Created by Dan Harmon. Starring Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi
24) S2E1, “Anthropology 101.”
Primary characters: Jeff and Britta/Secondary characters: Annie and Shirley
The first season of Community is absolutely rock-solid, with a few shining episodes here and there (“Beginner Pottery,” one of the standout examples of “half the study group takes this class and the other half does this class,” the pleasant weirdness of “Physical Education,” the mob movie episode), but it’s hamstrung in its reliance on the will-they-won’t-they setup they have with Jeff and Britta. Jeff thrives in this kind of setup, but Britta, especially the fundamentally competent Britta of the first season, is not made for it. They left off with a cliffhanger, had to deal with the effects of the cliffhanger, and the season premiere suffers for it. Abed makes the best joke of the episode: he really thought they’d be able to do more high-concept work in their second season, but from what he can tell it looks like it’ll be more of the same.
23) S2E22, “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts.”
Primary characters: Shirley and Chang/Secondary characters: Jeff and Britta
In another episode that needs to take most of its time to wrap up a season-long plot arc, Shirley’s baby is born in the lecture hall where they’ve been taking Anthropology 101, and it’s determined that the child is not Chang’s, after all, even though it seemed more than likely that Chang would end up being the father. It’d be easy to say that Community has an issue with making plot-based episodes, as opposed to Theme Week episodes, come together, but one thinks about how often plot arcs close neatly in comedies, and one is inclined to give Community a little more of a chance. It’s the end of a season for Shirley that has not been terribly flattering; she spent most of the second season being pregnant and on the edge of truculence more often than not. Even here, when she’s giving birth, she’s better as a way to get Chang to rattle off the terrible ways that “Chang babies” have been born than she is as a character. Heck, Malcolm-Jamal Warner probably gets as many good one-liners as Yvette Nicole Brown over the course of the season. What’s enjoyable in this episode is Peak Space Britta, topped off by the 2001 style moment in which we learn that yes, the baby’s head has reached the cervix. Her catchphrase (“duh-doi!”) is made use of frequently. Britta is equated with everyone else’s catchphrase (“You’re the worst!”) but we’ve also spent a lot of time noting over the course of the season that Britta’s desire to help others is self-destructive. It comes to a head, quite literally, and we can tease Britta’s need to be praised for doing the right thing while simultaneously appreciating that she really does have her heart in the right place.
22) S2E22, “Competitive Wine Tasting”
Primary characters: Jeff and Pierce/Secondary characters: Britta and Troy
“I think what you wanted to show was that no woman could want me,” Pierce says to Jeff after Jeff has totaled Pierce’s impending nuptials. Other characters frequently get the better of Jeff by pointing out how massive his ego is, but it’s very rarely Pierce. It’s an effective line because of its scarcity; it’s surprising pathos for Pierce, who gets more of that light in the second season than in any other but still rarely gets much. The placement of that line at the end of the episode is a highlight not just of the episode, but the entire season. Unfortunately, the rest of the A-plot is pretty weak, sort of anticlimactic fallout from the events of “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” and the B-plot relies on the same joke about how Troy was not, in fact, sexually abused, to carry itself.
21) S2E3, “The Psychology of Letting Go”
Primary characters: Jeff and Pierce/Secondary characters: Britta and Annie
Here’s another Jeff/Pierce episode that doesn’t have much payoff, though in the scope of the season it works as buildup for the pseudo son/father dynamic the two of them have. It’s another episode with a reasonably solid denouement for Pierce (throwing his mother’s last human act out of the car was a pretty solid touch) which is supported with a single-joke B-plot. In this case, I’m more interested in how Britta and Annie relate to each other than Britta and Troy; Britta and Annie are so often more foils for each other than anything else, and while they serve the same purpose here, they aren’t playing the role in service of how they make Jeff a better person. What results is a “Lucy X and Jessie Y” situation; unfortunately, that’s not nearly the best number in Follies, and the resolution of “I just want to be more like you, but I shouldn’t sacrifice who I am either!” is sort of an unsatisfying place to end the character development in this episode; it almost feels like nothing’s changed in the way Britta and Annie relate. (What I appreciate this episode for more is that it is a key knot in the rope Community ties about how women have to play dumb to get men interested in them; consider how, more famously, Annie sings that fatuous little Christmas song to seduce Jeff for glee club in Season 3.)
