Thursday, August 11, 2016
Top 10 Community episodes
Now, up until this point, I haven't branched off from writing about film-related material at all, so this is something totally different for me. There have been relatively few TV shows I feel I have much to say about, and I've never been too big into most of what everyone else watches (I only just now caught up on Game Of Thrones after 4 years of ignoring it), not because I think I'm too good for popular television or anything stupid like that, but I just find it difficult at times to keep up with something that airs new material once a week for a few months out of the year.
That being said, I have decided to break my stupid barriers and try my hand at writing about what little I *do* know in regards to TV and other forms of entertainment. I doubt these posts with drown out the mass amounts of film writing still to come, so anyone who has an interest in what I have to say about movies and doesn't give a crap about TV, music, standup comedy, or whatever other dumb crap I decide to write about (hell, maybe I'll even branch off into Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon) won't need to endure too much of this other stuff, as I will always have more things to write about when it comes to film. So now on to the subject at hand.
Community has been one of my favorite shows for years now, and has been a source of entertainment and pure bliss for me ever since I first started watching it like 6 years ago. As most fans would agree, it was the first 3 seasons of the show that really stand out, and watching a majority of the last 3 seasons was pretty painful, considering how much more dumbed-down the whole thing got during the creator Dan Harmon's absence in season 4. Granted, it got pretty good at times during the last 2 seasons, but the magic was gone and with more than one of the main cast members leaving the show, it didn't really feel like the show we had grown to love. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that almost every episode featured on this list is from the first 3 seasons, as it should be.
This is an opinion list, as all my posts are, as I make no claims that this is anything but my own personal bias and thoughts here, so if you disagree, you're not really standing up to an army in defiance, just some pudgy guy in shorts in his living room. So keep that in mind, noble crusaders, as we journey forward.
10. PARADIGMS OF HUMAN MEMORY
Season 2, Episode 21 - The "flashback" episode
Dir. Tristram Shapeero
Pretty much every comedy does a flashback episode. Generally late in a season, when all the good ideas have run out, the writing staff decide they've earned the right to phone one in by writing an episode in which they pat themselves on the back by referencing all the great, funny and memorable moments of the show leading up to that point. And being the meta machine that Dan Harmon and Community is, it only made sense that the most self-aware TV show around would make an episode about just that, but with one key difference: none of the moments referenced in this episode were ever on the show. It's a genius little jab at the lack of creativity of other shows out there, taking what is generally a very lazy set-up used to avoid writing anything new, and instead packing it with dozens of episodes worth of material while playing off the redundant nature of the gang's exploits. It's just a perfect example of some of the best aspects of the show.
9. GEOTHERMAL ESCAPISM
Season 5, Episode 5 - The "hot lava" episode
Dir. Joe Russo
Community is one of the few live-action shows unafraid to totally commit to novelty episodes, the kind of high-concept one-off adventures generally only seen in cartoons. And after an entire season of seeing failed attempts, it was great to see the show finally pull one off. The only episode either of the Russo brothers directed in the last 3 seasons of the show, I can't help but to feel Joe was brought in as a special favor to make this episode work, as it wasn't just about making a fun and exciting episode to help win back a disillusioned audience, but needed to be an adequate send-off for one of the show's most popular characters. Seeing the show turn Greendale Community College upside down yet again was a gleeful moment, and after the disappointing absence of Pierce Hawthorne, we got to see Jonathan Banks' Buzz Hickey pick up the reins as one of the best single-episode villains since some of Pierce's shining moments in season 2. This felt like the first time the show had really tried to make something great for quite a while, and I would be lying if I said I didn't get at least a little choked up by the goodbye scene at this episode's conclusion.
8. REMEDIAL CHAOS THEORY
Season 3, Episode 3 (aired as Episode 4) - The "multiple timelines" episode
Dir. Jeff Melman
Leave it up to Community to make an episode about trying to decide who should answer the door to get pizza, and somehow turn it into one of the most interesting character studies on TV. Tossing the dice to see who has to be the one to leave creates 6 different timelines that show just how each character might interact with one another depending on the absence of an individual member of the group. Many of the differences are subtle and relatively interchangeable, but other scenarios lead to consequences you could never imagine. This is just an incredibly-written episode, which takes the redundancies of its set-up and gives each slight difference a whole new meaning. This isn't one of the funniest episodes of the show, but it is one of the few that gets you thinking about how tiny decisions could completely change everything -- and almost totally at random. And though the absurdity of the "darkest timeline" is hilarious and exaggerated, it still left enough of an impact on Abed that they incorporated it into his character throughout the rest of the season (and then again, even later in the show). It's just very impressive seeing this show flip the mundane into something so clever.
