Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ranking Community Season 1

For years I went back and forth every other day on whether the best stretch of post-Arrested Development TV comedy was the first two seasons of 30 Rock or the second and third seasons of The Office. Try as I might, it was an impregnable quandary. But in fall of 2009 Dan Harmon and the Russo brothers came along and made an impossible decision very easy: the best post-Arrested Development TV comedy, and a very real contender for my second favorite sitcom of all time, is NBC's Community. I mean, I love The Office. I love 30 Rock. Never missed an episode of either, never plan to. But I'd see both of them and every other non-Community sitcom on TV canceled and yanked off the air today if it would guarantee Harmon a few more seasons to do his thing.

An insanely likable cast with massive chemistry, clever and ambitious storytelling, sly subversion of sitcom tropes, strong filmmaking, flat-out sublime joke writing and more make it clear that Community is operating on a level unrivaled by any other comedy on television (and only one or two dramas, to be honest). I never thought a half-hour college comedy would trump Judd Apatow's Undeclared, but Community does so within its first ten episodes and just keeps on improving. It's so good it's almost ruined the genre of comedy for me. I saw dozens of comedy films in theaters in 2010, and even liked some, but with the exceptions of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and possibly MacGruber I was always left thinking, "well, that had fewer laughs than any given twenty-two minutes of Community, and Community is free."

I recently picked up and rewatched the first season on DVD, seeing most of the episodes for the first time since they originally aired, and just had to talk about how much I love this show. But rather than doing a straight-up review I decided to go through the entire season and and rank each episode from #25 to #1, along with some brief discussion of and favorite moments from each. Keep in mind that unlike my best of the year movie lists, which I try to write as readable and coherent even if you haven't seen a single movie discussed, I'm writing this more for the already-iniated, because I want to highlight specific jokes. But enough foreplay, let's get streets ahead.

25. Episode 2 - "Spanish 101"

I'll say first thing that there's not a single episode of this season that I consider bad television (the only Community to date which I actively dislike is season two's "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples"), but "Spanish 101" does, like several of the first six episodes, demonstrate some growing pains. It's somewhat fun to watch Senor Chang's intro and Jeff and Pierce's presentation, but Annie and Shirley's protest subplot is dead in the comedic water. I'm not saying any newbies should skip "Spanish 101" — it's still better than a solid half of 30 Rock season four — but I will say to power through and not think too hard about it.

Best Moment: "La Biblioteca," of course.

24. Episode 14 - "Interpretive Dance"

Again, not a bad episode by any means, but it seems like they were going for a "Debate 109" or "Comparative Religion"-level set piece with Britta and Troy's dance at the end, which it in no way measures up to. The exposure of Jeff and Slater's secret relationship is more entertaining.

Best Moment: Honestly, I'd have to go with Annie's gasp of shock and betrayal when Britta announces that she and Troy have something to tell everyone. Not because it's a particularly brilliant joke as written but because Alison Brie is the best.

23. Episode 5 - "Advanced Criminal Law"

The A-plot with the poolside trial is pretty good stuff and among the earliest hints at how bizarre and creative Community would eventually become, although I will say that Britta using a cheat sheet initially soured me on her character. Still, hard to deny the greatness of John Oliver. The subplot with Pierce's song is a bit flat and anticlimactic but fortunately Pierce's musical career would be put to much better use a mere three episodes later.

Best Moment: Probably Leonard getting "busted" for not wearing a bathing suit, because Leonard is hilarious.

22. Episode 11 - "The Politics of Human Sexuality"

I love Annie's entire "reverse Porky's" subplot, and although it stretches even Community's version of reality to have a TV nerd best the former high school quarterback, Abed and Troy's battle of athleticism is worth some chuckles. But while I appreciate Jeff coming to respect women (or at least Britta) as essential character development, I do think they could have found a way to make it a little funnier.

