The 15 best episodes of Community
After many years, NBC's galaxy-brained sitcom Community has finally arrived on Netflix. Yes, it's been available on Hulu for quite some time (and still is), but being on the biggest streaming service opens it up to even bigger pool of new viewers who may have missed it while it aired on NBC (and subsequently Yahoo Screen, R.I.P.) and might finally check it out now. And they should, because it's truly one of the best and most inventive television shows of its era.
Created by Rick & Morty's Dan Harmon, the perennially low-rated, formula-obliterating comedy had a very simple setup. After being outed for never attending college, cynical ex-lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) enrolls at Greendale Community College to finally get a degree, but ends up being dragged into a study group of fellow misfits: recovering amphetamines addict Annie (Alison Brie), endearingly clueless ex-jock Troy (Donald Glover), passive-aggressive mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), problematic millionaire (and occasional antagonist) Pierce (Chevy Chase), anarchistic activist Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Abed (Danny Pudi), a TV obsessive who is also aware he's on a TV show.
What began as a simple story about this group navigating their wacky community college as rapid-fire pop culture-referencing zingers flew eventually evolved into an anything-goes free for all. There were massive paintballs episodes that captured the spirit of action movies on sitcom budget; extended riffs on My Dinner with Andre, Glee, and Zodiac; and two episodes devoted to the gang resolving conflict through a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually, every installment felt like some kind of event because you never knew what TV show or movie would be homaged each week. Watching those first three seasons, it truly felt like Harmon and company were taking full advantage their huge episode order.
Even though Community became known for his inventiveness (and low ratings), the thing that makes it such memorable and lovable television is how, at the end of the day, it was always about, well, community. Over its six seasons, it captured the joy that comes from finding your people and how important it is to not only be there for each other, but to fight like hell to maintain these bonds because it's very hard to navigate this world alone. Look at the way the study group eventually expanded its ranks to include Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), unstable former teacher Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), and several others who also needed family.
With all of that in mind, EW has drawn together a list of the 15 episodes of that captured the best of Community (plus three unicorn installments that deserved a shoutout):
15. "Contemporary American Poultry" (Season 1, Episode 21)
Odds are at some point during your time in school, you’ve been in a situation where your cafeteria makes one good item — chicken fingers, fries, you name it — and often in limited supply, which means there’s usually mad dash to the dining hall when lunchtime comes around. With this episode, Community brilliantly took such a relatable yet low-stakes situation and elevated it by depicting the study group’s attempt to control Greendale's chicken finger market through a hilarious and glorious Goodfellas homage. The half-hour tracks Abed and the group’s rise to power, the eventual schism with Jeff, who hates not being in control, and the hubris that leads to their downfall, while also telling a touching story about Abed’s desire to fit in. One of Community’s first full-blown concept episodes is one of its best. —Chancellor Agard
14. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" (Season 2, Episode 11)
Decades of yuletide repetition made the Rankin/Bass specials ripe for cheap parody. Community’s homages were always additive, so this goof on holiday TV is also an ecstatic Christmas Episode in its own right. Everything’s gone stop-motion in Abed’s eyes, a hallucination requiring a therapeutic trip to the North Pole. The loopy visuals are relentless, and the final act is an apex Community heartbrain that ties together family, friendship, the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of meanings, and an unexpectedly sweet homage to the Lost season 1 DVD. (Fun fact: Harmon co-wrote the episode with Dino “Star-Burns” Stamatopoulous, who previously created the encroachingly Cheever-ish stop-motion classic Moral Orel.) —Darren Franich
13. "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" (Season 2, Episode 14)
A fun thing about revisiting “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” now is noticing the amount of time the characters spend mocking and deriding the titular role-playing game, even as they find themselves increasingly sucked in. In the years since this episode aired, Dungeons & Dragons has become more culturally acceptable a pastime than ever before. Celebrities play it now, everyone’s seen Game of Thrones, and a game centered around in-person imagination and collaboration has taken on new resonance in an age of increasing alienation (to say nothing of our current moment — try getting a D&D group together on Zoom if you’re bored at home!). As so often, Community stood at the vanguard of a cultural shift, and probably pushed it along. It helps that, as fun as the Lord of the Rings parodies and Abed’s masterful Dungeon Mastering are to watch, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is also a story about Jeff reckoning with his past cruelties and learning to be a more accepting friend — both to study group member Pierce and to background character Neil (Charley Koontz), thankfully never again referred to as “Fat Neil” after this intervention. —Christian Holub
12. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (Season 2, Episode 16)
Like “Mixology Certification,” “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” pushes Community into some fairly dark places, except this time the show uses the mockumentary format to do so. After overdosing on painkillers and being hospitalized, Pierce gathers the study group at the hospital and proceeds to psychologically torture them with gifts (a.k.a. bequeathals). While the episode does take shots at how the mockumentary format helps simplify stories, it also highlights how it can lead to very raw moments, like Troy losing it over LeVar Burton’s appearance (which is high art), and, well, everything going on between Pierce and Jeff.—C.A.