7. AERODYNAMICS OF GENDER
Season 2, Episode 7 - The "secret trampoline" episode
Dir. Tristram Shapeero
Unlike most of the entries on this list, this episode makes the cut not due to its conceptual or technical effectiveness, but more just because it's so damn funny. This story here is split between the goings on with Abed, serving as Shirley, Britta, and Annie's insult machine, and with Jeff and Troy finding a secret trampoline on campus that they have to keep hidden from Pierce. The ideas behind this episode aren't the most flashy or anything, but the material given to some of the characters and the effectiveness of the humor make it much more than what could have been a fairly standard episode. We get to see Abed come completely unfiltered, as he gets egged on by the girls to "take down the bitches" that they feel are ruining the school. So he turns himself into an insulting one-liner machine that spouts out anything and everything that can make his insecure victims feel bad about themselves, and the result is hilarious. And the bizarre whimsical qualities of the scenes with Jeff and Troy contrasted with Pierce's desperate attempts to discover what those two are hiding is equally as funny. This also marks the first episode in which Pierce decidedly serves as a villain, an arch that proceeds throughout the rest of the season. To spoil the conclusion in their part of the story would be doing everyone a great disservice, as it is one of the funnier moments in the entire show. No, this isn't a mind-blowing original episode, but it always gets me laughing, even after like a dozen viewings.
6. PILLOWS AND BLANKETS
Season 3, Episode 14 - the "Civil War" episode
Dir. Tristram Shapeero
The relationship between Troy and Abed is one of the most natural, funny, and all-round effective in not just this show, but in all of TV. So seeing the rift between these two that had been growing over the course of several episodes leading up to this one was upsetting and had you hoping for a positive outcome. In the previous episode, the Dean of Greendale is made aware that the giant blanket fort Troy is building on campus could be a potential Guinness World Record holder, but in order to do so, the pillow-only section built by Abed would first need to be torn down. Troy wants Abed to trust him with this and let him achieve something, and Abed doesn't want to compromise what he's doing for the sake of a title he doesn't care about. Being the campus-wide event that it is, everyone gets involved, and the whole school erupts into a war. So, in the truest nature of the show, it took a silly and childish set-up, built massive consequences around it, and went all-out with the presentation of it. Bringing in Keith David to narrate, and presenting it in the spirit of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary miniseries, this is one of those episodes that really gets you wondering how a show like this could have ever existed. The style in which this episode is made makes you feel like you're watching something much bigger and more serious than it is, with a lot of great jokes landing at the expense of nearly every character involved. The ending wraps up their conflict in a satisfying and heartfelt way, and even manages to allow Jeff his own defining moment.
5. DIGITAL ESTATE PLANNING
Season 3, Episode 20 - the "8-bit video game" episode
Dir. Adam Davidson
Pierce's despicable and filthy rich father has passed away, and as stipulated by his will, Pierce must bring 7 of his friends along with him to win in a video game he designed for the specific purpose of toying with his son one last time. Seeing as how Pierce only has the 6 friends, the final empty slot is filled up by his father's loyal assistant, who just so happens to be a master at the game. Oh, and there's a catch: whoever wins the game wins his inheritance. The set-up here is a little convoluted, but the way the game design is pulled off and how fun and interesting the whole world they built inside of it is, it makes you feel like they had this very big, very cool idea and didn't care how, but just wanted to find a way to fit it into an episode. And it actually comes together really, really well, blending lots of humor and creativity into the design of a game that's massive and often hilariously offensive. The assistant played by Giancarlo Esposito (many will know him as Gus Fringe from Breaking Bad) is a lot of fun, and a formidable opposition for the group, giving the whole affair a greater sense of urgency. But, as could be expected from an episode like this, it's Abed who makes the whole thing work, illustrating yet again why he is one of the most popular TV characters in recent memory. This episode came at a time in the season where everything had gotten so wrapped up in the over-arching story and hostile take-over of Greendale, that a break from all the continuity was a very welcome relief. As one of the last great episodes of the show, it's hard not to look back at this 8-bit adventure fondly.
4. MODERN WARFARE
Season 1, Episode 23 - The first "paintball" episode
Dir. Justin Lin
A few episodes before this one came out, we saw the show's first fully committed foray into homage with the Goodfellas/chicken fingers episode. It was really weird, but also really clever and a lot of fun. But little did we know that wasn't as far as the show would take it, and that episode merely served as a warm up for things to come. In one of the last episodes of the first season, we see what was originally intended to be a harmless game of paintball assassin on the Greendale campus turn into all-out post-apocalyptic warfare over the first place prize: priority registration for classes. Playing off the smallest, most mundane events, the cartoonish reality of this show turns a simple game into complete insanity, and with this episode totally transforms the show and the boundaries it could push. This was the episode that really changed the trajectory of the show, and is still one of the most entertaining to watch today -- especially when Chang enters the fray in slow motion, accompanied by doves and classical music (like a John Woo movie). Classic.
3. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS
Season 2, Episode 14 - The "D&D" episode
Dir. Joe Russo
The episode begins as the group prepare to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons in order to boost the spirits of one of their classmates they fear may be prepared to commit suicide. It's a dark set-up, and thanks to the Lord of the Ringsian opening narration, you really feel like a lot is on the line here. But they made one huge mistake: they didn't invite Pierce. He finds out about their game and, hurt that he wasn't invited, proceeds to force his way in and completely take over. In Aerodynamics of Gender, Pierce established that he was totally capable of villainy (beyond his casual racism and general assholishness), but it was in this episode that he really cranked up the douchebaggery, and man is it glorious. Nearly the whole episode is held in the study room, but thanks to Abed's committed dungeon mastering, Pierce's villainy, and clever audio trickery that lets you hear the actions of the group as they're being described in the game, everything about this episode sucks you in and really works. But even with the hilarity of Pierce's evil antics and Chang's dark elf makeup, the funniest moment comes from when Annie's character ("Hector the Well-Endowed", of Abed's design) comes face to face with an elf maiden who demands to be pleasured in exchange for transport necessary to their journey. For this scene, the dialogue cuts out completely and all we see are hand-motions and the horrified faces of the other members of the group, and it slays me every time. Usually, Community takes the "show don't tell" approach, but here they let the events of the game be imagined, and it still works wonderfully.
2. A FISTFUL OF PAINTBALLS & FOR A FEW PAINTBALLS MORE
Season 2, Episodes 23 & 24 - The "western" and "Star Wars" paintball episodes
Dir. Joe Russo
A lot of this show is spent fully committing to its own absurdity, and you're generally able to remember that the events taking place don't really have many consequences, but in this 2-part season finale, that's not the case. These episodes really feel epic, even if there's still loads of humor and ridiculousness abound. The first part takes place at a western-themed end of semester party hosted by an ice cream business that, without the dean's permission, offers a $10,000 prize to the winner of this year's paintball game. So we get to see another giant game of paintball, but this time with a wild west theme. The episode ends on a cliffhanger involving the true intentions of the ice cream company, who send in paintball stormtroopers to wipe out the remaining survivors. This, naturally, shifts the second episode into more of a Star Wars theme to finish off the season. Any more detail than that and I'll feel guilty for spoiling the whole thing. I still believe it was these episodes that got the Russo brothers their jobs making Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Everything about this 2-parter is massive, funny, and strangely intense. Seeing a full commitment to one theme shift so quickly into another and have it still work really well is bizarre and kind of genius, but what else could you expect from a show that would make episodes like this in the first place? After the game is finished, its real finale always gets me, too, with Pierce revealing certain truths about himself and the way he pushes his friends to hate him that I have always found incredibly sad and relatable. A solemn final moment to an otherwise fun and exciting episode that ended one of the best seasons of any show ever on the perfect note.
Season 2, Episode 6 - The "zombie" episode
Dir. Anthon Hemingway
After such a big runner-up, this probably seems like a bit of an anticlimax, but what you can't forget is that, in spite of how big and exciting the paintball episodes are, they sacrifice a little bit of the humor that makes the show work so much on even the more "normal" episodes. And while this is a very high-concept episode that winds up never really being referenced again, it still contributes actively in the over-arching events of the rest of the season, and has some of the funniest and most memorable moments of the entire show. Since this is set during a Halloween party, the costumes here are awesome, the setting is perfect for a zombie outbreak, we get to see what would happen if someone thought top secret government waste was actually taco meat, and the best of them all: we now know that endless ABBA might be the best possible music option for a zombie attack playlist. Everything about this episode just totally comes together perfectly. With great moments like when Troy changes costumes from his nerds robot from Aliens to a "sexy dracula", the demonic cat in the basement, and Jeff's total animosity towards the banana-costumed Rich, you've got one of the funniest episodes of the show, and with the life-threatening nature of a zombie outbreak, there's a lot of panicking and screaming, and it's all way too entertaining. Honestly, I don't see this being too many people's favorite, but it's the one I feel blends concept with humor the best and gives everyone in the show at least one or two great moments -- which isn't something that could be said of just about any other episode. Also, did I forget to mention George Takei does the opening/closing narration, and that he gifts all Kevins in the world with a personalized voice mail recording? Yeah, cuz why not? Again, everything about this episode is basically perfect, and has remained my favorite episode for as long as I've had a favorite.
So there you have it, my top 10 favorite episodes of one of my all-time favorite shows. I would do an honorable mentions list here, but I've already spent enough time writing about these ones. But if anyone has any favorites they feel don't get enough credit, let's hear what you've got. And for everyone who just skimmed through without reading, don't feel bad, I designed this list to be skimmed. Hope you enjoyed yourself, and good night.