Best Moment: Either Annie's traumatic backstory about losing her virginity, the guidance counselor insisting that everyone say "penis," or any time the phrase "reverse Porky's" is uttered. Annie's whole subplot, really.

21. Episode 1 - "Pilot"

Sitcom pilots are the first dates of television — they're rough, awkward, mostly consist of feeling things out, and your chances of walking away satisfied are slim to nonexistent, but at the same time they're a necessary evil to get to the good stuff. Comedic rhythm between actors takes time to develop and it's almost never all there within one episode, and Community is no exception (neither is Arrested Development, for that matter, for which the pilot is probably one of the top five weakest episodes of the series). Annie and Troy are written slightly but noticeably differently than they would eventually become and Jeff's manipulative speech at the end runs a good half-minute long. However, it does a good job setting up the world of Greendale, Winger's character, and winning some laughs along the way, and I loved the John Hughes / Breakfast Club tributes.

Best Moment: "You know, I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you're more like Michael Douglas in any of his films." "Yeah?" "Yeah." "Well you have Asperger's." "...what does that mean?" "Ass burger." "It's a serious disorder." "It really is." "If it's so serious why don't they call it... meningitis? Asperger's!" "Burger for yo' ass."

20. Episode 25 - "Pascal's Triangle Revisited"

This is a good episode but, I admit, a little bit disappointing as a season finale in that it isn't a great episode. It really is just a sitcom love triangle — one with characters I'm actually invested in and jokes that are actually funny (the Dean's dalmatian fetish, Troy's cookie, people at the Tranny Dance shouting which "team" they're on, anything with John Oliver, etc.) — but on the basic story level it really doesn't attempt to subvert, parody, or rise above the traditional sitcom love triangle in any way. It's almost like something out of latter-era Friends. I also thought Britta's desperate, lovesick characterization was off.

Best Moment: Either the closing credits tag, where we see a whole different side of Greendale who neither know nor like our heroes, or Troy angrily telling Abed that there was a Happy Days where a guy literally jumped over a shark, and it was the best one.

19. Episode 20 - "The Science of Illusion"

Now here's where we start getting into the unambiguously good stuff. Britta's April Fools prank gone awry has amusing slapstick value even if cadaver humor is a little tired these days, and the Dean bringing in the corpse's family one by one to talk to Chang's Spanish class about their memories of him is hilarious, but the true magic of "The Science of Illusion" is in Shirley and Annie's bad cop / badder cop routine, with Abed always watching and occasionally playing their no-nonsense African-American police chief who's too old for this shit.

Best Moment: Annie macing herself.

18. Episode 6 - "Football, Feminism, and You"

The ladies' room etiquette subplot is a bit hit-or-miss, but any episode with a big emphasis on Donald Glover can't really go wrong, not to mention the introduction of the Greendale Human Being.

Best Moment: Troy's politically conservative high school shamefully outdated fight rap.

17. Episode 24 - "English as a Second Language"

Kind of interesting how both of the final two episodes of the season have such heavy emphasis on Annie, but on the other hand Annie is one of my favorite characters on television so I can hardly complain. The revelation of how poorly-taught the class has been for an entire year is hysterical, and while Troy's Good Will Hunting subplot is bizarre and arbitrary even by Community standards (and peaks ten seconds in when he steals the chalk instead of solving the equation), it's still pretty funny in its absurdity. I also like that it's Pierce who saves the day in the end.

Best Moment: Either the class realizing how in over their heads they are after a minute of their new Spanish teacher, Chang destroying Jeff's car followed by Jeff and Chang being tased together, or Star-Burns leading everyone out in a show of support for "Hannah." Tough call.

16. Episode 15 - "Romantic Expressionism"

This is definitely an episode where the B-plot trumps the A-plot. Not that the A-plot is bad (indeed, both of my best moments below stem from it), but while Jeff and Britta trying to break up Annie and Vaughn may amuse, Pierce's attempts at winning bad movie night are classic. Watching him bomb during Kickpuncher is awkward comedy done right, his hiring of a community college sketch comedy troupe (played by Derrick Comedy) to write him a series of homophobic jokes is one of the funniest Pierce bits of the season, and capping things off with Troy and Abed's own homoerotic Kickpuncher sequel makes for a great episode.

