The 8 Ball 02.12.13: The Top 8 Community Episodes
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Last week we finally had October 19th arrive, albeit four months too late. While that may confuse some readers, fans of NBC’s Community will know that I mean the show’s fourth season premiere. The sitcom was originally set to premiere on October 19th but was pulled inexplicably, leading the cast and fans to jokingly refer to the date as the premiere date no matter what actual day it came about. Community is an incredibly well-loved show, albeit with a vocal group of detractors, and with the first new episode of the show in nearly a year still ringing in my head, I thought this week would be a great opportunity to look at the best the show has given us to date.
Caveat: Was it a TV episode of Community? Then it was eligible. Pretty basic and self-explanatory.
“Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”
“Digital Estate Planning”
“Critical Film Studies”
One of the more regularly-touched on elements of Community is Jeff’s desire to get by with doing as little work as possible. This episode saw that get flipped on him, as his attempts to get a false credit through a fake night class under Professor Professorson becomes a conspiracy thriller. “Conspiracy Theories” is so good because, while their more overt parodies of films or film genres are also great, this one takes a bit more subtle of an approach. When Professor Professorson (I love that name) actually shows up, Jeff is astounded and sets out with Annie to find out the truth here, which turns into a twisty plot of lies and betrayal. Of course, it’s all set up as a way to teach a lesson (within a lesson within a lesson); the road to getting there and the hilarious twist-on-twist-on-twist reveal are both a lot of fun. But lest the show lose its sense of whimsy, you have Troy and Abed starting a blanket fort that turns out to grow and encompass the entire dorm…and also provides the all-important “chase that gets cut off by a big public event” moment that is seemingly requisite in every conspiracy thriller. That blanket fort, which was basically the side plot, would become an essential part of Community mythology later. “Conspiracy Theories” works so well because, like so many other episodes of the show that riff on pop culture, it fully commits to it and tackles the spoofing in an intelligent, witty way.
Everyone knows and loves the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated Christmas specials. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Frosty the Snowman…these are sacrosanct holiday traditions. Thus, it made sense that eventually Community would get around to spoofing them and of course they did, along with Polar Express for good measure. Airing as the holiday episode of the second season, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” won the show its first Emmy thanks to the character animation of Drew Hodges. The episode wasn’t the first to cover Abed’s mental issues, but it is one of the best to do so. Abed wakes up in stop-motion form and decides that this Christmas is the most important Christmas ever as a result, and the concern of the study group be damned; he’s going to take them on a journey for the meaning of Christmas. This is one of those shows that touches on a serious character subject…namely, Abed’s emotional problems and his self-submersion into pop culture that isolates him from others, and we learn a little bit of why that might be the case. We also get some solid character revelations from the rest of the group while the Rankin/Bass fun is prevalent and the writers get some other pokes in (the best, of course, being the jab that the first season DVD of Lost symbolizes a lack of payoff). This episode may just be the most emotionally touching episode of the show so far, but doesn’t lack for great laughs alongside that aspect.
Call it cheating if you like, but I am combining the two-part episodes for this list. Here’s the first such example; their two-parter from season three where the blanket fort comes front and center. When Troy and Abed decide to build the largest blanket fort ever, a disagreement over the purpose of the fort brings things to a head. The first episode of this series sets it up well and gives the other players plenty to do in the form of Britta’s attempts to shut down the new Subway; it is the second episode however where things really deliver. The Ken Burns documentary style is a brilliant choice for the framing device; getting Keith David himself to do the voiceover narration was the kind of nice touch I hope for from this show. This is one of those episodes that really exemplifies how well the show’s writers handle the absurdity while still staying in touch with the show’s core principles and characters. The best moments from this include Britta’s constant attempts to document the pillow war in pictures and failing, Pierce’s “doomsday device” and Jeff showing that he really does care about what’s going on by the fact that he actually went back to the Dean’s office to “search” for the imaginary friend hats. That last bit gives the episode the heart that it needs to be more than funny; that makes it exceptional.
“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” was a more subtle parody, or at least a more general one. There is nothing subtle or general about “Basic Lupine Urology,” which is quite possibly the most overt spoof that the show has done to date. After someone sabotages the group’s biology experiment, they set out to find out who is responsible which–of course–sets Troy and Abed on mimicking the characterizations of any number of cop teams from Law & Order while Jeff and Annie take on the prosecuting attorney roles and Shirley becomes the lieutenant. While the parodies are overt there are great things for students of pop culture to appreciate as well, right down to the title itself; “Basic Lupine Urology” is a reference to Law & Order creator Dick Wolf while Leslie Hendrix, who plays the medical examiner on Law & Order, has a cameo in the episode. This is also the episode in which Star-Burns allegedly dies due to his trunk meth lab exploding, although we later find out that he faked his death. Hilarious on several levels, this is one of those Community episodes that can be watched over and over and appreciated every time.