20) S2E15, “Early 21st Century Romanticism”
Primary characters: Jeff and Chang/Secondary characters: Britta and Annie
The B-plot weighs down the A-plot here, which is unusual for Community. It’s another one-joke B-plot (Britta thinks she’s hanging out with a lesbian named Paige, and Paige thinks she’s hanging out with a lesbian named Britta, though we are in fact fresh outta lesbians), but it’s a little preachy. I agree with the premise – you shouldn’t pretend to know what you don’t, even if it makes you look bad – but it’s a lesson that fails to hit home after Britta’s comeuppance. The episode’s C-plot (Troy and Abed take out a librarian) has the yuks that are missing from the B-plot, but doesn’t get enough time devoted to it to develop its goofy little plot further.
I enjoy Jeff’s break from the study group in this episode, only to see them replaced with Chang and Duncan, united in the mutually assured destruction of their restraining orders. What makes this half of the episode is some of the most rapid-fire dialogue of the season. John Oliver’s British accent opens doors for some inspired one-liners (I don’t know which is funnier, “gravedigger’s biscuits” or “Italian fannies”), Chang’s move-in attempt disguised as a party is equally inspired, brings Magnitude into the stable of Greendale’s supporting characters, and brings us one of the best lines of the entire series:
Leonard: Where are the white women at?
Jeff: There are no white women here, Leonard! This is not a party!
19) S2E12, “Asian Population Studies”
Primary characters: Jeff and Annie/Secondary characters: Shirley and Chang
If Community had started with Rich (Greg Cromer) as its leading man rather than Jeff, it would have folded instantly. He is, however, the perfect counter to Jeff, for he is all of the good and none of the bad. Jeff used to be a lawyer? Rich actually is a doctor. Jeff is handsome? Rich is too, but with none of the preening. Jeff manipulates everyone around him? Rich is famous for the kettlecorn he brings to parties. Jeff can’t stand that Troy and Abed in the Morning is a weird fake TV show; Rich plays along with a smile. Jeff derives significant comfort in believing that in the real world, he would be the top dog from Greendale; Rich throws a monkey wrench in that fantasy.
Community, even in its first three seasons, had a hard time getting into a groove. The premieres of the first three seasons are arguably the three worst episodes of the series’ runs; the midseason premieres of Season 2 and 3 are both middling. (“Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” is almost Glee-esque in building up stakes which we know won’t come to anything.) I like “Asian Population Studies” for much the same reason I like “Competitive Wine Tasting.” Annie gets to rip into Jeff with a “Either you want me or you don’t – what’s it gonna be?” that on another sitcom would have been followed with ten minutes of kissing or ten minutes of moping. It’s an enormously sexy piece of dialogue, and the camera eats her up much less than it usually does; we are often close enough to Alison Brie to note the eyeliner on top and bottom, or it’s a shot that notes her cleavage. And this one does too – I think I can count the Annie scenes on one hand in the second season of Community which leave her boobs alone – but she’s at an angle here. No one got head-on shots as frequently as Brie, but here she gets an angle that’s usually saved for someone like Jeff, an angle for someone who is incidentally sexy but mostly just cool. It’s a great moment; Community more or less leaves it alone, letting the sexual tension simmer throughout 2 and 3 until Jeff makes a realization not unlike the one Rich only needs about ten minutes to figure out: Annie, only 20 years old, is too young for an adult to date.
18) S2E21, “Paradigms of Human Memory”
Primary characters: Jeff and Britta/Secondary characters: Abed and Pierce
“Something always brings me back to you; it never takes too long.” Clip shows are a bore, but Community does a brilliant job at taking the reasons a clip show exists – save money, keep a schedule, etc. – and turning them on their heads. Apparently the study group gets into hijinks we never get to see, and they are, as far as I can tell, as brilliant as the ones they usually stumble into. The ultimate realization – that Jeff and Britta have been sleeping together all season – is countered by Jeff’s memorable bait-and-switch that, sadly, fails to bait or switch anyone: “We are friends with a grown man who believes in leprechauns.” The show goes furthest up its own butt on a regular basis later on in the series, but there may not be a more stereotypically Community moment than the writers seeing a fanvid of Jeff and Annie on YouTube set to “Gravity” and then saying, “We have to put that on the show,” and then making it weirdly effective (and with Pierce and Abed too!).
17) S2E18, “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy”
Primary characters: Jeff and Shirley/Secondary characters: Britta and Chang
This show features one of my favorite B-plots, another one-joke piece (“Britta is dating a war criminal friend of Troy and Abed’s, but doesn’t want to be accused of ruining more things”) which is salted and peppered with some strong one-liners about “desecrating their places of worship.”
