Community 102: Advanced American Tomfoolery

Hey, Happy New Year!

A few days ago, I wrote a general overview of Community and it’s awesomeness. Since I’m not done telling you how good this show is yet, here’s another blog post, this time highlighting the best episodes of the series so far.

If you’re new to Community, just start from the very beginning and watch the first, let’s say, seven episodes. If that hasn’t hooked you, then skip ahead to any of these to see this hilarious, clever comedy at its very, very best.

DISCLAIMER: Entirely subjective, opinions may vary. Episodes listed in no particular order.

MODERN WARFARE (Season 1, Ep 23)

paintball

This is probably Community‘s most famous episode, and for good reason. Though the series had experimented with genre parody before (most notably in the Mafia movie homage ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ a few episodes earlier), this is the first example of the show doing something completely different to any episode that came before it, committing so totally to an idea that, for twenty minutes, the show looks and sounds completely different. It’s a stylish, funny, pitch-perfect action movie parody, and a sign of things to come.

What makes it stand out is that this isn’t just done for the hell of it. OK, there is an element of ‘Well, fuck it, why not?’ to the episode, but it also changes character relationships significantly, and events in this episode effect the rest of the series. It’s far from a tossed-off, half-thought-out idea done for shits and giggles. There’s more to it than that.

The show would return to the paintball well for an epic two-parter that is half Western (part one), half Star Wars (part two) parody, which is just as stylish, creative, plot-important and spot-on as this one. It features the group facing off against Sawyer from Lost and a paintball machine-gun-turret. It’s brilliant.

BEGINNER POTTERY (Season 1, Ep 19)

pottery

To focus entirely on the wackier episodes of Community would do the show a disservice. If it had chosen to stay more like it was for most of the first season, with episodes based around whatever class Jeff was taking rather than a crazy parody of something or other, it would still be a fantastic show, full of episodes like this one.

Jeff takes a class on pottery as it has a reputation for being a really easy way of getting credits for a diploma. He becomes unexpectedly competitive when a good-looking, charming classmate gets all the attention from the teacher (Tony Hale, Arrested Development) and his fellow pupils.

Meanwhile, Pierce tries to prove his skills in a sailing class (done in the middle of the parking lot, as Greendale is not near any body of water), but his incompetence may cause his friends to fail the class with him.

We see a new side of Jeff in this episode. Far from the cocky, suave lawyer he presents himself as, here he is reduced to a desperate, obsessive mess who starts talking like Jeff Goldblum. Pierce, meanwhile, gets a chance to offer some surprisingly wise advice as he faces failure over and over again. The whole sailing sub-plot is entirely worth it for that and a brief, but memorable, sight gag near the end.

COMMUNITY, SEASON 2, EPISODES 6 TO 11 (Yes, all of them)

troy birthday

Is this cheating? I don’t care, I can’t choose just one out of this stellar run of episodes. Several instant-classics make up this stretch of the season, including an Abba-infused zombie movie parody that stretches the realism of the show’s universe to breaking point, a one-room character drama where a missing pen threatens to break the study group apart, Troy’s  21st birthday party, a conspiracy-thriller parody that climaxes with a confusing cluster of twists, and a cheery Christmas special that deals with mental trauma.

The huge variety and quality of these episodes are really impressive, and a good indication of why there’s no other comedy quite like Community. The parodies are perfect, the show’s creativity and imagination shines through, and the laughs pile up. Most impressively, the character’s issues are both played for laughs and taken completely seriously, thanks to a delicate balancing act that the writers and cast get just right.

The episodes featuring  Annie’s obsessive search for her stolen pen, Abed’s festive breakdown and Troy’s awkward birthday bounce between humour and pathos effortlessly. Meanwhile, a couple of the episodes (zombies, conspiracy thriller) instead focus entirely on being as silly and ridiculous as possible, which is great. The pile-up of nonsensical twists at the climax of the conspiracy episode is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in recent years.

