10 Essential ‘Community’ Episodes to Watch Over Holiday Break

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Well, it’s Thursday, but there won’t be a new episode of Community tonight. Apparently, there won’t be a new episode of Community for many more Thursday nights… excuse me…

Okay, I’m back. Nothing wrong with a good morning cry. As I was saying, last week’s Christmas episode marked the final new episode until the series’ undetermined spring return to the NBC schedule, as room is cleared in the Thursday night line-up for 30 Rock’s return and various other shufflings. NBC promises (promises!) that the innovative ensemble comedy isn’t cancelled, it’s just going on a little break, but their assurances have the subtle air of a parent’s earnest insistence that no, Sir Barksalot just went to a farm in the country where he can run and play, not that he was… put to… sorry, be right back…

Right-o. Our worries about Community’s future aside, its distressing exile—along with the rerun cycle that has already taken over prime-time — and the recent addition of the entire three-season run to Hulu Plus means that the holidays are a fine time for you Greendale novices out there to catch up on what is, I believe, the finest comedy program on network television. After the jump, we’ll give you the ten episodes most worth your time.

Oh, a quick summary may be in order, since we’re not including the pilot: the show is set at the fictional Greendale Community College in Colorado. The show began with a primary focus on Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a hotshot attorney disbarred over a bogus degree. Sent to community college in order to earn some real credits, he ends up in a “study group” with tough, sexy Britta (Gillian Jacobs), pop-culture obsessed weirdo Abed (Danny Pudi), charismatic jock Troy (Donald Glover), Christian single mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), type-A super-student Annie (Alison Brie), and rich retiree Pierce (Chevy Chase). Early in the first season, the show slowly evolved from a fast-paced star vehicle (and will-they-or-won’t-they rom-com) to a show piece for its crackerjack ensemble, expertly blending pop satire with an honest-to-goodness family dynamic that would court sappiness were it not imbued with genuine pathos and occasional darkness.

Each episode’s title is written as a course name. These are, in this fan’s humble opinion, their ten best (in chronological order):

“Contemporary American Poultry” (aka “The Goodfellas Episode”)

There are some great episodes in Community’s first season, but for this viewer, the moment of realization that no, no, this show is brilliant, came in the late first season “Contemporary American Poultry” episode, which begins with an innocuous, goofy little plot about the college-wide popularity of the cafeteria’s chicken fingers and transforms, with utterly infallible logic, into an episode-length parody of Goodfellas — and then, in spite of the show’s refusal to do so (Abed: “Please don’t do a special episode about me”), finds something resembling a heart inside it.

“Modern Warfare” (aka “The First Paintball Episode”)

The first season’s pièce de résistance was “Modern Warfare,” in which an innocent paintball battle on the quad degenerates into a no-holds-barred, last-man-standing battle—and the most dead-on, laugh-out-loud satire of the modern action movie this side of Hot Fuzz. (Intriguingly, that episode is directed by Justin Lin, who helmed the last three Fast/Furious movies and may have more of a sense of humor than those pictures would lead you to believe.) This is the show at its absolute, laugh-out-loud funniest — but what’s great about “Modern Warfare” isn’t just the aping of Bay camera moves, the hilarious John Woo shout-outs, or even the Glee slams. It’s that, in the middle of all that madness, they toss in Jeff and Britta’s David-and-Maddie moment—and then totally throw it away. For a show that was originally built on their romantic tension, that is one ballsy move.

“Cooperative Calligraphy” (aka “The Bottle Episode”)

In television shorthand, the “bottle episode” is one that confines its characters to a single set in a short timeframe and lets them go at each other (prime examples would be the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, “The One Where No One is Ready” on Friends, or “The Chinese Restaurant” on Seinfeld). In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Community creator Dan Harmon admitted that his motive for doing a bottle episode was a fairly common one — it’s an easy way to do a cheap episode, and make up for cost overruns on other, more elaborate stories. Of course, Community being Community, the locked-in search for a stolen pen that degenerates into a soul-searching examination of the characters and relationships is immediately tagged by Abed as a bottle episode, and proceeds accordingly.

“Mixology Certification” (aka “The Bar Episode”)

Most of the episodes on this list are commonly found among the fan favorites, but you don’t hear much about “Mixology Certification,” in which the gang celebrates Troy’s 21st birthday by taking him out to a bar. As this point, midway through the second season, the show had seldom ventured off campus (the third season expansion to the Troy/Abed/Annie apartment has broken that down lately), so it was noteworthy in that respect; we don’t often get the chance to see this tightly-knit group of weirdos interacting with the general public. But more importantly, the aforementioned dysfunctional family dynamic that has become so key to the show’s success really gets a test drive in this episode (particularly in its pitch-perfect closing scenes, above).

