10 of the very best ‘cult classic’ defining episodes of Dan Harmon’s Community
Even though it ended only a few years ago, it is not too early to call Community a Cult Classic. Viewer ratings were lousy throughout its 6 season run (5 on NBC, 1 on Yahoo! Screen), but its online following painted a different picture. Befitting the name of the show, the online fanbase was huge and very passionate, and with good reason. With an ambitious approach to comedy, creator Dan Harmon and his writing staff crafted episodes unlike any other show on television, often to great success. In this article we recognize 10 episodes that made Community the Cult Classic we believe it is.
10] Contemporary American Poultry
In this episode, the study group puts a plan into motion to get their hands on the only edible food from the school cafeteria: Chicken Fingers. It involves framing the previous cook Starburns (His name is Alex!), in order make Abed the new fry cook of Greendale. From the moment Jeff explains his plan to the group, the episode changes completely. An Abed voice over starts and we move into a montage reminiscent of the mafia movie Goodfellas. “That was the day we stopped being a family, and started being a family. In italics.”
What works so well about this episode is that it is both an effective spoof of mafia movies, and tells a story that gives us deeper insight into its characters, most notably Jeff and Abed. Abed relishes in his new role as fry cook and effectively becomes The Godfather of Greendale, which unsettles Jeff, whose idea of self worth is very much dependent on his role as group leader. In the end, Jeff realizes that Abed was only doing it as a way to connect with people, and that he should not become jealous if he is not the centre of attention. The two come to an understanding and share some tater tots on the counter, Sixteen Candles style. It works so well, because it shows that these characters are real people and not just empty joke machines.
Aside from it being a very funny episode of television, Contemporary American Poultry is also a very significant episode for Community as a whole. It is the first time where Community really changes up its format. It shows that they can make great television out of themed episodes, which is why it became a staple of the series in later seasons. It is a big part of what makes Community stand out from other TV comedies.
9] Mixology Certification
Mixology Certification is another episode of Community that is great because of the insight it gives us into its characters. The study group finds out that it is Troy’s 21st birthday, and decide that an appropriate celebration is in order: they need to go to a bar.
What starts out as a joyous experience, turns sour as the night progresses. Britta and Jeff are too focused on ‘being cool’ and one upping each other that they forget to have fun, Shirley is too worried about embarrassing photos of herself to hang out with the group, Abed gets bummed out when he struggles to communicate with a man hitting on him, Annie psyches herself out when she pretends to be someone she’s not, and Pierce cannot even make it through the door in his wheelchair because he is too proud to ask for help.
In the end, Troy acts responsibly and drives everyone home. When he escorts Annie to her home, she admits that she pretended to be someone else because she is not sure who she is supposed to be. Troy comforts her by telling her that she is who she is, and that’s cool. It is a very tender moment and it shows the role Troy has within this group. Jeff might be the de facto leader, but Troy is the responsible one. Even though there is a sort of childlike wonder to him, he is the calming influence that makes the group function. And this is something we see again in a later episode, one that is coming up later in this countdown.
The episode contains a lot of funny moments, like Troy not realising that he is turning 21 “because everyone is 10 for two years…because fifth grade is hard for every…one…MOM! HOW MANY LIES HAVE I BEEN LIVING?!”, but in the moments of realness the episode truly shines.
8] Regional Holiday Music
Throughout its run, Community was plagued with bad ratings. One reason for this was that it shared a timeslot with Glee, the musical television series on FOX. The show had already poked fun at Glee before, but in Regional Holiday Music this was taken to a whole new level. The study group is asked to fill in for the Greendale Glee Club, but they refuse. However, one by one every member is convinced to join through various musical numbers.
The episode is basically a musical and a horror film in one. Glee is a virus that turns unwilling participants into gleeful singers who look forward to something called ‘Regionals’, and one by one the members of the study group fall victim to it, until Britta is the last person standing. It unfolds as an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is the best way to explain the popularity of Glee to be fair.
Because it is a Christmas episode, it has an underlying theme of togetherness. But the quality of this episode really depends on the songs, and as its inclusion on this countdown indicates, they knocked it out of the park. All the songs are hilarious, from Troy and Abed’s Christmas rap, which allows Donald Glover to showcase some of his Childish Gambino rap skills, to the choir of little children that tempt Shirley by not knowing the meaning of Christmas. Community shows it can do Glee better than Glee itself, which is why it is number 8 on this countdown.
