As a show in which almost every other episode pokes fun at a particular franchise or genre, Community has a number of standout episodes, each of which is more ambitious than the last. Ranging from all-out homages to iconic shows and movies, to large scale genre cliches or simply just really funny episodes, Community made it all look easy. And was a show that managed to comment on pop culture as a whole, whilst continually developing its own characters and storylines, creating one of the most beloved, critically acclaimed, and underappreciated shows ever.
Basic Lupine Urology (Season 3, Episode 17)
Basic Lupine Urology goes beyond the subtle homage of many Community episodes and instead makes the comparison a clear part of the episode. From the opening credits scene to the camera work, the music, and the episode structure itself the entire episode is Law and Order through and through. Even the episode’s title is a reference to Dick Wolf the creator of Law and Order (Lupine meaning Wolf).
After the Study Group’s yam is ‘murdered’ the group believes there is more to the case than meets the eye. Over the first part of the episode, we see Troy and Abed, alternating between good cop and bad cop, investigating the crime, after they find the apparent culprit the second half of the story shows us Jeff and Annie acting as the prosecutors. As one of the shows most committed homages, Basic Lupine Urology gives us the perfect blend of Community and Law and Order.
Cooperative Calligraphy (Season 2, Episode 8):
Just over a year into their adventure-filled studying, the group gives us, as Abed puts it, a ‘bottle episode’, in which they aren’t allowed to leave the study room. The episode not only shows us how quickly things can descend into anarchy within the group but in the end how much they all really love each other.
With Annie sick of her pens going missing, she decides that no one is allowed to leave the study room until she has named and shamed the thief. Of course, it turns out that it was Annie’s Boobs (the monkey) all along, which the group doesn’t actually discover until a few episodes later. Throughout the episode we see each of the characters turn on each other in an attempt to hide some sort of secret.
The group eventually resorts to fully stripping off their clothes so that they can prove no one is hiding the pen. Considering not a lot happens, the episode shows off everything Community has to offer (quite literally), with each of the actors as good as ever, we get some serious character development and even the beginning of the Chang/Shirley baby revelation.
Contemporary American Poultry (Season 1, Episode 21):
Introducing Annie’s Boobs (the monkey) is probably enough to earn the episode a place on the list, but its intelligent and hilarious take on both Mafia movies and crime shows in a classic Community style make the episode one of the shows best. When chicken fingers become a currency of sorts in Greendale’s food hall, a plan is hatched for Abed to take over working in the cafeteria, and thus he will be able to decide who gets the chicken. At first, everything is going well, and the whole Study Group begins to see the benefits, however soon enough Jeff realises Abed is quickly becoming the new leader, and that the rest of the gang are becoming manipulative and spoiled.
The episode is hilarious and whilst parodying almost every mafia/crime movie from the Godfather to Goodfellas, it still manages to tell a meaningful character-driven story. The episode shows both the fickle, materialistic, nature of society or at least the students of Greendale, as well as highlighting the difficulties Abed has interacting with people throughout his day to day life.
Modern Warfare (Season 1, Episode 23):
The first time we see the students of Greendale resort to all out (paintball) warfare it’s over ‘priority registration’, with each of the students attempting to win in order to arrange their classes for the next semester. This first foray into the paintball covered world of Greendale gives us an action movie homage for the ages with references ranging from Die Hard to Saving Private Ryan.
But its not like Community to just give us a great episode with a load of references and jokes, there are plenty of important character moments here too, with each of the study group deciding that Shirley should get the registration in order to spend more time with her kids, well everyone except Jeff.
Jeff and Britta also finally hook up (be that for paintball related subterfuge or not). The episode spawned a number of sequels (with the paintball episodes, and perhaps Modern Warfare, in particular, being some of the shows most famous) and as a whole showcases exactly what Community does best; great character development, a clever story in its own right, all tied together in some clever homages and social commentary.
A Fist Full of Paintballs (Season 2, Episode 23):
Following up Season 1’s paintball episode (Modern Warfare) was no simple task, and yet A Fist Full of Paintball’s gives us another great paintball/action movie homage episode, this time turning to Westerns for inspiration. Each of the characters takes on a particular character trope, and are pretty much all out for themselves.
Instead of priority registration this time the group is fighting for a cash prize of $100,000. Even though it’s the first of a two part story A Fist Full of Paintballs is still a full narrative in itself, and definitely one of the shows most impressive episodes. The Western genre is fully embraced, from the opening and Annie’s ‘out on her own to survivor’ type, to Pearce and his Fort Hawthorne (a hilarious safe haven for the students of Greendale) and even the mysterious ‘Black Rider’ (played by Josh Holloway) who roams the halls of Greendale taking out anyone in his path.
The whole episode is underpinned with the idea that Pearce has gotten too much for the group, and that his endless attention seeking, moods, and inappropriate sense of humour has led the group to want him out for good. The episode not only delivers a hilarious and truly authentic homage, but sheds new light on Pearce as a character and continues to do what the show does so well; combine humour, hilarious genre references, and emotional character arcs.
Digital Estate Planning (Season 3, Episode 20):
In Community’s third season we got to see the Study Group’s version of a ‘lets play’, with a brilliantly crafted video game episode. The episode is framed around the idea that Pearce’s dad, Cornelius, has set up an elaborate video game for Pearce (or someone else) to complete and eventually win the prize of the Hawthorne empire. Over the course of the episode Cornelius’ former assistant, Gilbert, decides he also wants to play – believing he deserves the money as much as anyone else, after what Cornelius put him through during his years of service (as well as turning out to be Cornelius’ son).
