Community was a show that followed the often-fantastical lives of a diverse group of students and teachers who meet at a Colorado community college. It was made successful off of the back of its incredible cast and witty writing but ask any fan what the show’s centerpiece was and they’ll tell you that it was the cinematic high-concept episodes that peppered each season.
The main characters would often get sucked into fast-paced adventures that would send up a particular format or genre, changing the show’s style and tone accordingly. With special episodes ranging from epic action and science-fiction to animated fantasy. Here’s our ranking of the show’s ten best high-concept episodes.
10 A Fistful of Paintballs
The first episode of Community to feature the game of paintball assassin – which we’ll get to later – was so instantaneously successful that, from that point onwards, the show was essentially measured by its paintball episodes. (There are three games in total, arguably four but most people try not to talk about the fourth season.) The followup to the smash-hit original – usually just referred to as ‘Second Paintball’ – was what action sequels often are: bigger but not better.
The episode of the two-part special nonetheless makes the most out of its Western theme, which does fit with the overall premise quite well. Josh Holloway’s appearance as a mysterious Man In Black adds an extra cinematic quality to it also.
9 Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Another sequel to an all-time great episode, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” does repeat the same gimmick from the original episode but it doesn’t make the mistake of “A Fistful of Paintballs” and add extra, superfluous, stuff to what made the original episode so great.
With guest star David Cross, and season regular Jonathan Banks, the episode does a good job of filling the voids left by original main cast members Donald Glover and Chevy Chase; whose absences are felt most strongly in the big, high-concept, episodes. While hinging their game around a solid emotional purpose, it’s still not a patch on the dramatic impact of the original.
8 Modern Espionage
The third paintball, so to speak, brought back a part of the show that most had believed to be dead and buried forever. Following from the Western theme of “A Fistful of Paintballs”, the episode took on the spy genre and proved that there was life in the old satirical dog yet.
Highlights include Kumail Nanjiani’s villain and a great nod to the Marvel’s own spy movie homage Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by long-time Community producers and directors Joe and Anthony Russo, with the show’s own elevator fight scene.
7 Basic Rocket Science
The study group is punished for a school prank by being made to clean out the space shuttle simulator on a Saturday. When the makeshift shuttle gets towed away, with the group locked inside, they have to complete the simulation in order to open a window and find out where they’ve been taken. Their only communication with the outside is through a two-way radio with the Dean and Abed, who act as mission control in this homage to space flight movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff.
In keeping with the best of the Community escapades, it spins an epic tale that’s mostly made up by the imaginations of the characters and the viewers but the KFC sponsorship of the space simulator gives the episode a particularly unique character.
6 Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
Much to the alarm of the rest of the study group, Abed arrives for their last meeting before winter break and freely remarks on how he has begun to see the world around him as being made out of stop-motion clay figurines, often referred to as ‘claymation’, in the style of classic holiday specials. This prompts the intervention of psychology professor Duncan, who decides to indulge Abed in his fantastical quest to find the true meaning of Christmas.
The entire episode is shot in the claymation format, with the typical amount of self-awareness that Abed brings to genre-heavy episodes, making it one of the most technically accomplished, and ambitious, episodes that the series ever produced.
After serving some deeply suspect military rations to the guests at a Halloween party, the Dean inadvertently starts a zombie outbreak crisis in the campus library wherein the study group is locked inside and must fight for survival. A situation made all the more amusing by everyone’s Halloween costumes.
Narrated by George Takei, for no particular reason, the episode is a lot more low-stakes than other high-concept adventures in the series but that adds to its overall playfulness. Actions and events from the episode trigger plotlines later in the season but it’s mostly a self-contained romp that does for horror tropes what the paintball episodes do for action ones.
4 Geothermal Escapism
The farewell episode for Donald Glover on the show takes his character out with a bang. Much like the paintball episodes, “Geothermal Escapism” uses a grand adventure story as a backdrop for a smaller conflict between characters. In this case, a campus-wide game of Hot Lava spins out of control and ends up being a manifestation of Abed’s inability to emotionally process Troy’s departure.
The level of detail that the episode puts into its premise is essentially a joke within itself, with a functioning world of people who can never touch the floor developing in a matter of hours. If you like furniture-based puns then you’re in for a real treat.
3 Modern Warfare
The original. The episode that started it all for many long-time fans. The first paintball episode was a cataclysmic change to a show that had appeared as a standard sitcom with a focus on genre and movies to a show that could make its own miniature genre movies.
The set up is simple, Jeff awakens from a nap to find the school almost completely trashed by a campus-wide game of paintball assassin that was given a far too valuable prize. The study group bands together in a shaky alliance to find out who’ll take it, with playful clichés of the action movie genre abounding.
2 Digital Estate Planning
Following the death of Pierce’s father, Pierce and the study group are invited to a peculiar inheritance ritual wherein Pierce and his friends must play and complete a video game that was specifically designed for Pierce. The characters are all represented in the game by 8-bit avatars made in their likenesses, playing in a side-scrolling open-world game that’s reminiscent of early Nintendo games.
It’s one of the most unique concepts of the entire series and it affords a huge number of opportunities for creative animation, which it readily takes up. The episode also provided a form of emotional closure for Pierce before his steady trailing off of the show in the following season.
1 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
The season two episode “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was both one of the most creatively shot, and emotionally impactful, episodes of the entire series. The show would often manufacture stakes and conflict throughout each season but the consequences of the characters’ actions never felt as serious as they did here.
The episode revolves around a game of the popular tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, which the study group plays with a minor background character named Neil. They do so because Annie and Jeff believe that Neil is suicidally depressed and want to make a gesture to boost his spirits. Pierce, however, deliberately spoils the game and bullies Neil out of spite.
This results in an epic quest to win the game, defeat Pierce and win back Neil’s pride. With the adventure taking place entirely within the collective imagination of the characters and the viewers, as the episode only shows the players sitting at a table and playing the game with rudimentary sound effects played over top.