What makes the episode go, though, is the tension between Jeff and Shirley regarding Chang, who is still bumming around at Jeff’s apartment (with saws), and who thinks he has a shot at being a dad. Predictably, this ends with Chang accidentally kidnapping two kids he thinks are Shirley’s (to paraphrase a future Troy quote, Chang’s marks have one thing in common with Shirley’s kids) and very nearly pinning it on Jeff. It’s a key episode in the plot which comes to mean the most once Jeff and Pierce have it out at the hospital in S2E16: namely, this is the episode where Shirley comes to view Chang less as the psychopath who might be the father of her child and who symbolizes everything wrong with her life, and more the psychopath who doesn’t want to be a psychopath forever. Although Chang is, by screen time, a minor character in this episode, the specter of him is what makes the episode work. He’s cartoonish – literally, when he shows up in a jacket, pretending to smoke a pipe, and asking “Who wants to build a birdhouse?” – but his villainy is tamped down to “deeply weird” as opposed to “grandiose.” Like Glee or The Office, Community functions best when its character threatening an “inscrutable malice” has feelings too. Sue Sylvester when she’s hurt, Michael Scott when he’s childish, Ben Chang when he’s plaintive: all of them can bring down the entire house with their schemes, but they function best when there’s a person worth feeling some empathy for, who wouldn’t take the legs off the coffee table if they were just a little more whole.
16) S2E13, “Celebrity Pharmacology”
Primary characters: Annie and Pierce/Secondary characters: Jeff and Britta
Annie and Pierce are the apple pie and melted American cheese of Community ingredients. In this episode, which functions better as part of a season than it does as an individual episode, we get hints at two characters who are grasping for authority in their lives. Annie takes money from Pierce because she needs to, not because she wants to; Pierce wants to give her money because he cares about her and sees a deserving person who needs a little bit of help. The difference between the two of them is expressed clearly over the course of the episode: Pierce can’t help himself from pushing his advantage once he has one, even if his original act was decent. There’s an unusual tension in this episode as a result, because one character is holding something over another; typically, that kind of tension is something like Jeff just not wanting to do something, or Abed being Abed, or Troy being clueless. “Celebrity Pharmacology” has a nastier tone from the get-go because Pierce is blackmailing Annie for low stakes, and Annie, uncharacteristically, isn’t standing up for herself either. From a character perspective, this is one of the better episodes of the season; from a laughs perspective, this is maybe the weakest. There are too many cringes in the A-plot but in the B-plot as well, where Jeff is sexting Britta’s kid nephew.
15) S2E2, “Accounting for Lawyers”
Primary characters: Jeff and Chang/Secondary characters: Annie and Troy
The best part of “Accounting for Lawyers” is a brief sequence where Troy, Abed, and Annie get caught by a janitor while they’re hacking into Alan’s (Rob Corddry) computer to find the proof that Alan turned in the evidence that got Jeff disbarred. Annie chloroforms the janitor, to the absolute horror of Troy in particular. (They decide to fake having being chloroformed as well, though it turns out to be a half-baked plan.) It’s a little taste of the weirdness that the show became more willing to indulge in in the second season.
Every now and then, Community was willing to put Jeff largely in isolation against the rest of the group. That’s the formula they used in the pilot, certainly, and to some extent it shows up in an episode like Season 3’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” or the aforementioned “21st Century Romanticism.” “Accounting for Lawyers” puts Joel McHale up with Corddry and Drew Carey and lets the rest of the group run around him, either indulging on their weird chloroform misadventures or letting Chevy Chase or Yvette Nicole Brown drop one-liners. In some ways this is useful to reaffirm Jeff’s primacy; I like to think that these episodes are most useful in creating room for Jeff to be a person. Every now and then it’s useful to remember that Jeff is playing a character more than anyone else in the group; he’s forced to play himself a little bit less at times in this episode.
14) S2E4, “Basic Rocket Science”
Primary characters: Jeff and Troy/Secondary characters: Abed and Annie
“Basic Rocket Science” is, like “Contemporary American Poultry,” one of those perfect shot-for-shot recreations of space exploration movies. (Once upon a time, Community was more homage than pastiche.) From the opening shot, which recreates the floor-level view of someone running from The Right Stuff, the entire episode is rife with those little touches. “Basic Rocket Science” doesn’t have a whole bunch to recommend it beyond that fidelity to a genre that I’m personally very fond of, but it does show us one of the early moments in the season where Troy and Jeff clash over who’s going to be in charge. Troy comes out on top in this instance; he sits down in the “captain’s chair,” and Jeff, after snarking about how Troy’s “authority” in an RV with a KFC-based space simulator is derived from the chair he sits in, ultimately cedes control of the situation to Troy when they’re scrambling to get back to Greendale in time for the “launch.”
