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A geek's binge guide to 'Community'
Community might not be a sci-fi show on the surface, but it oozes geeky street cred at every turn. With that in mind, we thought we'd give some insight into where any self-respecting sci-fi fan should start.
A quick refresher: Community was a sitcom that ran from 2009 until 2015. It was tangentially about a bunch of misfits attending a low-rent community college, but so much more. The show was incredibly clever, with meta jokes that built up season-to-season, and it drew humor from some weird, dark, and creative places along the way.
It started on NBC and finally finished out its sixth and final season at Yahoo! Screen, the search company’s short-lived original programming push (yes, seriously). The show was also way ahead of its time, featuring a cast that would birth a few A-listers (i.e. Donald Glover, Alison Brie, and Ken Jeong).
Community featured homages to countless nerd favorites, including the zombie genre, Star Wars, alternate realities, and Doctor Who along the way. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the camera, it was created by future Rick and Morty mastermind Dan Harmon and was the proving ground for future Avengers directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed several of the show’s wildest episodes. Fast & Furious franchise director Justin Lin also handled a few early episodes.
So with the show finally on Netflix and easier than ever to stream (it’s been on Hulu for a while, but streaming rights are now being shared with Netflix), we dug into the 110-episode Community run to highlight some must-see episodes for genre fans.
Of course, this show ran for six years and was fantastic, so there are plenty more great episodes we’re not spotlighting. But if you’re looking to jump in (or revisit) the coolest sci-fi homages and moments, this is where to start.
01. “Modern Warfare” (Season 1, Episode 23)
This was one of Community’s first big “homage” episodes, and the fact that it was directed by future action legend Justin Lin doesn’t hurt. The episode finds the entire campus turned into a war zone when a paintball battle goes wild. The action is wild, and the nods to pretty much every action movie you know and love comes fast and furiously (ahem).
There are references to Die Hard, Terminator, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, and a whole lot more. Seriously, make it a drinking game — take a shot every time you spot a funny nod. You’ll probably pass out before the episode ends.
02. “Basic Rocket Science” (Season 2, Episode 4)
The study group goes to space. Well... kinda.
Greendale tries to one-up its rival college with a space flight simulator, which is actually an old KFC gimmick ride, and the gang gets locked inside and has to solve the simulation to escape.
Cue plenty of Apollo 13 gags. The episode is one of the more fun bottle episodes the show attempted, complete with its own case of space madness. (Sorry, Pierce.)
03. “Epidemiology” (Season 2, Episode 6)
How many sitcoms can pull off a straight-up zombie story? Not many, but Community handled with plenty of infected aplomb.
Experimental government powder gets mixed in with the food at the Halloween party, and when contaminated, the student body goes rabies-mad and starts shuffling around and biting people.
We get heroic moments, lots of jokes, and some surprisingly tense camera work to really make the claustrophobia feel real.
04. “Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11)
This is one of the most ambitiously weird and emotional episodes ever put on screen, and the fact that it takes place in stop-motion claymation only makes it that much more impressive.
When Abed has a family issue that causes him to retreat into his pop culture-filled mind, his friends (and frequent guest star John Oliver!) go along for the journey through the magical Christmas land of Abed’s psyche to help him cope.
05. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (Season 2, Episode 14)
Dungeons & Dragons has never looked so cool. The study group tries to reach out to a depressed classmate and bond over a game of D&D. The plan goes awry, though, when Pierce feels left out and goes rogue to become the villain of the story.
It’s an emotional story that gets at the heart of loneliness and depression, framed around a twisty game of D&D that hits all the beats fans will know and love.
06. “A Fistful of Paintballs/For A Few Paintballs More” (Season 2, Episodes 23-24)
Ahh, the paintball two-parter. After the success of the paintball episode in Season 1, they went all-out with a two-parter in Year 2.
The first episode plays on the Western/cowboy motif, while the second episode is a straight-up Star Wars riff (with Abed doing his best Han Solo). We even get some white-suited Stormtroopers who swoop in to try and wipe out the Greendale contestants.
