Episode 20: Community Studies

Television Man by Aidan Morgan

“In this world, son, there are two kinds of men. There are people men, and there are television men. People men are outright garbage. And son, you’re a people man” —unproduced Clint Eastwood movie

Community. What does it mean to you? Webster’s defines “community” as “a bunch of people hanging around or something, just make up your own definition”. Which is very much in the spirit of Community (new to Netflix), the low-rated NBC (and Yahoo! Screen, bafflingly enough) sitcom set at Greendale Community College, “the fourth best community college in the Greendale area”. Now that it’s on Netflix, will it become the next Office or Friends? Webster’s defines these shows as “tiny people enjoined to dance around in illuminated boxes,” because Webster died long before the advent of television and his understanding of the modern world is limited.

Although the series initially focused on disgraced fake lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), Community quickly became an ensemble piece revolving around a core group of Breakfast Club-style friends, if everyone in the Breakfast Club had failed their way  into a college with courses called “Ladders” and “History of Ice Cream”. Consequently, most episodes focused on the group, shuffling individual character arcs back into the deck and only occasionally pulling them out.

The question remains, though: what are the best episodes for each character? In the spirit of Community, I will try to answer this question no one asked, and I will undoubtedly fail in the attempt. Spoilers follow.

BEST ENSEMBLE EPISODE: Nearly every episode of the six-season-long series is an ensemble piece, but the clip-show parody “Paradigms of Human Memory” (2.21) is explicitly about the tensions barely binding Greendale’s study group together. Contains the immortal line: “Harrison Ford is irradiating our testicles with microwave transmissions”. Runner up: “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” (3.05).

BEST DEAN EPISODE: One of the best sitcom moves is having a character lean hard into their shadow side. So it goes in “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” (3.08), in which Greendale’s Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) updates the college’s 20-year-old recruiting ad. Within 24 hours the entire campus is drafted into a hell of the Dean’s making as he transforms from a milquetoast factotum into a mad tyrant stalking the school’s halls naked and covered in ashes. Runner up: the “Payday” bar rap in “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” (5.09).

BEST PIERCE EPISODE: Chevy Chase generally played Pierce Hawthorne as a clueless, bigoted boomer but every so often he morphed into a cackling supervillain. The clear choice for an über-Pierce episode is “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” (2.16) in which he stages a hospital stay as an elaborate psychological torture for the rest of the cast. But his extraordinarily mean-spirited reaction to being excluded from the group in “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2.14) is Chase playing the character to perfection. Runner up: “Cooperative Polygraphy” (5.04), a post-Pierce episode that is nevertheless all about him.

BEST SHIRLEY EPISODE: Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) was often reduced to a Christian caricature but every so often the writers gave her some unexpected dimensions. In “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” (3.09), Shirley and Jeff discover a shared past and a destructive relationship with foosball. This episode may also be one of the best Jeff Winger episodes in the show’s run, with a truly touching final shot. Runner up: “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” (3.11).

BEST BRITTA EPISODE: Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) is an instantly recognizable comic figure: the superficial middle-class activist whose politics crumble as soon as they clash with her comfort. In season six, though, the show put some work into resuscitating the character. “Advanced Safety Features” (6.07) reunites Britta with her ex-boyfriend Subway (now Rick, a guerilla marketer for Honda) and it gives her the confidence and competence she lacked for much of the series. Runner up: “Modern Warfare” (1.23).

BEST ANNIE EPISODE: You could make a strong case for “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2.08) as an ensemble piece, but it’s Annie Edison’s (Alison Brie) inflexibility that propels the action as everyone gets drawn into the vortex of her anger. Best watched along with the Kids in the Hall skit “My Pen”. Runner up: “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” (2.09).

BEST TROY EPISODE: Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) began as a confident, oafish jock but rapidly evolved into a sheltered, childlike fool (“I’ve seen enough movies to know that punching a hole in the back of a raft makes it go faster!”). In “Mixology Certification” (2.10), the study group takes Troy out to a bar for his 21st birthday to initiate him into the mysteries of adulthood. How sad and inevitable it is when the child peeks behind the curtain and figures out what we all realize sooner or later: adults are full of shit. Runner-up: “Geothermal Escapism” (5.05), Donald Glover’s final episode.

BEST ABED EPISODE: Pound for pound, Community spends more time in Abed Nadir’s (Danny Pudi) head than any other character. Jeff Winger may be the character that introduces the world of the show, but Abed is the one who sees Community for what it is: a construct of narrative and linguistic gestures that produce an illusion of reality. In “Virtual Systems Analysis” (3.16), Annie decides to change Abed’s perception of the world by messing with his Dreamatorium (a spare room in his apartment), nearly destroying Abed’s mind. Perhaps tied for best Abed episode may be ““Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2.11), a Rankin-Bass nightmare. Runner-up: Critical Film Studies” (3.19), a My Dinner with Andre parody disguised as a Pulp Fiction parody.

BEST JEFF EPISODE: Hear me out. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is the real villain at the heart of Community. An inveterate conniver who substitutes rhetoric for wisdom and glib irony for genuine connection, Jeff is always learning from his errors — but never enough to make the lessons stick. In “Remedial Chaos Theory” (3.04), six different dice rolls (to determine who goes downstairs to get the pizza) create six different timelines. Each roll creates increasingly disastrous situations. Once Abed realizes Jeff created a system that lets him avoid pizza duty, Jeff exits to grab the food and we see that he is the toxic presence that inevitably leads to despair and destruction. The kicker is that we’re granted all possible outcomes but the characters can never see beyond one given timeline, and thus can never learn. Such a great episode. Runner up: “Community” (1.01).

BEST CHANG EPISODE: Go away.

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