The Internet heaved a collective sigh of relief yesterday with NBC's announcement that Community would be returning March 15. But that relief was short-lived: If Community's return is going to be a triumphant anthem and not a tragic swan song, it needs more viewers. Preferably a lot more! So to all of you holdouts: If you've been waiting to dip your toe into the refreshing, beautiful, and absolutely hilarious pool that is Community, consider this your formal invitation to dive on in. We're practically begging. (Seasons one and two are available on DVD; all seasons stream on Hulu Plus.)
Community is often called "meta" because of its frequent allusions — an entire Claymation episode, an Apollo 13 homage, a Halloween episode that doubled as a zombie movie. But that's not quite the point: Community treats genre as malleable. Think of genre here they way you might think of patients on doctor shows, or cases on lawyer shows, or spoof-centric episodes of The Simpsons. (You can hear creator Dan Harmon expound on this on his "WTF" episode.) Don't worry about catching every nuance of the homage — just enjoy the ride.
CliffsNotes: Community is set at Greendale Community College. The central study group consists of Jeff (Joel McHale), a cooler-than-thou former lawyer and the group's de facto leader; Annie (Alison Brie), a high-strung overachiever and the baby sister of the group; Abed (Danny Pudi), the pop-culture savant who could probably be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder; Troy (Donald Glover), the excitable jock and Abed's platonic soul mate; Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the ostensible do-gooder who tends to ruin things; Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the righteous Christian mom; and Pierce (Chevy Chase), the cranky, out-of-touch grandpa. Jim Rash is Dean Pelton, the bizarre, flamboyant, and costume-obsessed head of the school, and Ken Jeong is the maniacal Chang, an ex-Spanish professor-turned-student-turned-security-guard who always seems to pop up at the wrong time. Enjoy!
1. "Beginner Pottery," season 1, episode 19
Jeff, Annie, and Abed take a pottery class taught by a hippie-dippy Tony Hale, who calls his students his "precious blueberries." The one rule? No Ghosting! (That's reenacting the erotic pottery of Ghost, obviously.) Meanwhile, Shirley, Pierce, and Britta learn about naval navigation while on a boat in a parking lot.
This is a good entree into the warped universe of Community, even if it's not the show's greatest, most triumphant episode. Watch Jeff go from Mr. Cool Guy to Mr. Dangerously Competitive (Especially About Sex), but also embrace the abject silliness of the landlocked boat.
2. "Modern Warfare," season 1, episode 23
It's every student for themselves in an all-out paintball war that quickly takes on heroic proportions — and utterly destroys every inch of the campus.
This one's often called "the paintball episode," and it's among the show's best. It's also the most impressive demonstration of how Community re-metabolizes pop culture, here repurposing the tropes of action and survival movies (particularly Die Hard) both for laughs and some fleeting poignancy. This shouldn't be your first episode of the show — it's more fun if you know the characters a bit — but if you can't get onboard for this, the rest of the series is not for you. (Also, seek therapy.)
3. "Cooperative Calligraphy," season 2, episode 8
Someone stole one of Annie's pens, and no one is leaving this room until we find out who.
Think 12 Angry Men, but with sarcastic nudity, and with Chang covered in Vaseline and sliding through air ducts. Community often divides its ensemble for A- and B- (and sometimes C-) stories, but "Calligraphy" is the iconic episode that's the opposite of that: It's everyone, all together, with equal presence in the story.
4. "Critical Film Studies," season 2, episode 19
Everyone dresses up as a character from Pulp Fiction for Abed's birthday (Pierce dresses as The Gimp), but the birthday boy and Jeff spend the night at a fancy restaurant, baring their souls: Jeff talks about his deepest fears, and Abed talks about being an extra on his favorite show.
This isn't the funniest episode of the show, but it's among the most ambitious — and it's probably the classic example of why Community doesn't have a bigger audience. How many people are enticed by the idea of a My Dinner With Andre homage? Probably not that many! Beyond its cultural pedigree, though, "Film" also points at some of the surprising melancholy the show's capable of, particularly from Abed. Rare is the character whose epiphanies come from time spent on the set of Cougar Town. ("We had already moved on, Courteney had nailed it.")
5. "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps," season 3, episode 5
It's Halloween in Greendale, and everyone takes a turn telling a scary story that of course just illuminates what they're afraid of and obsessed with.
"Remedial Chaos Theory," the episode before this one, might have been a grander exploration of the split-stories structure, but for newbies, "Horror" is a little bit more fun. (The episode's minor drawback for hardcore fans was that it covered some well-worn territory, but for those less familiar with the series, that isn't an issue.) Troy's ridiculous Frankenstein story — in which he swaps Pierce's hands and feet, and gives Pierce "boobs" made from his butt — is the funniest, but Dean Pelton as the devil in Shirley's story is a very close second. Sure, there's Pilates in hell, but Pilates is "the demon that eats genitals."