The Troy-Jeff rivalry is my favorite running thread of the second season, and one that’s really pretty strongly sublimated under “Will Jeff get together with Britta or Annie?” and “Troy and Abed are goofballs together.” Jeff’s domination of the group’s collective action is taken for granted, but he’s not usually a good person when he’s in charge. Troy is used to being a leader, but has never been given an opening to be a decent person and on top of the pyramid before. Jeff, like Pierce, sees his good deeds as a way to exploit others; Troy, like Annie, sees increased responsibility as a way to be better for the people around him.
13) S2E17, “Introduction to Political Science”
Primary characters: Jeff and Annie/Secondary characters: Abed and Troy
An episode that literally devolves into catchphrases, sadly, but this is maybe my favorite Abed episode where he isn’t pretending to be someone else. Abed, the consummate observer, figures out that the Secret Service has been on campus predating a visit from Joe Biden; he then develops a crush on a Secret Service agent (Eliza Coupe) who, like him, doesn’t seem to be very good at social interactions and, for that reason, has to be guarded and precise. (Their conversation about the arbitrariness of “duck” and “goose” is a surprisingly empathetic and funny one.) The two of them are one of the better Community couples, even though, to the best of my knowledge, they don’t interact again for the rest of the series.
The rest of the episode pits Annie and Jeff against one another, which, given the level of sexual tension between them at this point in the season, feels overdue. The conflict between the two of them is useful enough and features one of my favorite Community sight-gags (Jeff has, as Annie requested, put up all of Annie’s flyers declaring her run for student body president, but duct taped the entire stack in one place). Sadly, Community kinda whiffs on political commentary here. Jeff presents such a cynically dull view of politics, and Annie such an optimistically dull one that the time spent on their respective campaigns is mostly an excuse for the far superior political commentary that Abed and Troy pull out of their butts.
12) S2E5, “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”
Primary characters: Abed and Shirley/Secondary characters: Jeff and Pierce
In Season 1, Pierce and Jeff are set up as egotists of different ages, and they stay that way. But Abed is remote, Britta is put together, Troy is arrogant, and Annie has smudgy eyeliner and a distinctly huskier vibe. All of them change significantly throughout Season 1 going into Season 2. Shirley, weirdly enough, is in the same boat that Pierce and Jeff are in; her calling card doesn’t change. Like Pierce and Jeff, her calling card makes her an object of ridicule; unlike Pierce and Jeff, that calling card is her religion. For the life of me I don’t understand why Shirley’s Christianity (her dumb prejudiced mainstream Christianity, yes) is as frequently an object of ridicule, or why that became the key indicator for the character. Most of the group changes; why didn’t she?
The only episode which I don’t think makes Shirley’s religion into an indelicate straw man is “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” which is most recognizable in shorthand as “Abed does Charlie Kaufman.” Shirley, whose church is suffering for attendance, wants to find a way to make her faith more interesting and accessible to the masses; like virtually every other Christian foray into pop culture, her idea is bad. Abed takes up the project and then takes the project up its own butt.
Meanwhile, in a clever bit of writing, a neglected Pierce branches out to a group of similarly-aged Greendale students (“hipsters”) in Community‘s answer to “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Like Shirley, Pierce can feel creeping irrelevancy; like Shirley, Pierce doesn’t like the idea of being cast out or ignored because of the biggest quality making him different. This is an interesting episode because there may not be two more surface-different plots in one Community episode in this season, and yet the effect is strong and sympathetic: we have to take our friends seriously. Jeff and Britta, playacting as Pierce’s parents, have to get him out of a jam; Jeff in particular realizes that without more positive attention, Pierce will go on acting like a jackass. Abed, by the end of the episode, tries to make amends to Shirley by shooting the terrible “Beat-itudes” music video that she always wanted. It’s a much gentler perspective on Shirley and Pierce than we usually get, and the show benefits from the defter touch with its two study group outcasts.
11) S2E10, “Mixology Certification”
Primary characters: Troy and Annie/Secondary characters: Jeff and Britta
Everyone but Troy and Annie is old enough to drink, but a fake ID for Annie and a stunning realization about Troy’s actual age means that both of them can get into the same bar as the rest of the group. At the bar, Jeff and Britta get drunk and meaner than usual, flirty and petty in a way that’s unattractive to watch. Abed runs into Paul F. Tompkins, has his own side adventure which ends with him getting a drink tossed in his face, but at least got to talk about Farscape. Shirley spends the night taking down as many pictures of her as she can find at the bar; she used to be a frequent customer. Pierce, struggling with his wheelchair, can’t even get in the building.