Epidemiology is the second Holiday themed episode on the list. They are a constant factor throughout the first few seasons of Community, and the show always rises to the occasion. It starts out as a standard Halloween party on the Greendale campus. Although, maybe standard is the wrong word, given that it is hosted by Dean Pelton and he is using his iPod for the music, so the only songs playing are by 1970’s pop band ABBA and personal voice memo’s to himself. Oh and the leftover meat he bought at an army surplus store turns people into zombies. It is the kind of crazy thing only Community gets away with.
The central character of the episode is Troy, who struggles between either having fun with Abed or coming across as mature. Both of his costumes in the episode are great, from his Ripley suit (“Get away from those hotties!”) to his sexy Dracula outfit (“I don’t need to know which Dracula to know I’m a Dracula.”), and the rest of the gang’s costumes are similarly on point. They do not offer much protection to zombies however, so the gang needs to figure out a way to stop the infection from spreading. Annie comes up with the idea to lower the temperature of the building, and Abed volunteers himself and Troy for the job. Troy is reluctant to risk his life, because he wants to stick to his mature persona, but he has a change of heart after he sees that Abed is willing to sacrifice himself for him (“Make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end.”). Being mature is helping your friends when they need you, and that is what he does.
Of course the great thing about this episode is the inherent craziness that comes from the zombie apocalypse parody, but what makes the episode stand out to me is the soundtrack. One would assume nobody would think of ABBA as the sound of the apocalypse, but here we are. This episode is the reason that everytime I hear Dancing Queen, I hear Abed shout “Zombie Attaaack!” in my head, and that lasting effect is why this episode is number 7.
6] Paradigms of Human Memory
You have probably seen them before: episodes that consist of nothing other than clips from previous episodes. These clipshows scream budget saving and are usually the worst. Except when Community parodies it of course.
The majority of Paradigms of Human Memory consists of clips of earlier adventures, but the twist is that these are adventures that we have never seen. It is really inventive and one of those ideas where you wonder why nobody had thought of it before. As the group is making their final diorama of the year, they find out that Annie’s Boobs (Troy’s lovable monkey from Contemporary American Poultry) was the one that stole Annie’s pen in Cooperate Calligraphy (coincidentally the next episode on this list). This causes them to reminisce about the past year, but in typical study group fashion they quickly start arguing about who to blaim for the dark things that happened throughout the year.
Community is often at its funniest when the characters are bouncing off of each other in quick succession, and we get tons of that here. On top of that, the new clips are hilarious (“You can yell at me all you want, I’ve seen enough movies to know that popping the back of a raft makes it go faster!”). Highlights include a montage of ‘romantic’ moments between Pierce and Abed that pokes fun at shipping, and a hilariously non-sensical Winger-speech comprised of all different clips. And on top of that, it blessed us with the phrase “Six seasons and a movie!”
5] Cooperate Calligraphy
A bottle episode is an episode that is designed to be as cheap as possible. Usually it is filmed on an existing set with as few non-regular cast members as possible. So when Annie freaks out about her pen and we spend the entire episode within the study room, Abed is the first one to point this out.
This episode is classic Community. It starts out with a minor problem, then quickly escalates into chaos. Because the entire episode is just these characters interacting with each other, it allows them all to shine. It is a testament to the quality of the show that they can make such a funny episode out of something so trivial as a missing pen, and a lot of it is due to smart character building. We know how close these people are, so when a pen goes missing, that is something that could potentially damage the trust they have in each other. This is also why they choose to believe that a ghost has taken it, as Troy had been suggesting the entire time. It is a sweet moment, because it shows us that even though they often fight, they really do care for each other.
A really cool detail that is worth looking for on a rewatch, is that you can see who steals the pen in the first minute of the episode.
4] Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking
Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking is Community’s take on the mockumentary format from shows like The Office or Parks and Recreation. Pierce is in the hospital after taking too many painkillers, and he wants to bequeath everyone a gift before he dies. Not that he is actually dying of course, he wants to take revenge because he feels the study group has been disrespectful to him. Every gift seems nice at first, like a chance to meet your favourite celebrity, but they are closer to psychological torment for these characters. And it is beautiful to watch.
While it is certainly fun to hear Community poke fun at the mockumentary format, the good thing about the episode is that the writers clearly acknowledge its strengths as well. Early in the episode Abed says “It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people talking to a camera.”, which is a subtle dig at the success of other comedies like Modern Family. But the writers are smart enough to recognize that those cuts can be a valuable source of comedy. Some of the episodes best moments involve quick cuts to footage of characters freaking out, like Jeff or Troy for example.
This episode contains many great moments, but Troy being paralyzed with fear of disappointing his idol LeVar Burton stands out. It is one of the most memorable moments in all of Community and Donald Glover steals the show.
