Advanced Introduction To Community (in 10 episodes)

Advanced Introduction To Community (in 10 episodes)

The groundbreaking sitcom has survived against the odds

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

At this point, at this publication (or any publication on the Internet, really), does Community actually need an introduction? Even people who’ve never seen an episode of the show likely know the conceit: Asshole lawyer goes to a community college to complete his undergraduate degree and falls in with a bunch of oddballs. Somewhere along the way, a sweet ensemble/workplace sitcom turns into one of the most audacious shows on TV. Showrunner is fired, the next season’s a mess, and then he’s brought back, triumphantly, for a season that maybe isn’t on the level of the show’s first few but is at least a rock-solid season of TV. Can we stop there? Can we just go on to the episodes?

No? Too bad.

That Community has survived for five seasons—and seems likely to get a sixth (and maybe even beyond that)—is something of a miracle. The show’s pilot drew terrific numbers, thanks to a post-Office timeslot and NBC’s extensive promotional campaign that focused on the presence of Joel McHale and Chevy Chase in the show’s ensemble. But after three weeks in that post-Office slot, the network sent the series to 8 p.m., where it’s poked along with lower ratings ever since. This is mostly because of the timeslot, which has almost always forced the series to go up against one or two of TV’s biggest shows at any given time, but it’s also because Community is the very definition of a cult show, one that appeals to a core, rabid audience but leaves whatever mass viewership that might still exist scratching its collective head.

Yet it’s not as if Community suddenly abandoned the mass audience in favor of chasing an “absolute favorite show” status for a smaller number of viewers. One of the popular narratives about the show is that it functioned as a goofy ensemble comedy about students at a community college for the first half of its first season; aired the action-movie parody “Modern Warfare” late in said first season; then abruptly turned into some overambitious attempt to digest all of American popular culture via the sitcom form. But Community didn’t turn weird. It was always weird, even in its first handful of episodes. It was always a show that was less about going to community college and more about how weird it would be to be a character in a TV show. (One of the characters is at least slightly aware of his status as a fictional construct.) While the show is peppered with standard sitcom hugs and “aww” moments, those cut both ways: They were intended to be sincere (and were often enormously effective as such); they were also intended to be goofs on the formula of the genre. In the best episodes, both meanings were held in tension at the same time: This was a riff. This was the real thing.

Community is the brainchild of genius asshole Dan Harmon, a writer who had dabbled around the edges of television (briefly running The Sarah Silverman Program and writing for awards shows). He’d also written some screenplays but had seen his greatest, most influential success in the world of Internet videos, as one of the key figures behind the rise of the groundbreaking Channel 101. Harmon wedded an appreciation for weird humor to a voracious knowledge of pop culture and an almost instinctual understanding of story structure, and it showed even in early video experiments like “Laser Fart.” Community became the grounds on which he would push all of those particular skills to their utmost.

It’s important to note that Harmon is a “genius asshole,” not just one or the other. Most profiles of the man focus on either half of that phrase but not the other, but Harmon is of the school of TV writing where good is never good enough, where what makes him such a great creative mind goes hand-in-hand with what drives some people up the wall. His writing is witty and erudite, and he can be deeply thoughtful about any number of topics. He has a real eye for talent, recruiting both an ensemble cast and a writers’ room filled with ringers. But he’s also uncompromising. In a medium where 22-episode production schedules inevitably lead to filler episodes, Harmon pushed to have every episode be the most of whatever it was trying to be. By his own admission, he could be abrasive in this pursuit: Writing sessions for the show would sometimes stretch well into the early morning hours, particularly in its second season, its best. Yet so much of the best TV is built by genius assholes, by men and women unwilling to compromise and intent on realizing their vision. Harmon fits into that grand tradition ably.

Of course, like many of his predecessors, Harmon was also fired, by a studio and network who thought perhaps the show could hang on to its audience and get to syndication with new, less risible landlords. Community’s fourth season is easily its weakest, and the show suffered from missing Harmon’s touch (as well as that of several writers who left with him), but it also struggled with one key question: How much did it want to be its own show, and how much did it want to try to recapture the Harmon era? When it skewed too much toward the latter, it sealed its own fate. The handful of solid episodes in the season are largely driven not by trying to top Harmon at his own game, with form-breaking episodes and dark ruminations on man’s true nature, but by a group of other writers just offering their idea of what “a show at a community college” might look like. The fourth season didn’t really work, and thanks largely to a cast revolt, Harmon was brought back for a fifth season that engaged—sometimes awkwardly—with the fact that Community was a part of the pop-culture grist it had so successfully fed into the mill. It was a much better season than four; it also occasionally gave the sense of the show settling into a long, happy dotage.

