New episodes return three weeks from tonight! To celebrate, I'm rolling out my top ten favorite episodes that have aired so far.
10. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" (The Dean Makes a Commercial Episode) - The spotlight turns at last to Dean Pelton, a minor character for much of the first two seasons of "Community" who was upgraded to a regular in the third. And how could I not love this episode? It's a direct homage to "Hearts of Darkness," the documentary about the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Instead of directorial hubris running amok, it's the Dean's own insecurity and desire to help his school that is the culprit, turning the filming of the new Greendale Community College television commercial into a black hole of madness and despair. It also throws in some Charlie Kaufman, with Jeff getting a little too into his role playing the dean, and Chang further confusing matters as he tries to hijack the part. And then there's the Dean ruining hugging for Troy and Britta. And, of course, the Luis Guzman cameo we've been promised for so long.
9. "Contemporary American Poultry" (The Chicken Fingers Episode) - The first really high concept parody episode the show did, where Abed and Jeff clash over the control of a black market chicken fingers scam, being run out of the Greendale cafeteria. The sight gags, the great use of the extended cast, and the way that the episode really takes on the themes of power and corruption at the heart of this kind of story instead of just playing with the window dressing, would all become hallmarks of their future jaunts into wilder genre territory. Best of all, we get some great insight into Abed's character, revealing that he's probably the most decent guy in the whole study group. This also marked, not the beginning, but one of the first significant events in the strange Jeff and Abed friendship that I'll have more to say about in a few entries.
8. "Physical Education" (The Billiards Episode) - The strip billiards showdown between Jeff and Coach Bogner in the Greendale gym is one of the most hysterical events in the show's run, a ludicrous display of the male ego and the male physique in all their glory. I may never be able to watch "The Color of Money" with a straight face again. And if that weren't enough, this episode also features Abed's first forays into romance, which let him show off his uncanny ability as a pop culture savant to adopt the personas of different characters: "Mad Men's" Don Draper, Jeff, and a vampire. And this is the first instance of Britta's mispronunciation of "bagel," which is still one of my favorite running gags. If you want a starter episode to get other people interested in this show, especially the ladies, this is the best one to sit them down with.
7. "Communication Studies" (The Drunk Dial Episode) - Much of the first season revolved around Jeff and Britta's will-they-won't-they romantic tension, and this is high point of that storyline, and the Professor Slater storyline too, come to think of it. This is my favorite of the "normal" "Community episodes, where the characters live out their lives as regular people instead of playing out the parody scenario or crazy concept of the week. Of course, there are a few references that still slip in there, like the "Breakfast Club" dance homage during Jeff and Abed's night of binge drinking. This is also a good Chang episode, who is always at his best as an antagonizing force and instigator of madness. Here he gives Annie and Shirley a chance to pair up, and Pierce and Troy a chance to share their humiliation, shaking up the usual group dynamics.
6. "Paradigms of Human Memory" (The Fake Clip Show Episode) - The amount of work that went into this episode is staggering. Not only is this a clip show that uses entirely new material for all the clips, but clips from what would have been some of the biggest, most conceptually crazy episodes in the show's run - if they actually existed. A St. Patrick's Day rafting trip? An Old West themed town? A haunted house? An insane asylum? And in true "Community" fashion, they turn the device against itself, with the characters using the fake flashbacks as ammunition in a present day argument instead of fondly reminiscing over the good times. And this all builds up to a crescendo of Troy screaming scenes and Jeff delivering motivational speeches that prove the show can meta itself as well as it can meta any other piece of media.
5. "Critical Film Studies" (The My Dinner With Andre/Pulp Fiction/Cougar Town Episode) - I've heard claims that this is the episode where "Community" jumped the shark, where it became too obtuse and too concerned with all the meta for the average television viewer to follow. I see the point, but for me this is the bravest thing "Community" ever did, where it decided to leap the bounds of conventional sitcom television and see how far it could push the idea of a character trying to live out his life through pre-existing media. Here, Abed has a birthday dinner with Jeff, which turns out to be on false pretenses. But those false pretenses are the only thing that allow Abed access to emotions he doesn't otherwise know how to express. It's heady stuff, and the episode actually works better, I think, if you don't realize what's going on at first.
4. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (The LeVar Burton Episode) - I have some trouble with the character sometimes, but Pierce is an integral member of the study group, and this is his best episode by far. Well, that is when he's not being upstaged by Troy, whose bouts of hysteria have become one of the show's trademarks. But back to Pierce, who decides to fake a major illness that brings the whole gang to the hospital, and then tries his best to manipulate and meddle with their lives. In some cases he succeeds too well, in others, his efforts backfire, but he sure manages to elicit some big reactions. Abed chronicling the fallout documentary-style is great, playing with common reality television tropes, but it's really the rock solid character interactions and the giddy character-based humor that make this one such a great watch.
3. "Modern Warfare" (The First Paintball Episode) - A lot of other shows have done paintball epiosdes, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Ugly Betty" among them. However, "Community" is the only one that has gone for an all-out paintball war. The joy of watching this episode unfold is the way it keeps unleashing surprises on us, one after another. Suddenly the campus is a post-apocalyptic battlefield, and the various campus clubs are enemy combatants. Suddenly familiar characters like Abed and Annie are revealing secret badass skills, and Chang is channeling Chow Yun-Fat. A lot of the credit has to go to Justin Lin, who directed several of the "Fast and the Furious," movies, and gave the episode the kinetic cinematography of a big budget action film. The second season paintball episodes just couldn't quite match up without it.
2. "Remedial Chaos Theory" (The Seven Different Timelines Episode) - This is one of the densest episodes by far, exploring the concept of parallel universe theory by seeing what would happen during a visit to Abed and Troy's new apartment, depending on which member of the study group goes downstairs to get the pizza. Some of the timelines are almost identical, differentiated by subtle things that only long time viewers would appreciate. Some are more extreme, particularly the "darkest" timeline where everything goes wrong. And even more wrong in the episode's coda. But if you look closer, past the metaphysics, "Remedial Chaos Theory" does a great job of examining and testing the group's dynamics. And It makes the interesting point that one particular member may be what's holding everyone else back.
1. "Cooperative Calligraphy" (The Bottle Episode) - The big, expensive episodes are a lot of fun, but sometimes all you need is seven people in a room with their baggage, talking to each other for twenty minutes. And so it is with the show's first self-proclaimed "bottle episode," that spends almost the whole running time on a single set - the familiar study room. Annie's pen is stolen and she's sure one of the others took it, so she refuses to let anyone leave until the thief fesses up. Soon accusations and recriminations are flying back and forth, and everyone takes the opportunity to air some grievances. The situation may be contrived, but the catharsis feels real, and that's the secret of so many episodes of "Community." No matter ambitious, how self-referential, how meta, and how mad it gets, it always comes back to the relationships of seven very different people who have somehow become friends.