Community may not have been a commercial success for NBC (or Yahoo) -- it was perpetually on the brink of cancellation -- but the intrepid study group at the heart of the show certainly made a significant impact on the comedy's incredibly loyal fanbase. Created by Dan Harmon (currently of Rick and Morty fame), the show set out to highlight the worth of people that others in society have deemed worthless. In doing so, it appealed to a vast swath of fans who hadn't really been spoken to in a sitcom before the 2009 premiere. Even if the show was a bit inconsistent at times, die-hard fans knew what Community meant to them right out of the gate and were willing to stick with it wherever it went.
The series focuses on a lovable study group of misfits -- including consummate cool guy Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), lovable ditz Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), TV-obsessed Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), precocious genius Annie Edison (Alison Brie), tough-but-firm mother Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), high school jock Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), and the baffling, bored, former CEO Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), as they navigate their way through Greendale Community College and generally try to become better people along the way. Episodes run the gamut of funny, shocking, dramatic, and downright strange, making them pretty difficult to compare, let alone rank. But there's a lot of time to kill before Harmon can accommodate fans' rallying cry of "six seasons and a movie," so you might as well bone up on Community's 25 best episodes.
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25. "Basic Crisis Room Decorum"
Season 6, Episode 3 As rival community college City College is poised to launch an attack ad on Greendale revealing that the school once gave a diploma to a dog (which may or may not be true), the Greendale gang must rally in the middle of the night to find a way to get ahead of the negative press. Though the show had lost much of the original cast by Season 6 (the most recent season, which aired on Yahoo), the hodgepodge of old and new characters really finds a way to shine in this episode. Each character leans on his or her strengths to combat the situation in their own way: Abed makes a commercial, Annie digs deep into the facts, and Britta… gets coffee. Add in the hilarious reveal of a long-running prank on Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) by Japanese children posing as Jeff via text and you've got yourself a crisis.
24. "Basic Human Anatomy"
Season 4, Episode 11 Season 4 won't get a lot of play on this list as it's the infamous "gas leak year" that saw the firing of series creator Dan Harmon, who was the heart and brain of the show that in the eyes of many fans made the series so great. Still, with a writing credit by Jim Rash (aka Dean Pelton), "Basic Human Anatomy" finds its mark as the one that broke up the puzzling relationship between Britta and Troy. From the get-go, the relationship didn't make a lot of sense, and that's exactly what the characters deal with in this episode. Troy is afraid to have the tough conversation with Britta that he's unhappy, so he concocts a classic movie scheme with the always-willing Abed. The two switch bodies à la Freaky Friday, allowing Abed to conduct the breakup for his best friend. Breakups are messy and emotional, but this rare diamond-in-the-rough episode managed to capture the humanity of a tough breakup in a distinctly Greendale way (not to mention we see that the dean can do a spot on Jeff impression).
23. "Basic Lupine Urology"
Season 3, Episode 17 Community is at its best when using its wacky world of characters to play with genre and, yes, be very, very meta. This Law & Order parody is a classic example. When the study group's biology experiment appears to be the victim of sabotage, Troy, Abed, and Shirley investigate until they find their perp. Then, in true Law & Order fashion, the episode shifts focus to a makeshift trial in which Jeff and Annie act as lawyers in an attempt to prosecute former U.S. Marine (and all-around mensch) Todd (David Neher) to the fullest extent of the Greendale Code of Conduct. However, things aren't necessarily as they appear and, just like the series it's parodying, an unexpected courtroom outburst throws everything into question. There are a lot of homage episodes of Community, but this one's perfect mirroring of its target genre is hard to beat.
22. "Critical Film Studies"
Season 2, Episode 19 What could be better than a movie parody for Abed's birthday? Two movie parodies! When Jeff organizes a Pulp Fiction-themed surprise party, he's confused to find a more mature-seeming Abed demanding a "real conversation." He eventually figures out he's been tricked into a My Dinner with Andre plot, where Abed reveals that his love for the sitcom Cougar Town led him down a path that shattered his already-thin perception of reality vs TV. On the surface, it's a bizarre comedy of errors mixed with some spot on cosplay from the group. However, it also gives fans a deep look into Abed's detachment from reality and his dependence on TV characters and the fourth wall to survive. It manages to be funny while also showcasing the human cost of the condition that makes Abed such a fun character.
