-cool counter-revolutions.

All this, plus Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurtwitz finally gets to star in a trailer for a college sex comedy. Which is just not something that will ever happen on Modern Family.