Best Moment: Either Troy having the weirdest boner or Jeff and Leonard shouting at each other over the macaroni.

15. Episode 4 - "Social Psychology"

Another episode where I feel the B-plot dominates. "Social Psychology" does a good job developing Jeff and Shirley's friendship (and one thing I like about Community is that there's a lot more variety to the nature of the cast's relationships than in something like Friends; everyone isn't just equal-footing buddies) and no one can deny that Eric Christian Olsen throws himself into the role of tiny-nippled Vaughn. But the real highlight is the titular psych experiment with Annie, Abed, and Professor Ian. Everyone's freakouts as the experiment goes on are classic (especially Troy crawling out of the room like a wounded animal). Annie and Abed are my two favorites so any plot that puts them together I'm pretty much guaranteed to love.

Best Moment: Abed telling Annie that he "figured we were more like Chandler and Phoebe, they never really had stories together," explaining to her that he stayed because he thought they were friends, or her apologizing to him with a gift of Indiana Jones... any Abed and Annie moment, really. The ending tag is great too.

14. Episode 16 - "Communication Studies"

Minor classic territory now, and the first episode on this list I feel basically every aspect of works completely. The level to which the main drunk dial storyline digs into Jeff, Britta, and Abed is brilliant, making room for pathos, awkwardness, power plays, Britta looking incredibly sexy dressed up for the Valentine's dance, and an absurdist Breakfast Club-styled drinking montage. Mix with Troy and Pierce's humiliation in the B-plot and the Greendale Human Being's transformation into the Cupid Being and you have great fucking television.

Best Moment: Three-way tie between Jeff and Abed's drinking montage, Troy dancing full-heartedly with his body while crying with his face, and Jeff looking back at Britta as he and Slater leave the dance.

13. Episode 13 - "Investigative Journalism"

This one seemed a little controversial on forums I read due to the way Jack Black takes over the show, but as a television junkie I thought it was a kind of brilliant parody of unwelcome guest stars stepping into and taking over sitcoms (remember Brad Pitt and a million other Friends guest spots?). I mean, obviously the character he's playing is annoying and unwelcome. That's the point, and the way he sneaks into the group hug at the beginning makes me laugh every time. In a way, "Investigative Journalism" is as much a pop culture parody as "Modern Warfare" or season two's "Epidemiology," it's just a parody of something much more niche and specific. Factor in all the flavorful M*A*S*H references and I think this episode rules.

Best Moment: Senor Chang's fake death, resurrection, and rap (although the most classic line is "Annie's pretty young, we try not to sexualize her.").

12. Episode 18 - "Basic Genealogy"

Okay, I'll admit that neither Abed's dad and Shirley's kids or Jeff trying to sleep with Pierce's stepdaughter just blow the roof off of contemporary comedy, but, seriously, Britta getting spanked by Troy's grandma while Troy sobs in the background is one of the absolute funniest things to be broadcast on television in 2010. It's just so beautifully, sublimely absurdist, and I suspect no actor on earth cries funnier than Donald Glover. When I first saw "Basic Genealogy" I was still thinking back to the spanking scene and laughing a week later. I still laugh thinking about it today.

Best Moment: Britta's spanking, of course. (Although a solid silver for second has to go to Jeff sobbing to Pierce about how much he hates Glee.)

11. Episode 3 - "Introduction to Film"

After funny but not quite revelatory first and second episodes, this was the Community that startled me with how much more I enjoyed it than any recent Office or 30 Rock and assured the show a permanent place on my viewing schedule, and is easily the best of the first six. John Michael Higgins (Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development... what a pro) is hilarious as the professor who challenges Jeff more than expected with his supposedly blow-off "seize the day" class, but the episode's heart and soul is unquestionably Abed and the film project he's made for his father. I don't know that I've ever seen a non-lead sitcom character take shape so quickly and distinctly.