11. "App Development and Condiments" (Season 5, Episode 8)
The inmates reclaimed the asylum in the comeback fifth season. It’s a riotous year full of hallucinogenically specific concepts, showrunner cameos, and emotional farewells. For pure lunatic imagination, it’s hard to beat the dark tale of MeowMeowBeenz, a social network that turns Greendale into an apocalyptic hellscape. “App Development” is an utmost dress-up episode, all primary-color tunics and revolutionaries in T-shirt-y berets. It’s also great spotlight ep for Shirley and Britta, who find themselves on way-opposite ends of the dystopian social stratosphere. Here’s a TV series beloved by the internet tearing down the entirety of internet culture: the raging mob, the ascension of phony-niceness, how apps turn life itself into a game we’re all losing. I know some fans think the message is obvious, but sometimes you gotta start on the nose to get to the brain. —D.F.
10. "Critical Film Studies" (Season 2, Episode 19)
Even if you’ve never seen the show, it should be apparent from this list that every Community episode is named after a fictional college class — but rarely do the episodes live up to their titles as much as this one. Promoted as a Pulp Fiction spoof, “Critical Film Studies” is one of the best examples of Community zigging where you thought it would zag, because it was actually much more of an homage to My Dinner With Andre. Taking impressionable Quentin Tarantino fans and introducing them to the work of Louis Malle is about as good an introduction to critically studying film as anyone could ask for. —C.H.
9. "Cooperative Polygraphy"/"Geothermal Escapism" (Season 5, Episodes 4-5)
If there’s one thing Community didn’t do, it’s miss its chance to acknowledge how much it was going to miss Donald Glover and his performance as Troy, because it sent him off with two fantastic episodes that are in conversation with and celebrate the highs of the first three seasons. On the one hand, there’s “Cooperative Polygraphy,” which sees a deceased Pierce trap the group in the study room and create discord with a ridiculous and hilarious polygraph test that thrust several violations of trust out into the sunlight. The episode’s setup is simple — the cast pings back and forth around a table — but it digs into some dark place before ultimately ending on a sweet note that also successfully convinces you that maybe the best thing for Troy to do is leave. Then, there’s “Geothermal Escapism,” a high concept homage to post-apocalypse movies in which the campus says goodbye to Troy with one final game of lava. Of course, this ultimately leads to a heartbreaking exchange between Troy and Abed that dares you to not cry when Abed admits he sees lava when he thinks about Troy leaving. Both episodes bring an era of Community to a fitting conclusion. —C.A.
8. "Mixology Certification" (Season 2, Episode 10)
The study group tries to celebrate Troy’s 21st birthday in high style, hitting up a bar called the Ballroom for a night of boozy fun. Everything goes wrong: Awkward make-outs, bad memories, missed connections, general embarrassment, various epiphanies of self-loathing. “Mixology Certification” is the ultimate proof against Community’s reputation as a gimmick machine, turning the horrors of a bad/(normal?) night out into a sweet-and-sour character piece. A key point in Donald Glover’s evolution into a dramatic force. —D.F.
7. "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television" (Season 6, Episode 13)
Yahoo Screen wound up Peak TV’s first casualty, and the short-lived streaming service deserves a nice tombstone for producing Community’s humane final act. The sixth season has delights worth discovering — Keith David! Paget Brewster! — and features one of the greatest series finales ever. Another year at Greendale ends, and some study group-ers are considering bold new directions. A desperate Jeff embraces a full-blown Abed state of mind, begging his friends to pitch their own seventh season. “Emotional Consequences” ultimatizes self-aware gamesmanship, but it has a raw confessional quality, cycling back to the sweetly wounded souls around the study table. And the Marvel jabs are only sharper now that so many Community creatives have worked in the MCU. —D.F.
