The fact that Community Season 5 kicks off tomorrow is, in short, a miracle. Though Community is considered to be one of the best comedies on television from both fans and critics, it’s far from a mainstream hit for NBC. Add in notorious behind the scenes drama from the creator and the show’s most recognizable star, and you have the recipe for a show that shouldn’t have lasted two seasons, let alone five. But here we are, close to a hundred episodes in, and the show’s still kicking. It’s had hiccups along the way sure—Dan Harmon was fired last year, Chevy Chase quit, Donald Glover’s on his way out, and the Harmon-less Season 4 lead many to believe that their beloved show was dead in the water. But for the first time in a while, Community fans have hope. Though Glover won’t stick around for all of the next season, he’ll be in close to half of it. And even better, showrunner Dan Harmon is back to once again take the reigns of the show he created. And along with Harmon comes familiar and talented folk like Chris McKenna, Dino Stamatopoulos, Jon Oliver, and the Russo Brothers. Add in some pretty great trailers and fantastic word of mouth for the season’s first batch of episodes, and it seems Community is back to being the show we know and love. But before we dive into the next 13 episodes of the series, I thought it would be appropriate to look back at the show’s past four years of content, and narrow down what truly represents the “best” of Community. Of course that was quite the difficult task (there’s so many amazing episodes), but I think I’ve whittled down a competent list. Check out my picks for the 10 best episodes of Community right after the break.
Okay, technically, I listed a little bit more than 10….but c’mon. There’s so many wonderful episodes of Community that choosing just 10 left out quite a few of my favorite episodes. So first, some Honorable Mentions!
Honorable Mentions: “Pilot,” “Contemporary American Poultry,” “Regional Holiday Music,” “Modern Warfare,” “Mixology Certification,” “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” and “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”
And now, the list!
10. “Critical Film Studies”
Abed has always been my favorite character on Community for a variety of reasons. But one of the ones that clearly stands out is the fact that, at his core, there is no one else on television quite like Abed. He’s a weird character, but Community is a show all about weird. So when focusing on the Abed character, Community is often at its best. And of all the Abed episodes, “Critical Film Studies” is one of the absolute best. Between the Pulp Fiction homage going on in the B-plot and the absolutely wonderful My Dinner with Andre send up happening in the A-plot, “Critical Film Studies” is chock full of the movie references you would expect from Abed. But what really makes this episode work is the way it breaks down what these references mean to the character, how he views himself, and how he views his relationship with others (mainly Jeff.) It’s hilarious, touching, and hugely memorable. Scenes like below are brilliantly written, and honestly couldn’t come from any other show but Community.
9. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
Oddly enough, the number nine pick belongs to another Abed episode; I swear, this isn’t some grand conspiracy or anything! It’s pure coincidence that “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is paired so closely to “Critical Film Studies,” though both episodes do represent different sides of the always interesting Abed coin. While “Critical Film Studies” had the character as confident and slightly manipulative, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” has him in a more weak, sympathetic mindset. It’s a fine line to balance when it comes to the character, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” managed to stroll across that line with confidence. Not only is it a funny episode that pokes fun at classic claymation Christmas specials, but like every good spoof, it can fit into the genre with ease. I revisit “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” every year around Christmastime—and for a holiday special, is there any greater complement?
Hey, another holiday episode! Seriously guys, I’m not doing this on purpose. But hey, might as well take the segway if I have it. If “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” represents Community taking a strange concept and doing it off semi-realistically (the way Abed is seeing the world is played off as a joke quite often in the episode), then “Epidemiology” represents the show going completely bonkers with its fantasy premise. Though the way in which zombies get into Greendale is quite silly, it makes for one of the show’s most memorable Holiday episodes. There’s just so much to love about “Epidemiology”—the hilarious use of zombies, oft-set brilliantly by the works of ABBA. The Troy/Abed story at its core. And even the way in which the zombie action occurs is an absolute delight to watch. Just like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Epidemiology” is one of my go to Halloween episodes of television. And best use of “Mamma Mia” ever, right?
7. “Digital Estate Planning”
Oh damn, this is neither an Abed episode NOR a holiday episode…segway denied. Anyways, how fun is “Digital Estate Planning,” huh? Odd scheduling aside (it aired smack dab in the middle of the Chang Dynasty arc, interrupting what to that point was a pretty inter-connected grouping of episodes), “Digital Estate Planning” is just Community having fun tackling a beloved aspect of geek culture, in this case 2D video game platformers. The episode might not have the emotional weight of other spoofs (most of the Pierce stuff is just mostly okay, despite the presence of Giancarlo Esposito), but it’s an episode that makes me laugh uproariously whenever I watch it…which, for a comedy, is more than enough to earn a placement on my list.
