The Very Best Episodes of a Sitcom You Should Have Been Watching

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 23 2011 9:16 AM

The Top Five Episodes of Community

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Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong, and Alison Brie on Community.

NBC

With Community on hiatus, we’re counting down the best episodes of a show that, whatever you think of it, goes above and beyond the expectations most of us have for the television sitcom. While some find the show impenetrable, it makes many TV nerds swoon—so deeply, in fact, that yesterday, fans of the show gathered at Rockefeller Center, home of NBC, to sing “O Christmas Troy” and demand that the show return.

You can read the first half of my top 10 here. (And you can find reviews of the current season’s episodes here.) It’s a mark of the show’s fun and complexity that it’s almost impossible to describe its best efforts in a line or two. So here are five paragraphs, plus a few more, about the show’s five best episodes.

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5. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, episode 11)

It’s hard to get your mind around this episode. The characters are presented not live but in stop-motion animation, à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The action—apparently—takes place in the head of Abed. (“It’s not a delusion,” he insists, and he may be right.) Abed’s psyche is warping because of some Christmas issues. He reinvents his new family in an homage to the Xmas TV specials he grew up with, and his fellow Community protagonists are presented as (often disturbingly nightmarish) cartoon characters. (Shirley, for example, is seen as a baby in a diaper.) They are each killed off Willy Wonka-style, one by one. Merry Christmas! It’s worth recalling that Community’s first-season holiday episode ended in a school-wide brawl, with real blood. In this one, we get an exciting chase on the top of a moving train, a handful of incidental songs (“Sad quick Christmas song,” go the words to one), and a reminder that, in the end, for all of us, Christmas can’t always be what it used to be.

Best line: Abed gets a present, containing a DVD of the first season of Lost.That’s the meaning of Christmas?” goggles Pierce. “No,” says Abed. “It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff.” 

4. “Critical Film Studies” (Season 2, episode 19)

Perhaps others saw this one coming; I didn’t. Jeff and Abed go out to dinner to celebrate Abed’s birthday; we watch as Jeff works hard to maneuver Abed to a bar where he has prepared a birthday gift he’s justifiably proud of: a Pulp Fiction surprise party, with members of the study group dressed up—Shirley with Samuel L. Jackson whiskers, Annie in a Honey Bunny wig, etc. What, Jeff reasons, would be a better birthday present for Abed? But he’s stymied: Abed, acting odd all the way around, just wants to sit in a nice restaurant and have a long and uncharacteristically intimate conversation. (“Abed was being weird. And by that I mean he wasn’t being weird.”) Abed delivers an extraordinarily bizarre monologue about Cougar Town, and Jeff—well, Jeff falls into an emotional trap he, and we, don’t see coming. Abed has constructed his own homage—a monstrous one, in its own way—while no one was looking. Lots of feel-bad moments here, and a lot of disturbing goings-on from the folks at the Pulp Fiction party.

Best line: “Emotional breakthroughs are highly overrated.” Also: Pierce, in a Pulp Fiction gimp outfit: “I’m hot, and my balls are touching a zipper!” Bonus: A double-banked Kiss Me Deadly reference.

3. “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Season 3, episode 4)

Abed and Troy are living together; they throw a housewarming party that features a spirited game of Yahtzee. When Jeff throws a single die to see who will go greet the pizza guy downstairs, Abed insists that he’s thereupon created six different timelines. These we see play out one by one. This mediation on the multiverse should be dehumanizing and pointless; after all, if anything can happen, why is anything important? Instead, we see precisely the opposite: that actions (and personalities) have consequences; that joy and sadness, fun and despair, even life and death are the product of who we are and what we do. The thing is also written and edited with head-snapping precision.

One of the things I like about Community is its compulsive honesty. It can’t help wondering if its nominal star really is a bad person. “What if Jeff Winger actually makes the world a worse place,” the show seems to ask, “or, at the very least, is a major buzzkill?” You have to pay close attention in this one, but the show’s real moral comes when it ponders the opposite side of the coin: What does the village idiot bring to society? In Pierce’s multiple retellings of is Eartha Kitt story, you’ll find an interesting meditation on why comedy sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. And the credit sequence is the show’s most disturbing moment yet.

2. “A Fistful of Paintballs”/”For a Few Paintballs More” (Season 2, episodes 23 & 24)

In its first two seasons, Community devoted three full shows to paintball fights on campus. (One of the fears fans have about the show’s midseason hiatus is that the much-anticipated third iteration won’t be shown.) The one in the first season, “Modern Warfare,” was a deeply enjoyable spoof of 28 Days Later and any number of other sci-fi and action films; virtually every battle in the episode was a delightful moment, from the distinctive face-offs with the chess and glee clubs to the women’s ambush in the men’s bathroom. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of total war two lost souls found each other (at least long enough to boff on the group’s study table). In its second iteration, paintball became an epic two-part affair to close out the season. The first is done as a spaghetti western homage; the second abruptly sidles over into a Star Wars spoof. The resulting riotous and quite dense cultural references disguise a serious under-narrative involving a debilitating rift in the group, the permutations of which are played out over the two episodes in often lacerating fashion. Pierce (again) is on the outs for being a jerk and Annie (again) is the one who thinks she can save him.

We learn two things: That Community creator Dan Harmon will do just about anything for an excuse to film Alison Brie running. Also: friendship is war. Among the many highlights of the episode: Camp Pierce, where life and love are cheap; Jim Rash as Dean Pelton coursing through the episode in a hilarious state of constant near-hysteria; and the mysteriously handsome Black Rider, who stirs uncomfortable feelings in Annie—and Jeff, too.

Best line: Annie: “I want pants.” Also: Troy, dying: “I had a dream it would end this way.” Bonus homages: Gone With the Wind… and Platoon.

1. “Paradigms of Human Memory”: Season 2, episode 21

We see a diorama of people making dioramas, Señor Chang slicked down with petroleum jelly, Dean Pelton dressed up as Tina Turner… even a sadistic monkey beating on his victim in an air conditioning duct. These are just the comic sidelights of arguably the most ambitious, dense, inexplicable and elaborate 21 minutes of televised sitcommery ever aired. (I wrote a more in-depth piece on the episode, which you can read here.) The premise involves a discovered pile of memorabilia, which the group uses to tweak its collective memory; this introduces a series of flashbacks on various topics. That’s the introduction for a “clip show,” a TV standby in which old material is recycled to fill up another time slot. Except that Community does a clip show of all new material. In other words, we quickly realize that the flashbacks we’re seeing didn’t happen, or never could happen. (And that means the show had to create them all, a dozen or more for this episode.) While we’re distracted by this, the group restlessly, compulsively analyzes their relationship, and finds little of worth. This is the show’s ultimate feel-bad episode, despite the fakest of fake-huggy resolutions at the end.

The new material is done on almost all new sets—most of them elaborate, even preposterous (a western town, a Civil War-era mansion—we even see the group in the clutches of a murderous drug gang). Along the way we learn that Jeff and Britta have been pursuing some extracurricular study in the field of human sexuality (which, if it were a class, would be called “Advanced Friends with Benefits”). This grosses everyone out, and leads to some granular analysis of their selfish behavior. These lead to wider, ever-more-unpleasant memories, until Troy finally freaks out.

The deranged premise is underlined by the increasingly unhinged pace of the show, which by the end is an utter blur of ever-more-preposterous scenes as Jeff’s most impassioned, if nonsensical, closing argument goes down a rabbit hole. We’re left with all sorts of questions: Are the memories real? Do different people have different memories? And why are so many of this group’s memories bad ones? Along the way the show takes time to gratuitously ridicule its short-lived fellow NBC show The Cape—and we learn that the best glee club is a dead glee club.

Best line: “God hates us.” Second-best line: “Harrison Ford is irradiating our testicles with microwave satellite transmissions.”

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