The game itself is another of Community’s perfect homages, being fully reminiscent of many older 8-bit games (whilst being impossibly complex), and perfectly portrays how each of the characters would act in this video game world. What could of been entertaining enough as simply ‘the Study Group playing through a very advanced (and super racist) retro video game’ manages to be yet another homage filled, ambitious, and impressive Community episode that is still able to advance Pearce’s arc significantly, giving him the family he’s always wanted, and even resolving some of his father issues.
Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (Season 2, Episode 9):
A hilarious take on the crime and thriller genre this Season 2 episode is filled with intrigue, twists and turns, and also introduces us to the first iteration of blanket town. The episode follows Jeff who claims to of signed up to a class on conspiracy theories but is confronted by Annie and the Dean for making the class up. To prove to them he is telling the truth Jeff takes them to meet ‘Professor Proffessorson’ (Greendale’s resident conspiracy theory expert), but when the trio actually meet the Professor Jeff admits to Annie that he was lying and had made up both the class and its teacher, and so Professor Proffessorson’s existence leads the two onto a series of mysteries and conspiracies deep within Greendale. Eventually ending with a dramatic series of shootouts.
The episode is not only a great homage to the thriller genre, but a truly intriguing story in itself, with each twist and turn having an equally shocking and hilarious follow up. Adding Troy and Abed’s school-wide blanket fort to a perfect crime thriller is something only Community could pull off, and it does so impeccably, resulting in one of the best, and most unique episodes of the show.
Pillows and Blankets (Season 3, Episode 14):
Community has explored the documentary format a few times over its run, with Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (S2E16) and Documentary Filmmaking Redux (S3E8) both presented as Abed filming the students of Greendale in a mockumentary style. Pillows and Blankets, however, is presented as a full-scale Ken Burns-esque documentary chronicling the events of the ‘war’ between Troy’s Blanket Town and Abed’s Pillowsburg.
As Troy and Abed lead their respective armies, the rest of the cast adapt to their new surroundings; Pearce turns himself into a pillow covered monster capable of taking on any of Chang’s security force (the Changlorius Basterd’s), Annie spends her time treating the ‘injured’, Britta does her best at photographing the horror of the pillow/blanket war, and Jeff plays both sides in order to keep anyone from doing any school work for as long as possible.
Everything about the episode is perfect, from the still photos of various characters with their thoughts being read out over the top, to the various ‘talking head’ segments with characters detailing their traumatic pillowy experiences, and especially Keith David (who actually became a full cast member in Season 6)’s narration explaining the various highs and lows of the war. With the main plot focussing on Troy and Abed’s relationship, yet again the show strikes an incredible balance between a hilarious and outright ridiculous set of events, as well as a touching and emotional character driven story.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (Season 2, Episode 14):
In classic Community style Advanced Dungeons and Dragons combines pop culture, a wide range of social issues, and a brilliantly unique episode of television. With the entire episode taking part almost entirely in the study room, the group literally sits and plays a game of Dungeons and Dragons for most of the episode, in an attempt to make ‘Fat Neal’ feel less depressed.
Over the course of the episode we discover the origins of Fat Neal’s unfortunate nickname, Pearce throws a tantrum and become the episode’s villain, and Annie embraces her true calling as ‘Hector the Well Endowed’. The episode is rounded up in time for a touching and emotional ending, showing (in a very Community way) that the best approach to seclusion, and bullying, is acceptance, forgiveness, and being the better person.
Remedial Chaos Theory (Season 3, Episode 4):
An episode in which we see parallel dimensions and slightly altered versions of the same events over and over again doesn’t sound too out of place for a show like Doctor Who, or even Doctor Space-Time, but for a weekly sitcom, it’s not exactly the norm. Remedial Chaos Theory is probably one of the boldest and most intelligent episodes of TV ever; it combines an interesting look at how the group interacts based on who is and isn’t present, shows us how disastrous the groups antics can be (in one case Troy and Abed’s new apartment literally burns down), and introduces us to the darkest timeline.
The whole concept comes from Jeff rolling a die to decide which of the Study Group will go downstairs to collect the pizza, Abed points out that Jeff is now creating various timelines, in each of which a different person is selected and events play out differently. The group shrugs off Abed’s comments, but the audience gets to see all of the different timelines. Throughout each of them, we see Annie and Jeff get closer, Pearce being Pearce, and lots of the group singing ‘Roxanne’. Each version is cleverly bookmarked by particular events such as Abed showing off his Raiders of the Lost Arc model, Jeff hitting his head, Annie’s Gun and the pizza delivery buzzer (that shows the beginning of each new scenario). Remedial Chaos Theory is perhaps the best example of what Community is, it’s a smart and superbly entertaining episode, which not only gives us a boldly unique 22 minutes of TV but manages to progress its characters in a subtle but meaningful way.
With consistent quality, a great approach to the meta nature of the show, and attention to detail and running jokes on the level of shows like Arrested Development, Community is a stand out TV show in every sense. The series’ approach to experimenting with its cast and format give some amazingly unique episodes of TV, and whether its fully animated episodes like GI Jeff, live action paintball warfare like we see multiple times throughout the series, or even just more simple episodes with no specific genre or movie to poke fun at, the show delivers, again and again, making up one of the most ambitious and enjoyable TV shows ever.