In two weeks, we finally exit the darkest, most terrible era – Community returns to the air, in its usual Thursday 8pm timeslot that proved to be ill-fitting. But maybe it’ll be a good omen; that other show about a group of pals did pretty well there for ten years. Of course, if you’re a fan of the show you don’t need to be reminded; given the three month period in which the question “When is Community coming back?” was asked over and over to anyone with even the flimsiest connection to the show, I highly doubt the March 15th date has escaped the ears of anyone who cares.
But what the show needs is new fans. Maybe not as hardcore as the ones who have been planning flash mobs and wearing felt evil goatees in public (aka HEROES), but, you know, folks that just like the show and tune in more often than they don’t. The “problem” with Community is that it can be hard to just jump right in and get why everyone loves it so much; it’s not an impenetrable serial drama like Lost, but the dynamic and history amongst the members of the group feed into much of the humor's success . Why, you might ask? Isn’t this a sitcom? Shouldn’t it just introduce a situation, resolve it and forget all about it a week later? Shouldn’t the characters remain stuck in their lives pretty much forever and never ever grow from their experiences? Luckily for us, Dan Harmon and his absurdly talented group of writers doesn’t see it that way.
I’ll give you a perfect example of how this show does things differently/better. A friend of mine finally decided to see why I was constantly pimping the show and decided to watch a few on Hulu Plus. It only took him three weeks to catch up to the last aired episode, and then he joined in with the “When’s it coming back?” folks (I must say, I felt damn proud). But one night he asked what happened in real life that caused Chevy Chase’s character (Pierce) to be stuck wearing casts on his legs for a big chunk of season 2. As I explained, to his surprise, not a damn thing happened; his character suffered a very serious injury in an early episode, and because the writers give a shit about reality, he was put in a cast for a while, as any real human being would be. This doesn’t happen in other TV shows – if a character is pregnant they never show it until they’re reaching the sweeps period during which the baby is born (unless they are pregnant in real life, in which case they’re largely written out). If someone falls down a flight of stairs, they show no signs of injury the following week. Hell even a dead character is often forgotten about in an episode or two; just go back and watch Season 4 of Lost and see how quickly Claire forgets about Charlie (two days!).
And that is why people tend to care about the show so much (maybe a bit too much in some cases; I am aware that our “WATCH COMMUNITY!” outbursts can be a bit oft-putting). The characters grow and thus become real, and their world – as outlandish it can be at times – feels genuine. The show’s supporting cast has grown to minor Springfield-ian levels of consistency; an upcoming episode will see the death of one of them, and the list of potential suspects is pretty long. As someone said on Twitter a while back: “They use the whole buffalo on that show” – nothing is there just for the hell of it, and everything tracks. The aforementioned injury to Pierce began his downward spiral that played out across the entire season, and an epilogue gag in the Halloween episode actually came back to provide another subplot concerning the paternity of Shirley’s baby. Oh, and then there’s Beetlejuice.
So it does no good to say “If you’ve never watched the show before, start on March 15th," because it likely won’t register the same way it does with the fans. No, you need some CONTEXT. If you have the time (and the coin) to watch all 59 episodes by then (that’s only like 4 or 5 a day!), do it. But I assume you don’t, so here’s what I think can act as a pretty good primer. There will still be a few things that won’t resonate here and there, but if I’m picking the right episodes here (and you’re as intelligent a reader as I have come to expect from the BAD faithful), it won’t be long before you’re going back to see the ones you missed.
Please note, these aren’t the “best” or “funniest” episodes per se, but the ones that can overall demonstrate the different strengths the show has, with an equal blend of “ensemble” and “character-centric” episodes. I could easily have doubled this list, but I figure ten (actually eleven) episodes is perfect; enough to get a grasp on it, not so many that you’re committing too much time on something that you simply might not like. If you watch these and still don’t like it, then it’s not for you, but you’re awesome for trying.
Also, none of the clips match up to any of the listed shows. Just little stand-alone slices I spent a while hunting down on Youtube for your benefit.
1. Pilot (Episode 1.1)
Any introduction to a show should start with its pilot, and Community is no exception, unfortunately. I say that because it’s probably one of the weakest episodes in the show’s entire run, but even that’s sort of a plus in a way. If you’re following this guide, you can truly appreciate how much more assured both the writers and the actors became with these characters, many of whom barely resemble the folks they’ll become by the season’s end. Troy (Donald Glover) in particular started off as a typical dumb jock, and also had zero affection for Abed, who is now his hetero life mate. Pierce sort of has this Robert Evans thing going on, Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is just “the cool blond girl," etc. Almost all pilots feel a bit awkward in retrospect, but Community is the rare one that grew into something great, instead of just a more comfortable version of its debut.
