Glazomania: Redux – Episodes 1-5
And the final chapter of our countdown of the best Community episodes by our very own Communists (in italics).
I want to thank everyone for participating, as the more people we have the more reliable and interesting the results are. I would also like to mention I'll be posting some analysis of the results including breakdowns by gender, age, Americans versus you non-Americans (USA USA USA!), some snazzy graphics, agreeabuddy lists, and many other things. I'll probably post this in two installments when I have time.
Here's a good point to mention this little detail: don't focus too much on the exact order, but the numbers instead. A score of, say, 90 with a standard deviation of 5 means the "true" score is probably somewhere in between 88.5 and 91.5. So when you see two episodes ranked close to each other, depending on how big the standard deviation is, there's probably no statistical significance between the two. Keep that in mind before you blast the Community graders for putting X above Y when it's 93.10 to 93.05.
5. Modern Warfare (123) (Average Score – 93.16)
(Average Grade – 4.09/A) (Average Rank – 9.7) (High Rank – 1) (Low Rank – 45) (Standard Deviation – 5.93)
It's probably a safe bet to say that "Modern Warfare" was the first time for many viewers that Community made the jump from "pretty clever and funny little sitcom" to the type of show that Community is generally thought of as these days – an everything-goes genre-parody machine with a surprising amount of character depth and development sneaked in when you aren't looking. Combining riffs on everything from Battle Royale and The Warriors to Die Hard with genuine actions scenes, excellent writing, and an amusingly unceremonious climax (ha! ha!) to Jeff and Britta's season-long will they/won't they arc, "Modern Warfare" is a perfect encapsulation of the first season as a whole, as well as a great example of what the show can do at the top of its game.
4. Mixology Certification (210) (Average Score – 93.56)
(Average Grade – 4.09/A) (Average Rank – 8.0) (High Rank – 1) (Low Rank – 58) (Standard Deviation – 9.74)
"Mixology Certification" is a one-of-a-kind episode of "Community," a character rich episode that serves as an outlier because it takes us out of the comfort zone of Greendale (or any single location), and our formulaic expectations, creating a fresh context where both the anxiety and kindness the study group brings out of each other can't be as easily resolved or laughed off. Through three very separate acts, it takes us from the familiar study room and the group's back-and-forth rapport, to a very foreign bar (and into the nighttime; Whenever Community scenes are set at night, the group tends to lose their armor and be more vulnerable and honest), where Troy and Annie try on more grownup personalities, and see things from a fresh, if not very invigorating, perspective. Then there's an unusually long denouement where Troy and Annie have their first adult conversation, one that's fondly remembered by most of us because it's so removed from the guarded point-of-view that have surrounded Jeff, Britta and the show up to that point. There's an honesty and a complexity of emotion to it, with Troy and Annie, who haven't shared a lot over the course of the show, simultaneously realizing that being an adult isn't as much about the freedom to do what you want, but about the melancholy, the uncertainty that remains afterwards.
"Mixology" comes in the midst of a four episode run (Calligraphy – AUC) that tried four very different styles, pushed to extremes with impressive verisimilitude, staking a claim for a mastery of experimentation within the show's established restraints that no other TV show has ever accomplished, or maybe even tried. "Mixology" is probably the least Community-esque of the four episodes, it's realism and soft touch leaving behind a lot of loose ends and a bittersweet feeling of uncertainty that's as topsy-turvy for me as a viewer as it is for Troy and Annie. Part of this exhilarating disorientation comes from the ossification of Jeff and Britta's cooler, more alienated point of view, as the show gently nudges us to seeing through Annie and Troy's eyes and realizing the complacency, even the cowardice that comes with the older characters' sense of superiority, and shifting to a younger, more sincere desire for a hopeful future, a full life ahead of them and a more stable notion of self-worth and self-confidence. Thus S2 of Community makes the brave choice to switch it's identification mid-stream from one journey to another, and "Mixology Certification" is the crux of that, the dizzy, dangerous feeling of that switch as it's taking place.
– Unregistered Guy Named Eric
3. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (214) (Average Score – 93.89)
(Average Grade – 4.12/A) (Average Rank – 7.8) (High Rank – 1) (Low Rank – 25) (Standard Deviation – 5.65)
Is it a surprise that Advanced Dungeons and Dragons appeared this high on the list? Advanced Dungeons and Dragons demonstrates what one can do with seven actors and a really fucking great composer, and is a masterclass in tension, wit, and finesse – a true triumph when you're talking about a sitcom. The villain storyline in season 2 is fleshed out considerably here and we are almost supposed to sympathise with Pierce over how the group are treating him – while still drawing attention to the fact that he's acting like a nine year old. This episode is a marvel, a character study and a really great homage to that fantastic game, and it absolutely deserves to be here.
– Evil Jeff
2. Cooperative Calligraphy (208) (Average Score – 95.29)
(Average Grade – 4.17/A+) (Average Rank – 6.3) (High Rank – 1) (Low Rank – 26) (Standard Deviation – 5.08)
"Second comes right after first." At an estimated rate of 27.2 jokes/minute, "Cooperative Calligraphy" is a notably funny episode of a notably funny show. The simplicity of the bottle format allows the show to highlight one of its best features, the dynamic table scenes, and sustain their wondrous back-and-forth for most of "Calligraphy"’s runtime. But the seemingly low-stakes pen whodunit becomes nothing less than a lens into the soul of the group and a litmus test for belonging to it.
