It’s always nice to rewatch something you used to love and say “hey, this is still real good”. I had that experience recently with Community, the meta-humour-heavy sitcom about a bunch of misfits attending community college and becoming unlikely friends, with plenty of shenanigans along the way. This premise would be enough to carry a perfectly fine comedy on its own, but Community always stood out for its ability to get a little bit abstract and absurd, often referencing or parodying some other genre works in the process. Season three is my favourite by far, and features some of the show’s best-written, most creative, and dare I say iconic episodes. The combination musical-horror-story-Glee-parody? The Halloween shorts? The documentary about the pillow war? The one that mostly takes place inside a retro 2D platform game? The Law and Order-style investigation into a smashed yam? The timeline-hopping “what if?”-exploring “Remedial Chaos Theory”??
But why did season three get so good, and why are the ones that take aim at a genre, show, style, or collection of tropes so good in particular? What’s the gold nugget at the heart of these wild, convention-skewing episodes? After some thought, I think I’ve figured it out, and it ultimately comes down to a deep amount of care for these creations… even while laughing at them.
They aren’t just parody for the sake of parody, and they don’t just punch down
A tangential aside: you guys remember Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz? Even after many years they remain fresh and fun and clever, and remain two of my favourite movies. They’re both comedic takes on familiar, well-worn film genres, Shaun of zombie thrillers and Hot Fuzz a combo of small town British mysteries and police action blockbusters. But they’re not just parodies of these genres, they fit amazingly well into these genres too—Shaun of the Dead pokes fun at zombie tropes and injects them with silliness and satire, but it also plays into them at all the right moments to be a genuinely compelling, scary, tightly-written zombie movie in its own right. It’s because it knows zombies well enough that it commits to doing these tropes justice while also laughing with them (and that’s with, not at, an important distinction).
They are made with love and that’s the biggest reason, I feel, that they are so spectacular—they strike a beautiful balance and create something new as well as nodding affectionately to what’s been done before. The twist in Hot Fuzz that the elderly neighbourhood watch has been murdering dissidents who threaten their town’s quaint atmosphere is hilarious as a subversion of tropes, but it’s also, in context, genuinely unsettling and creates real tension in the plot. Nothing is just there as a one-note joke, which is perhaps why these movies stand up so well next to, say, parodies-for-the-sake-of-parody like all those Epic Movie, Date Movie, Scary Movie clones and whatever the heck that Sherlock Holmes movie with Will Ferrell was. Season three of Community has that same energy: it sets out to make a genre-savvy joke, and it commits rather than just pointing and tittering.
The Christmas episode, for example, contains a fairly obvious dig at Glee the show, as well as the concept of glee clubs, and the genre of sappy cutesy musicals. But does it scoff at these tropes and conventions and move on? No, they wrote a musical episode to parody the musical genre. And the songs themselves are pretty good, too—maybe not Tony-award-winning, but just as good as anything you’d see in a movie with custom-written songs in it. As well as being a musical, this episode is also a genuinely unsettling short horror story: no one wants to join the glee club, but one by one the study group is brainwashed into doing so with the power of song. The combination of the two disparate genres is one source of the episode’s absurdity and thus comedy, of course, but they’re also woven together with enough skill to do both of them justice.
The documentary-style episode about the campus-wide pillow fight is also amazing for this exact same reason: it’s clearly a parody of the work of Ken Burns and his production company, most famous for their long, in-depth historical documentaries on subjects like the expansion of the American West, the Prohibition era, and the American Civil War (which this episode is leaning into the most). All of these are brilliant documentaries, by the way, bringing these time periods to life through a focus on personal stories and the use of letters and diary entries that get turned into narration in empathetic voiceovers. The pillow fight episode leans into all of Burns’ techniques: the use of narration, the way photographs and footage are shown, the editing style, the use of music, the title fonts, the occasional cutaways to “expert” interviews—even the modern-day characters are posed in such a way that photos of them mimic the positioning and framing of old-timey portraits.
All of these artistic historiographical techniques, which we’re used to seeing in narratives that explore sombre and serious topics, are applied here to a campus-wide pillow fight. Again, the contrast is where the comedy comes in, but at no point does this feel like a one-off joke about opposites colliding. This stylistic decision was in service of silliness, but the dedication to preserving the documentary techniques is so stellar that “homage” feels like a more accurate description of this episode than “parody” does. Plus, it’s not just there as a single joke: this is an exercise in commitment, and it not only serves the aesthetic of the episode but the story overall. Which brings me to my next point…
None of these are just “there”
The pillow fight is an arc, beginning in the previous episode before the series dips into documentary style to tell the tale of its resolution. It couldn’t exist without a tale to tell in the first place, and the episode centres on genuine conflict within the cast of characters that previous episodes built up to and future episodes continue to resolve. Is it a story about a blanket fort? Well, yes, but first and foremost it’s a story about Troy and Abed’s friendship. In the same way the video game episode—lovingly rendered in pixel art—is a goofy story about adventures in a game world, but first and foremost it’s a story about Pierce’s relationship with his father and newly-discovered half-brother, which, again, was conflict seeded earlier in the season. These fun and clever stylistic episodes aren’t just there to be fun and clever and stylistic, they’re also there in service of the character-driven plot, and their impact relies on the audience’s investment in these characters.
Pop Team Epic runs a parody gauntlet, nodding to and poking fun at everything from idol shows to murder mysteries to melodramatic shoujo romances about forbidden love. The difference there is that all those sketches can be watched on their own, independent of the rest of the show, with no continuity in between. I could send someone a clip of “The Dragon of Iidabashi: Pipi’s Revenge” on its own and the joke would be airtight (providing they knew enough about yakuza/gangster movies to get the central gag), but, while I might like to, I couldn’t really show someone the Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” without also showing them a bunch of previous episodes, or doing an awful lot of explaining.
