‘Community’ Spreads

Netflix has all six seasons of the early 2010s sitcom. Here’s where you should start

Community, the 2009-2016 sitcom, never established itself as a huge hit when it began on NBC. It wasn’t a hit when it lost its creator Dan Harmon and gained new showrunners for Season 4, or when Harmon returned to try to save the show for a Season 5. It certainly wasn’t a hit when it migrated to Yahoo! Screen (RIP) for a final Season 6 run, with some blaming the show for helping bring down the dot-com company’s ill-fated foray into TV.

But these days it’s not the size of the audience, it’s the ardor level of the fans. And one thing Community always had in its favor was rabidly passionate viewers convinced that the oft-meta show about funny things at a weird community college was the best thing on television. Netflix is hoping that passion blossoms and that Community turns into the next Friends or The Office for streaming, with a new generation of viewers boosting the show into the hit it never got to be in the first place.

And maybe that’s justice; the show had tremendously good writing, an ace cast (no one considered Donald Glover, Alison Brie, and John Oliver main draws when it started), and some notable behind-the-scenes talent, including the Russo brothers, who would go on to direct the highest-grossing film in history.

If you missed it the first time around, like most people did, the sheer number of episodes may be super intimidating. Season 1 contains 25(!) goddamn episodes, which seems insane by today’s eight-is-enough standards.

The good news is except for a few notable cast departures in Season 5 (Chevy Chase, Glover), there’s not a ton of plot you need to follow. Most episodes are self-contained homages to…whatever. Dungeons & Dragons, Pulp Fiction, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, Die Hard, and a million other things.

So, don’t even trip, friend, just start by watching these 10 essential episodes and decide if you want to go back and watch the rest later.

“Pilot,” Season 1, Episode 1, originally aired on Sept. 17, 2009

This is the episode that deftly introduces a very large cast of characters and establishes the setting of Greendale Community College. It’s mostly focused on the ostensible star of the show, Talk Soup alum Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, a super-cynical disbarred lawyer trying to put his life together. The pilot sets up, perhaps a bit too quickly, the will-they/won’t-they romance between Jeff and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), but it also does some good world building around Greendale’s Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, perfect) and introduces a bunch of new friends for Jeff without feeling overwhelming or forced. There are much stronger than episodes of Community, but especially for a pilot, this one has a very light touch even as it’s setting up lots of future relationships and character traits.

“Modern Warfare,” Season 1, Episode 23, originally aired on May 6, 2010

Community

All you really need to know about this episode is that it’s the first of about a half dozen that either are full-on episodes about a campus wide paintball game or that at least reference the events of this one. A campus-wide paintball fight breaks out and this humble episode of television turns into what almost looks like a high-budget action film playing out on your screen, long before peak-TV-era television shows started spending money like that.  Justin Lin, who made “Better Luck Tomorrow” and several “Fast & Furious” movies, directs. It’s very, very good.

“Pillows and Blankets,” Season 3, Episode 14, originally aired April 5, 2012

Not even the first episode on Community about gigantic, campus-swallowing blanket forts, this is the more memorable one because it also takes a wonderfully dumb Ken Burns turn as the story of two best friends suddenly at war over their respective communities, Blanketsburg and Pillowtown. Like a lot of Community episodes, this one could have done a light passing of a parody of The Civil War” but this show never really did things halfway and you have to admire the seriousness with which it approaches such ridiculous material.

“Remedial Chaos Theory,” Season 3, Episode 4, originally aired October 13, 2011

 Even for a show known for going meta and going over the top by this point, “Community” threw this deeply affecting curveball that slices up the narrative about Troy’s housewarming party into different possible outcomes, each worse than the last. In the Netflix era and after many superhero movies since 2011, this kind of messing-with-the-timelines plot doesn’t seem so significant, but for its time, the episode was incredibly prescient in introducing “Darkest timeline” to the pop-culture vernacular.

“Basic Lupine Urology,” Season 3, Episode 17, originally aired April 26, 2012

Even as the show started to build larger story arcs for its characters and dig deeper into their psyches in Season 3, it was still capable of doing straight-on parody. Such was the case in this Law & Order-themed one where the best joke isn’t even the supremely clever episode title (as in “Dick Wolf”). Even if you’re not a L&O devotee, you can still appreciate the plentiful procedural-TV jokes, but one of the more memorable bits comes near the end when the show reveals that recurring character Star-Burns (who has sideburns shaped like stars) has died in an explosion. He returns later in the series.

“Advanced Dungeons,” Season 2, Episode 14, originally aired February 3, 2011

One of the things “Community” struggled with mightily through its entire run was how to square its mostly loveable characters with Pierce Hawthorne, the Chevy Chase character who Harmon wrote as old, racist, out-of-touch and completely unpleasant. Add to that the behind-the-scenes drama around cranky-ass Chevy Chase and showrunner Harmon and it could make for some uncomfortable watching. This episode felt like a heartfelt attempt to explain all of Pierce’s bad traits and make him a little more huggable. It didn’t work in the long run; his subsequent fate on the show didn’t leave much of a mark. But that doesn’t take away from a very good episode with bigger stakes than just laughs.

“Contemporary American Poultry,” Season 1, Episode 21, originally aired April 22, 2010

Another sly parody episode, this one a mob thriller in which the gang conspires to control the supply of chicken fingers in the college cafeteria. Some of the best episodes in the Community canon take the group far away from their school setting, at least in tone, but this one manages to group the comedy in the workings of the school itself, but with a lot of Goodfellas references.

“App Development & Condiments,” Season 5, Episode 8, originally aired March 6, 2014

 Fans will recognize this one as the “Meowmeowbeenz” episode, in which a social-media app allowing students to rank each other takes over the campus. As in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” social ranking leads to unforeseen consequences. In Community fashion, the entire campus ends up divided into cultish groups. It’s an interesting time capsule of when users were beginning to question whether social-media apps were destroying the culture (spoiler: yes). One other reason to watch: Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is a series regular by this point.

“Digital Estate Planning,” Season 3, Episode 20, originally aired May 17, 2012

Community

Several Community episodes are excuses to do things in a different format, such as a completely Claymation-animated holiday special or one modeled after the G.I. Joe cartoon. This episode leans on the idea of an 8-bit videogame leading the group to a treasure hunt involving Pierce. The videogame bits aren’t too heavy handed and there are great guest turns from LeVar Burton and Giancarlo Esposito.

“Cooperative Calligraphy,” Season 2, Episode 8, November 11, 2010

Community did a clip show, but the joke of this episode was that the clips we saw weren’t from any previous episodes. This may not be so apparent to a new watcher; feel free to save this one for later in your deep dive. But it gets to what was so special about Community: that it took big, wild comedic swings that didn’t always work. But given all the talent in front of the camera and behind it, a surprising number of those swings connected. This is one of those.

 

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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