2. Introduction To Statistics (Episode 1.7)
This was the first Halloween episode, and the one that made me realize how much I was going to love this show. From Pierce’s costume to Abed’s first appearance as Batman (with Danny Pudi offering a wonderfully absurd Christian Bale impression to go along with it), it’s one of the first season’s funniest half hours. By now everyone had settled into a groove, and the show had started getting away from the Jeff and Britta “will they/wont they” nonsense (though it’s still present) and began using the group in equal doses – everyone has their own little plot here. And it all comes down to Batman saving the day, which is how every TV show should end. It also features the first great showcase of Gillian Jacobs’ go-for-broke attitude when it comes to portraying Britta, spending the entire episode in a ridiculous costume (it wouldn’t be the last time either). If you don’t start falling in love with the show after this episode (if not during), you should probably just quit now.
3. Interpretive Dance (Episode 1.14)
As I alluded to earlier, the Troy and Britta characters from the pilot bear little resemblance to how they turned out, which makes this a must-see episode for anyone who want to see their “true” forms. It doesn’t get a lot of use out of some of the other group members, but the show has always done a fine job of balancing “everyone together doing a thing” episodes with ones that give the show’s very talented cast a showcase while using the others as backup. Some sitcoms constantly shoot themselves in the foot by trying to give everyone equal screen time every week – they don’t seem to have that mentality here, which is key to the show’s success. Also, this one contains an excess of breakaway clothing.
4. Modern Warfare (Episode 1.23)
Honestly I think “Contemporary American Poultry” is a better “movie parody” episode, but since you can’t talk about Community without paintball coming up (and again, this isn’t a “best episodes ever” list), then I’d be crucified for choosing Goodfellas over Die Hard (and others). Directed by Justin Lin (yes, the Fast Five director, who directed two other episodes in this first season, including "Interpretive Dance"), this is one of the most ambitious half hours on a sitcom I’ve ever seen, featuring lengthy (and exciting!) action sequences and the willful destruction of the show’s still needed sets. The plot concerns everyone taking paintball a little too seriously when the prize is discovered to be the chance to enroll for next semester before everyone else, which causes some inner conflict among the group as they attempt to band together against the rest of the school. Like all the show’s best episodes, it strengthens the bonds between these people who probably wouldn’t associate with one another given their different ages and backgrounds (and, if you remember from the pilot, began hanging out under false pretenses to boot). It also wraps up a season long subplot in a very satisfying, surprising way.
5. The Psychology Of Letting Go (Episode 2.3)
I put this one in because most of Season 2 is about turning Pierce into a villain, to the point where fans were starting to hope he’d just be killed off so they wouldn’t have to endure his hateful attitude while constantly questioning why the group put up with him. Well, this one plants the seeds for that behavior, as he deals with the death of his mother while being confronted (mostly by Jeff) about his strange religion, making him feel more like an outsider than usual. It’s actually quite poignant at times, which isn’t what you might expect from an episode that also features recurring fan favorite Ian Duncan (John Oliver) egging on our two female leads as they mud (well, oil) wrestle in the middle of the school’s quad. Oh, and keep an eye on the background as you remember that for every life taken away, one will take its place (especially on TV). This show can’t even let the background action go to waste!
6. Cooperative Calligraphy (Episode 2.8)
A “bottle” episode is usually a budget driven tale designed to keep the characters confined to one location for the entire time, allowing them to shoot it more quickly and make up for extra costs elsewhere. For most shows this could be a huge handicap (like those Star Treks where they never left the bridge), but for Community it resulted in one of its all-time funniest half hours, as the group argues over Annie’s missing pen, which may or may not have been taken by a ghost (Jeff explains why this is plausible). It features some of my favorite exchanges in the entire show’s run (Jeff’s response to Britta’s solution of giving “her” pen to Annie, Shirley’s confusing threat to Britta, Jeff’s reaction to the contents of Troy’s bag, and of course, everything involving Abed’s notebook), and at one point everyone ends up in their underwear. Win-win.
7. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (Episode 2.11)
The entire episode is in stop motion animation, it has the best Lost joke in the history of ever, and it made me cry. But besides that, if you still aren’t convinced that this show can literally do ANYTHING and not only make it funny, but make it work in the context of these character’s fully fleshed out lives instead of just being a throwaway gimmick that is never mentioned again, then you’re a goon. Go watch Two and A Half Men or something. I’ll be over here, singing one of the little Rankin/Bass-esque numbers that pepper the show. “Britta-Bot… programmed badly…”
8. A Fistful of Paintballs/For A Few Paintballs More (Episodes 2.23/2.24)
Woo! I can cheat! This was originally planned to air as an hour long season finale, but NBC decided to split it up. On DVD or whatever though, there is no reason not to sit and watch them back to back, as the school once again is nearly destroyed thanks to an insane paintball game with a very valuable prize (100,000 dollars). It’s not as stunt-heavy or movie reference laden as “Modern Warfare," but it has better character work (not to mention a fun turn by Josh “Sawyer” Holloway). Amidst the paintball madness, Pierce’s antagonism finally reaches a boiling point, as the others have secretly met to vote on whether or not to kick him out of the group. Over the last year or so, there have been more than a few hints that Pierce’s behavior might not be entirely separate from the man that plays him, so if you’re like me and consider Chevy to be a big draw on the show (it’s why I was interested in the first place), this one not only (sort of) explains his behavior over the season, but finally makes it easier to defend him. It also establishes a theme that runs through the third season, which is that Greendale is a special place to those who attend it, something that (given the show’s occasional meta-touches) really resonated with the fans who rallied around it when NBC was seemingly trying to take it away.
9. Competitive Ecology (Episode 3.3)
Many hated this episode, but I think it’s important to know that these folks are flawed individuals and not always easy to like. When a new student (Todd) is forced to pair up with one of them for a biology project, it brings out the worst in everyone as they fight over who should be stuck with the poor sap (who is a perfectly nice guy, and he even brings a turtle to the table!), breaking the guy’s mind in the process. Sort of like the classic "Frank Grimes" episode of The Simpsons, it dares to essentially paint our heroes as assholes, and yet somehow make it look like the new guy is wrong (except, unlike Grimes, they don’t kill Todd – he’ll be back later this season in fact). It probably didn’t help the show’s ratings much, but not since Seinfeld have I seen a sitcom episode so willing to depict the entire main cast as, well, dicks.
10. Foosball And Nocturnal Vigilantism (Episode 3.9)
Last chance. For all the craziness and daring ideas (it’s nestled between an episode-long riff on Hearts Of Darkness and a musical episode, in fact), Community IS capable of delivering well-written, funny, and yet still “normal” episodes. It has a typical sitcom approach of an A and B story, featuring traditional subplots: a standard “Friend breaks the other friend’s priceless heirloom and tries to cover it up” story, and a “two characters who don’t team up that often discover a bond they never knew they had” tale between Jeff and Shirley. The other plot is about a broken Dark Knight DVD, which allows Abed to break out his Batman disguise again, while Alison Brie makes every nerd in the audience fall in love with her just a little bit more as she tries to see if she can pull off a Christian Bale impression. While it still dips into kooky territory (an important foosball match is depicted via a Dragonball Z-esque anime sequence), it’s actually one of the few episodes this late in the show’s run where I can honestly see someone going in fresh and getting a good idea of why people love the show so much.
And here’s the best part – it’s free! Thanks to that goddamn hiatus, it’s still available on regular Hulu for the good ol’ price of zero, which is why I’ve embedded it at the end of this (still-going) article. You can also catch the classic Glee parody (“Regional Holiday Music”) and “Studies In Modern Movement," featuring some of the group’s best bonding moments ever and a terrific rendition of “Kiss From A Rose” as a bonus. As for the rest, they’re available on Hulu Plus, iTunes and Amazon (2.99 an episode), or DVD (usually around $20-25 per season), and worth every penny in my opinion.
Hell, I’ll even put my money where my mouth is – I will buy two (2) episodes of the winner’s choosing (via iTunes). Send an email to [email protected] with your name and episode choices, and I’ll pick one at random on March 4th, which is my birthday! Fitting of Community itself, I do things a little differently while you reap the awards.
Because here’s the thing: I love TV, but find most of it to be lousy, especially in the realm of sitcoms. The real world has enough drama and I devote half my waking life to horror movies – I need to laugh, dammit. Even the weakest episodes of the show pack in more laughs than I’ve ever gotten out of Big Bang Theory or 2 Broke Girls, and when it’s firing on all cylinders I will even argue that the show is funnier than The Office at its peak (no contest now), maybe even Arrested Development. But even if we ignore the laughs, I want shows like this to succeed so that others can come along that are just as unconventional and committed to storytelling. Sure, it’s amusing to see Dwight Schrute run out of a hospital an hour after his surgery to secure a better job, but it makes absolutely no sense in any context, and is so far removed from human behavior that the “documentary” approach of the show is no longer even worth noting (an episode later, the crew apparently stood around filming Ryan and Erin as they hid from a kitchen staff- so the kitchen staff didn’t notice a guy standing there pointing his camera at the underside of a counter?). Harmon and the writers never sacrifice character and story logic for a laugh; as I mentioned earlier, even stop motion episodes and a full blown zombie outbreak (ok, “zombie” in quotes) took place in the show’s canon, and even further developed the characters! That’s the sort of thing I want to be commonplace on television. And if it can’t be, then I at least want the comfort of knowing that Community is still going to be there.