That leaves us with a night where Troy and Annie get to learn a heck of a lot about themselves. Both of them, even about halfway through the second season, are suffering from personal tunnel vision. Annie, goal-oriented and driven by her dream of getting into healthcare management, has done everything but gotten “the girl next door” tattooed on her forehead. Troy, who came to Greendale an arrogant ex-QB, has developed rapidly into a gentle, benign weirdo. Both of them, especially within their study group, find themselves yielding to others; Annie can’t help herself around Jeff and finds herself looking to Shirley and Britta for examples of what older women do; Troy, as is “dramatized” in Season 3, is falling into the role of Abed’s sidekick maybe a little too easily. For Annie, she has to literally pretend to be someone else (“Caroline, from Corpus Christi,” complete with accent) to figure out what she dislikes about her own personality; amusingly, this is how Abed relates to other people. At the end of the night, having gathered something of a crowd around her (including the bartender, who appears to be Tig Notaro as herself) while she regales them with tales of “drifting,” she wishes she could be a little more spontaneous, worrying that she’s prematurely planned out all the details of her life at 20. Troy, who thinks of adults as miraculous demigods (because he isn’t one, presumably), discovers that adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When it turns out Jeff and Britta have been squabbling over their preferred bars – and then “those bars” turn out to be the same bar – Troy erupts. It’s another one of those moments that sees him wrest control of the situation from Jeff; in this situation, Troy is about a zillion times more adult than the pretentious drunks in the back seat.
10) S2E24, “For a Few Paintballs More”
Primary characters: Jeff and Troy/Secondary characters: Abed and Annie
The second half of the second paintball extravaganza, as Abed notes, shifts from its roots as a Western “to more of a Star Wars motif.” Abed-as-Han-Solo is a close second to Abed-as-Don-Draper on my list of Abed’s character impersonations, and his subplot with Annie, who subconsciously adapts to her surroundings like a chameleon, is a classic, down to the shot where their kiss is obscured by the orange paint filling up the window in the library.
The prime plot focuses on bringing Troy and Jeff’s conflict to a head. Abed knows that it’s a strong possibility that Jeff will become the de facto leader of the Greendale “rebellion” (he seizes the Han Solo part “before Jeff slouches into it by default”), and Troy makes it clear that he doesn’t intend to get pushed out of the way by Jeff once again. In the end, Troy’s plan of using his magical plumbing skills to wire the sprinklers in the library turns out to be a far superior one to Jeff’s plan for a frontal assault on paintball machine gun, and Jeff ultimately cedes the vaguely autocratic role that he always seems to wander into in favor of a more democratic model. It’s the most important thread that the season finale really wraps up; it does leave the question of Pierce’s place in the study group a little up in the air.
9) S2E11, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
Primary characters: Abed and Britta/Secondary characters: Annie and Troy
The claymation episode. A holiday classic in its own right, filled with exploding Christmas pterodactyls and the Cave of Frozen Memories and some of the most genuine moments in Community‘s run: Annie and Troy ensure that Abed reaches understanding by himself, and Pierce, of all people, who came for the cookies, stays with Abed the longest on his journey. We find out that the meaning of Christmas is season 1 of Lost on DVD: “It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff.”
Britta is the second most interesting character in this episode, knee-deep in her status as a psychology major and supportive of Duncan’s efforts to crack Abed open like a can of soup. Abed rejects her presence out of hand not long after reverse-psychologying Duncan out of the room. It’s not the last time that Abed will crush efforts to diagnose what’s actually the matter with him, but it’s interesting that Britta is the character who makes the effort to “fix” Abed. Her need to help out everyone else around her has to choose between two ways to help Abed, and she chooses the more authoritative, scientific path, when it turns out that a less stringent process is the one that gets Abed to cope with the fact that his mother won’t be coming for Christmas.
8) S2E9, “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”
Primary characters: Jeff and Annie/Secondary characters: Troy and Abed
Kevin Corrigan has one of my favorite one-off roles in Freaks and Geeks, playing the burnout who will make fake IDs for high school students and who creeps pretty hard on Linda Cardellini in the meantime. He also has one of my favorite one-off roles on Community, as Sean Garrity, an acting professor who arises as “Professor Professorson” thanks to Jeff’s attempt to get a credit for a fake class and Dean Pelton’s attempt to teach Jeff a lesson. The Professor Professorson plot is one that’s particularly timely; in the future, whoever the Alan Sepinwalls and Matt Zoller Seitzes of the world are will have to explain that this episode is funny because American movies were crippled with the endless twists that Community spoofs here.