6. "Pillows and Blankets" (Season 3, Episode 14)
Troy and Abed’s double-team pranks and schemes were a central element of the fun of Community, but this outshone them all — not least because nowhere else, not even in “Geothermal Escapism,” did their friendship ever come closer to a breaking point. When Troy and Abed build their second big pillow fort, its prospect of breaking a Guinness World Record opens a chasm between the former, who wants to break the record by relying mostly on blankets to cover more ground, and the latter, who prefers comfort to achievement. The result is a campus-wide pillow fight hilariously depicted in the style of Ken Burns’ iconic Civil War documentary. The Civil War is, shall we say, an oft-invoked subject in American culture and history, but references work best when used to highlight heartbreaking personal conflict. “Pillows and Blankets” manages to successfully invoke that feeling (not just between Troy and Abed, but also between Jeff and Annie, and between Britta and her own arrogant self-conception) while still featuring a rampaging pillow monster. Then there’s Keith David, who would later join the show’s cast in season 6, but made his Community debut here with mellifluous narration. —C.H.
5. "Cooperative Calligraphy" (Season 2, Episode 8)
“Cooperative Calligraphy” was one of the greatest examples of Community having its cake and eating it too. For all the time Abed spent complaining about it being a bottle episode, it sure was an entire episode set in a single room with no one but the main cast. But of course, no one does bottle episodes like Community does. A search for Annie’s missing pen eventually becomes an exhaustive search of the entire study room, and the exploration of character relationships gets even more intimate once everyone takes off their clothes. Community loved to comment on the history and nature of television; “Cooperative Calligraphy” managed to be one of its most interesting lessons in that subject while also digging deep into the nature of its own characters. —C.H.
4. "Basic Lupine Urology" (Season 3, Episode 17)
The key to selling any bit is commitment, and boy does Community commit in the Law & Order-spoofing “Basic Lupine Urology.” The attention to detail in this episode is truly astonishing, from the way it’s shot to the dialogue and plotting. When someone sabotages the group’s biology yam project, they all go full Briscoe and McCoy to find the culprit. It’s a silly crime, but it’s engrossing because the show takes it so very seriously — and there are some Law & Order-worthy twists along the way, too. —C.A.
3. "Modern Warfare" (Season 1, Episode 23)
Season 1 was good television, but it was the climactic paintball episode that really saw Community come into its own. When the Dean dangles “priority registration” as a prize for paintball competition, Greendale’s campus devolves into all-out war. Action films and apocalyptic fiction are heavily invoked; when Jeff first wakes up from his car nap in the midst of the game, he walks alone through the deserted, detritus-strewn campus like Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later. But each of these spoofs and goofs had a purpose, rooted in character and plot. Sure, Señor Chang enrolling as a student at Greendale so he could enter the game provided the perfect opening for an indelible homage to the films of John Woo, but it also fueled Chang’s character arc for the whole next season. Jeff and Britta finally had sex thanks to the irresistible “wounded soldier” dynamic, but it didn’t turn the show into their love story (despite its centrality to the initial premise, Community smartly decided early on that romantic pairings were rather low-hanging fruit). In other words, “Modern Warfare” set the bar for all the great Community genre parodies that followed. —C.H.
2. "Paradigms of Human Memory" (Season 2, Episode 21)
The ship that launched “six seasons and a movie,” “Paradigms of Human Memory” feels like one of the most Community Community episodes ever because it encapsulates almost every great thing about the show. First, it’s a send-up of clip shows, except in this case, all of the flashbacks are from never-before-seen misadventures (a haunted house! The racist prospector!). It’s also extremely self-aware, from the romantic montages scored by Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity,” to the fact that it climaxes with a classic Jeff Winger speech cobbled together from assorted moments that doesn’t make complete sense but still ends up being poignant and funny (“Harrison Ford is irradiating our testicles with microwave transmissions!” “There’s no such thing as a free Caesar salad!”). Of course, the half-hour is ultimately about the group’s weird and somehow unbreakable bond. This isn’t the first time they’ve had a fight about who is the worst, and it won’t be the last, and there’s something comforting about that. Watching the episode with 2020 goggles, it’s also fascinating to see how it captures our relationship with social media, too. On the one hand, it’s the TimeHop of episodes because it conveys the thrill of reminiscing with friends. On the other hand, though, if Instagram posts represent episodes of our life, then this episode gets at the fact that so much goes on in between each post that we never see. —C.A.