It’s also worth noting Joe Russo directed this two-parter, and you can see plenty of his future Avengers team-building skills on display.
07. “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Arguably the best episode of Community ever made. This especially high-concept half-hour has the gang rolling a die to determine who needs to get pizza, showing how each version of reality would play out — depending on whose number got rolled. The story and visuals are layered on top of more dense layers, as we see how each little tweak to the timeline changes things. Just look out for the darkest timeline. It’s a doozy.
08. “Digital Estate Planning” (Season 3, Episode 20)
The study group goes 8-bit in this wild episode that delves into Chevy Chase’s Pierce’s family history, all played out through a vintage video game created by his late father. Yeah, it’s weird, but also a touching story of sibling rivalry and competing for a father’s love. The game also looks crazy fun, and we’d love to fire this one up on our old Genesis.
09. "Conventions of Space and Time” (Season 4, Episode 3)
The fourth season of Community is a bit of a dark time, as series creator Dan Harmon was pushed out and replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port (The CW’s Aliens in America). Thankfully, Harmon returned to shepherd the show’s fifth and sixth seasons. Which explains why there’s not much from Season 4 on this list.
That said, this era did feature the gang’s wacky trip to a fan convention based around the Doctor Who spoof Inspector Spacetime. Even better? Battlestar Galactica alum Tricia Helfer has a stellar guest role. This season was a bit less meta and clever, and a bit broader, but still well worth checking out if you’re a completist.
10. “Geothermal Escapism” (Season 5, Episode 4)
The cast line-up got a bit shaky toward the back end of the series, and this episode features arguably the toughest loss: Donald Glover’s Troy bids farewell to Greendale.
To honor Troy's departure, his pal Abed kicks off a campus-wide game of “The Floor is Lava,” which is loaded with a lot of heart and even more apocalyptic movie riffs.
11. “App Development And Condiments” (Season 5, Episode 8)
This was basically Black Mirror on network television. This episode found a tech company beta-testing a new social media app on campus that allows people to rank others. Before long, the entire school devolves into a new caste-based society as they all fight and cut deals for those valuable MeowMeowBeenz (yeah, that’s the name of the program).
It’s a wild exploration of the convergence of tech, social media, and society — and it’s also funny as hell.
12. “G.I. Jeff” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Much like Abed disappeared into a claymation Christmas story, this episode finds Joel McHale’s Jeff escaping off to his 1980s dream to be an immortal G.I. Joe to avoid confronting what his life has become as he’s gotten older.
It’s about confronting expectations vs. reality, filtered through a wise-cracking G.I. Joe cartoon. Each character gets a clever twist on the old G.I. Joe clichés, and we even get a classic Joe adventure along with all that heady self-examination.
13. “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” (Season 6, Episode 2)
This episode comes to us from the show’s final batch of episodes at Yahoo!, and finds the dean getting deeper and deeper into a cheesy virtual reality world. So, it's up to Jeff to head into this ill-conceived virtual reality and save the day.
The effects and execution are straight out of what people thought VR would be back in the 1980s, and it’s a romp. It’s also clear this show still had plenty of fun ideas left in the tank. You know, at least enough to finish out that old #sixseasonsandamovie proclamation.
14. “Intro to Recycled Cinema” (Season 6, Episode 8)
When a former teacher/student/security guard at the school (Ken Jeong’s Chang) becomes famous after starring in a commercial, the school sets out to finish a student film featuring Chang to try and generate some buzz for the school. It’s basically Abed and the gang trying to make a B-movie sci-fi flick (and "B-movie" is being generous).
Come for the bad effects work, but be sure to stay for Abed’s final cut of Chief Starr and the Raiders of the Galaxy.
If there were a Community movie, we'd recommend watching that too if only to honor the hashtag, but alas — we'll have to keep waiting. In the meantime, these episodes should get you started.