“Modern Warfare” originally aired on NBC Thursday night May 6, 2010
Community doesn’t really “become” Community until “Modern Warfare”. That’s the accepted narrative, anyway. i happen to disagree with this1, but i’ve long since stopped kidding myself2. Without “Modern Warfare”, this is just another charming, underwatched single-camera sitcom from the early 2010s. As impressive as the run of 22 previous episodes was — up there with some of the strongest opening seasons any sitcom’s ever had, in my book — i would just simply not be sitting here today talking about Community if it wasn’t for this episode, and all the similar concept episodes that followed. Trying to imagine Community without paintball is like trying to imagine Lost without a smoke monster. It’s just not the same show. “Modern Warfare” almost singlehandedly elevated it from merely a great example of its medium, to something transcendent.
Whether that turned out to be more of a blessing than a curse depends on the historical perspective. In the short term, it very well might have limited Community’s audience. A common refrain you would hear about the show at the time was that it eventually got so meta and out-there that it was effectively impenetrable for the casual viewer. In the early days of peak TV, the level of attention this show demanded and the intense devotion it inspired made it seem like more trouble than it was worth, especially for a comedy. Either that, or you’d get the whole “everybody hyped this so much and i just don’t see what the big deal is” reaction3. It was the same knock that had dogged the similarly ambitious Arrested Development years earlier. Nowadays, in the age of “54 Insane Easter Eggs You Missed In Disney+ Show Of The Week”, Community feels distinctly ahead of the curve. As tempting as it is to imagine how much more buzz the show could have built up for itself in the age of streaming, with a full-season drop and subsequent same-day “The 23rd Episode Of Community Is WILD” headlines, this hypothetical ignores that A) no streaming show would receive such a large full-season order to begin with and B) the conditions that led to Community’s organic evolution into a show that could produce this kind of episode are perhaps impossible to replicate with the streaming model. Even if they somehow pulled it off, this would’ve been the only episode from the first season that anyone was talking about , and it’s not as if “Modern Warfare” doesn’t already mark a big enough turning point in Community’s journey.
Rarely does a single episode loom so large in the legacy of a show. Mad Men has “The Suitcase”. Breaking Bad has “Ozymandias”. Other shows have other examples, possibly. But for sheer series-in-microcosm, you simply can’t find another episode that overshadows its show’s entire run quite like “Modern Warfare”. This didn’t just redefine what its series could do, and it did not merely exemplify the best of what network television had to offer at the time — it launched the entire concept of the “experimental episode” well into the future, setting the standard for similarly ambitious TV shows for years to come4. It did what few shows ever have — it genuinely changed the medium. And it could only have done this by veering as far from its sitcom milieu as possible, serving up scenes that were indistinguishable from some of the most iconic action filmmakers of the modern age.
James Cameron. John McTiernan. John Woo. John Carpenter. George Miller. Walter Hill. Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Not necessarily a list of filmmakers you would associate with a network television sitcom, but each one of them gets at least a shout-out here, and in some cases, a spot-on recreation of their work. Without going into the full history of TV parodying movies, it’s fair to say that by 2010, these kinds of recreations were old hat. Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy had all been doing them for years by this point, to name just the most popular examples. But those are all animated shows — Community was restricted by the logistical and budgetary constraints of live action. Yet the episode never feels like it’s holding anything back, or working around any obvious limitations. They leave everything on the study room table, so to speak.
A lot of the credit has to go to director Justin Lin, who at this time was in the process of elevating the Fast And Furious series from barely-remembered afterthought to one of the biggest film franchises on the planet. His reliance on in-camera effects and practical stunt work in those movies helped raise the bar for the action genre in the 2010s, alongside similarly-minded works such as the Mission Impossible series, the John Wick trilogy, and Mad Max: Fury Road. And his deft eye for staging and cutting scenes for maximum excitement ensured that every action setpiece in “Modern Warfare” still looks goddamned fantastic, going on eleven years later. This episode has aged so beautifully that it’s now impossible to imagine it ever looking dated in anything but the most charming way.
And while the action is the flashy cover story here, it actually buries the lede of the stealthy little trick this episode truly pulls off — that it finally delivers on the original premise of the pilot. There’s a reason this is remembered as the episode that launched a thousand concepts while “Contemporary American Poultry” is not. As formally bold as that episode was, its actual story didn’t do anything, plotwise, to its characters that couldn’t be undone. All this apocalyptic action business turns out to be a smokescreen obscuring the moment where Britta and Jeff finally act on their mutual attraction and sleep together, right in the middle of the Paintball Assassin game. The moment manages to feel exactly right without seeming entirely predictable. i don’t know that any show has ever paid off its will they/won’t they setup in such dazzlingly unexpected fashion.
As wild as the episode still is, even in the wake of ever more challenging experiments, this emphasis on the Jeff and Britta dynamic, starting from scene one, gives it a refreshingly back-to-basics quality. While it may be true that there’s really only one plotline and most of the supporting characters don’t get a whole lot to do within it, the episode’s strict adherence to the conventions of action cinema turns this ostensible flaw into a feature, not a bug. Gradually narrowing the focus down to one conflict, and one character pairing, as the campus descends further into chaos, gives this arc a finale-like sense of urgency that the rest of the first season never manages to recapture. It also generates a sense that this series can literally go anywhere from here — with the pilot paid off, and all the creative promise of the series seemingly fulfilled, we are now in truly uncharted territory. What will follow is some of the weirdest, silliest, most frustrating, and ultimately, most rewarding narrative work ever put on network television. While opinions may differ on what the actual “best” episode of Community is, there’s no question that “Modern Warfare” still occupies a truly unique place in its history.
And now i’m about to say something that i can’t believe i’m about to say. If you are at all curious about Community and you’ve never seen it, because you’re not sure whether this show is for you, and you don’t have a whole lot of time to devote to a full watch-through — go ahead and check out the pilot, then watch “Modern Warfare”. That will tell you everything you need to know. i give you permission to cherrypick. Goddammit, i can’t believe i just said that. Normally i loathe this kind of a la carte approach to watching shows5. Alright, let me distance myself from that earlier statement a little. Watching these two episodes back-to-back will give you a sense of the show’s overarching story, as well as how much the initial premise develops over time. Without watching the 21 episodes in between, you will miss out on a LOT of fun ensemble stuff and great worldbuilding, as well as some amazing jokes and setpieces. But if all you’re looking for is the bare-bones essentials, these episodes will basically give you the gist. If, and only if, you meet the exact specific criteria listed above, then i encourage you to experience the show this way — that is, assuming the alternative is not watching the show at all. Just be warned that if you take me up on this challenge, one of two things is might happen: either you’ll dip out, having learned that this show isn’t for you, or you’ll be hooked for life.
⁃ End tag: Troy and Jeff are in the study room. Troy repeatedly attempts to strike the right tone when leaving Abed a voicemail, until Jeff loses patience and delivers a curt, disparaging version of it. Then Jeff realizes he went too far and tries it Troy’s way. This one could’ve come from any random episode and i love it for that
⁃ This episode is written by Emily Cutler, who also penned “Contemporary American Poultry”. For someone who played such a big part of bringing Community’s visions of parody to life, thereby shaping its legacy, it’s unfortunate she only got to write a few more episodes in season 2, none of them parody episodes, before leaving
⁃ Justin Lin’s Hollywood career has been a bit hit-or-miss overall, but Better Luck Tomorrow is worth checking out, especially for all you Han fans
⁃ Seriously, what IS the best Community episode? i find this question impossible to answer definitively, but a few strong candidates come to mind. i’m especially fond of a certain run in season 2 which i hope to talk about here soon
LEONARD: What it is, soul brother!
ABED: To be blunt, Jeff and Britta is no Ross and Rachel. Your sexual tension and lack of chemistry are putting us all on edge, which is why ironically, and hear this on every level — you’re keeping us from being friends
SHIRLEY: Aww, like Sam and Diane! i hated Sam and Diane
PIERCE: Want my advice? Pork her and move on. We did it all the time in my day
DEAN: There is also going to be a game of Paintball Assassin, with a prize for last man standing. Or last man in a wheelchair with no paint on him
PIERCE: …He said, fully erect
JEFF: And tell the Drama Club their tears will be real today
SHIRLEY: Troy made God mad!
ANNIE (as the Glee Club sings “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”): Oh, brother. That is SO uninspired!
JEFF: Write some original songs!
JEFF: It’s blood. i thought it was paint, but i’m just bleeding. Talk about luck
JEFF: Now the bad news is, for legal purposes, next semester if anybody asks, you have gout