Posted Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, at 11:32 AM
A still of Ken Jeong on the Community episode "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons."
Community, the crazy NBC Thursday night sitcom, is in danger of being canceled—as you may have heard, it was taken off the network’s midseason line-up. People who follow the industry have some arguments about why the show will come back at some point, but for now we don’t know for sure whether the episode shown last week will be the show’s final appearance.
Whatever happens, this ambitious show’s best episodes should be recognized—not only for the enjoyment of the show’s fans, but also, perhaps, as an enticement to those not yet turned on by Community to tune in when the show returns (fingers crossed).
Community on the surface is about a group of misfit friends-in-spite-of-themselves at an epically unambitious community college, but it’s really about TV, storytelling, and pop-culture on a deeper level. To choose just one simplistic example, the first episode set the group up in a Breakfast Club-like aggregation, a fact immediately commented on by Abed, the group Id, who views the world through TV and movie tropes. Since then, the show has ratcheted up the stakes mightily, and, when its engine is running on all cylinders, has created breath-taking, mind-blowing constructs—mixmasters of pop-cult references and self-referentiality that somehow never lose sight of the characters’ hopes and dreams. There’s also consistently sharp writing of the sort that can pull such stuff off, and a cast that for the most part has managed the intellectual balancing act of looking and acting dumb even while uttering some of the smartest and most complex lines TV sitcoms have ever seen.
Not every Community episode is mind-blowing, of course. But many have been. I’ve compiled my top 10, the bottom half of which is below. We’ll post the top half next week.
10. “Pilot” (Season 1, episode 1)
TV pilots are often odd birds; they are filmed many months in advance, with sets and even characters changing if the show gets picked up and a full season is undertaken. The first Community is a deft piece of work, limning the personalities of seven distinct and complex characters yet always keeping the amoral footwork of ostensible star Jeff Winger (played by the comedian Joel McHale) at the foreground. Jeff, a disgraced lawyer, is at the school because the state bar eventually discovered his undergraduate degree came from Colombia the country not Columbia the college. Playing big roles in the first episode are a) Abed, a mentally acute but slightly off fellow student from whom womanizing Jeff efficiently elicits information about b) a strident but attractive woman named Britta, who quickly catches on to Jeff’s games. There’s also Troy, a former high school football star, now in community college with his utter lack of education apparent; Shirley, a god-fearing mother of two with some anger issues; a well-off, much-married and often searchingly unpleasant older guy, Pierce (played by Chevy Chase), who’s been attending classes at the school for years, for some unfathomable reason; and young Annie, a former classmate of Troy’s, making amends for the dive her life took when she got addicted to Adderall in high school.
Plot: Jeff forms a fake study group to get into Britta’s pants, but his plans for study à deux go awry when an (unwanted, by him) actual group forms around them. Best part: We’re introduced to what will become a show staple, Jeff’s closing arguments, where he embarks on sophistic but quite convincing monologues to convince the group of this or that self-serving point. Here he delivers several, saying whatever he has to keep his chances with Britta alive. Instead, he finds himself embarrassed, repeatedly, by both Abed and Britta, on whom his moral sleight-of-hand is somehow ineffective, all of it an elaborate homage to the sitcom commandment that a potential sexual relationship between the show’s two most attractive characters must always be part of its ongoing narrative. Also on hand: The Daily Show’s John Oliver, as an ethics-challenged psych teacher.
9. “Spanish 101” (Season 1, episode 2)
We meet the unstable Señor Chang, played by Ken Jeong, who terrorizes the group as the teacher of an introductory Spanish class. Jeff and Pierce attempt to construct a short, utterly simplistic Spanish dialog together, only to see Pierce’s emotional neediness and Jeff’s lack of interest turn it into a terribly painful imbroglio and then, finally, into an unexpectedly pleasurable dialog-less dramatic triumph. (A horrifying one, too, if the faces of the watching fellow classmates can be believed.) It’s all done as a Magnolia spoof, set to an Aimee Mann soundtrack. The pair’s grades, per Chang: “F... and F-minus.”
8. “Early 21st-Century Romanticism” (Season 2, episode 15)
It’s Valentine’s Day. Troy and Abed jointly pursue the very sexiest of sexy librarians; to the very end we’re not sure if any or all of the parties involved aren’t going to end up in bed together. Meanwhile, Britta insufferably becomes BFFs with a woman she thinks is a lesbian, who in turn is only friends with Britta because she thinks Britta’s the lesbian. Jeff is on his own, spending the evening watching soccer with John Oliver and Señor Chang—and eventually a houseful of uninvited guests, among them an ineffable character named Magnitude, a black guy who does nothing but come into a room, pump his hands in the air, and say “Pop! Pop!” Since Community is about TV, and TV is filled with stereotypes, it is particularly uncompromising in the way its black characters are often constructed deliberately as stereotypes, and not entirely attractive ones. (Troy is a dimwitted and uneducated Jehovah’s Witness athlete; Shirley is a stridently Christian solo mother of two whose husband ran off with a stripper.)
Britta’s supercilious political correctness is sent up nicely in this episode, and the Troy and Abed sequences are genuinely touching. The best line, delivered deadpan from the buxom librarian stunned by Troy and Abed’s joint advance: “This is the cutest thing that’s ever happened to me.” At the end of the episode we start to appreciate exactly how weird Troy and Abed’s relationship is going to be.
7. “Competitive Calligraphy” (Season 2, episode 8)
Annie loses a pen and demands that the group remain in the study room until the culprit who took it gives it back. This deliberately flimsy excuse keeps the seven actors in close quarters for the requisite 22 minutes: It’s the very definition of a “bottle episode,” wherein a sitcom production devises a cheap, one-set premise in order to husband its financial resources. Community, of course, has the characters discuss the fact that they’re in a bottle episode. Later we learn that Jeff and Britta have been secretly boffing like bunnies; in retrospect we can see many hints of these behind-the-scenes hijinks, both subtle (Britta’s papier-mâché figure of a three-legged dragon monster) and not so (the string of a half-dozen condoms she keeps in her purse).
But mostly this one’s an analysis of the humiliations one endures in a police state; call it Greendale Archipelago. A string of ever-more personal details are revealed as the search proceeds, causing no little pain to Shirley and Abed, particularly. Best joke: Shirley’s African-American-targeted brand of pregnancy test, a product called “You Know, Girl!”
6. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (Season 2, episode 14)
An exquisitely accomplished masterpiece, an epic tale of bullying, guilt, revenge, friendship and (in the persona of Pierce) dickishness extreme even in the crass world of television sitcoms (not to mention the unforgiving world of Community)—all derived from an actual game of Dungeons & Dragons, which itself disguises something slightly different, a tale of redemption along the lines of Lord of the Saving Private Fat Neil.
Fat Neil, a minor character in the show, needs help, and Jeff, for reasons we will discover later, steps up. The themes I listed are imaginary, of course; all of those plot points and many large events—including murder and one polymorphously perverse sex scene—are conjured up D&D style, which is to say through stories told around a table. The results are nevertheless dramatic, fully justifying a narrative that is fairly heartwarming for Community (even if it makes clear at episode’s end why the Fat Neils of the world shall remain Fat Neils). The acting in the show, which is generally if not unfailingly precise, is here taken to new levels, notably by Danny Pudi as Dungeonmaster and an elf maiden; Annie, playing a character called Hector, the Well-Endowed; a convincingly dickish Pierce; and Jeff, being very angry. Best line: “What am I not good at?” Jeff preens at one point. “Sex,” says Britta, under her breath. Unexpected: Alison Brie’s virtuoso comedy chops, at least when it comes to miming kinky interspecies lovemaking.