As the streaming wars begin to take shape, one of the biggest selling points for a lot of these services — both new and old — are the beloved comfort sitcoms of our past. However, while most of the headlines have gone to who gets the rights to Seinfeld, The Office, and Friends, a beloved cult sitcom that may be better than all three has quietly resurfaced on Netflix.
I speak, of course, of six seasons (and no movie) of Community. Across two networks (or one network and one now-defunct streaming service), Community gave us 110 fantastic episodes, or rather, 97 fantastic episodes, plus the 13 episodes NBC produced in season four without creator and showrunner Dan Harmon (otherwise known as the gas-leak year). No show has ever rivaled Community in terms of pop-culture riffing, inside jokes, and running gags, and no sitcom has taken on so many targets, from Law & Order to spaghetti westerns to the multiverse! Some of those jokes were so good, and so well hidden that it took years for viewers to pick up on them. Most people also mostly remember the core cast of the series, but in its later seasons, Community actually churned through some fairly remarkable series regulars in Jonathan Banks, Keith David, and Paget Brewster, plus Community assembled an amazing roster of recurring characters, including Magnitude, Star-Burns, Leonard, John Goodman’s Vice Dean Laybourne, and John Oliver’s Professor Ian Duncan.
There was also a lot of behind-the-scenes drama involving Dan Harmon, the cast turnover, and the network’s annual decision over whether to bring the series back. It eventually achieved most of what it set out to accomplish, which was six seasons and a movie (the movie is apparently still in the works, potentially). New viewers of the series on Netflix will not have to endure the stress of that, but they can enjoy one of the best binge-watches of all time. We encourage everyone to watch them all (yes, even the gas leak season), but for those sampling, here are the 15 best episodes of the series of all time.
15. Cooperative Polygraphy (Season 5, Episode 4)
The Story: After Pierce’s unexpected passing, a team of investigators headed by the no-nonsense Mr. Stone arrives at Greendale to subject the study group to lie detector tests before they can be considered for distributions under the will.
Why It’s On The List: Otherwise known as the one with Justified’s Walton Goggins, “Cooperative Polygraphy” is one of only two representatives on this list from season five, and it is the closest that Community comes to a return to form after Dan Harmon takes back his rightful place as showrunner. The episode is ostensibly about Pierce’s investigation from beyond the grave into whether any of the study group might have murdered him, but it reveals itself to be more about the secrets that the study group had held from one another, secrets that Pierce betrayed from beyond the grave. Even in death, Pierce manages to sew discord and turn his friends against each other. It’s not just a fast-paced funny episode, but it also acts as a brilliant illustration of how far these characters have come as people since the beginning of the series.
14. Contemporary American Poultry (Season 1, Episode 21)
The Story: Jeff’s plan to get chicken fingers from the school cafeteria for the study group quickly evolves into a mafia movie-style endeavor with Abed calling all the shots.
Why It’s On The List: “Contemporary American Poultry” is a Goodfellas parody, with Abed in Ray Liotta’s role, and while I am sure there’s still plenty to love about the episode without basic knowledge of the Scorsese mafia film, the episode was definitely one that is immeasurably improved by having seen it. There are a number of episodes like this that parodied specific movies instead of genres (“Critical Film Studies” parody of My Dinner with Andre, for instance), and it was both to the series’ credit and detriment. Dan Harmon almost insisted on having a pop-culture savvy audience, and while that was great for building a cult following, it also alienated a lot of less pop-culture savvy viewers.
13. Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television (Season 6, Episode 13)
The Story: As their sixth year at Greendale draws to a close, Abed asks everyone to imagine pitching a TV show about what they would do in season seven.
Why It’s On the List: After Community was canceled by NBC and picked up by Yahoo’s streaming service, it was never quite the same, and that is inevitable when a show loses a big part of its original cast (especially when one of those cast members is Donald Glover). There aren’t many iconic episodes in the final two seasons, but credit to Harmon for absolutely nailing the series finale. In the series finale, each character imagines what a season seven might look like for Greendale, and it is as meta and self-reflexive as any episode of Community, as much a commentary on if there’d be a season seven than what it might look like. It’s touching and a little bittersweet, but after six seasons, the series finale is the perfect distillation, for better or worse, of what Community can be.
12. Paradigms of Human Memory (Season 2, Episode 21)
The Story: As the study group gathers to assemble their 20th and final Anthropology diorama of the year, they begin reminiscing about their favorite times together, including a trip they made to a western ghost town, a last-minute glee club performance and the array of costumes that Dean Pelton has managed to wear over the year. Meanwhile, Troy’s pet monkey returns only to disappear back into the school’s ventilation system.
Why It’s On the List: In 2011, a network television show featured a monkey named Annie’s Boobs, which gets lost in the community college’s venting system. A search for Annie’s Boobs ultimately leads to a clip show — or rather, a brilliant, hilarious parody of a clip show, complete with several digs at the then-popular Fox series, Glee. Oh, and also a classic Jeff Winger speech that references the Traveling Wilbury’s, which ultimately keeps the study group together. It’s classic Community, only in clip form.
11. Physical Education (Season 1, Episode 18)
The Story: Jeff refuses to participate in a pool class because the teacher forces him to play in gym shorts, and the study group discovers a white version of Abed at the college.
Why It’s On the List: One of the funniest episodes of the series saw Jeff trying to impart a lesson about beating your own path instead of trying to be someone else, which segues into a brilliant impression of Winger by Abed that is part Dick Van Dyke, part Sam Malone, and “40 percent Zach Braff from Scrubs.” I still don’t know if that is an insult or compliment, but I do know that it’s hilarious, as is the episode’s stinger with Tory and Abed playing Bert and Ernie. Oh, and the episode also ends in a completely naked Jeff sprawled across a pool table, because episode 18 is where Dan Harmon discovered the fan service that would fuel the series for five more seasons.
10. Epidemiology (Season 2, Episode 6)
The Story: The study group is left to fend for themselves by Dean Pelton during an outbreak due to tainted food at Greendale’s Halloween party. Basically, the Dean bought a bunch of old Army rations
Why It’s On the List: “Epidemiology” parodied both the pandemic movie and the zombie movie, set to … Abba songs. Yes, Abba songs. Dean Pelton bought some old Army rations for a Halloween party, which unleashes a virus that infects nearly everyone at the party except for Chang — who is outside — and Troy and Abed in the basement, until Abed sacrifices him for Troy so that Troy could “be the first black man to make it to the end.” It’s one of those wonderful Community episodes where it feels almost impossible that this many jokes could be packed into 22 minutes
9. Geothermal Escapism (Season 5, Episode 5)
The Story: As a going-away present to Troy before his around-the-world trip, Abed sets up a high-stakes game of “Hot Lava” at the college, but Britta suspects that the game is just masking his real feelings about Troy’s departure.
Why It’s On the List: “Geothermal Escapism” is the best episode of the last three seasons. It’s also Donald Glover’s last episode, and as Dan Harmon himself has conceded, the show would never quite be the same or as good without him. The episode sees Abed create a campus-wide game of Hot Lava before Troy sets sails across the world, per the instructions of Pierce’s will, and better still: He’s eventually joined by LeVar Burton. The episode, directed by Joe Russo, is a solid, funny episode until the third act, when it gives Troy the big emotional send-off that we all craved, although here the loss of Troy is as much about what it means to the remainder of the characters as it is to Troy himself.
8. Critical Film Studies (Season 2, Episode 19)
The Story:: Jeff’s Pulp Fiction-themed surprise party for Abed is spoiled when Abed tells him over dinner that he’s done with pop culture. But is this confession actually just part of another movie homage?
Why It’s On the List: It’s hard to stress what a brilliant bait-and-switch “Critical Film Studies” is. The episode was billed as a Pulp Fiction parody, but in reality, after the Pulp Fiction wrapping paper was ripped away, the real parody is a My Dinner with Andre spoof that takes place at a high-end restaurant between Jeff and Abed, and it’s all the more satisfying for it. It isn’t one of the funniest episodes of Community, but it is maybe the most layered and emotionally complex episode.
7. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (Season 2, Episode 14)
The Story: The study group plays Dungeons and Dragons with another classmate to improve his spirits, but Pierce’s jealousies cause their good intentions to backfire.
Why It’s On the List: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons in my life, and despite how often the game is referenced as short-hand for a certain kind of nerd/geek in pop culture, I didn’t really even understand how it was played. This episode was my entry point, and while I still don’t fully understand the intricacies (despite the aid of Stranger Things), I understand why the game is so appealing. It’s because the game — like this episode — offers creative opportunities for group storytelling, and there’s a certain kind of bond in that. Here, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” not only provided an overview of the game and lot of great laughs, but illustrated what a powerfully good ensemble show that Community is.
6. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design (Season 2, Episode 9)
The Story: Dean Pelton tries to bust Jeff for a phony night school credit, which only unveils a series of conspiracies, plots, and double-crosses between Jeff, Annie, and the Dean.
Why It’s On the List: In this episode, Jeff’s fake investigation into a fake conspiracy theory transforms into a real investigation into Professor Professorson, and eventually the episodes falls into a sort of conspiracy inception, but not before taking a grand detour through a massive blanket fort constructed by Troy and Abed. It’s Troy and Abed who mix wide-eyed wonder with the darker elements of this conspiracy-theory parody that makes for one powerfully funny episode of Community.
5. Basic Lupine Urology (Season 3, Episode 17)
The Story: In a homage to Law & Order, the study group investigates a crime when someone sabotages their science experiment. When they discover the perp, Annie plans on prosecuting them to the fullest extent of Greendale’s Code of Conduct.
Why It’s On the List: Pop! Pop! Late in its third season run, Community had a minor creative drought, but it was this Law & Order spoof that brought it fully back to the forefront. “Lupine Urology” dropped some of the meta-commentary, Harmon took a break from using his show as therapy, and the episode completely devoted itself to being a hilarious, gag-heavy, laugh-a-second L&O parody that also managed to take advantage of its huge roster of minor characters. This is one of those terrific Community episodes that’s terrific even as a stand-alone episode to people with no knowledge of the series. For the newbie, this is the perfect entry point.
4. Pillows and Blankets (Season 3, Episode 14)
The Story: Presented in the style of Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, what starts as a casual disagreement over pillows and blankets soon blossoms into all-out war on the Greendale campus. While insults are hurled and the study group chooses loyalties, Jeff tries desperately to negotiate a truce, but with neither Abed nor Troy budging on their principles or real estate, the future looks grim for the duo’s friendship.
Why It’s On the List: There’s a sixth-season episode of Black-ish about how Rainbow and Dre push the exact right buttons to set each other off that I think owes a little to this episode of Community, where Troy and Abed push each others’ buttons in ways that only two best friends are capable of doing. But of course, this is Community, so a very real fight between two best friends takes on the form of a Ken Burns parody set in blanket forts, because that is the genius of Community.
3. Fistful of Paintballs/A Few More Paintballs (Season 2, Episode 23 and Episode 24)
The Story: When the study group learns that there’s a sinister plot behind the paintball tournament, they unite the remaining players to defeat the enemy. In a “spaghetti western” parody, Pierce then tries to get revenge on the rest of the study group.
Why It’s On the List With the huge success of the season one finale, a sequel seemed all but inevitable, and this two-parter basically combined spaghetti westerns with Star Wars with 80s comedies where the good guys had to win to save their school/fraternity/business. The action-comedy aspects of the episodes are great, but it’s that big, rousing finale that seals it, as the episode reveals itself to be less about a paintball match and more about saving Greendale and the family that it represents for the students (including transfers played by Dan Byrd and Busy Phillips, the Cougar Town stars who make cameos).
2. Remedial Chaos Theory (Season 3, Episode 4)
The Story: At Abed and Troy’s housewarming party, Jeff decides to let the decision on who gets the pizza rest on the roll of the dice, leaving Abed to contemplate six alternate realities.
Why It’s On The List: “Remedial Chaos Theory” is easily the most quoted episode of Community of all time, and every time you hear someone refer to the fact that we are living in the darkest timeline, it’s this episode to which they are referring. The premise is simple but brilliantly clever: In each of the six timelines when the study group gets together, a different person has to leave to get pizza, and how we get to see how the group dynamic shifts in the absence of each study group member. The episode’s brilliance is in illustrating the importance of each character to the series in their absence. Plus, Pierce had sex with Eartha Kitt six times.
1. Modern Warfare (Season 1, Episode 23)
The Story: Greendale Community College is transformed into an apocalyptic war zone when the dean promises the winner of a paintball competition priority registration, and it could fan the flames of sexual tension between Jeff and Britta.
Why It’s On The List: “Modern Warfare” brings in every cliche and trope imaginable, referencing — among others — The Book of Eli, Scarface, Boondock Saints, Rambo, The Matrix, “Friends,” “Cheers,” “Lost,” and even “Glee,”ending in a beautiful paint-ball Mexican stand-off and monster green-paint explosion. Oh, and Jeff and Britta have sex. The episodes kills. It’s funny, unexpected, and smart, and not just the best all-time episode of Community, but one of the greatest sitcom episodes ever.