1. "Remedial Chaos Theory" (Season 3, Episode 3)
Not just the best episode of Community, but the seven best episodes of Community. The delivery man arrives at Troy and Abed’s housewarming party. Who will go downstairs to get the pizza — and what will happen inside the apartment while they’re gone? A dice roll sends the characters through a multiverse of possibility, as ever-so-brief shifts in the group’s dynamic lead to increasingly major changes of existential condition. “Remedial Chaos Theory” showcases the show’s flair for every kind of comedy — subtle character moments, sight gags, old-fashioned farce, structural twists — and feels like a standalone Greatest Hits for every character (Britta with the munchies, ever-GIF-able Troy pulling out his candy cigarette case, Pierce’s ongoing attempt to tell his icky Eartha Kitt story.) With a script credited to longtime staffer Chris McKenna, “Remedial Chaos Theory” immediately became a High Nerd text for the 2010s: the source of infinite “darkest timeline” references and a stunning demonstration of what this wonder show could do with seven people, a place, and a pizza guy. —D.F.
And now for our unicorn picks...
Unicorn No. 1: "Digital Estate Planning" (Season 3, Episode 20)
Community was frequently the best argument for a certain era of geeky nostalgia, with Harmon remixing the entertainment styles of his youth into brainy-emotional misadventures. By the time “Digital Estate Planning” came out in 2012, that form of nostalgia was already curdling into crude commerce and cruel toxicity (see: The 2011 publication of Make America Eighties Again doofsterpiece Ready Player One). So viewing this 8-bit episode in 2020 feels a window into two lost worlds. The splendidly ornate videogame graphics suggest Zelda on funroids, while the twisty father-son(s) saga conjures a lost era before fan rage when videogame culture could be mature, whimsical, and openhearted. In conclusion, the only thing more entertaining than a guest performance by Giancarlo Esposito is a guest performance by Giancarlo Esposito’s cheatgod videogame avatar. —D.F.
Unicorn No. 2: "Anthropology 101" (Season 2, Episode 1)
Most great sitcoms, if they have what it takes, really come alive in the second season. So it was with Community, which built on the charismatic cast and pop culture fluency it had demonstrated in season 1 to create the kind of ever-changing, mind-blowing innovative episodes that appear all over this list. Though it would soon be outshone, the season 2 premiere did a great job of establishing that from now on things were never going to go the way you thought. The season 1 finale necessarily dabbled in some love triangle shenanigans at its climax, but “Anthropology 101” had no use for that stuff. Many viewers probably expected Jeff and Britta to become A Thing after their paintball hook-up, but this episode directly parodied that by having them play-act a fake relationship in order to appease the campus fanbase Britta acquired after her earlier public love confession and subsequent rejection. Between that farce, and the unforgettable sight of Betty White shooting Joel McHale with a handmade crossbow, “Anthropology 101” taught us to strap in for a wild ride. —C.H.
Unicorn No. 3: "Regional Holiday Music" (Season 3, Episode 10)
Most of Community's pop culture riffs were loving homages; however, sometimes the show would draw its knives and go for blood with a vicious parodies, as it did in this hilarious and savage parody of Glee. When the members of Greendale's annoying Glee club suffer mental breakdowns, the club's director Mr. Rad (Taran Killam) tries recruiting the club to fill in at the Christmas pageant. Of course, the gang says no, but with each musical number — a takedown of boomer nostalgia, Annie's purposefully uncomfortable sexy-Christmas song, Troy and Abed's iconic "Christmas Infiltration rap" — the group slowly becomes infected by the feeling of glee. Along the way, the show takes shots at Glee's clichés, constant talk of regionals, ridiculous mash-ups, and so much more. This is not an instance where Community is being mean to be kind, and that's what made it fun and stand out. —C.A.