21. "A Fistful of Paintballs"/"For a Few Paintballs More"
Season 2, Episodes 23 & 24 This two-part finale accomplished a pretty improbable feat. It successfully reprised Season 1's massive paintball assassins game (in which the entire campus is given paintball guns and told there can only be one person left standing) in a way that actually made a bit of sense -- well, relative to Greendale anyway. When an ice cream company agrees to sponsor a game that promises to be more subdued than last year's "Modern Warfare" (where audiences were first introduced to paintball assassins) everyone is shocked, including the dean, to discover that an ice cream company is offering a $100,000 prize this time. Everyone commits hard to a Wild West motif as the Greendale community takes the game a little too seriously. In the second episode, it's revealed that rival City College was behind the ice cream company sponsorship in a not-so-subtle attempt to wreck the campus.
It's an action-packed story that serves to push Community from a sitcom about a small group of average misfits to a Simpsons/Springfield-like series with a whole universe full of special guest stars (like LOST's Josh Holloway) and meme-worthy recurring characters (e.g., Magnitude). As the fate of every Greendale student hangs in the balance, the action goes beyond the core cast to elevate players like Leonard, Vicki, and Garrett. The paintball sequel would set the tone for the enduring theme of Community, which has less to do with the members of the study group, and more with the gift/curse nature of the community college itself. It showed that Greendale is a place that deserves to be destroyed, but is simultaneously worth fighting for.
20. "Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing"
Season 6, Episode 4 When Dean Pelton is offered a position on the school board, it comes with the condition that he be the administration's token gay member. Community is a show that has never been preachy while also being willing to grapple with uncomfortable social issues. In this case, it forces the viewer to confront how much of their identity they would be willing to volunteer or withhold for personal benefit. The dean isn't just a gay man. Although it was never directly addressed until this episode, his sexual orientation, views of relationships, and gender identity are complicated… and really his own damn business. While there's only one Dean Pelton, there's a huge number of people whose sexuality doesn't fall within one or two categories. This episode was a love letter to all of them.
19. "Football, Feminism and You"
Season 1, Episode 6 One of the earlier episodes in the series, this installment gives fans a peek at who these characters were before they came to Greendale. When the dean tries to use Jeff's well-established influence over the study group to convince Troy to play football, fans learn for the first time that Troy is not just a dumb jock who lost his chance to be a pro athlete from a keg-flip injury. He's a scared, formerly big fish in a little pond that sabotaged himself so as not to face the pressures of growing up. While the inevitability of adulthood would not spare the often-child-like Troy for long, it gave fans a deeper understanding of what makes him tick, on top of revealing the extent of Jeff's manipulative side. Add in a closer look at Annie's crush on Troy and her first realization that neither of them are the people they were in high school, and you've got one of the first examples of the heart that makes Community so endearing to an audience of misfits. Not to mention it's the first introduction of the haunting "human being" mascot.
18. "Beginner Pottery"
Season 1, Episode 19 Jeff Winger's Greendale experience was nothing if not a series of humbling moments for an arrogant and previously untouchable figure on campus. By this point in the series, fans had seen how his vanity and need for control affected him and those around him. However, with the introduction of Rich (Greg Kromer), Jeff finds himself inadequate by comparison to someone at the school for the first time. While the subplot about a sailing class that takes place in the parking lot is funny, its Jeff's slow descent into a jealous rage that makes this episode one for the books. When he's finally called out for "ghosting" and gets kicked out of his pottery class, he's forced to admit that he's got some deficiencies when it comes to his ego that perhaps a stay at Greendale can help fix. Jeff was, from the audience's perspective, the show's hero, but "Beginner Pottery" serves to rip off his cape for the first time and show the flaws that led him to the study group in the first place.
17. "Basic Rocket Science"
Season 2, Episode 4 In one of the earliest examples of Greendale's rivalry with City College, Dean Pelton reacts to news that City College is getting a state-of-the-art space flight simulator by beating them to the punch with the purchase of a similar flight simulator, sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken. The study group is tapped to put on a good PR show for the local newspapers as penance for the now-famous anus flag they submitted that became Greendale's official logo. What follows is far and away the most bizarre episode concept the show's had to date, but it manages to find its footing by relying on the character's finger-licking-good friendship with each other and some unexpected school spirit that Jeff sums up best: "Greendale may be a toilet, but it's our toilet. Nobody craps in our toilet."