I’ve been playing tabletop role-playing games since I was six years old, which equates to three decades now. Like many who began rocking the nerdiest of pastimes in the early 1980s, I got my start with basic Dungeons & Dragons, or as we geeks like to refer to it “the big Red Box.” Thus, when Community decided to take on the Gary Gygax-created game for laugh value I have to admit I was a little bit nervous. And I had good reason; D&D has been parodied many times and even geek-heavy productions have been more derisively mocking than humorously parodying when they tackled the RPG. Luckily, Community did what it does best in taking on the subject with a good-humored and only gently-mocking approach. The storyline is that the study group decides to cheer Fat Neil up after Jeff notices that he’s been particularly depressed as of late and decides to have a role-playing game session. Pierce is left out of the group over fears that his insensitivity will do more harm than good, which only incenses the old codger to the point of wanting to dominate the game. This episode was one of several from Season Two which cast Pierce further into the role of an antagonist within the group, which is frankly where his character has always fit best and he does a great job here. The sight gag of Chang in blackface as a drow is phenomenal and the plot commits to relative authenticity in terms of the role-playing game itself. For the serious part of the episode we have some good work as well, with Jeff’s motive for helping Neil out being revealed as guilty over coining the name “Fat Neil.” And Pierce declaring that he “won” Dungeons and Dragons hits at a core indignity that all D&D players have had to endure at one time or another: the question “Okay, so it’s a game that you can’t really win at?” Great stuff in this one.
One of the things that was promised in the third season of Community was “no more paintball.” I for one was disappointed, as I loved the paintball game episodes. They are an essential part of the show and among the first episodes to really show how over the top the series was willing to go. The first one, “Modern Warfare,” set the template for the show’s “high-stakes” contests; Dean Pelton decides that winner of the paintball game will get priority registration. That turns Greendale into an all-out war…and correspondingly, an all-out war on action film clichés. Jeff’s Die Hard outfit, Chang’s Hard Boiled-inspired entrance, the “bullet time” battle…and that’s just a few. You also get references to The Warriors, The Terminator, 28 Days Later, Predator, Scarface and many more films. The show also proved that it wasn’t afraid to take shots at itself, such as the deconstruction of Jeff and Britta’s relationship and why many fans thought it didn’t work. “Modern Warfare” raised the bar on what this show was capable of and gave us a funny and yet exciting action experience at the same time.
When it comes to paintball episodes the first season’s is great, but the second season’s just blows it out of the water. Another fabled two-parter, “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” took the plot device from the first season and put it within a higher-stakes concept, with the ridiculousness level raised via a plot by rival City College to destroy Greendale and put it out of business. Right from the starting moments you know you’re in for something amazing here, as Fat Neil races down a hallway only to have Annie save him from a gang of thugs…and then he tries (and fails) to take her down. When Neil reminds her of their D&D escapades, she says “That was a game….this is paintball.” Again, you have to appreciate how much Community commits to their gimmicks. This one has pop culture references a-plenty; it starts off with a spaghetti western feel for the first episode and then shifts to Star Wars in time for the second and along the way has time for nods to Blazing Saddles, The Warriors (again), World of Warcraft and more. The casting of Josh Holloway as the mercenary paintballer is an inspired choice and while this didn’t place the episodes on the list, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Alison Brie has never been hotter than when she’s a paintball pistol-wielding badass.
It’s impressive that amidst all the pop culture references, the writers still find time to advance the characters and their motivations. We have Pierce’s near-kickout by the group and Annie’s loyalty to him, which is of course severely tested when Pierce betrays them. But more to the point, seeing everyone in this completely outlandish situation allows us to look at them outside of their environment and understand them better. It changes out perception of Pierce’s character from here on out; yes, he’s undoubtedly still a villain but he is more sympathetic because we understand him more. This two-parter is quintessential Community and depicts the show’s core principles and characters at perhaps their finest moments.
To be honest, I actually favor my #2 choice more in terms of pure enjoyment factor, but “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the show’s best episode bar none. Taking a simple situation–Troy and Abed hosting a housewarming party–it creates a surprisingly intelligent exploration of chaos theory and how the smallest differences can drastically alter situations. Writer Chris McKenna skillfully sets up a ton of jokes that take time to pay off depending on what reality that we see. As we see individual characters vanish to get the pizza, we see how the group functions without each of them (and how they function alone), which makes it a great character study to boot. The writing for this episode deservedly earned McKenna an Emmy nomination, which is criminally only the second Emmy nod in the show’s history. The cast do a remarkably impressive job of running through the same situations over and over and sticking to what they’ve done before until things start to go off-kilter. And yet, with all that attention paid to the plot, the episode manages to be incredibly funny as well. I dare you to watch this episode and not have “Roxanne” running through your head for at least a week afterward. It keeps us engrossed not only through the humor, but to see what happens in the next timeline and it fits within the overall scope of the series by forecasting the problems coming throughout the third season via the Darkest Timeline, and the culmination in which Evil Abed tries to make that timeline come to past gives us a pay-off that lasts beyond just this half-hour. It’s a brilliant episode of television and the best Community has offered to date.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season: Season Nine (1971)
Episodes Watched: 593
Last Serial Completed: Day of the Daleks – The Doctor and Jo are sent by UNIT to investigate reports of a ghost appearance in a house where a critical peace conference is being held that could prevent world war. Before long they are plunged ahead 200 years into a future where the Daleks reign supreme over Earth, with a small human resistance with a way to jump back to the past their (and mankind’s) only hope for aid.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 36
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.