During this part of the season, there’s also a more realistic episode with Abed verbally sparring with the college gossip girls, which is also quite funny. I say ‘realistic’, but it also features a magic trampoline.

ADVANCED DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (Season 2, Ep 14)

community d and d

From the moment the episode starts, you just know it’s going to be something special. A narrator that sounds a bit like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings introduces the characters to us and promises to turn the study group’s game of Dungeons and Dragons into an epic battle between good and evil Pierce.

And that’s exactly what we get. Eight people, sitting around a table, playing a game where they talk and roll dice and that’s pretty much it, turned into a sprawling epic via sound effects, music and melodramatic character deaths. Much of the humour comes from how clueless everyone except Abed is about playing the game, and how seriously Chang (see image) is taking it. This is easily one of the funniest episodes the show has ever done.

There are real stakes to the game, which makes the episode surprisingly dramatic, too. Though never said outright, only implied, there may be a terrible consequence if Pierce ruins the game, a consequence he is completely unaware of, but the audience is.

Community is very fond of undercutting its whimsy with bleak, serious subjects (see this season’s Christmas special for another example) and here is the best case of that. In the middle of this hilarious epic-fantasy-on-a-budget episode, the show confronts topics like bullying, loneliness and suicide. You never see that on Two and a Half Men, do you?

DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING: REDUX (Season 3, Ep 8)

documentary redux

Dean Pelton, head of Greendale and friend of the study group, is always a reliably funny and cheery character, but it took a long time to get an episode based entirely around his antics. Well, in the third season, he finally got his moment in the spotlight, and it was completely worth the wait.

Dean Pelton begins writing and filming a new advert for Greendale Community College, but his ego grows out of control, as does the budget for the advert. Jeff is forced to play the role of the Dean (see image), Annie becomes the Dean’s eager assistant, and Abed films the whole thing to document a film shoot that’s affecting the sanity of everyone involved.

The Dean going mad with power is a delight to watch, and so is seeing the study group react to his egomania (Annie becomes convinced that the Dean is a genius, Jeff begins to think that his Dean-esque bald cap isn’t fake, and Troy and Britta break down crying after being forced to do a scene over and over again). Every cast member is doing great work, especially Jim Rash (the Dean), clearly having great fun with his extra screen time.

The whole thing could also be seen, on another level, as a self-deprecating metaphor for the Community writer’s room, with creator Dan Harmon being the egomaniac Dean, Annie representing the writers who worship everything that comes out of his mouth, and Troy and Britta representing the cast, driven to misery by Harmon’s perfectionism.

Or, it’s simply a really, really funny episode.

PARADIGMS OF HUMAN MEMORY (Season 2, Ep 21)

community clip show

The sitcom clip show. Typically an excuse for the writers to fill an episode with old footage, write maybe two minutes worth of new jokes to transition between the old clips, then call it a day. Job done, easy peasy, let’s go home early. Where most people see an easy filler episode, the creator of Community saw a chance to do something that was much harder but much funnier, much cleverer, much… betterer.

The study group reflect on the ups and downs of the past year. They reminisce on fond memories, then the camera cuts away to show the memories to the audience. So far, so standard. But these memories are unfamiliar to us. These are memories from the days in-between episodes, the weeks that Community wasn’t on air. The characters remember them, but we’ve never seen them before. It’s genius. Enough episode ideas to fill a whole season of the show are presented to us in bits and pieces, then quickly discarded as the episode eagerly zips along to show us something else with lightning-fast, perfectly-timed editing.

It’s a jaw-droppingly inventive episode that also mocks the show’s own running gags and cliches. The characters remembering adventures they had that we never saw also makes the world of the show seem more real, even if the memories themselves are rather surreal. This episode begs to be rewatched and rewound over and over, as the jokes fly past at astonishing speed and clever surprises are thrown at you relentlessly. It’s side-splittingly funny, dazzlingly creative and  wonderfully entertaining.

