From paintball to the darkest timeline: the 10 best episodes of Community

And we’re back. After it seemed our journey with Greendale Community College would end with that asteroid destroying all life on Earth, we’re back for Community’s sixth season thanks to Yahoo!

Community has, against all odds, continued to be the show that can’t be stopped. At NBC, it was plagued by poor ratings, creative struggles with the network, and behind the scenes drama. Just about every season the show was at risk of cancellation, and at the end of its third season the creator, Dan Harmon, was fired. Then one of the biggest names, Chevy Chase, left the series and unthinkably, Harmon was brought back on board as creator. Then, just when things were looking up, Donald Glover exited the show, and then after a pretty successful fifth season all things considered, NBC finally cancelled Community. Even when it was brought back from Yahoo the problems continued, with the show losing another cast member with Yvette Nicole Brown’s exit.

And yet despite all these issues, the show has continued to beat on and remain pretty brilliant on a creative level. It’s had its ups and downs, butCommunity has managed to be a consistently interesting and compelling show, balancing traditional sitcom humor about college with weird pop-culture analysis and special episodes that use Greendale as a sandbox to explore action, horror, sci-fi, ‘80s cartoons, and just about anything else Dan Harmon can throw at us. The show works both as a comedy about a group of people becoming friends and forming a community and as a weird playground for Dan Harmon’s imagination so that each week we’re never quite sure what we’re going to get. You might tune in to Community and get a standard episode about the group trying to pass a test, or you might tune in to find the episode takes entirely in a video game. There’s simply nothing else likeCommunity out there.

Amid its 97 episodes, the gang has fought zombies, battled a paintball war, gone to space (sort of), entered the world of video games, explored other timelines, fought evil cartoon bad guys and, above all, examined how to form a community of friends that can come together as a strong unit despite all their differences. It’s pretty rough that in the sixth season, we’ll be missing three of the original cast members, but in college, friends are coming and going after all. With Dan Harmon remaining as creator, I’m confident Community will stay one of TV’s most interesting shows – or rather, one of the Internet’s most interesting shows.

In celebration of the show’s return on March 17, here at the top 10 best episodes produced to date.

10. Epidemiology

“Epidemiology” is maybe my favorite Halloween episode of any show I’ve ever seen. It both perfectly captures the spirit of the holiday and gets you in a festive mood, as well at parodies horror and zombie films in a hilarious fashion. It’s another example of something ridiculous happening at Greendale that everyone takes seriously, but that still makes sense within the show’s internal logic.

It’s a zombie episode, but the outbreak is essentially just really bad food poisoning that’s taking over everyone. Still, everyone treats it as if this really is a zombie apocalypse that is threatening their lives, and the episode perfectly follows that sort of format with everyone being picked off one by one. It also takes some hilarious inspiration from movies and shows like this, like with the amazing scene spoofing the cat that jumps out at the audience in every horror film. It’s an early example of a gimmick episode absolutely perfected, taking on a genre within the framework of this show in a brilliant way but without ever feeling like it’s only a spoof. It’s also a genuinely fun, thrilling and hilarious adventure for these characters.

9. Cooperative Polygraphy

This episode is sort of a sequel to Season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy,” an episode which we’ll talk about in a bit, and while it’s not quite as effective as that one, it’s still a highlight of the show’s later years. After Pierce’s death, the group joins together to answer a series of polygraph questions. This leads to everyone finding out secrets about each other, which create friction in the group, and the episode explores the kinds of things that even after all these years the group is still hiding from each other. It also allows Pierce to test them one last time, reminding the group that they’re messed up, flawed people who maybe are just as messed up and flawed as he was.

Part of me wishes Community had taken Pierce’s death a little more seriously, because in some ways it’s sort of made into a punchline with him dying from filling up all the sperm containers. But the closing of the episode, where Pierce leaves a final message for everyone, is pretty well executed, even if the death of one of the major characters definitely could have been sadder. Still, it’s a great episode that showcases some of the best of each character and shows that in spite of everything and even without Pierce, Community’s still got it.

8. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design

This is a gimmick episode that doesn’t really have a deeper meaning to it like some of the other ones, but it’s just so damn fun that it barely matters. The episode parodies conspiracy stories and ridiculous television plot twists, with Jeff uncovering a potentially massive conspiracy about Greendale’s night school. Just about every cut to commercial contains a massive DUN DUN before it, and the episode’s music is just spot on. The mystery the show sets up is actually pretty interesting, and it’s great how seriously Jeff and Annie take something that is pretty meaningless really. The episode ends with some of my favorite minutes of the entire show where things become so hilariously complicated as everyone turns on each other and there are an insane amount of layers to the web of lies. I still can barely keep track of it.

There’s also the blanket fort storyline, which is pretty endearing and fun, and it’s great the way the show has the two intersect at the end with a chase sequence through a blanket fort. It’s episodes like these where you can imagine Dan Harmon as a little kid playing around with this show, in this case putting together the giant blanket fort every kid dreams of.

7. Geothermal Escapism

This episode is more proof that while many of the classic episodes are from the show’s first few seasons, Community is still running strong. The show was presented with a huge problem with the exit of Donald Glover, as the Troy and Abed relationship was one of the most important dynamics of the series. But instead of shying away from it and trying to move on, like The Office trying to pretend Michael Scott never existed as soon as he left, Community embraced this and explored the hole Troy’s absence would leave. Abed, terrified that he’s losing his closest friend, has a bit of an episode, imagining the floor as being covered in lava. He makes this into a school-wide game, and much of the episode is that fun Community dynamic of everyone getting really into something super silly.

By the end, Abed comes to an understanding that the floor is lava because he’s refusing to let go of Troy. Whereas a lot of these types of episodes have ended with the group coming together to save Abed, here he kind of does it himself, albeit in a very Abed way. Trying to make the pain of losing Troy easier to deal with, he uses pop culture to help him, pretending that he made a clone of himself who is far less emotional and able to accept Troy’s departure. He uses this to help Troy too, who is scared of leaving and so pretends he’s merely letting his clone leave.

It’s kind of silly, but when you think about it, it’s really Abed finding his own way to help himself and be able to accept something that’s really difficult for him, and that’s great progression for the character. The episode is a whole lot of fun, parodying movies like Waterworld and showing us the insane society that breaks out in this lava world, but it also ends up becoming a playground to explore these characters and explore the idea of grief and of letting go.

6. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

Community has always done holiday themed episodes really well, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is by far the best of all of them. The episode takes the format of a stop motion animated Christmas special, totally committing to the format while adding its Community twist. It’s super festive and the visuals are genuinely really impressive. It actually looks basically identical to the sort of thing it’s parodying, which is part of what makes it all so funny. The episode has an undercurrent ofCommunity darkness though, as the whole reason the gang is stop motion animated is because Abed is having a mental breakdown and this is literally how he’s seeing the world.

We find out that this is because he found out that though his mom visits him every year to watch Christmas specials together, she recently sent him a letter saying she wouldn’t be coming because she has a new family now. Abed, terrified of being abandoned, retreats into what’s familiar to him: pop culture.

But by the end, the group comes together and helps him realize that “the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning and it can mean whatever we want.” In other words, though Christmas for Abed used to mean being with his mom, now it means being with the study group. He too has a new family now. We end on a totally heartwarming note with the group watching Christmas specials together just as Abed did with his mom, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the sweetness of it all.

5. Mixology Certification

“Mixology Certification” is an episode that gets pretty serious for Community, and it’s one of the most emotionally resonant of the entire series. When Troy turns 21, the group decides to take him out to a bar to celebrate, but as everyone starts drinking things go array because, as Troy says, alcohol makes people sad. Jeff and Britta argue, Annie freaks out about her future, Abed tries to make a new friend but fails, and Shirley is humiliated by her past. As Troy is ready to take his first drink, he leaves it behind to instead help out his friends.

Troy, who in many ways has been the young, innocent child of the group, comes to the realization that these adults in the group, who he always thought of as having it together, are just as clueless as him. It’s a realization a lot of young adults come to as they mature, realizing that there is no one moment when we suddenly snap into adulthood and gain a total understanding of the world. But Troy ends up at a very mature place towards the end of the episode, assuring Annie that she’s an amazing person who has a great future ahead of her and taking care of Jeff and Britta. As the episode comes to a close, Jeff says happy birthday to Troy and tells him he’s a man now.

He didn’t get his drink, but Troy has sacrificed his own enjoyment for the benefit of his friends, and realized that friendship and helping out others is the most important thing there is. For a character who started the show as basically a dumb, innocent jock, this is incredible progression for Troy. And it’s great to see the show towards the end stop even focusing on following the sitcom format. For the last few minutes there are barely even any laughs, as Community allows itself to focus totally on these characters and their emotions. Episodes like this show why Community is such a memorable show. Beyond all the sci-fi craziness and alternate timelines, the show has a tremendous respect for its characters and a genuine story to tell about them.

4. Modern Warfare

“Modern Warfare” is really the moment Community suddenly went from good to great. Up until this point the series was a really well written and funny show about a group of students going to college, but it wasn’t anything more than that. It fit the sitcom mold and did it well, but never really broke free of those conventions.

Then “Modern Warfare” came along and in 22 minutes completely shifted the direction of this show. It’s hard to imagine a version of Community without this episode. The plot is downright brilliant, as a game of paintball gets terribly out of control when students find out the prize is priority registration. The show uses this as a way to parody action and war movies, and what’s so hilarious is that everyone takes this so deathly seriously. They’re not goofing around and having fun playing paintball at school; for all of these characters, it’s as if they’re in an actual war.

This kind of thing would come to define Community, and there would be plenty of other episodes like this that experiment with genre and where the characters get totally committed to something so ridiculous. “Modern Warfare” provides an opportunity to explore war movie conventions, like jumping away from the explosion in slow motion or the friend reuniting with the hero and saying “you son of a bitch, I thought you were dead!”

