If every show currently on television were going to be cancelled tomorrow and I could only save one, it would be ‘Game of Thrones’. If I could save two, the other would be ‘Agents of SHIELD’. But if I could save three, the third would undoubtedly be perpetual underdog ‘Community’.

The Study Group… and Chang

Not to be a pompous ass, but I’m going to be a pompous ass and say most people don’t seem to get Community‘s humor. It can be heavy on meta-jokes that rely on viewers being familiar with other movies or tv shows, and admittedly some episodes (and more recently, seasons) are weaker than others. To make matters worse, there are enough running jokes that depend on your continued viewership to make ‘Arrested Development’ jealous. The result is a show that tends to cater to its own narrow demographic of media-savvy fanatics and not much else. It’s not an easy show to jump into late and be able to fully enjoy, and with four seasons and nigh 100 episodes in the books, it’s not likely to increase its following by enough to ensure a sixth season.

To their credit, they’re trying to address the issue. They’ve brought back the original show runner Dan Harmon, who they dumped unceremoniously after season three in favor of the notoriously hard to work with Chevy Chase (who is himself gone now), and they’re approaching the new season with a tweaked concept and a re-pilot of sorts. They’re trying to let anyone can jump on board come January 2. Still, the people most likely to keep watching are those who are attached to the characters and familiar with the show’s tropes.

In an attempt to recruit more viewers, I have sifted through and hand-selected 8 episodes of Community for potential new fans. These aren’t necessarily the best episodes or even my favorites (okay some are), but they’ll give you a taste of what the show has to offer that others don’t, introduce you to the hilarious character dynamics, and get you primed for what’s sure to be an epic Season 5. All in 3 hours or less.

So put down the ‘Breaking Bad’. The show’s over and you’re still a loser for not keeping up. It’ll keep until summer.

1. Pilot, Season 1 Episode 1

[Editor’s note: click the titles to watch. I made it that easy.]

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As with any good story, you have to start at the beginning. Pilots are designed to sell networks on the continued viability of the show, and as a result, they tend to be overloaded with information, depict easily-distinguishable generic characters, or present high production values that drop steeply in following episodes. Community commits none of these trope crimes.

Sure, it starts out simple enough. Jeff the disgraced former lawyer is attracted to Elizabeth Shue-lookalike Britta and uses oddball Abed to get the info he needs to break the ice. She needs help in Spanish so he tells her he has a study group, not knowing Abed has recruited Annie (the pretty, driven girl), Troy (the cocky former athlete), Shirley (the divorced mother), and Pierce (the old rich, possibly racist guy) to join as well.

If that all sounds cliche, it is. For the first few minute. With no desire to actually be in a study group, Jeff prods them into blasting past the niceties and airing their dirty laundry. It only takes two scenes to see there’s more to each of them than meets the eye. But the frenzy he’s whipped them into turns Britta off and he has to calm them back down to win her back over. He does so with a deftly precise speech, which will be one of the show’s signatures for years to come.

And just like that, the smartest comedy on tv was born.

Quotent Quotables: “Woah, you just wrinkled my brain.”

2. Physical Education, Season 1 Episode 17

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Though there are a lot of great episodes with their semi-iconic moments between the pilot and ‘Physical Education’, this one is the best at capturing the show’s bread and butter while showing off the peanut butter, jelly, ham, and cheese as well (don’t try to figure out which is which, it’ll be awkward for everyone).

Jeff is thrilled to be taking a billiards class so he can show off his style while the rest of the group tries to set up Abed with a potential secret admirer. Things go awry when the billiards coach wants Jeff to wear gym shorts instead of his leather jacket and designer jeans, and the group finds Abed’s usual antics to be… undateable. Hilarity, obviously, ensues.

If the series has a foundation, it’s Jeff’s fragile ego and staunch resistance to learning lessons (while accidentally learning lessons) and the group rallying around Abed to make themselves feel better. Both are on full display here. It also sets the standard for Greendale’s endless supply of absurd “professors” who provide ample opportunities for guest stars.

Like an allergy test, it also exposes you to a number of peripheral characters who may or may not get a reaction out of you. Notable regulars Senor Chang the Chinese Spanish teacher, Dean Pelton the uncomfortably familiar Dean of Greendale Community College, and Leonard the other old guy.