3] Modern Warfare
Modern Warfare is huge. It was THE episode that got people talking about Community. It was clips of this episode that made me start watching it in the first place. The success of this one episode was so significant that they repeated it in three more episodes (four if you count the gas leak year). And it is easy to see why.
From the moment Jeff wakes up to a seemingly abandoned campus covered in different colours of paint, you can sense this episode is special. He finds Garrett, covered in paint, who explains to him the madness that unfolded when the price of the paintball tournament was revealed, but before he can finish he is shot with a paintball gun by Leonard. Jeff, who does not have a paintball gun of his own is helpless, until Abed appears in Neo-like fashion to save the day. “Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.” The stage is set, Community is doing an action movie.
What follows is great moment after great moment: Annie popping out of a trash can during an ambush, the Glee club using songs to lure unsuspecting passengers into a trap, Shirley reciting scripture when shooting guys on rollerblades, and my favourite of all, Chang as the ultimate action movie badguy. Ken Yeong is the MVP of the episode. The slow mo of him entering the study room in his beige suit accompanied by Chinese chanting, unloading on Jeff and Britta with an automatic paintball rifle is one of the most epic things I have ever seen in a sitcom. And he tops it off by blowing himself up with a paintball timebomb, all the while maniacal laughing. It is absolutely thrilling and funny at the same time. A true classic.
2] Remedial Chaos Theory
Remedial Chaos Theory is one of the most ambitious half hours of television I have ever seen. Troy and Abed are throwing a housewarming party and they order pizza for dinner, but someone has to go downstairs to get them. Jeff suggest rolling a die to determine who has to go, but Abed warns him that this will create six different timelines. It is the sort premise that either fails spectacularly or produces magic, and boy does it deliver.
The great thing about the structure of the episode is that the writers can set up jokes in an early timeline and delay the payoff, making it all the more special when the payoff does come. We see that Pierce has bought a bottle of Serbian Rum, Britta is smoking a joint in the bathroom, Annie is carrying a gun in her purse (definitely not a pregnancy test) and Pierce has brought a Norwegian troll doll because he knows Troy is terrified of it. All of these things come together when Troy goes to get the pizzas, and the result is glorious. We have already seen in Mixology Certification that Troy is the calming influence that keeps the study group from spiralling out of control, so naturally when he leaves, all hell breaks loose.
It is a perfectly crafted moment in a perfectly crafted episode, Community at its best. In fact, there is only one episode I would rate higher…
1] Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
“Gather close that you might harken…the story of Fat Neil.” Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a beautiful episode of television from start to finish. You could boil it down to ‘the study group plays Dungeons & Dragons’, but it is more than that, although that in and of itself is admirable. Them playing D&D is never the joke; instead the writers find comedy in the situations that naturally ensue once the game plays out, all the while explaining the game so people who have never played it can still understand it.
What really makes this episode into something special is the reason they have for playing. In a brilliant Lord of the Rings-style cold open we are introduced to ‘Fat Neil’, a young man who is bullied because of his weight and finds solace in the imaginary world of Dungeons & Dragons. When he gives all of his D&D books to Jeff, stating that he “wouldn’t need them anymore”, the group decides to help by inviting him to a game of D&D. Needless to say, Pierce is not invited.
In this episode, the character of Pierce is probably the most antagonistic he has ever been, but it works. He has a legitimate reason to be angry, because the group has excluded him. He has known these people for over a year, so naturally he is hurt. But he takes out his frustrations in the wrong way, by insulting Neil and taking his sword. It is why everybody chooses to feel sorry for him at the end; he is unable to see that this behavior is why he was excluded in the first place. But inadvertantly, it is also what saves Neil. A good campaign needs a good villain, and Pierce fulfils this role to a T. It gives the group a chance to work together towards a common goal, and for Neil to feel included and appreciated. He is able to stand up for himself and defeat the villain, something that would not have been possible if Pierce was not there to play the villain in the first place. It is classic fantasy storytelling, which makes it work so well in the framework of this episode.
The episode is able to accomplish all of this without getting heavy handed. It has the sense of fun that a group of friends playing a game should have. This is also why the episode is infinitely rewatchable, the characters are taking it seriously and are having fun with it. Scenes like Lavernica (Britta) connecting with a gnome waiter, or Hector the Well-Endowed (Annie) seducing an elf maiden while Troy takes notes, are moments that show the beauty of role-playing. It is the episode that truly embodies the quality of Community: it can tell a funny story and make it resonate at the same time.
That brings us to the end of this list. Do you have any other episodes of Community that you would have liked to see included? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: NBC