“Chaos Theory” is, dare I say it, literally an iconic piece of television. It won an Emmy, if that tells you anything; but more importantly it’s given us one of the most utilised and recognisable reaction gifs on the Internet:
It’s great. The plot begins simply enough with a housewarming party, with Jeff rolling a dice to see which of the seven members of the group will go downstairs to get the pizza delivery. As Abed points out, Jeff is now creating seven different timelines… which the show then explores, splitting into seven different scenarios. The use of foreshadowing, callbacks, and the interweaving of timelines is super, super good, not to mention funny, and the exploration of all the different potential things that could happen—and how different scenarios build together to form our greater knowledge of the whole picture and what could happen—is enthralling to watch.
The disaster timeline that leads to that above gif is only possible because each individual thing that goes horribly wrong was foreshadowed and planted in previous spins through the timelines, and is doubly funny because it provides payoff to all these little details scattered throughout. This includes the literal Chekov’s Gun hidden in Annie’s handbag—a thing that, again, isn’t just there, but fits into the running plotline that Annie lives in a bad neighbourhood, which seeds the plotline about her moving in with Troy and Abed, which in itself leads to shifting dynamics in the group, character development for Abed, Troy, and Annie as individuals and as a trio, and snowballs outwards into personal and interpersonal changes for a large portion of the cast!!
It’s also only enthralling because we know these characters and can enjoy seeing these “what if?”s stretched and squished and played out to wildly different—but all perfectly plausible—conclusions. Even if it “didn’t really happen” in the canon timeline that the show continues on from, we still get to peek at the potential outcomes of different character dynamics from different events. What if Jeff and Annie actually kissed, again? This is a “what if?” we’ll only have in our minds if we’ve followed the development of their relationship across two-and-a-bit seasons. The writers nab the opportunity to answer the “will they or won’t they?” that’s been hanging over the characters’ heads for a while now, and suggest that it may well end in disaster rather than a cute happy ending. Much like in The Good Place, playing with the reset button lets you play with character dynamics and stretch and squish the possibilities of characterisation, all in a way that is rewarding for an audience who knows these characters well and is fascinated to see these “what if”s played out.
This is true for the other episodes like this too: the horror of the glee club’s hypnosis also relies on some knowledge of the characters, as part of the humour is the personalised way that each character is hypnotised into joining the concert. Established personalities and relationships are woven into the fabric of each of these “silly” episodes to inform what happens and where they go, even—and especially—if that means poking fun at the characters themselves as part of the story’s overall humour.
Season three embraces the potential in silliness
Community has always had this sort of meta-humour at its heart, and it has always had an absurd streak—season three is maybe the best because it goes all out and brings those two aspects to the forefront. It pops off. Ben Chang lives in the air vents and spends the season amassing an army of thirteen-year-olds to help him take over the college. Britta falls in love with the human embodiment of Subway, the sandwich franchise. An attempt to break a World Record leads to the campus covered in pillow/blanket forts which become the site of all-out war. It’s goddamn weird, at least in comparison to the tried-and-true dramady conventions that the show stuck to in earlier seasons.
“Modern Warfare”, the first paintball episode, was amazing, but it was a sort of cool bonus—the actual climax of season one mostly centred on a love triangle between Jeff, Britta, and a two-dimensionally bitchy and smokin’ hot professor. Given that this takes place at a prom equivalent, you could maybe argue that this is a parody of the kind of cheesy romantic clichés that you’re bound to run into if your sitcom is set in a school, but I feel like all this romantic drama is played fairly straight. And there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s just almost mind-blowingly basic and conventional compared to some of the buck-wild places the show takes its character drama in season three. Somewhere along the line, the creative team just unleashed themselves, and the show takes a leap in enjoyability because of it.
That’s not to say that the entirety of season three is meta-wildness; in fact there are some great down-to-earth episodes that dig into interpersonal stuff like Britta and Troy’s growing relationship, Abed’s mental and emotional issues, and Annie’s continued coming-of-age and building a new family for herself. Even Pierce gets some positive development, looking into his awful relationship with his father and moving him to a better place emotionally.
All this is woven in with the weirdness, however, striking an elegant balance most of the time. The characters are allowed to grow and get explorations, but they’re also allowed to be goofy and to be goofed around by the plot. I feel like this change is the most obvious in Jeff, who has never been further from the cynical “straight man” (in comedy terms) that he’s introduced as, and Britta, who has never been further from the quirky love interest she first appears as in the pilot. No one is immune to silliness. Everyone is flawed and capable of being the centre of the joke, but everyone is also rounded enough to be a clearly-defined character that the audience wants to watch, especially as they venture through these increasingly creative scenarios.
A good story pulls you in enough that it can make you feel all sorts of things. Season three’s goofy episodes are genuinely funny, but aspects like the exploration of Abed’s social isolation and bad relationship with his family pulled back from that with enough grace to be genuinely moving. The humour lands so well because you know these characters, in all their ups and downs. Ultimately, Community is funny because you care, and because you can feel that the writers care too—about their characters, about telling a compelling and well-paced story, about the genres that they’re playing with, about their craft. Love and care went into this, and it shines the most in season three, one of the most delightfully playful stretches of TV I’ve ever watched.
It sure is a shame they never made any more of it after that. Oh well! Better to go out with a bang…