16. "Geothermal Escapism"
Season 5, Episode 5 This episode deserves high marks for not only replacing paintball with a new high-concept campus apocalypse, but for achieving the impossible task of giving Troy a proper send off. It also sets up life for the show beyond the loss of one of its breakout stars (whatever happened to Donald Glover anyway?). When Abed announces that he's offering his No. 1 issue of "Space Clone" (worth $50,000) as a prize, it's all the incentive the campus needs to commit to a massive game of "the floor is lava." While the factions of chair walkers and locker boys are fun, the real heart of the episode lies in the final minutes of Troy's send-off. For a character that was introduced more than a little stunted, getting on a boat to sail around the world with LeVar Burton (yes, that LeVar Burton) was just crazy enough to be a fitting arc for Troy. It was a case of art imitating life as both Troy and Donald Glover had to sail off into the sunset to grow into their best selves, something they could not do within the confines of Greendale. Will it be the last we see of Troy? Who knows?
15. "App Development and Condiments"
Season 5, Episode 8 What happens when technology finds a way to codify social hierarchies? At Greendale, a dystopian mess forms. When app developers beta test a social ranking app called "MeowMeowBeenz," Jeff and Shirley compete to see who can be the biggest phony and win over the campus. Not only does this episode do a great job of exploring how Shirley is far more than the kind, pious housewife she pretends to be, it shows how Jeff struggles to cope when someone else displays some manipulative power of their own, exploring the often-vapid human dynamics behind popularity. As criminology professor Hickey (a post-Breaking Bad, pre-Better Call Saul Jonathan Banks) notes, one can win public favor with something as simple as a birthday hat.
14. "Contemporary American Poultry"
Season 1, Episode 21 In yet another genre parody, Jeff concocts a mafia-style scheme to ensure the group gets their hands on the only good item in the school cafeteria: chicken fingers. He soon finds that Abed is getting enticed by the popularity and social clout that having currency people want can give a person. Over time, his unique brain temporarily overtakes Jeff as the de facto leader of the study group. Not only does this episode sport one of the show's better genre parodies, it explores whether Jeff needs the study group more than they need him. In the end, both Abed and Jeff realize how quickly someone with power can become a villain, even to his or her closest friends. It's also the episode in which we learn that Pierce can do a bafflingly accurate impression of Donald Trump.
13. "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics"
Season 5, Episode 3 A parody of David Fincher's directing style (particularly 2007's Zodiac), this episode is a Community crime thriller by way of the infamous Ass Crack Bandit, whose MO is slipping a coin down people's pants when they bend over. Jeff and Annie go full-tilt into the investigation, prompting even the dean to ask what's going on between the two of them -- a question they have trouble answering. The episode is perhaps the show's most successful genre parody as the average viewer might not even recognize its highly stylized homage without context. Interestingly, the question of the Ass Crack Bandit's identity is never fully solved (even though it's heavily implied to be Annie in a later episode).
12. "Pillows and Blankets"
Season 3, Episode 14 Presented in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, the campus takes sides in a war that could decide whether or not Greendale finds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. What started as a friendly spat between Troy and Abed over which is better, a blanket fort or a pillow fort, quickly becomes a full-on battle for supremacy. It's an exercise in absurdity, but also depicts a very relatable problem: how to resolve conflict with a best friend. The audience learns that friendship is more important than being right, but no one ever determines for sure whether or not a pillow fort is better than a blanket fort. Perhaps the most important aspect of this entry in the list is the fact that it not only highlighted how important Troy and Abed's relationship is to each other, but how important it had become to the makeup of Greendale in general. When they're at odds with each other, the entire campus becomes a literal war zone.
11. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux"
Season 3, Episode 8 The best kind of Dean Pelton is an unhinged Dean Pelton. When he's given a chance to direct a new commercial for Greendale, the dean goes down a dark road in seeking perfection that ends with him burning his clothes and spreading the ashes on his naked body. This episode hits a lot of high points such as Jeff's spot-on impression of the dean, a cameo from former Greendale student Luis Guzman, Annie's dalliance with Stockholm syndrome, and Troy yelling "Stop saying I'm different!" While the episode is a wild ride, at its heart it's about a man who cares deeply about his job and his school. It shows that, no matter how far down a dark path someone can get, Greendale will always offer a second chance for them to self-correct.
10. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"
Season 2, Episode 16 When Pierce pretends to be dying, he "bequeaths" individual gifts on the study group designed to mess with them in hauntingly specific ways. In addition to offering us our first look at Troy's odd affection for Star Trek and Reading Rainbow star LeVar Burton, it gave fans their first look into how affected Jeff is by his father's absence from his life. All of the raw emotion and group turmoil is captured through the lens of Abed's camera, allowing the show to play with the faux-documentary style of TV made popular by shows like The Office and Modern Family. Things devolve in a very serious way as Jeff and Pierce come to blows over the latter's half-brained attempt to pretend to be Jeff's dad. In the end, two big things are revealed. 1) Pierce is not immune to the group's propensity to not take him seriously and use him as the butt of all their jokes. 2) Pierce genuinely likes Annie the best.
9. "Paradigms of Human Memory"
Season 2, Episode 21 A clip show is a pretty old sitcom trope that allows staff and crew to get a few days off on the shooting schedule. However, Community takes things a step further by giving fans a clip show filled with moments that the audience had never actually seen before. By the end of Season 2, it was clear that Community had become a more cartoonish show than the grounded one about lovable misfits that the pilot episode promised. However, that ends up working in the show's favor with "Paradigms of Human Memory," allowing the show to treat the audience to information that the gang had camped out in a literal haunted ghost town, avoided some kind of cartel hit job, filled in for a long-deceased glee club, and engaged in a fun-fueled St. Patrick's Day adventure. However, the big reveal from the episode comes when Abed uses his computer brain to discover that Jeff and Britta have been sleeping together. On one hand, it shows that the closeness of this group goes beyond what the cameras show viewers. On the other hand, it reveals that not everything is as it seems with these characters and the dynamic of their incestuous little corner of the library.
8. "Cooperative Calligraphy"
Season 2, Episode 8 What starts as a missing pen quickly devolves into the group sitting naked on the floor of the study room having completely destroyed their favorite meeting place. In what Abed shamelessly describes as "a bottle episode," Annie announces that her pen has been stolen and gets unreasonably upset when the gang doesn't take her complaint seriously. No episode of the show does a better job of showcasing the dark side of the members of this group, but what makes it a top 10 contender for this list is the fact that their descent into madness is wonderfully juxtaposed with updates from the dean about the ongoing puppy parade that the group is missing while they futilely search. It's also the episode with the most built-in rewatchability as many fans were quick to dive back in once it was revealed that they could see exactly what happened to Annie's pen if they looked close enough at Act. 1.
7. "Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"
Season 5, Episode 10 When the group's newest member, Professor Hickey (Jonathan Banks), reveals that he's estranged from his 3-year-old grandson because of a falling out with his D&D-playing son (guest star David Cross), the group decides to try their hand at the fantasy role-playing game once again. As with real Dungeons & Dragons, what makes this episode work is each character's top-to-bottom commitment to their characters in the story. One needs only to look at the dean's death scene at the hands of Jeff's character to understand why the story-telling medium of D&D and Community work so well together. Sure it's a sequel to an already-done concept on the show (see the next entry on the list), but when it works, it works. In the end, the conflict is resolved not with a hug and traditional reconciliation, but with a role-played fight that forces both Hickey and his son to acknowledge that they're both equally stubborn, which can be a family bond in and of itself.
6. "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"
Season 2, Episode 14 While both of the Dungeons & Dragons episodes deserve top marks, the group's first foray into the game deserves ever-so-slightly more given that it was the first to dare to present a fantasy role-playing game on television. Abed is the perfect choice of character to create a boundless world and then enforce the rules of that world to a ridiculously meticulous degree, even if it means hurting the feelings of a severely depressed young man (or having a public sexual roleplay fantasy with Annie). For a show that routinely devolves into some form of chaos, something as creative yet grounded as a high-stakes D&D campaign managed to take it to a new level.