Best Moment: Abed's film.

10. Episode 7 - "Introduction to Statistics"

If "Introduction to Film" is the episode where I truly became a Community fan, "Introduction to Statistics" is the episode where Community truly became Community: the characters have taken shape and the unique, self-aware tone and the pop culture references are charging full-speed ahead. Sure, drug trips are a little bit generic for college comedy, but this was where I really started feeling for Annie (way more than after her guilt trips in "Football, Feminism, and You"), and although Abed-Batman saving Jeff and Pierce from the collapsing chair fort may pale compared to "Modern Warfare" (from the same episode director as this one, Justin Lin of Better Luck Tomorrow fame), it was unexpected and absolutely hilarious at the time.

Best Moment: Either Abed saving Jeff and Pierce or his Batman monologue on the roof immediately after.

9. Episode 8 - "Home Economics"

Every element rocks. Annie's unrequited passion for Troy which comes to involve a visit to the school nurse played by Patton Oswalt, Jeff becoming homeless, moving in with Abed, and absorbing his lifestyle, and especially Pierce and Vaughn's musical collaboration and then rivalry with Britta caught in the crossfire. I just had a grin on my face after watching, which is what a sitcom episode should aspire to.

Best Moment: All three insult songs ("Getting Rid of Britta," "Pierce You're a B," and "Pierce's Rap") are hilarious, but the first is definitely the best. Pierce's nasal "She's a G.D.B.!" just can't be beat, especially coupled with Britta's expression at the end.

8. Episode 22 - "The Art of Discourse"

Jeff and Britta's plot to achieve vengeance against the high schoolers by having Jeff sleep with the ringleader's mom would be enough to hold up a really funny episode all on its own (some people didn't like the "DUH!" climax, but it made me laugh my ass off), but when you mix in Abed and Troy going on a mission to work through Abed's first year of college checklist, culminating with Animal House "where are they now?" subtitles, and especially Shirley and Pierce's feud, you have one of the funniest TV episodes of 2010. Definitely the best Shirley / Pierce story of the series to date.

Best Moment: Easily Pierce offering flowers and an apology to the wrong middle-aged black woman. Absolutely fucking hilarious.

7. Episode 17 - "Physical Education"

Another all-brilliant all-the-time piece of work and a particularly great episode for Jeff and Abed, with a revealing and spectacular climax. I like how this episode and "Beginner Pottery" show that Jeff isn't pure cool and has his own absurd, self-conscious side just waiting to be unleashed.

Best Moment: I really can't choose. Naked billiards is hysterical and a choice I'd be comfortable with, but Britta's mispronunciation of "bagel," the revelation of white Abed, and Abed doing "Don Draper from Mad Men" and nearly kissing Annie are also goddamn classic.

6. Episode 19 - "Beginner Pottery"

You'd think that Tony Hale of Arrested Development fame stepping in to teach a class at Greendale would easily dominate the episode comedically, and the way it sends Jeff into a Goldblumming psychosis is indeed really funny (I also like that Hale is playing a character who has nothing in common with Buster Bluth), but for my money Shirley, Pierce, Britta, and Troy's boating B-plot is even better. The tragedy, the drama, the triumph of it; simply sublime.

Best Moment: Shirley sending the ship across the parking lot to rescue Pierce scored to epic adventure music, but "the hilarious guy-on-guy" followed by Tony Hale pointing to and then defending his anti-Swayze poster comes damn close.

5. Episode 10 - "Environmental Science"

I absolutely love these top five episodes. "Environmental Science" unapologetically spends its entire duration building up to Troy and Abed's rat-luring song sequence which is used to underscore the resolution of every story, but good lord does it really, really work. It almost has a season finale feel to it, when it wasn't even the winter finale. Community don't fuck around.