All this and Abed doing an amazing Don Draper impression to boot. This is the first of many episodes that cranks the ridiculousness up to 11.

Quotent Quotables: “Do you want to talk about clothes like a girl, or use tapered sticks to hit balls around a cushioned table like a man?”

3. Modern Warfare, Season 1 Episode 23

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If you’ve seen only one episode of Community before, this is probably it. ‘Modern Warfare’ wasn’t the first concept episode, but it was the one that went Hulk-mode by taking an intelligent idea and transforming it into a raging technicolor monster.

It begins out like most episodes with some witty banter in the study room and Dean Pelton making an innocuous announcement about a game of paintball assassin. Once the opening credits are over, however, it’s a whole different game.

The entire atmosphere changes. Suddenly you’re not in a glossy single-cam tv show, you’re in a post-apocalyptic movie. Once the Dean revealed the grand prize, priority registration to get the perfect schedule, the school descended into paint-soaked madness. Paying homage to 80’s era action flicks like The Warriors and Die Hard, it sets the standard for concept episodes.

They also gun down Greendale’s Glee Club. So there’s that.

Quotent Quotables: “Oh wait it’s blood. I thought it was paint, but I’m just bleeding. Talk about luck.”

4. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, Season 2 Episode 11

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Another prime concept episode, Community’s second Christmas Special is the only episode of Community to win a major award like an Emmy. It’s top notch stop-motion animation made it a shoo in for an Individual Achievement in Animation award, an accomplishment which is somewhat undercut by the fact that it wasn’t actually competing against other shows. Still, the nostalgic stylings aren’t what made this episode truly great.

Up to this point, Community had taken a tongue-in-cheek approach to just about everything. Any potentially serious issues were either overblown to hyperbolic proportions or discarded quickly to keep the mood light, but this one tackled one head on. The claymation is explained as a figment of Abed’s imagination, a construct to deal with abandonment issues touched on early in the series. In other words, it’s some pretty heavy shit.

But it never feels like it. The tone still stays fun and the laughs keep flowing. The show absolutely excels at handling real topics and saying things that need to be said without being heavy-handed or preachy, so when the group comes together for the big sing-a-long finale, it’s hilarious and sincere.

This is the episode that proved for all its snarkiness, Community had a very real heart.

Quotent Quotables: “Somewhere out there Tim Burton has a boner.”

5. Paradigms of Human Memory, Season 2 Episode 21

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Don’t you hate when you sit down to watch the new episode of your favorite show only to discover it’s a clip episode? Those are the ones that use flashbacks as an excuse to recycle funny moments from previous episodes. It’s like making a slideshow for your 20th anniversary: sure you get to fondly reminisce on the best moments, but it’s still one big cop out.

I was pretty upset when the episode began and I realized it was going to be one. And then as it went on, I came to a startling realization — I had never seen any of these clips before. It was a clip episode composed of entirely new clips. Initially the jokes looked to be built from the bones of scrapped episode ideas, but then it gave us previously unseen alternate points of view on the Christmas Special. This was an episode clearly planned well in advance.

As joke after joke hit, I had my moment of clarity: this would be my favorite show of all time. Anyone who can take those lame mash-ups and make it a strength has earned my admiration. It’s an episode that deconstructs itself and makes you laugh while doing it. It gives everyone, including Chang and the Dean, a chance to shine. It lays bare the Community formula while simultaneously embracing it.

It’s also unintentionally provided fans with a mantra we’ve been chanting ever since; Abed’s obsession with doomed fellow NBC show “The Cape” frustrates Jeff into telling him how short-lived it would be. Abed’s response: “Six seasons and a movie!”

Quotent Quotables: “Feast your ear-tongues on these memory-pops.”

6. Remedial Chaos Theory, Season 3 Episode 4

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Yet another concept episode, this one is Community’s other Emmy nominee and rightfully so. The writing is as dizzying and calculated as a rollercoaster and just as much fun.

Troy and Abed host a game night at their apartment, but a malfunctioning front door means someone has to go down to meet the pizza guy. When no one wants to go, Jeff”s roll of a die prompts Abed to ponder the six potential outcomes, creating different “timelines” and multiple possibilities for the same scenario. It sounds redundant, though it’s anything but boring.

With each character’s absence, details are revealed or hidden, events happen or don’t, and jokes are shoehorned in one way or another. You can watch the episode over and over (and I have) and see a different detail that changes from timeline to timeline.