Of course, I don’t know that many people are going to remember this episode for its A-plot, even though I’ve always enjoyed it pretty well, because the B-plot is the first appearance of a blanket fort on the show. Abed and Troy’s blanket fort goes from being a fun thing they do in their dorm room to a surprisingly complex community: a Latvian Independence Day parade with the proper permits (marching through “the Turkish district”), a civil rights museum, Britta hanging out in a weird little section of the fort, a three-strikes policy for farting…the blanket fort provides as many good one-liners as any other plot point in a Community episode.
7) S2E7, “Aerodynamics of Gender”
Primary characters: Jeff and Troy/Secondary characters: Abed and Britta
A pre-Veep Matt Walsh has built a trampoline on Greendale’s campus, one which is not covered by insurance and is thus very illegal. The punchline – that his Joshua is a racist with a swastika tattoo – is one of the great reveals in the series’ run, and leads to a fairly profound realization that paradises can only exist via exclusion, which makes paradises about as bad as the real-life places they intend to replace. The other punchline is that this incident puts Pierce, who forces Troy into double-bouncing him, in two casts and a wheelchair for much of the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Abed is accidentally in a class about feminism with the women of the study group; rapidly, they discover that his Sherlockian observation skills make him the atomic bomb of appearance-based insults. (Chang, who is sort of in the wilderness at this point of the season, is memorably the most enthusiastic spectator.) Here’s another episode where Britta lapses into a oddball villain role; no one does more to encourage Abed’s harsh observations, and she benefits most from his weaponized state. Viewers looking for episodes which provide proof that “Britta is the worst” should start here.
Two more stray observations. First, the writing credit here goes to Adam Countee, who levels a pretty sick burn at fellow writer Megan Ganz via Shirley: “Why would you name your daughter ‘Megan’ in the first place? Are you stocking up for a bitch shortage?” Second, by my calculations, “Aerodynamics of Gender” is the middle episode in the best three-episode stretch of the second season.
6) S2E16, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”
Primary characters: Pierce and Jeff/Secondary characters: Abed and Britta
Here’s one of my favorite episodes of the series. From a character perspective, there are maybe a handful of sitcom episodes outside the “very special episode” genre which take this kind of effort to build its people. Pierce is just about the same as ever, with the added kick that he thinks of himself as a pseudo-father to Jeff, but Jeff really gets the daddy issues treatment in this episode when Pierce, who is “dying,” tells Jeff that he’s scrounged up his father. By the end of the episode – Pierce has, as Jeff warned him not to, pretended to be his dad – Jeff has come to understand what everyone else, and especially Britta, already knew: his nonchalant attitude about his father is a front for the pain of abandonment. The fact of saying it aloud makes Jeff’s growth feel that much more real, and it’s a highlight of the season in general.
Pierce’s fake death forces everyone to confront themselves in some way or another. Pierce offers Britta, who is in dire financial straits, the opportunity to write her name (or a charity’s!) on a big check; Britta has to face up to just how much of her idealism is big talk. Shirley gets a CD which Pierce assures her holds a track showing just how much the rest of the group dislikes her; when this turns out not to be true, the person who’s most guilty is Shirley, as she had been guilting everyone else over the presumed contents of the CD. The comedic highlight of the episode, of course, is LeVar Burton’s cameo and Troy’s reaction. The last line of the episode (“More fish for Kunta!”) is a giant. I watched that episode while I was at home on a college break, probably around 2 or 3 in the morning, and that line broke me. I probably woke up my parents.
5) S2E14, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”
Primary characters: Jeff and Pierce/Secondary characters: Abed and Annie
Community doesn’t usually let its characters indulge in cruelty, but Pierce goes full supervillain in “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” being purposefully awful to Neil (Charley Koontz) in an effort to get him to go away, the last chapter in “Pierce feels unappreciated by the study group and is taking it out on them.” It’s not pleasant to watch. It’s awkward and hurtful and it feels bad and I don’t think there’s a similar moment on this show.