Best Moment: "Somewhere Out There" is the moment that Community officially became one of my favorite shows.

4. Episode 12 - "Comparative Religion"

First off, Anthony Michael Hall's guest spot basically couldn't be any funnier. Every moment he spends onscreen as Greendale's resident bully is gold (not to mention that Hall and Chevy Chase together makes this a National Lampoon's Vacation reunion, even if they never interact). But I also think the way the episode approaches the topic of religion is deft and funny (especially Pierce labeling Jeff a "lazy man's atheist"), not preaching one way or another and having it all come down to a mass brawl in the quad anyway. Part of the reason I disliked season two's "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" so much is that it handled bluntly and awkwardly what "Comparative Religion" already had with subtlety and care, but it doesn't change this being one of my favorite sitcom Christmas specials of all time.

Best Moment: You'd think the final brawl, and it'd be a good guess, but in truth the moment that made me laugh hardest was Pierce kicking Troy in the shin followed by Troy spitting "WHY SHE HAFTA BE BLACK?!" I couldn't breathe.

3. Episode 9 - "Debate 109"

The B-plots with Abed's eerily accurate student films and Britta's hypnotherapy are extremely solid (especially Chevy Chase's slow, agonizing pratfall into the drums as he attempts to escape the music room), but the A-plot dominates here and I think it's definitely the strongest Annie episode of the entire series to date as well as the one where I decided she's my favorite character. Something about Greendale vs. City College just really lets the comedy flow (also seen in season two's "Basic Rocket Science") and my only disappointment is that antagonist Jeremy Simmons has yet to make a return appearance.

Best Moment: This is gonna seem like a very shipper thing to say, but Annie kissing Jeff and forcing him to drop Jeremy Simmons to win the debate was probably the most perfect imaginable climax for the episode.

2. Episode 21 - "Contemporary American Poultry"

I love Goodfellas and I love The Godfather and I love Abed — hell, I even love chicken fingers — so it should come as no surprise that I consider this episode a masterpiece and, as with "Debate 109" and Annie, Abed's all-time high. Every aspect of crime cinema, from the initial elimination of Star-Burns that allows them in the game, to the establishment of their chicken finger criminal empire, to the period of wealth and prosperity, followed by greed, betrayal, and finally downfall, is somehow squeezed into twenty-two perfect minutes (less, not counting the ending tag). How'd they do it? I dunno, but I think "Contemporary American Poultry" is one of my favorite sitcom episodes of all time, something that truly shows how ambitious Community is compared to every other comedy on television. I should note that Emily Cutler wrote both this and the next and final episode on this list, which in my opinion makes her one of the best comedy writers on the planet.

Best Moment: The Godfather homage when Troy closes the door on Jeff while Abed's hand is being kissed just fucking slays me. That's how you do a pop culture reference, Seth MacFarlane.

1. Episode 23 - "Modern Warfare"

This is such a cliché pick for favorite Community episode, yet impossible to escape from. My jaw was on the floor after I watched "Modern Warfare." It helps that Die Hard is one of my all-time top ten favorite films and I love 80s action in general, but I don't think the ambition and scale of something like "Modern Warfare" has ever been attempted in the sitcom medium prior to 2010. It's just brilliant, breathtaking, and hilarious, and I love, love, love that they upped the emotional stakes to match the apocalyptic settings by choosing this episode to have Jeff and Britta finally hook up. Honestly, other sitcom producers should look at "Modern Warfare," something Dan Harmon put together in his first goddamn year as a TV showrunner (with the help of Justin Lin and Emily Cutler), and feel profound shame. This episode raised the bar, and while I can't read the future and say that nothing will ever be the same, I hope it won't be. This is the shit television was invented for.

Best Moment: Senor Chang's entire John Woo-flavored scene in the library with Jeff and Britta should be studied by TV writers, directors, and producers for years to come, and I'm not kidding or exaggerating in the slightest when I say that. It's two minutes of perfection.

No comments: