Some TV shows have just one or two standout episodes. Community has dozens. The whip-smart meta-sitcom about a group of community college students started off normal enough, but early on — around the time of the first season’s epic paintball-themed homage to action movies, “Modern Warfare” — the series began a weekly exercise of topping itself with bolder, funnier, and more unpredictable episodes.
Two of Community’s most celebrated chapters, the aforementioned “Modern Warfare” and the alternate-timeline-introducing “Remedial Chaos Theory,” have already been immortalized on our website with words by Samantha Olthof and Sophia Stewart, respectively. When it comes to choosing the third-best episode of the series, the options are plentiful. High points of the genre-spanning series include gut-busting homages to spaghetti Westerns, Ken Burns-style documentaries, Goodfellas, zombie movies, clip show episodes, and even Law & Order. And while I’ve previously thrown my hat in the ring for the frantically chipper, endlessly watchable Glee critique “Regional Holiday Music,” today’s spotlight goes to the centerpiece of a run of fantastic second-season episodes that first revealed the show’s full, madcap potential: “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design.”
In November 2010, Community aired “Cooperative Calligraphy,” an excellent and unique bottle episode about a lost pen that saw the series’ writers and actors stretch their ability to mix escalating absurdity with the series’ already established charm. Community mastermind Dan Harmon could’ve easily pulled back after that, giving us a milder episode (TV fan Abed often acted as a mouthpiece for Harmon, commenting on the potentially off-putting weirdness of the show’s narrative as it progressed), but instead, he did a full-court press in the form of a hilarious, labyrinthine conspiratorial thriller.
The episode opens with Dead Pelton (Jim Rash) reading a fax he’s just received with study group leader Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale) name on it with a look of mischief and triumph. Rash’s performance as the flamboyant and incompetent dean of students is a master class in comedic acting, and “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” is a turning point for him. The twisty episode is one of the first that frames the dean as a major character and is a fantastic showcase for Rash’s all-in performance as he manages to steal scenes from an already strong core cast of comedians. Two of the series’ longest-running jokes, Dean Pelton’s implied crush on Jeff (he made a scrapbook about him!) and his rich and intriguing personal life (he’s writing a time-travel novel!), are here more apparent than ever.
Dean Pelton confronts Jeff with evidence of what he thinks is a faked independent study — taught by a teacher named Professor Professorson, which is so silly it gets a laugh each time it’s repeated — and the next twenty-one minutes are rife with paranoia, high-stakes double-crosses, and joke after joke that lands perfectly. Jeff and Annie (Alison Brie) start investigating Greendale’s shadowy night school and soon make more shocking discoveries than they know how to handle. A wiki page for the episode includes a flow chart that counts eleven different suspense-laden twists in total; jammed into a short sitcom format, these dramatic turns of fate come across as both wildly ambitious and hilariously overwhelming.
As if a hyperspeed Hitchockian conspiracy wasn’t enough to entertain us, the episode also throws in one of the series’ most memorable B plots. During a seemingly forgettable interaction early on, child-like friends Troy (Donald Glover, doing all-time-great comedic line delivery in this role) and Abed (Danny Pudi) decide to build a blanket fort. A friend offers to help expand it beyond their dorm room, and before we know it, the fort has taken over the entire school. An inevitable climactic chase scene takes place in the blanket fort, where Jeff and Annie ignore Troy’s recommendation to visit the fort’s Civil Rights Museum, stumble upon classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs) in an Eyes Wide Shut-like lair of decadence, and are slowed down by a Latvian Independence Day parade (“They had the proper permits!” Troy says).
Episode writer Chris McKenna, who would go on to co-write Spider-Man and Ant-Man movies for Marvel, deserves heaps of credit for a script that layers in a complex web of an A plot, an effortlessly executed B plot, and a dozen off-the-cuff quips about everything from The Mentalist to lazy Shakespeare retellings to Greendale’s inexplicable obsession with dioramas. The series’ joke-per-minute ratio was always unusually high compared to its contemporaries, but this episode shows the cast and writers on their comedy A-game, balancing several high-concept bits with understated character development and mythology-building. This is the first time the series mentions Cougar Town, a lighthearted series on a rival network that becomes a running bit within Community. Troy and Abed’s pillow fort also reappears in the third season, kicking off the series’ most serious narrative through-line, while the powder-keg pairing of Jeff and Annie reappears again and again throughout the show.
While Brie, Rash, and Glover put in memorable and irreverent performances, guest star Kevin Corrigan is the episode’s MVP as Professor Professorson (formerly Professorberg, he says), who is eventually outed as campus drama teacher Sean Garrity. As Garrity, Corrigan’s dramatic inflections and overwrought delivery — at one point, he blatantly mispronounces the word “etcetera” — are an episode highlight, infinitely quotable and captivating enough to keep the competing ruses from collapsing in on themselves. Unlike other sitcoms, Community commits fully to its premise, and mines some of its best jokes from the bizarre and poorly conceived structure of its community college setting. The courses taught at Professor Professorson’s night school, for example, include “Studiology,” “Class 101,” and “History of Something.”
By episode’s end, every combination of possible schemers has shot one another with prop guns, a chaotic culmination that calls to mind Saturday Night Live’s cult classic “Dear Sister” digital short. After the dust has settled, Abed and Troy learn that the blanket fort civilization they’ve built is front-page news at Greendale, and they pull the emergency switch — a tube sock hanging from the ceiling, naturally — that collapses the fort entirely.
Community’s best parts celebrate the joy of creative play, the inevitability of chaos, and the miracle of being able to blow it all up and start over again. In that sense, “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” with its commitment to surprise, disarray, and humor, is the perfect mission statement for a show that never dared to be anything less than strange and fantastic.