Hiding within the half-hour sitcom format, Community was always an exercise in pop-culture meta-references. Throughout the show’s six-season run, entire episodes are dedicated as homages to other shows, movies, and creative techniques: from Pulp Fiction to claymation, documentary-filming to spaghetti Westerns, and even a self-proclaimed bottle episode.
The show was clearly created by those who love the genres they are spoofing: from showrunner Dan Harmon to the talented ensemble cast that makes up the study group themselves. Rather than rely on cynical or boring trope deconstructions, Community keeps things lighthearted and loving by committing fully to each bit while also lampshading the silliness of it. It’s clear that the writers know exactly which tropes they are toying with as Abed (Danny Pudi) breaks the fourth wall by specifically pointing them out: he refers to each school year as “seasons,” and acknowledges specific markers as they pass.
Dabbling in gimmick episodes is a risky business. Sometimes shows will drown in the superficial parts of the gimmick rather than staying true to their core themes and characterizations. Even Community, a show whose bits tend to be adequately nuanced, has its low points. Following the departure of creator Harmon, the entire fourth season was generally panned; this was later ret-conned as the year the school experienced a gas leak, explaining why the characters acted so unusually. Luckily, most of the bits over Community‘s run are at least entertaining, if not downright hilarious.
The 23rd episode of the first season, “Modern Warfare” introduced a gimmick successful enough to inspire three sequels — the Greendale Community College’s annual game of Paintball Assassin. The episode features an on-campus paintball game that spirals wildly out of control, taking cues from action movies by including lines and shots from genre classics like Die Hard and Rambo. TV.com’s ranking of all 110 episodes of the series placed the episode third overall, writing that it’s “one of the purest expressions of genre appreciation and compact sitcom storytelling that we’ve seen on broadcast TV in the 21st century.”
Above and beyond the fun of a paintball episode, these storylines allow the cast and characters to step out of a mundane community college environment and take on more epic mantles. In “Modern Warfare,” for example, Jeff (Joel McHale) naps through the beginning of the paintball game and wakes up to a trashed campus. He is baffled by how seriously everyone is taking the game until he is told what the prize is — the coveted Priority Class Registration. He immediately falls into the action hero role, rolling and diving, quipping and generally kicking ass.
This campus-wide war motif also allows the study group to be pitted against each other and mixed up into unusual groupings. Although they form alliances to try and improve their odds against other groups (the study group gladly eliminates the Glee Club), they walk on eggshells around each other knowing that eventually, it will be every man for themselves. Once again, it’s clear that the characters know how silly the game is — when they are “killed,” they immediately drop their persona, but so long as they survive, they treat it like life or death.
The second season wrapped up with a two-parter paintball episode directed by Joe Russo (yes, one of Marvel’s Russo Brothers, both of whom were involved in Community throughout its run). This two-parter is actually how the duo got involved in the MCU — after seeing the episodes, Kevin Feige reached out to the Russos with the possibility of directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The first half, “A Fistful of Paintballs,” takes its inspiration from spaghetti western films, featuring slow-motion action shots and genre-appropriate costumes. Westerns give characters the another chance to branch out of their usual niches: goody-two-shoes, academic Annie (Alison Brie) becomes a badass sharp-shooter, and film-nerd Abed becomes the smooth rogue. The sweet, former football jock Troy (Donald Glover) also steps up in the second part of the episode, “For a Few Paintballs More,” by bringing all of the surviving Greendale students together to form a rebel alliance (à la Star Wars) intent on taking down the City College Stormtroopers who have infiltrated the school. Star Wars, of course, isn’t a typical western, but the affection towards genre beats remains.
After spattering the campus twice with paintball wars, the tradition is finally banned from Greendale. In the eleventh episode of Community’s sixth and final season on Yahoo, “Modern Espionage,” Paintball Assassin is forced underground in a classic spy thriller complete with code names (different Batman actors) and detailed murder boards. It even includes a teasing callback to the Russos’ roots in Community by having a spoofed version of the Captain America: Winter Soldier elevator fight scene, featuring not a superhero but the milquetoast Dean.
The Community paintball episodes brought individual storylines to their climax. After the excitement of the paintball war fades away, the study group is left to deal with the aftermath, whether that involves cleaning up the buckets of paint splashed over the campus or acknowledging changes in the dynamics between members of the group.
The most notable example of this idea occurs in “A Fistful of Paintballs”/”For a Few Paintballs More.” It is revealed partway through the episode that the study group had been voting whether or not to allow Pierce (Chevy Chase) back into the group the next year. This conflict had been brewing beneath the surface for the entire season (arguably since the inception of the study group), but it took this high drama episode to finally bring everything to the surface. Despite coming to the rescue and saving the day, Pierce declines to return to the study group and walks away from them at the end of the episode. The rest of the group is left staring at an empty doorway as the final shot of the season.
Overall, through these bits — whether you want to call them spoofs, parodies, homages, whatever — Community managed to keep a basic sitcom premise fresh and turn it into a genuinely wonderful appreciation of film and television as a whole. Community dabbled in alternate genres in ways that felt true to the characters and allowed them to grow in creative ways, whether by rocking out in a musical episode, switching bodies in a Freaky Friday tribute, going evil in the Darkest Timeline, or through the epic action of the Paintball Assassin games. Rather than superficial gimmicks, show writers took these opportunities to progress storylines in unexpected and exciting ways. The earnest enthusiasm with which the cast and crew pursued each episode makes it an infinitely re-watchable show, long after its cancellation.
But seriously, what about the movie?