This approach gives a stark look at what could happen to the group if any one of them were missing. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say some have worse consequences than others. Much, much worse.

The episode is pretty much the epitome of Community’s creative and clever writing on a limited budget, and it shows just how essential every character is to Community’s chemistry. It should be interesting to see if Season 5 mirrors timelines from this episode with Chevy Chase gone and Donald Glover leaving halfway through.

Quotent Quotables: “Chop busted, fellow adult. Chop busted.”

7. Studies in Modern Movement, Season 3 Episode 7

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Ask any fan who their favorite characters are and the answer will likely be Abed, Troy, and Annie in that order. They’re the youngest and least cynical of the group and therefore the most likable, but we also got a glimpse of the potentially epic shenanigans the trio could get into back in Season 2 (episode 2 ‘Accounting for Lawyers’). So when Abed suggested Annie move in with them at the end of ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’, Community fandom collectively drooled.

After mopping up, we were rewarded with an episode that covered the actual move and the results were everything we hoped for and more. Annie is initially as excited about the possibilities as we are, but quickly realizes she might end up babysitting the duo rather than sharing in their fun.

Full disclosure, this episode is definitely one of my favorite episodes (if not the top dog) of the series. But that’s not why it’s required watching. In spite of it centering on the three young adventurers, it still finds funny side quests for the other primaries that are true to character. Most large ensemble shows have trouble balancing time between the cast, but more often than not, Community is able to find it.

Also of note, instead of forcing awkward Twitter hashtags like pretty much every program now, they seamlessly integrate it by putting #AnniesMove t-shirts on Troy and Abed because the characters themselves are live-tweeting the event. Pure genius.

Quotent Quotables: “If room’s a rockin’, please come a knockin’ because there’s something probably terribly wrong.”

8. Herstory of Dance, Season 4 Episode 8

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The plot of the episode has Britta declaring her intention to throw an anti-Sadie Hawkins dance with a Sophie B. Hawkins dance, not realizing the former was the Women’s Rights Activist and the latter a modestly famous 90’s musician. Not wanting to admit her error, she pushes ahead with Jeff ready to see her fail every step of the way. Meanwhile Annie and Shirley compete to find dates for Abed to the dance(s) and he tries the classic gag of juggling them both.

Maybe it’s a cardinal sin to include a Season 4 episode on a “must watch” list, but let’s be honest: it wasn’t that terrible. We were just spoiled by the level of greatness per square inch that came before it. It was like watching a Queen reunion — the band’s all there playing their parts perfectly, but no one is replacing Freddie. Doesn’t make the music bad.

This was the most Dan Harmon of the non-Dan Harmon episodes and dammit, it just felt right. Obviously Dan Harmon agrees, because Brie Larson is the sole guest star returning from the season as the coat check girl who lends Abed a hand. She’s a good fit for the show, though she’ll likely only be on hand to help Abed through his post-Troy slump (Donald Glover is leaving to show, but on good terms).

Which is the real reason to watch this episode. Troy and Abed spend the better part of it apart on their own excursions, showing that even without Troy, Abed will still be a great character with a lot to offer, especially back in Harmon’s capable hands. Here’s hoping he capitalizes on the opportunity for character growth like Abed did in the episode.

Quotent Quotables: “Was that girl an alien or a toddler with a growing disease?”

Honorable Mentions:

Season 1
Politics of Human Sexuality
– Greendale hosts an STD Fair. Hilarity ensues.
Beginner Pottery – Jeff fights off a rival for best-looking man at Greendale
Season 2
Anthropology 101 – Season 2 premiere, featuring the incomparable Betty White
Epidemiology
 – Halloween special with… zombies? And someone gets pregnant
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – The group plays Dungeons and Dragons. The stakes have never been higher.
Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking – Pierce is dying. Maybe. Guest starring Lavar Burton
Season 3
Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism – Jeff and Shirley discover their secret history while Troy, Annie, and Abed (Tranniebed?) antics don’t disappoint
Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts
– Shirley gets remarried, Britta somehow plans it
Digital Estate Planning – The group plays a customized video game with Pierce’s inheritance on the line

Community returns with back-to-back episodes next Thursday January 2, 2014 at 8/7 central on NBC. Watch it. There’s nothing (and I mean nothing) else good on in that time slot.

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