What makes the episode work – short of the triumph of Neil beating Pierce in the end and rescuing his sword – is the fact that they don’t try to depict the events of the Dungeons and Dragons game. It stays true to D&D; the point is that we’re supposed to imagine things too, and whether it’s a stark naked Pierce riding a dragon or the shocking sex scene that Abed and Annie share, or the plight of the pirate-soundin’ gnome Britta comes to care for so much. This is Community at bare bones, in a way even more pared down than “Cooperative Calligraphy,” which doesn’t ask the viewer to transpose some imagination on top of what’s already been shown. Funnily enough, the show that became known for ridiculous adherence to existing IP (“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”) or total visual silliness (“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”) could leave a greater impression without the extra shenanigans. More on that later.
4) S2E6, “Epidemiology”
Primary characters: Abed and Troy/Secondary characters: Shirley and Chang
What makes this episode is the absolute genius of scoring it with ABBA hits. While the entire population of Greendale is being turned to zombies, including some of our study group favorites, “Dancing Queen” is going out over the airwaves. When Troy finally manages to bring the temperature down and cure everyone, “Fernando” rises like a phoenix from the ashes. (This would be funny to me even if I did not have an acknowledged crush on the musical theater work of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.)
What makes the episode work beyond a series of allusionary punchlines is the fact that there’s a surprising level of plot buildup within this episode which, on the face of it, is 28 Days Later on a sitcom. Here’s the episode where Shirley and Chang, brought together by the fact that no one can figure out what their costumes are supposed to be, have sex in a bathroom and trigger a massive paternity scare for Shirley which is key to the rest of the season. Here’s the episode which asks Troy to make a choice between trying to be the cool guy or Abed’s fellow nerd. Even littler subplots, like Annie’s ongoing flirtation with Rich (much to Jeff’s displeasure) seem to pop up here. This episode isn’t any longer than the rest of Community’s output, but how it manages to squeeze all of those season-long plot points into this episode and still give a full minute to Jeff, Troy, and Abed tracking down an “insane cat” in the basement is nothing short of storyboarding brilliance.
3) S2E19, “Critical Film Studies”
Primary characters: Jeff and Abed/Secondary characters: Troy and Chang
Another talk-heavy episode, another episode which is surprisingly spare on laughs, another episode that really hits home. “Critical Film Studies” is, unlike “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” actively invested in recreating homages. Jeff and Abed are engaged in a half-unwitting, half-knowing recreation of My Dinner with Andre in which Jeff is unwitting and Abed much too knowing. Meanwhile, everyone else is doing their Pulp Fiction cosplay at Britta’s workplace, a retro diner shiny in neon and chrome. Again, that’s a triumph of what Community can accomplish in terms of its visuals, but it’s placed distinctly second compared to what Jeff and Abed are up to.
Abed, once he’s accidentally been made by the waiter, tells Jeff that My Dinner with Andre is a movie about a guy who has a surprisingly interesting time with a lapsed friend he’s been avoiding. And Abed makes a fair point here; if you look through my list of primary characters in any given episode, this is the only one that features Jeff and Abed together. It’s not like the two of them have ever interacted much in isolation with one another in the way that Troy and Abed or even less prestigious pairings like Britta and Shirley seem to go together. Jeff pretends to be coolly logical, but frequently makes choices based on emotion; Abed, who is whimsy personified, tends to ground his decisions based on a surprisingly reasonable platform. They are natural fits for conflict or comedy, and yet they have a problem there: they aren’t people who are much given to being with one another socially. They have no points of similarity with one another, short of their shared membership in a clannish little community college study group. That Abed is trying at all to be friends with Jeff is sweet; that Jeff has, in his own way, tried to be nice to Abed makes Abed’s sweetness sour pretty rapidly. The conversation the two of them have in the diner will be echoed much more loudly in Season 3, where Troy has it out with Abed on much the same topic. Paraphrased, it goes like this: “You can’t have what you want all the time.”
But while Abed is having what he wants, there’s a generous helping of honesty to go on top. He and Jeff share an adult conversation, a really frank one which exposes both of them and proves their willingness to be vulnerable with one another. Abed shares the story of his brief cameo on Cougar Town; Jeff reaches back into the vault and tells a story about being an Indian for Halloween but being mistaken for a girl. Very little of these conversations is funny, but credit Sona Panos with a naturalist feel for the flow of a conversation, especially between two people who are, presumably, as guarded as Jeff and Abed. It’s a rarity: an episode of television which, if transposed, might have been nearly as successful on a totally different show.
2) S2E23, “A Fistful of Paintballs”
Primary characters: Annie and Pierce/Secondary characters: Jeff and Abed
This is Annie’s season and Annie’s episode, and this is the best spoof that Community ever undertook, and somehow it’s still only the second-best episode of the best season Community had.