6. “Paradigms of Human Memory”
The idea of basing a clip show around things we never saw isn’t exactly a new concept (the much ignored Clerks: The Animated Series did it pretty spectacularly close to a decade before Community had the chance to), but that doesn’t make “Paradigms of Human Memory” any less of a joy to watch. Some of my favorite episodes of the show focus solely on this wonderful cast interacting with one another, and “Paradigms of Human Memory” is no exception. Well a lot of the jokey material is centered around the “clip show” aspect of the episode, just seeing the study group make light of the way they behave amongst one another (and, as Dean Pelton later points out, lay out their established patterns for one another to see) is a delight in and of itself. And hey, this is the episode that started out that whole “Six Seasons and a Movie” business, so clearly its a staple of the show at this point.
5. “A Fistfull of Paintballs/For A Few Paintballs More”
Okay yeah, I’m cheating with this one by including both parts of the Season 2 finale on this list. But can you blame me? Though I love “Modern Warfare,” it’s the second paintball war that I’ll always see as an example of Community at its craziest…and its finest. The way it handles the themes of the season (Pierce’s place in the group, Annie’s too generous nature, and the feud between Greendale and City College) while also delivering a pretty kick-ass spoof of both Star Wars AND Westerns is a perfect example of what this show is…and why, even at its best, it’s the type of sitcom that can sadly never achieve mainstream success. But fuck the mainstream—I’d rather have an Ice Cream cone attempting to take over a community college through paint any day.
4. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”
Dean Pelton is an awesome character for quick laughs and random sight gags, but rarely does he get the chance to have an episode all of his own. It’s a damn shame too because, as “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” proves, Jim Rash is more than up to the tasking of helming an episode. Perfectly poking fun of Hearts of Darkness (which is much better than Apocalypse Now, btw), “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” breaks down the character of Dean Pelton in ways that “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” does for Abed or “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” does for Jeff—yes he’s still the wacky and crazy Dean in “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” but the episode adeptly tackles the idea that his behavior comes from a place of ambition and disappointment in where his life lead him. Like a more flamboyant Michael Scott (which yes, I didn’t think could even be a thing, but here we are). Also a highlight? Jeff’s sideplot trying to play the Dean in the big commercial…Joel McHale deserves an award for his Jim Rash impersonation, doesn’t he?
3. “Pillows and Blankets”
Another high concept episode (no surprise, this list includes A LOT of them), “Pillows and Blankets” works almost entirely due to its Ken Burn’s documentary framing device. As a history nerd (who, yes, has seen a lot of Ken Burn’s documentaries), “Pillows and Blankets” was an episode made for me, and everything (from Britta’s terrible “war photography” and Pierce’s gut-busting “Pillow Man” armor) had me beaming in ways only Community can. And just like the other fantastic high concept episodes, it’s Community finding clever and unique ways to tell its character-based stories (in this case, the dissolve of Troy and Abed’s best-friendship). Just a fantastic half hour that, once again, tickles my funny bone in just the right way.*
*Leonard likes this post.
2. “Cooperative Calligraphy”
Here we go from an incredibly high-concept episode, to a wonderfully low-concept one. All “Cooperative Caligraphy” does is have the Greendale 7 in the study room together, arguing about the whereabouts of a missing pen. But why then is this episode so damn funny? Well, it speaks to the power of this amazing cast and exemplary writing team that an episode so simple in its goals turns out to be one of Community’s finest installments. Because, for a show like Community, maybe doing something incredibly low concept (a simple bottle episode) is the highest concept of them all. Oh yeah…I went there. Either way, “Cooperative Caligraphy” is a god send of an episode, an impeccable mastery of the sitcom form only surpassed by one other episode…
1. “Remedial Chaos Theory”
Honestly, are you surprised? I and the rest of the internet have raved about this episode for the past two years now, and I think there’s very few people out there who would argue about “Remedial Chaos Theory” being the show’s best half hour. Because, honestly, what’s more to say about this one that hasn’t been said much better already? I love Community, but I’m not one of those rabid fans who find it to be one of the best things to ever be created, and who finds Dan Harmon to be a god walking amongst men. But even I was completely stunned by the hilarious ambitious of “Remedial Chaos Theory.” In terms of TV comedies, I won’t lie—I find both Parks and Recreation and Archer to be better shows than Community. But despite my love of those shows, they can’t hold a candle to “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It might be hyperbolic to say so but, fuck it—”Remedial Choas Theory” isn’t just the best episode of Community. It might be one of the best episodes of sitcom television ever made. Even if the rest of Community was horrible (which, from this list, it clearly isn’t), it would all be worth it for this wonderful piece of comedy storytelling.
And there you have it, my thoughts on the 10 best episodes of Community. Honorable Mentions included, I’ve listed close to 20 episodes of the show, but I could have easily listed another 20 more. Will Season 5 be able to produce an episode that reaches the height of any of the ones that landed on this list? I don’t know, but I sure can’t wait to find out.
Community Season 5 premieres tomorrow, January 2, on NBC. Be sure to check back shortly after for our thoughts on the season’s first episode, “Repilot,” and throughout the rest of the season as our coverage of one of the best comedies on TV continues!