"Community" was a situation comedy that ran for six seasons (more or less), from 2009 to 2015. The first three seasons were full, 24 episode seasons, while the last three were half-seasons of 13 episodes, with the last season running on Yahoo! Screen. It was created by Dan Harmon, and many of its episodes were directed by the Russo Brothers.
The original set-up for the show, established in the first episode, and followed through the first season, was that Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer, had lost his license to practice law when it turned out he had faked his bachelor's degree, necessitating a return to community college. In an attempt to get closer to a fellow student, Britta Perry, Gillian Jacobs, he creates a study group for the two of them. Unfortunately (for him, he thinks), five other students show up: Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), a Palestinian man who demonstrates signs of having Asperger's Syndrome, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover, in his break out role), a teenage African-American jock, Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), a rich older man who goes to community college to keep busy, Annie Edison (Allison Brie), a perfectionist teen who left high school due to an Adderall addiction, and Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), a divorced African-American mother. The original concept of the show was that the manipulative, narcissistic Jeff was going to attempt to woo the sensitive, idealistic Britta, with the other five characters providing wacky subplots as background for the romantic comedy. If you know your sitcoms (and the show's creators certainly did), you might think of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers on Cheers, or perhaps of Dan Fielding and Christine Sullivan on Night Court: player guy and sensitive girl court, while an ensemble of wacky characters has surreal adventures.
But starting in the middle of the first season, and completed by the second season, the show changed. First, the romantic plot between Jeff and Britta stopped being the major focus, and the "background" characters became just as important (which, among other things, this allowed the non-white characters and actors to be more than one-note characters), and secondly, the show started becoming more surrealistic, as well as offering a "meta" deconstruction of itself as a sitcom. The first episode where it became impossible to reconcile the episode's happenings with a "real world" setting was in Season 1, Contemporary American Poultry, where Abed's desire to be in a mafia movie turns him into a kingpin controlling the community college's supply of chicken fingers. After that point, the show bounced between surreal plots parodying different types of movies and television shows--- a Zombie Plague, a paintball game complete with paramilitaries from a competing community college, a trip into alternative timelines, a Civil War Documentary--- while also letting all the characters develop in a realistic way. It also experimented with its format: Community episodes would appear as a claymation style Christmas special, a 8 bit video game parody, and as an animated GI Joe story. One of the interesting things about Community for me was that while its surrealistic episodes were outside the bounds of a normal sitcom, the character dynamics were more realistic: the group's backward and forward bickering and romantic interest were much more realistic than in most sitcoms. Characters become friends, enemies and lovers, but it seems to occur naturally, not as the result of authorial fiat.
Some of the things that seemed problematic (and outdated) about the show, early in the first season, became easier to adjust to once the show left reality. Jeff Winger as the pushy, bad boy trying to seduce every woman seems somewhat between dated and offensive now. For anyone who has worked in an academic environment, even flirting between staff and faculty and students is not something to joke about, but it is a regular part of the show in the first season. Two of the series' other stars are Jim Rash, who plays Dean Craig Pelton, and Ken Jeong, who plays Ben Chang, a Spanish instructor who is faking his credentials. Dean Pelton makes obvious advances on Jeff Winger, and Ben Chang is abusive and unstable. In an early episode of the series, where Ben Chang kisses Annie on the forehead, I was shocked: that is the type of thing that would automatically get a teacher fired. But by the third season, when Ben Chang has been fired, rehired, lived in the community college's air vents, and become a warlord controlling the school with an army of preteens he met at a Bar Mitzvah, the show has established that it is far enough from reality that we can suspend our disbelief. And so it is with Dean Pelton, whose sexuality becomes more acceptable as it becomes more ridiculous. (It is not until the sixths and final season that he finally comes out of the closet, although he says "being gay is only 2/7th of who he is").
The show also had an incredible range of guest stars, famous comedians and actors often playing minor bit parts. Along with recurring star John Oliver, we also got to see Betty White, Jack Black, Patton Oswalt, Anthony Michael Hall, Chris Elliot, John Goodman, LeVar Burton, Jason Alexander, Nathan Fillion and Kumail Nanjiani (among others) all show up, often to play a minor character. Despite never being the most popular show on television, this show became somewhat of a "comedian's comedy show", with its experimental nature and cast chemistry making it an important cross-roads of comedic genres. This is, after all, the only place you will get to see Childish Gambino and Betty White rap together.
"Community" was easy to watch, with the episodes being light enough to draw me in, but complicated enough to keep me interested. My problem with the show (as much as it is a problem), was that I kept on wanting to care about what happened, but what happened could be undone by the shows sense of surreality. In Season 2, there is an episode where Ben Chang does something terrible enough that the characters (and by extension, the audience), are actually shocked. The story seems to be veering towards a dramatic moment, a permanent change...but at the last minute, he is released from trouble, and by the next episode, he is back being one of the gang, engaging in wacky hijinks. Throughout the series, there is a place or two where the show seems to be veering into drama, into real character development. Strangely enough, a few of these moments are after the show was past its best years, such as Season 6's "Basic E-Mail Security", where the characters reading each other's leaked e-Mails seems to cause true, dramatic repercussions. But most of the time, the show hijacks its own ability to draw us in by reverting to form. This is especially interesting because often, the real cast dynamics did have permanent repercussions. In an odd parallel, Chevy Chase's character, Pierce Hawthorne, had the same relationship to the characters that Chevy Chase did to the cast. Pierce Hawthorne is played as a somewhat buffoonish, out-of-touch baby boomer whose racist and sexist jokes irritate the rest of the study group, despite Hawthorne's sometimes generous and sensitive nature. In the show, Hawthorne is forgiven every week. In reality, Chevy Chase's attitude towards the cast, which involved some of the same problems as his character, caused him to be fired from the show.
"Community" is a great television show, and even when it missteps, it is worth watching. It has raised the bar for what I expect out of the standard half-hour sitcom format. Its problem, which is not a deal breaker, is that it vacillates between wanting real drama and character development, and wanting to have capers without consequences.
While Community probably does not warrant a total episode guide, there are a few specific episodes that I believe deserve a description of their own, and I will hopefully be doing that at some point in the future.