Community’s success comes from more than just Harmon and parody episodes. The writers’ room has featured some of the sharpest comedic minds of the last several years, including names like Chris McKenna, Megan Ganz, and Hilary Winston, to name only a few. Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan acted as able lieutenants to Harmon’s vision in the show’s first three seasons, bringing their comedy expertise to the proceedings. The series’ cinematic look and style was pioneered by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who used the show as a springboard toward directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The series has also featured directorial turns from the likes of Tristram Shapeero, Richard Ayoade, and Justin Lin.

It’s the cast, however, that has made Community what it is. McHale’s work as the aforementioned asshole lawyer, Jeff Winger, has always been a little underappreciated (occasionally by the show itself) for how well it holds everything together, but the ensemble cast backing him up is so good that it’s easy to see why any one actor might get lost in the shuffle. As female lead Britta, Gillian Jacobs is essaying a completely different type of sitcom woman from any we’ve seen before, independent and sexually liberated, yes, but also a compulsive mess maker who still keeps trying to clean up her messes. Danny Pudi’s Abed was the character most in keeping with the show’s meta-textual sensibilities, offering up the opportunity for the show to comment on itself as a show at any given time. He also proved the key to the show’s wounded heart, distant and unknowable but always beating. His comrade for the first four seasons (and part of the fifth) was Donald Glover’s Troy, a comedic spark plug who enlivened every scene he was in. Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown brought feminine energy to the show’s ensemble, as Annie and Shirley, an overachieving student and a mom hoping for a second act in life, respectively. (It’s worth noting the show has not always known what to do with either character, even though both Brie and Brown keep giving terrific performances.) And Chevy Chase rounded out the show’s core cast for the first four years as the racist, misanthropic Pierce, the father figure the other characters and the show didn’t know they needed.

The cast extends beyond that core seven, however, to the entirety of Greendale Community College, a place filled with as many weird supporting characters and recurring players as a live-action sitcom has ever come up with, and a place that turned into arguably the show’s most important character. At one time, Harmon considered gradually moving the show away from the school, but Greendale, along with the people collected there, were the show, and they had become a setting as instantly recognizable and beloved—at least to the handful of people who watched the show—as Cheers or Archie Bunker’s living room.

Here are 10 episodes that show Community’s many faces, and please note the puppet episode almost made the cut. (Just checking to see who’s paying attention.) Want to see all 10 in one place? Check them out at Hulu.

“Introduction To Statistics” (season one, episode seven): The first half-season of Community is good, but it’s not yet the show in all its glory. Still, there are several terrific episodes and moments in there, and this Halloween episode is as good a place to start as any. It gives a solid showcase for most of the core characters, as well as offering a great example of how the show mixes more traditional sitcom plots with goofy humor and pop culture riffs. Also, there’s Pudi doing a Batman voice.

“Romantic Expressionism” (season one, episode 15): When people talk about missing the days when Community was “just” a show about a community college, they probably mean episodes like this one, which mixes a standard sitcom plot—Jeff and Britta are worried about a guy Annie’s going to date (and Britta once dated)—with the show’s central, wistful hope that all of these half-formed people will become whole by coming into contact with one another. It features some of series composer Ludwig Göransson’s most beautiful music and one of the earliest uses of Jeff and Britta as friends and co-conspirators, rather than lovers, a pairing the show would make fruitful use of later on.

“Modern Warfare” (season one, episode 23): If an episode of Community is going to be placed into the time capsule of all-time TV half-hours, it’s probably this one, in which a campus-wide game of paintball turns into a beat-for-beat parody of action movies. In the wake of the buzz and success from this episode, Community would go to the “concept episode” well more often in future seasons, sometimes to the detriment of the show. But it’s easy to see why the series found this high so intoxicating. “Modern Warfare” is effortless fun, mixed with some major moments in the characters’ development.

“Cooperative Calligraphy” (season two, episode eight): Here’s just the opposite—seven people sitting around a table and talking—but it’s just as exciting and moving as “Modern Warfare.” Community self-reflexively plays with the idea of a “bottle episode” by locking the study group together in the study room, at least until they figure out who stole Annie’s pen. It might seem a shallow conceit for an episode, but by boiling the show down to its most basic elements, the episode reveals how perfect the ensemble cast is and how much the characters care for each other—when they’re willing to show it. It’s also one of the few sitcom episodes that ends with the acknowledgement that love is a shared delusion.

“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (season two, episode 14): Another episode that’s mostly characters sitting around a table and talking, but a very different one. Harmon famously struggled to get this episode made, leading to fights with both studio and network, but the results were worth it. Jeff becomes concerned that a fellow Greendale student is considering suicide, so he ropes the other study group members into a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Epic music and sound effects provide all the fantasy trappings the episode needs, as it eschews anything more in favor of just letting the characters bounce off each other in their collective unconscious.

“Critical Film Studies” (season two, episode 19): There are numerous episodes of the show that trend toward the darker, more melancholy aspects of its persona, but most of them are best appreciated with a finer understanding of who the characters are than a new viewer will have. Consider, instead, this late second-season episode, which pivots off of Abed inviting Jeff to a private birthday dinner for the former, then turns into something odd and remarkable. Pudi has never been better on the show that in a moment in which he relates a long, harrowing monologue about being on the set of Cougar Town, while several of McHale’s finest moments can be found in this episode as well.

“Remedial Chaos Theory” (season three, episode four): The third season of Community is when the show’s meta-narrative—struggling sitcom barely clings to survival thanks to an impassioned fan base—threatened to capsize the series as a whole, as NBC yanked it from the schedule for months, Harmon became aware his job title might not be long for this world, and all of that uncertainty wormed its way into the show. This early episode, however, features very little of that and speaks to a season three—more serialized and character-focused—that almost was. It also does beautiful things with the notion of multiple realities, contains one of the single best jokes in the show’s entire run, and features a script (by McKenna) that was Emmy-nominated.

“Introduction To Finality” (season three, episode 22): For a long time, it seemed as if this episode might be the series finale. And then, after Harmon’s ouster, it seemed as if it might have to be the series’ de facto finale. Even now, it plays as the close of a chapter so something new can begin, the series finale that never was. It may not be the strongest episode on this list, but it gets at all of the things that make the show great, and it gives all of the characters little moments in the sun that could have stood as endpoints, had that become necessary.

“Herstory Of Dance” (season four, episode eight): This is probably the most representative season four episode, both for how it works almost well enough to be more or less enjoyable, yet feels as if it misses the mark in several key ways that can leave the viewer wanting. Consider the episode’s treatment of Britta: She feels like the Britta of the first three seasons, but there are also some small, key things about her that are just… off. Still, this is one of the handful of consistently funny episodes from the fourth season, and it’s one that points toward what the show could have been had its new showrunners (Moses Port and David Guarascio) simply done their riff on the premise. Bonus points for Brie Larson’s appearance.

“Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality” (season five, episode seven): Here’s a perfect example of how the show’s premise slowly drifted from “a show about a community college” to “a show about the various people who make up that community college.” One of the strongest episodes of season five, this half-hour delves into the complicated friendship between Jeff and professor Ian Duncan (a terrific John Oliver), as well as giving Abed some moments of quiet rumination with professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks). It also works in the single funniest storyline ever for supporting character Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), the one figure the show has never quite figured out what to do with. At its heart, Community is a show willing to engage with silence and melancholy. This episode proves that brilliantly.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: Pilot” (season one, episode one); “Debate 109” (season one, episode nine); “Mixology Certification” (season two, episode 10); “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (season two, episode 11); “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” (season two, episode  16); “Paradigms Of Human Memory” (season two, episode 21); “Urban Matrimony And The Sandwich Arts” (season three, episode 12); “Basic Human Anatomy” (season four, episode 11); “Repilot” (season five, episode one); “Cooperative Polygraphy” (season five, episode four).

Availability: The show’s entire run so far is available on Hulu Plus. The first four seasons are on DVD, and if the show is renewed, it will be on NBC again at some point. Reruns also air sporadically in syndication and on Comedy Central.

Next time: Sonia Saraiya gets down with the Bartlet administration and The West Wing.

More TV Club 10