“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (aka “The Claymation Episode”)

Community is one of the most consistently funny shows on television — no series, with the possible exception of 30 Rock, packs as many jokes into 22 minutes — and it has managed to restore to the spoof form much of the dignity stripped from it by years of Friedberg/Seltzer “movies.” But the show’s ability to generate sympathy, emotion, and drama (while never seeming to stoop to “special episode” hackwork) is its true gift. A fine example is the second season Christmas episode, done in full-on Rankin/Bass-style stop motion. The writers and performers generate plenty of laughs within the context of the Claymation form, but there are real pathos to be found in this subtle, somewhat heartbreaking half-hour.

“Critical Film Studies” (aka “The Pulp Fiction Episode”)

As Community found its specific style and voice, the show’s creators clearly became aware that it could easily become some sort of homage factory/pop culture Xerox machine, and the show has begun to even subvert that element of its being. Witness “Critical Film Studies,” which seemed to cater directly to the Internet fan base by promoting itself (complete with on-set advance photos) as “the Pulp Fiction episode,” and then turned out to be not a tribute to Tarantino (which has certainly been done to death), but to Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (which has, well, not). But, again, it was neither a nudge-y reference parade nor a clever bait-and-switch; it appears at first to be an audacious stunt episode, but ultimately has something real (and telling) to say about human interaction and cultural obsession.

“Paradigms of Human Memory” (aka “The Flashback Episode”)

The idea of a flashback episode to things we’ve never seen has been done before — the second episode of Kevin Smith’s Clerks cartoon did it, and rather hilariously — but Community‘s second season fake-flashback show transcended the joke itself and turned into something altogether remarkable: what Slate‘s Bill Wyman (no, not that Bill Wyman) wrote “might be the most complex sitcom episode ever filmed.” His brilliant unpacking of “the most insanely self-referential 22 minutes in sitcom history” is too good to try to top; I’ll merely link and quote (“What we’re left with is … a brilliantly conceived show about nothing, really, other than how brilliant its conception is.” “Community already comments on itself comprehensively. ‘Paradigms’ knows how complex it is. It’s about its own complexity.” So on. Just go read the damn thing.)

“Remedial Chaos Theory” (aka “The Multiple Timelines Episode”)

One of the more depressing things about NBC sending Community to its room for the winter is that the show has been on an incredible run of top-notch episodes through this third season. Take, for example, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which a roll of the dice to determine who will go answer the door of Troy and Abed’s apartment results in multiple timelines with drastically altered results. It’s like that old sci-fi story about the time traveler and the butterfly — except really, really funny, and a little dark, and kind of brilliant. When it ended, this viewer was left with a feeling I hadn’t had since the first time I saw “The Contest” episode of Seinfeld: that I had just witnessed sheer sitcom perfection. (A word of warning: the clip above makes zero sense outside of the context of the episode.)

“Documentary Filmmaking Redux” (aka “The Hearts of Darkness Episode”)

I’m willing to concede that Community‘s rather stagnant ratings could have something to do with episodes like “Documentary Filmmaking Redux,” which is basically an extended riff on the 1991 making-of-Apocalypse-Now documentary Hearts of Darkness — i.e., episode-length tributes to obscure cinephile docs don’t exactly amount to new-viewer bait. But this one is irresistibly weird and funny. A follow-up to the second-season episode that aped The Office‘s pseudo-doc style, this return actually topped the original (unlike the terrific yet slightly overcooked season two paintball sequels “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More”), and gave Jim Rash his finest showcase for the sheer insanity of Dean Pelton to date. Plus, that early ’90s-era Greendale TV spot is uproarious (“Internet Keyword: Greendale”).

“Regional Holiday Music” (aka “The Glee/Christmas Episode”)

Community has skewered the inexplicably (and infinitely) more popular Glee since clear back in season one, but never with the intensity and precision of this year’s holiday episode, which not only took on that program, its distinctive style, and its obsession with “regionals,” but found time for some good-natured jabs at Christmas music as a whole — most memorably in the above clip, which deftly sends up the disturbing Santa-sex subtext of “Santa Baby” (while, of course, giving plenty of enjoyment to the show’s many young, male Alison Brie fans). If you can watch that clip and not find yourself randomly singing “Bop be doop be doop be doop SEX” for days after, you’re a stronger soul than I.

Speak up, Community fans — which episodes would you add to this required viewing list?