But the show doesn’t settle for just being a parody, as all of Community’s best genre episodes aren’t just mere spoof. It’s also genuinely a great progression of the story and characters, exploring their dynamics together, progressing the Jeff and Britta relationship, and advancing the Jeff character when he gives his prize to Shirley at the end. The whole paintball war also helps to expand on the weirdness of Greendale, a place where literally everyone can get fully invested in this silly thing and after a point, there is nobody who is winking at the camera. It’s a brilliant 22 minutes of television with well-directed action, hilarious dialogue and a great sense of characters and stakes. In a lot of ways, this would become the episode to beat for the remainder of the series.

3. Paradigms of Human Memory

This is one of those ideas I can’t believe had never been done before. We all grew up watching sitcoms with clip shows, those episodes meant to fill space in the season where the characters would reminisce about what’s happened thus far. “Paradigms of Human Memory” takes that format but with a twist: it isn’t actually a clip show, and all the clips are things that never happened on the show.

Part of the brilliance of this episode can be demonstrated by the fact that a lot of people watched it and thought that they had actually missed episodes. That’s because the setup is so good, and Harmon and the crew have the clip show format down so well, that it doesn’t even feel like we’re watching a parody here.

Because of the format, we get to have a whole lot of rapid fire, cutaway jokes that just keep coming, and it’s probably the episode with the most number of laughs in the whole series. We get some all time classic Community moments like Abed’s obsession with The Cape and his “six seasons and a movie,” Troy popping the back of a raft to make it go faster, and Pierce taking a flu shot to become a living god. And aside from just being funny, it’s actually really cool to imply that the group has fun adventures besides just what we see on screen, and we get glimpses into that with a trip to a haunted house and a camping trip.

Like all of the best Community gimmick episodes, the episode has a pretty good emotional core. As much as we love these characters, part of their dynamic is the fact that they may or may not be a bit unhealthy for each other. College is a place where all different kinds of people who are radically different come together, and Community expresses that and its potential downfalls. But it ends with the conclusion that all of this fighting is only making them stronger and closer as a group, on their way to truly accepting each other and working together.

2. Cooperative Calligraphy

Some of the best Community episodes are the ones that just place all the characters together and have them focused on some task, and “Cooperative Calligraphy” takes full advantage of that with a bottle episode. Annie is convinced someone took her pen and refuses to let anyone leave until they find it. It’s such a simple setup that ends up leading to some of the most memorable 22 minutes in the series.

Because it’s just the group together in the room, the episode is extremely dialogue heavy and the jokes are so rapid fire you almost have to go back and watch it a second or third time to really catch everything. The episode also has a great sense of the characters and really tells us so much about each of them to the point where a new viewer could watch “Cooperative Calligraphy” and just in these 22 minutes have a pretty great understanding of who all these people are.

The episode is really all about trust, and it’s one of many that suggests that the group might not be entirely healthy. They all begin to accuse each other of taking the pen, going as far as to search each other and strip down naked. But the episode ends on such a sweet note where the group stops arguing and agrees to pretend a ghost took the pen, because they’d be more comfortable believing ghosts exist than that someone in the group doesn’t belong there. After a whole lot of fighting and bickering, the group ends far closer together having come closer to accepting each other for who they really are and forming a healthy community of friends.

1. Remedial Chaos Theory

“Remedial Chaos Theory” isn’t just the best Community episode by far; it’s one of the most brilliant episodes of a sitcom I’ve ever seen. This is everything that’s great about Community all in one package, balancing great character dynamics with a strange and unique plot with the dark timeline that would go on to define much of the rest of the show.

In this episode, the group goes over to Troy and Abed’s apartment, and the meat of the episode begins with a simple, brilliant setup: Jeff rolls a die to decide who will leave to go get the pizza, and Abed realizes that by doing this Jeff is creating six separate timelines. In each one, a different member of the group leaves to get the pizza.

We then see all the different scenarios that would happen if each member of the group left to get the pizza. A lot of things stay the same: Britta will always belt out a horrible rendition “Roxanne” and Pierce will always find a way to bring up having sex with Ertha Kitt. But in some what happens is radically different, and we get to explore not only how much something so small as picking up pizza can affect our destiny, but also the affect each of these people has on the group, and how things would be different without them.

Without Shirley there, there’s no one thoughtful enough to take care of the food, and the pies get burnt. Without Abed, arguably the glue that holds the study group together, everyone ends up fighting and in a bad mood when he comes back. And as the episode ends we see the group without Jeff: everyone has a great time dancing to “Roxanne,” which Jeff was preventing Britta from singing earlier. The episode closes with the suggestion that maybe Jeff is the one holding this group back and preventing them from being their weird selves, constantly giving them sarcastic quips and stopping them from belting out terrible songs. It’s kind of a dark note to end on, and we’re forced to question how good Jeff really is for this group of people.

“Remedial Chaos Theory” is fast paced, brilliant and genuinely thoughtful. It makes us think about how tiny decisions can make the hugest of changes in our life, with Troy going to get the pizza leading to Pierce dying and Jeff losing an arm. It also makes us examine the dynamic of this group of extremely different people and what each of them adds, for better or for worse. It’s creative, hilarious and thoughtful, and the absolute perfect “Community” episode.

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