As the group look back on their year, they begin to bicker and argue about relationships and annoying character quirks, and once again, the group is on the brink of dissolution. It’ll take one hell of a Jeff Winger speech to save them this time.

Incidentally, the show returned to this subverted-clip-show idea again in season three’s ‘Curriculum Unavailable’. Amazingly, rather than falling victim to diminishing returns, they managed to do something completely different, yet just as funny and imaginative with the idea as they did with this first clip-show episode. It doesn’t surpass the first one, but it does reach the same heights, and that’s damn good.

After ‘Paradigms’ aired, it seemed to me like it would never, ever be topped.  It would be impossible to, surely. The episode was stuffed to the brim with gags, surprises, character development and imagination. They couldn’t possibly improve on that, right? They would have to make a flawless piece of writing, where not a single line was wasted, where it would be literally impossible to fit another set-up, punchline, plot development or bit of character insight into the script. It would have to be perfectly performed, masterfully edited, and even more gob-smackingly ambitious than this. They couldn’t do that, could they?

REMEDIAL CHAOS THEORY (Season 3, Ep 4)

chaos theory

Fuck yeah, they could.

When the group visit Troy and Abed’s new apartment and order pizza, one of them has to leave to answer the door downstairs and carry the pizzas up. Everyone is reluctant to do it, so Jeff decides to roll a die to choose who goes. The episode follows the die as it lands on six different sides in six different timelines, choosing a different person each time and showing us several alternate futures. It’s a fantastically fun ride, as we see how the slightest change can have unexpected consequences, from minor (whether Pierce gets to tell his anecdote) to massive (what happens to the apartment when Troy leaves to get the pizza).

Again, you’ll have to pause and rewind and rewatch to get all the jokes you missed while you were laughing so much. Again, while you’re not laughing at the jokes, you’re admiring just how god-damn clever and creative and perfectly put-together it is. Jokes are set up in one timeline and the punchline appears in another. Different versions of the same joke pop up in every timeline, each time slightly tweaked, just enough so that you’ll still laugh when the expected, or unexpected, punchline comes.

The alternate timeline gimmick also allows the writers to analyse how the group’s dynamic changes when one of them is missing, providing a fascinating insight into how the characters interact. And it’s very funny. In twenty-two minutes, the episode introduces and thoroughly explores six different timelines, creates several new running gags, leaves just enough room to fit in the set-up to the episode, the climax and the bittersweet ending, as well as the longer-than-normal tag during the end credits. All that in 22 minutes. It’s stunning.

This episode was nominated for a prestigious science-fiction award, for God’s sake. A sitcom. Nominated for a sci-fi and fantasy award, amongst the likes of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. No Emmy nominations, but one Hugo nomination. For a comedy. That’s unheard of! It’s insane! How did they come up with this? How did they get everything right? This could have, and should have been, a huge, messy failure, but it wasn’t. Writing this must have broken them, surely, cos, I mean – how the hell?

Ahem. It’s really good. That is all.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned any of the other great season one episodes, or the episode in the Dreamatorium, or the video game episode, or the final three episodes of season three which are all brilliant in completely different ways and- Look, I could go on, but you’ve read this far, and you’re probably sick of my fanboyish babbling by now, so I’ll leave with some honourable mentions. Thanks for reading.

Hon. Mentions:

Comparative Religion (Season 1, Ep 12), Communication Studies (Season 1, Ep 16), Physical Education (Season 1, Ep 17), Critical Film Studies (Season 2, Ep 19), Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps (Season 3, Ep 5), Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism (Season 3, Ep 9), Virtual Systems Analysis (Season 3, Ep 16), Digital Estate Planning/The First Chang Dynasty/Introduction to Finality (Season 3, Eps 20, 21, 22).

Oh, and maybe Basic Human Anatomy (Season 4, Ep 11), which is like a beacon of hope in a season of disappointment and failure.

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