The subsequent unraveling is beautiful. (And revealing, and funny.) Just last year, Annie had learned to be assertive, put her foot down, and make eye contact; this year, she avails herself of another mode of discourse. During Annie's ad hoc investigation, all manner of vulnerabilities are laid bare: Jeff’s efforts to stay above the personal fray by using his disaffected lawyer powers devolve into anger and childish goading (you wanna make a bet, you jerks?); Britta’s crusading corrodes under hypocrisy and the reminder of personal slights, and her shaky moral one-upmanship threatens to be outdone only by Shirley’s; Abed’s professed emotional illiteracy is found to be moderated by a certain damning notebook; and Pierce, whose subtle slide into addiction is on display here, uncomfortably reminds everyone that he may simply be the voice of their own darker impulses. (Troy, by contrast, mostly has it together, and we should have listened to him all along.)
Hilarious, yes, but the episode also gives us enough time to really probe fractures within the group, strip away veneers (and clothing), and stitch all the pieces back together into an even stronger, ghost-proof study group. The gang's decision to embrace a collective lie out of sheer love for each other is one of the most touching moments in the series. And as if being the gold standard for both Community's brand of heart and humor weren't enough, "Calligraphy" gives attentive viewers – I’m looking at you, Gwenifer – baskets aflow with Easter eggs. An instant classic.
1. Remedial Chaos Theory (304) (Average Score – 97.61)
(Average Grade – 4.26/A+) (Average Rank – 3.2) (High Rank – 1) (Low Rank – 10) (Standard Deviation – 3.16)
(Uhhh … whoops. This is too long. But it's the number one episode. Oh well. I wrote this really fast too….)
I only have limited space, and there are a lot of things I could say about the episode. Instead of giving a mini-review I’ll focus on why I think it’s the “best” episode and I’ll try to stay away from stumbling into a massive review. To put it simply, this is episode is number one for me because it’s an incredible example of TV comedy writing. Back in the 90’s when the Simpsons was in its prime, they would typically cram an A- and B-plot into an episode with enough space for “free jokes” – jokes not tied to the plot or any key events. The fast-paced nature of the show, however, led to problems with episode length, and the show often had to use more free jokes and padding. In season 4 you’ll notice they cycle through animation for way too long to use up more time and the full length title sequence was used more often than not. But in other seasons, particularly later ones, episodes were too crammed with jokes and plot, and it was a race to even tie up the plots carefully before the credits rolled. Once commercial time ate more of the show’s time, this was even more difficult, and “free jokes” or even B-plots were soon impossible. All it takes is 30 seconds to throw a network comedy off.
I mention this because it’s astonishing how they managed to fit seven cohesive storylines together with a cold open to establish the setting and a relatively long tag. These aren’t random stories either; they’re interrelated and by the end you can see certain themes emerge. Of course, this isn’t a wankfest in story structure. The jokes are top-notch even by Community’s standards and many lines are now part of our lexicon – “What? It came up organically”, toilet olives and “Pizza pizza, me so hungee!” A concept episode also isn’t an excuse to do silly things and parody movies. It’s to create new situations to test character dynamics. Remedial Chaos Theory is, if anything, a character study. What happens in a timeline can be read as the social importance of the person removed – when Abed leaves, people are overly emotional; with Shirley gone, the “niceness” is removed and the group is at each other’s throats; when Troy gets the pizza, all hell breaks loose; and when Jeff finally leaves … everyone’s happy. At the beginning of the series, Jeff was the crafty jackrabbit who assembled a fake study group to get into a blond girl’s pants, and soon the group would be following him like a herd of cats to their food bowls. He was the cool lawyer, and he couldn’t shake them off. It wouldn’t take much time for Jeff to fall in love with the band of misfits, and after a couple years Jeff was starting to reassess himself as a person as the group evolved in its own ways. By the end of the season, the once too cool lawyer who cheated his way into the elite would break good. They were once dependent on him, lovingly so, but now they don't need him … he needs them.
In the last note about how sharp the writing and conception were, it’s actually a great example of “chaos theory”. The easiest way to understand chaos theory, beyond a creepy encounter with Jeff Goldblum, is to start with some initial conditions and think of how they can change an outcome. To take the example from Jurassic Park, if you drip a droplet of water on your hand, it’s difficult to determine where the water will go. This is because of the small and multiple variations on the surface of your hand. Just one fraction of an inch is enough to send the droplet trickling down the other side. It’s those initial conditions, where the water is dropped, that vastly influence the outcome: where the water goes. This is beautifully illustrated in Remedial Chaos Theory, which is far from remedial and is most appropriately an introduction. When one person leaves, the storyline changes, but this happens in an intriguing fashion. There are patterns to each timeline, and similar events occur like Jeff hitting his head (fun side note: Jeff’s reaction of a pained cry or a masculine muted response depends on where Annie is) or Britta going to the bathroom (prompted by the song’s connection to when she’s gotten stoned before, I imagine.) In one of my classes, we played around with chaos systems on computer programs. One of the most popular images to draw is a leaf or fern. You can tweak the initial conditions by a tiny amount and a new leaf is created. These leafs are all similar in structure with the same patterns, but they are each distinct. And this is Remedial Chaos Theory – tweaking one basic initial condition of the Community friends to uncover a wealth of character interaction, jokes, interesting dynamics and the best episode in the show’s history.
– Capt. Me (I forgot to sign my name!)