Season 5, Episode 1 Let's face it, the show needed a fresh start after going through the retcon ringer in Season 4. Dan Harmon's triumphant return to the show could have been a big middle finger to the network and his predecessors, but it wasn't. Rather than kick off Season 5 with an "I'm back" tone, "Repiloting" acknowledges that things were off the rails even before the "gas leak year." The characters needed to be re-grounded if they were ever going to explain that these very capable people are seeking education at a community college... for a fifth year. With Jeff graduating from a reluctant student to an even more reluctant professor, and the rest of the gang finding new ways to better themselves, "Repiloting" sets the stage for a show that's got real longevity. It's the proof of concept that makes fans' rallying cry of "six seasons and a movie" feel downright attainable.
4. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"
Season 2, Episode 11 Putting a pin in the fact that this episode walks a fine line in potentially turning Abed's quirks into serious mental issues, this is one of the most relatable Christmas TV episodes ever. When the group discovers that Abed is genuinely seeing the world in Christmas-themed claymation, they're reasonably concerned. At the behest of Professor Duncan, they indulge his holiday fantasy as he seeks out the real meaning of Christmas. However, in a Willy Wonka-like adventure, they drop off one by one as they each find a new way to hold Abed back from his quest. It's revealed that Abed's mother told him that she wants to spend the holidays with her new family, making this the first Christmas she won't watch the classic, claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie with him. In the end, the group rallies to inject some positivity and Christmas spirit into their friend. It's a story that acknowledges the stressful reality that the holidays get worse as you get older, unless you open yourself up to flexible definitions of traditions with even more flexible definitions of family.
3. "Modern Warfare"
Season 1, Episode 23 Community kept turning back to paintball for a reason -- it worked so damn well the first time. Despite showing up at the end of the first season, "Modern Warfare" set the tone for the rest of the series by showing what full commitment to a bit looks like on a campus-wide level. When Jeff takes a nap in his car, he wakes to discover the campus has devolved into chaos over a game of paintball assassins that promises the winner priority class selection in the following semester. What follows is an action-packed romp that takes characters that were introduced as a lovable band of misfits, puts guns in their hands, and shows us what they're made of. Whether it's picking the glee club out of trees or calling checkmate on the chess club, our heroes literally fight their way through the halls of the school in a battle royale while simultaneously driving several character arcs forward. Is Shirley a phony? Are Jeff and Britta a thing? Is Britta obsessed with what people think of her? Is Chang actually awesome? Through the magic of projectile paint, Community gave viewers the gift of putting its characters through a consequence-free war.
2. "Remedial Chaos Theory"
Season 3, Episode 3 Community is not the first show to play with the alternate timelines trope. It's not even the first sitcom. However, this episode deserves high marks on the list because it's just so damn funny. It's hard to keep a story with so many moving parts going in a way that doesn't lose the audience. Not only does "Remedial Chaos Theory" do that, but it delivers big laughs in the form of Britta falling in love with the pizza guy, Shirley being sensitive about her compulsive baking, and, of course, Troy coming back inside to discover that a troll doll has burned his apartment and killed/disfigured his friends. While the "darkest timeline" gestalt was used for some pretty awful stuff later on in the series, this episode took one of the most complicated gimmicks to write about and landed on top of all other pretenders. It's the little genre victories like that which allows Community to hold such a special place in the heart of its devoted fans.
Season 1, Episode 1 While it may feel like a cheat to rank the first episode as the best episode, it's fitting in the case of Community. It's true the tone of the pilot is a far cry from what the show would actually become, but it's so tightly written and bursts through the gate with promises about its characters that, for better or worse, are kept later in the series. Before you can be charmed by Abed's use of TV to understand life, it has to be established by meeting him as just another weirdo. Before you can laugh at Annie's naivety, you have to see just what a wide-eyed schoolgirl she was when she arrived. Before you can see Troy grow into a man, you have to see him as a kid afraid to take off his letterman jacket. And before being won over by an impactful Jeff Winger speech became a not-so-subtle trope, you had to be genuinely won over by your first Jeff Winger speech. Community came out swinging for the fences with the wind entirely at its back. Much like a freshman in community college, things didn't pan out for it the way anyone expected. However, it set the tone for what we got, which (pending a movie) is pretty darn great.
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Tyler McCarthy is an entertainment journalist with a particular interest in all things "nerd culture." He has written for outlets such as The Huffington Post, Fox News, International Business Times, Den of Geek and Thrillist. He is based out of New York City where he continues to cover film and television news daily.