1. “Debate 109”: Season 1, Episode 9
Sure, you can watch the pilot episode, and the first eight episodes of Season 1 have some unforgettable moments, but “Debate 109” is the first episode of the show that really feels like Community. Annie’s debate partner drops out, and Jeff is talked into serving as a replacement in exchange for the Dean giving him a prime parking space. Meanwhile, Abed is able to create videos recreating events from the study group that manage to predict future events that occur. The story lines meet at the climax, where Jeff and Annie are forced to improvise and beat City College in debate. The show makes use of some of it’s best characters, and sets up dynamics that will play throughout the show’s run.
2. “Investigative Journalism”: Season 1, Episode 13
Season 1 returned from winter break with a new episode where one of their classmates Buddy (special guest star Jack Black) is trying to force his way into the study group. This conflicts with Jeff’s new, more relaxed personality, which Abed suggests makes him Hawkeye from M*A*S*H. One of the best episodes of season 1 that explores the group dynamic and showcases Community’s understanding of pop culture, and its ability to do so on more than just a surface level.
3. “Contemporary American Poultry”: Season 1, Episode 21
On the surface, “Contemporary American Poultry” is one of the show’s first showcase parody episodes, where they pick a particular pop culture icon (in this case “Goodfellas”) and put their own spin on it. The show works well as a “Goodfellas” parody, including a fantastic montage that both pays tribute to and undermines the original sequence. But what sets “Contemporary American Poultry” apart is that it allows again shows the importance of the group dynamic and manages to add in just the right level of sweetness to close on.
4. “Modern Warfare”: Season 1, Episode 23
Not just one of the best episodes of Community, but of all television in 2010, this episode is the original paintball episode, the episode the defined Community as not just a good, funny sitcom, but a program capable of transcendent greatness into the upper echelon’s of television. The plot is pretty much a straightforward parody of action movies, replacing the guns with paintball guns. The episode features some of the series’ best pop culture parodies, and features the best use of Ken Jeong ever (including The Hangover). The episode was directed by Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious movies and may be Community’s finest half hour.
5. “Cooperative Calligraphy”: Season 2, Episode 8
“Cooperative Calligraphy” is a great episode of television that spends the length of the episode both mocking and recreating one of television’s most historic tropes: The Bottle Episode. While most famously employed on the various Star Trek series (where it is more obvious), Abed and later Jeff make it clear that the entire episode will take place in the study room, making the action taking place outside (a puppy parade) all the more humorous. The episode manages to make all the characters both likeable and unlikeable at the same time, and is again one of Community’s absolute best episodes.
6. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”: Season 2, Episode 11
Abed sets out to find the meaning of Christmas in this stop-motion animation episode (that only he can see), and manages to be sad, dark and uproariously funny all at the same time. Abed’s belief that the world is stop-motion animation gets him into trouble with the school, and he is forced into counseling with Professor Ian Duncan. While exploring some dark themes, the show ends on another sweet note, and is probably the show’s best holiday episode.
7. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”: Season 2, Episode 14
A game of Dungeons & Dragons may not sound to all of us like the best setup for an episode of television, but by raising the stakes to an almost insanely high level in the opening segment, the episode has an incredible level of tension underneath it, and by making the interloper a stranger (Fat Neill, who would become yet another member of Community’s amazing recurring background cast) the one in danger, the stakes somehow seemed even higher. Amazingly, the studio never wanted this episode to be produced thinking that Dungeon’s & Dragons would never be accessible enough for a viewing audience.
8. “Paradigms of Human Memory”: Season 2, Episode 21
Other shows have parodied clip shows before, but none have one so quite as effectively as Season 2’s “Paradigms of Human Memory” which takes the time to mock a bunch of sitcom tropes before turning its attention directly to the tropes most commonly used by Community, mocking the show in a way only community can.
9. “Remedial Chaos Theory”: Season 3, Episode 4
“Remedial Chaos Theory” is one of the show’s finest half hours, showcasing all of the cast in different ways, while again showcasing each character’s importance to the group. As the group gathers around to play Yahtzee in Troy and Abed’s new apartment, they roll a die to see how has to go outside to fetch the pizza, creating six different timelines where different fates befall the group. It explores the group dynamic, establishes the “darkest timeline” and is full of great, silly, escalating gags.
10. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”: Season 3, Episode 8
This is one of the most debated episodes of the first three seasons of Community, perhaps because of the levels it pushes the boundaries of what one might expect from a television sitcom. A parody of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary film behind the making of Apocalypse Now, the episode is a showcase of star Joel McHale and Jim Rash as Dean Pelton. It was perhaps the show at its least accessible for outsiders, but if you loved this episode, there’s very little from the first three seasons you probably didn’t care for, as it mixes the study groups dynamic while showing again the program’s chops for direct parody.
11. “Pillows And Blankets”: Season 3, Episode 14
Another parody episode, this one in the style of a Ken Burns Civil War documentary, tells to story of Abed and Troy’s dueling pillow/blanket forts as they seek a Guinness World Record. A direct followup to the previous episode, it can be watched effectively on its own. The show gets some great mileage updating the “actors reading historic letters” cliche, updating them for social media (“Leonard likes this post”) and again manages to turn something silly and goofy into something touching and heartfelt in the final minutes.
12. “Introduction to Finality”: Season 3, Episode 22
Season three’s finale (the last episode with Dan Harmon’s involvement before he returned for season five) is the show’s finest finale. Originally aired as part of three back-to-back episodes, it focuses on the legal ownership of a sandwich shop in the cafeteria, while Evil Abed returns from the darkest timeline to try and reek havoc on the primary timeline. He is, of course, unsuccessful, but this episode proves the show doesn’t need crazy parodies or outlandish plots in order to make us both laugh and care about these characters.
13. “Repilot”: Season 5, Episode 1
Dan Harmon is back, everyone! And from all accounts the show is as good as ever, getting reviews comparable to season 2 and 3. That said, if this beloved show is going to get #sixseasonsandamovie it’s going to need people to start watching, so tune in this season and enjoy one of the best comedies on television.
Interested in Community 102? Here are 13 more episodes to continue your Community education:
“Spanish 101”: Season 1, Episode 2
“Comparative Religion” Season 1, Episode 12
“Physical Education”: Season 1, Episode 17
“Basic Rocket Science”: Season 2, Episode 4
“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”: Season 2, Episode 9
“Mixology Certification”: Season 2, Episode 10
“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”: Season 2, Episode 16
“A Fistful of Paintballs”/”For a Few Paintballs More” Season 2, Episodes 23-24
“Geography of Global Conflict”: Season 3, Episode 2
“Regional Holiday Music”: Season 3, Episode 10
“Basic Lupine Urology”: Seaosn 3, Episode 17
“Digital Estate Planning”: Season 3 Episode 20
“Herstory of Dance”: Season 4, Episode 8
Seasons 1-4 of Community are on DVD, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime. Season 5 of Community premieres with two episodes at 8:00p.m. Eastern Time on NBC January 2.