That first claim – “This is Annie’s season” – sounds a little hyperbolic. And yet it feels like Annie’s presence is stamped on virtually everyone else while, simultaneously, others do not impress themselves on her. Annie is a foil for Britta in this season as they slowly swap places – Annie becomes more sensible and Britta becomes less so. Annie’s bubbly personality, still very much soaked in that teenagerish fantasy of possibility, is placed in dialogue with Shirley, whose pregnancy brings her further down to earth. Annie is the person most likely to join in with Troy and Abed’s hijinks. She is Jeff’s primary romantic interest this season, regardless of how many times Jeff and Britta slept together without anyone (besides Delayed-Action Abed) noticing. And where some characters largely shut Pierce out over the course of the season, Annie is right there with him, the only one, by season’s end, who feels any kind of sympathy for the study group’s “oldest, most racist” member. She’s not often the focus of an episode, but her fingerprints are everywhere.
That last conflict, the conflict of Pierce contra mundum, is where Annie really shines. And without the threat of removing Pierce from the study group – and where Annie is the dissenting voice who keeps him around – this is merely a really good episode with the (again, spot-on) flavor of a spaghetti Western. When Annie challenges Pierce to a paintball gun duel, chiding him tacitly for not knowing who his friends are, for being willing to betray them at the drop of a hat, the fierce idealism in her character is affirmed in a way that should be totally corny. (She and Pierce are dressed in the remains of some Old West costumes, pointing paintball guns at each other in the cafeteria of a community college.) The scene isn’t corny at all and it’s thanks to Alison Brie, who manages to play it with surprisingly effective seriousness. It’s one of my favorite Community sequences, working on an entire season’s frustrations and riffing on the genre conventions of an IP which is perfect for a show which eats pre-existing style like late-night diner food.
If there’s an issue with the episode, it’s that it runs out of time. The presence of “For a Few Paintballs More” means that “A Fistful of Paintballs” doesn’t technically tell a complete story, and I understand that line of thought. At the same time, I think it’s wrong to say that this episode doesn’t tell its own story completely. Whether or not Greendale has been infiltrated by City College is, in the grand scheme of this season, low stakes. Whether or not Annie will reject Pierce, and in so doing eject him from the study group, is far more important. Just how close the study group gets to fracturing itself is a much more important consideration than the identity of Pistol Patty.
1) S2E8, “Cooperative Calligraphy”
Primary characters: Jeff and Annie/Secondary characters: Abed and Troy
When they make a list of the greatest episodes of TV ever made, somewhere next to “The Suitcase” and “Cape Feare,” there will “Cooperative Calligraphy” be also.
Look, I occasionally make this mistake too: it’s easy to forget that Community is about “community” and not about “pop culture ripoffs.” The show functions best not when it’s playing a high-concept game, but when its seven truly interesting characters are interacting with one another and stretching the boundaries of their friendship. There’s a Seinfeld quality to this episode, and not just because of the plot, which sounds like it’s ripped from an early-’90s TV Guide. Annie is missing one of her purple pens, goes full nutter, and the study group is forced to stick around to find a pen at the risk of not being able to trust one another ever again. The official meta-joke is about bottle episodes as opposed to something more specific, but the conceit makes the episode especially efficient. We know we’re about to put into a potboiler of low-stakes suspense in an effort to save Community money on a new set, and thus we’re primed for every offense given and taken. Everyone acts just as they should. To wit:
- Annie turns her missing pen(s) into a principle and then tries to back down when things get heavy
- Britta’s bad liberal take turns into a scathing critique of Shirley’s own compromised morality
- Abed is unable to manage to emotional nuance of the room
- Troy’s “Charming Airhead” meter reaches Dazed and Confused levels
- Pierce is old and racist and, thanks to the events of “Aerodynamics and Gender,” crippled
- Jeff vainly tries to take control of a situation, fails, and sets a new standard for insanity
Surround all of these moments with some of best jokes of the show’s run – Abed’s calendar of the ladies’ menstrual cycles is sheer brilliance, although Troy’s ruminations on the edibility of important things and the “Waffle House sink” smell of Pierce’s casts make me guffaw literally every time – and this is a peak TV classic.
The conclusion, sort of like Community’s own conclusion, is a bit of a bummer. The group decides that a ghost must have taken the pen and, in the end, can walk out as trusting friends leaving behind an utterly trashed study room, sacrificing their location for one another. My opinion on the matter is that if we can fete Breaking Bad for writing itself out of corners with impunity, then we can certainly offer the same courtesy to an episode which, for twenty minutes, ranks with the very best single sitcom episodes ever to air on the small screen.