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8 essential 'Community' episodes from the Dan Harmon era

Posted by Christopher Hughes  January 8, 2014 10:37 AM

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Throughout its precarious existence, "Community" has remained one of the most ambitious, polarizing shows on television. In part, celebrated creator and showrunner Dan Harmon created Greendale Community College and its exclusive, misfit study group to dismantle generic sitcom formulas and traditional character archetypes. With its habit of referencing obscure pop culture, Internet GIFs, and "Community" in-jokes, Dan Harmon has created a hermetically sealed universe that can feel exclusionary to all but the most media-savvy.

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Following its brilliant third season, NBC decided to part ways with "Community's" acerbic architect for a number of reasons: procastination, delayed table reads, heated altercations with Chevy Chase, and concerns of alcoholism. After being replaced by Moses Port and David Guarascio from "Happy Endings," "Community"'s consistent, cult viewership dipped by 11 percent, leaving the show reeling.

With its future in peril, the show's passionate fanbase -- and persistent campaigning from star Joel McHale -- rallied behind it, imploring NBC to give it one more chance. Not only has the network complied, they've reluctantly brought back the man who likened them to "Darth Vader" on his Harmontown live comedy tour.

Despite his irascible behavior and all the quibbling, backstage melodrama, there's a reason why critics often compare him to "Arrested Development" producer Mitch Hurwitz and "Breaking Bad" executive producer Vince Gilligan: as Joel McHale tweeted, he's a "true genius."

Here are eight reasons why you should be watching the newly restored fifth season of "Community."

1."Physical Education" Season 1, ep. 17

With nods to "The Color of Money" and "The Breakfast Club," Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) enrolls in a billiards class to look cool performing trick shots against a soundtrack of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London." But when Coach Bogner forces his class to wear high-cut gym shorts, Jeff revolts against the "desecration of America's coolest sport." The battle of wills results in one of "Community's" first real aburdist plots as the two have have a nude, pool showdown to prove their commitment to the game.
The group also finds a flattering sketch of Abed (Danny Pudi) in a Spanish textbook and proceeds to "Can't Buy Me Love" him (i.e. molding an antisocial nerd into a smooth-talking Casanova) in order to make him presentable to his mysterious admirer. One of the most rewarding scenes takes place when Abed practices the art of seduction by channeling his inner Don Draper on Annie (Alison Brie), who splits her time portraying Trudy Campbell on "Mad Men."

2. "Contemporary American Poultry" Season 1, ep. 21

A perfect satire of "Goodfellas" with Abed in the role of Henry Hill, strong-arming Greendale through the currency of chicken fingers. The study group realizes the power of the coveted cafeteria entree and creates a mafia-like power structure to glean better grades, pet monkeys, and personal hairdressers. Director Tristram Shapeero deftly captures Martin Scorsese's use of reverse-tracking shots, a steady soundtrack of Doo-wop, and the dramatic solo from "Layla" when circumstances go awry.

3. "Modern Warfare" Season ,1 ep. 23

An innocent game of paintball turns cut-throat when Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) promises the spurious prize of priority registration (it doesn't exist). Dan Harmon and director Justin Lin pulled off the most ambitious plot of Season One, as Greendale is turned into a post-apocalyptic landscape divided into savage factions. It's "Friends" meets "Terminator" as Jeff and Britta's (Gillian Jacobs) stormy relationship -- against a backdrop of pillaging students and flickering barrel fires -- turns from Ross and Rachel into Sarah Connor's doomed love affair with Kyle Reese. "Modern Warfare" is a satirical clash of action tropes with allusions to everything from "The Warriors," to "Predator," to the canon of John Woo. TIME critic James Poniewozik named it the third best TV episode of 2010, but even today, "Community" fanboys widely consider it one of the series' very best.

4. "Basic Rocket Science" Season 2, ep. 4

What "Contemporary American Poultry" was to mafia movies, "Basic Rocket Science" was to space films like "Apollo 13," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "The Right Stuff." With its nemesis City College launching a much-publicized space simulation program, Greendale decides to fight back by purchasing its own simulator -- a KFC branded video game housed inside of a rust bucket Winnebago. But when the study group is accidentally sealed inside and towed into the surrounding farmland, Abed must guide Troy (Donald Glover) through the "Sanders" program in order to escape. With slow-motion walk-offs and a claustrophobic Pierce (Chevy Chase) having hallucinatory conversations with a HAL-like Sanders, it might not have had the subtlety of earlier efforts, but as Troy quips, "there is a time and a place for subtlety, and that time was before 'Scary Movie.'"

5. "Epidemiology" Season 2, ep. 6

Ever vigilant in regards to Greendale's budgetary concerns, Dean Pelton hosts a Halloween gala with an all Abba playlist and refreshments purchased from a military surplus store. Mixed in with the old army rations is some sort of WMD mistaken for taco meat and soon the student body is suffering from a highly contagious zombie virus. "Epidemiology" crams the entire Romero oeuvre into 20 sublime minutes with unforgettable bits like zombie Jeff Winger perpetually jabbing at his Blackberry in a $6,000 suit and Troy attempting to "be the first black man to make it to the end" of a horror movie.

6. "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" Season 2, ep. 9

Tackling the scourge of contrived '90s conspiracy-based movies like "Enemy of the State," "The Net," and "Nick of Time," Jeff finds himself embroiled in an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Annie and the Dean in admonition for a fake night class he conceived to earn easy credits. Jeff attempts to verify his Conspiracy Theories course by introducing them to one Professor Professorson (aka Professor Woolley, aka Drama Professor Garrity), an inscrutable presence that everyone is at odds to explain. Soon, the group is chasing the enigmatic Professorson through the twisting avenues of Abed and Troy's extensive blanket fort in order to unravel the truth of Annie's convoluted cautionary tale.

7. "Remedial Chaos Theory" Season 3, ep. 3

After it aired in October of 2011, Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club made the bold claim that "Remedial Chaos Theory" was "one of the ten best episodes the show will ever make." That prognosis now seems particularly shrewd as the episode remains a vanguard in innovative sitcom constructs. Greendale's most notorious study group attends Troy and Abed's housewarming party to eat pizza and play Yahtzee, but through that simple premise, "Community" explores the radical theory of alternative timelines. Following in the same vein as "Time and Punishment" from the "The Simpsons" Treehouse of Horror V, each time a different member is removed from the group, a different reality presents itself. Through seemingly trivial machinations, the song "Roxanne" by The Police, and inanimate objects like an Indiana Jones diorama and an eerie Norwegian troll doll, petty spats and sexual tension emerge to catastrophic consequences. Beyond all the abstract probing and philosophical nerding-out though, "Remedial Chaos Theory" is just plain funny.

8. "Contemporary Impressionists" Season 3, ep. 11

In an ultimate homage to all things pop culture, Abed accrues an insurmountable debt after hiring a number of celebrity impersonators to reenact his favorite movie scenes at home. A doppelganger of French Stewart (played by French Stewart) is the head of the impersonator agency who confronts Troy and Abed for restitution. To pay back his deficit, the gang must masquerade as their celebrity likenesses at an extravagant Bar Mitzvah. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) does a spot-on Oprah Winfrey and Pierce is brilliant as the reluctant "fat Brando," but "Contemporary Impressionists" is an essential episode because it confronts Jeff's intractable narcissism and it plants the first seeds of Troy and Abed's burgeoning discord. Plus, there's Dean Pelton's finest gag, grovelling at Jeff's feet when he dons a pair of aviators. "Final boarding call, Beefcake Airways."



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