by Amy Yen
I am not sure if casual TV watchers can ever truly understand what it was like to be a fan of NBC’s Community last year. People who still watch How I Met Your Mother or Homeland would. These are all examples of shows that have experienced what Slate Magazine recently referred to as Total Quality Collapse (in reference to Downton Abbey, which I agree about to a lesser extent). Community’s season 4 downfall post the forced ousting of volatile, controversial creator Dan Harmon, however, is my most painful example—not just because the show became bad, but because it became generic.
Community in seasons 1-3 was at times one of the most creatively brave shows on the air. Who else would dare to do an entire episode in the style of a Ken Burns documentary or as an 8-bit video game? The season 4 showrunners meant well, but made the mistake of trying to imitate the most flashy parts of Community, the concept episodes, while forgetting that, in the middle of all the musical, zombie & bottle episodes, Harmon had been building a core group of characters that had backstories & relationships, who cared about each other, who were relatable & who were real.
The most disappointing thing about season 4 wasn’t that Guarascio & Port failed to do a truly great Hunger Games parody or a fourth paintball episode, it was that Annie spent an episode indulgently pretending to be Jeff’s wife, when Annie as a character outgrew that kind of thing two seasons ago. Or that Troy & Britta got together, but not in any sort of meaningful way, but rather only as a contrivance to have hilarious (spoiler alert: they were not hilarious) sitcom-y scenarios like Britta having to sneak out so Abed wouldn’t see her. Or that Jeff ended every episode with a heartwarming speech about how much he loved everyone, when Jeff was always reluctant at best to ever admit even to himself, let alone out loud, that he had feelings of any kind for these people.
Looking back on it, it would have been a borderline miracle for a show whose creative vision was so intrinsically tied to its showrunner to be able to continue like nothing had changed, but I truly believe there was a way for season 4 to be different, but still Community. Instead, it became the very worst version of itself that it could possibly be, so much so that at upfronts last year, I was actively rooting for NBC to put it out of its misery.
But then something amazing happened. Not only did NBC order a season 5, it brought Dan Harmon back. And the early reviews of the first three episodes are, despite considerable odds, pretty great. So, in honor of this delightful & unlikely turn of events, I wanted to look back on my top 5 Community concept episodes. There are many, many great ones—it truly pains me to leave out the fake clip show episode, made up entirely of new clips…I mean, who thinks of that?—but there a few tentpoles here too significant not to include.
Honorable Mentions: Digital Exploration of Interior Design / Pillows and Blankets (3.13 /14, The Ken Burns Documentary Episode), Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (2.9, The Conspiracy Theory Episode), Digital Estate Planning (3.20, The 8-Bit Video Game Episode), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2.14, The Dungeons & Dragons Episode), Regional Holiday Music (3.10, The Musical Episode), Paradigms of Human Memory (2.21, The [Fake] Clip Show Episode)
5) Basic Lupine Urology (3.17)
AKA: The Law & Order Episode
Perhaps the most successful execution of a beginning-to-end concept parody Community’s ever done, this Law & Order send-up really could not be more perfect. From the cold open, in which unsuspecting janitors come across our crime-of-the week (in this case, the study group’s smashed yams), to the witnesses who refuse to stop doing their jobs even while being questioned by “detectives,” to the post-verdict drink the “lawyers” have in the “judge’s chambers,” every detail is exactly like every Law & Order episode you’ve ever seen, down to the “chung chung!” sounders setting each scene, the dialogue & the camera angles. But unlike season 4’s parodies, amazingly, even as our characters operate within the structure of a different show, they remain true to who we know them to be. Even the title is amazing, “Lupine Urology”…Dick Wolf. Get it?
4) Cooperative Calligraphy (2.8)
AKA: The Bottle Episode
Community’s version of a bottle episode (for those of you non-TV nerds, that’s an episode limited to just the core cast & set entirely on one of the show’s existing pre-built sets in order to save budget) does what all great bottle episodes do: without the crutch of guest stars, different locations or big ideas to parody, the show puts its core group of characters in their most familiar setting, the study room, & have them do nothing but banter & delve into each other’s psyches. This results in some surprisingly personal insights (like some of the group’s judgement over Shirley’s relationship with her ex-husband following the revelation of her pregnancy) & even more interesting than usual group dynamics. It’s another episode about the group becoming a family…the idea that if they can’t find Annie’s pen, they may never be able to fully trust one another because they’ll always suspect one of them allowed them to have to go through all of this (& miss the puppy parade!) is an absurd one. But as Annie says, “It’s not just a pen, it’s a principle!”
3) Epidemiology (2.6)
AKA: The Zombie Apocalypse Episode
As tends to happen in a Halloween episode, the costumes provide an endless source of hilarity, from Pierce’s Captain Kirk outfit reaching new levels of authenticity to Troy’s sexy Dracula to Chang’s Peggy Flemming (“You’ve just been proven racist, by the racist prover!”). Even the extras are great (“You punched a lady bee!”). Meanwhile, Troy and Abed’s mini bromance crisis creates some genuine character moments. This is the best possible example of just how fun it is to see our characters go through a situation outside of what the premise of the show should allow…as a viewer, I know they aren’t going to kill off all of the characters, but as I was watching this episode for the first time, there’s some actual suspense as to how they were going to get out of this. That’s pretty neat storytelling for a silly cult comedy set at a community college. As a bonus, the entire zombie apocalypse is set to ABBA music.
2) Remedial Chaos Theory (3.3)
AKA: The Parallel Timelines Episode
Often considered the best episode of Community ever, we see seven different versions of Troy & Abed’s housewarming party, each with one member of the group missing. Both hilarious (this episode also introduces us to the Darkest Timeline, where Pierce is killed & Jeff loses an arm & Evil Abed is born) & heartwarming, this episode is a fascinating examination of each character’s part of the group’s dynamic. It’s endlessly interesting that the timeline where Jeff is gone is the best version of events, where the group can have fun & be free (this isn’t the first time where he is cut out of the group, but unlike the chicken finger/Godfather episode, the group does not come crawling back to him…they’ve grown from that). It’s also interesting to think about which is actually the darkest timeline—when Troy is gone & the apartment burns? Or when Abed is gone & everyone devolves into hating each other? The story also somehow has time to explore a couple of other character themes, like Jeff & Annie’s slightly icky relationship, Troy & Britta’s genuine, yet not quite grown-up connection, Pierce’s loneliness & Troy’s desire to earn Jeff’s respect.
1) Modern Warfare (1.23)
AKA: The Paintball Episode (Action movies)
What else could be number 1 but the original paintball episode…the one that put Community’s concept episodes on the map. With references from everything from Terminator (“Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.”) to John Woo, this is true commitment to the bit. They even got a big time action director (Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious franchise) to create some legitimately impressive set pieces. From the not-so-subtle pokes at Glee (“I’m all for winning, but let’s not resort to cheap plots,” says Jeff, immediately before removing his shirt) to the absurdity of the prize the school tears itself apart fighting over (priority registration!), Modern Warfare is not only one of the most fun & funny episodes of a comedy that year, but one of the best half hours of television in recent history.
Community season 5 returns tonight, January 2 at 9/8 central on NBC. #sixseasonsandamovie
Filed under: Amy Yen, I Watch, Like, a Lot of TV, MediaNation, Premiere Season | Tagged: Amy in Wonderland, Amy Yen, Community, Community concept episodes, Community high concept episodes, Community parody episodes, Community season 4, Community season 5, Dan Harmon, Dan Harmon Community, NBC Community | Leave a comment »