Dan Harmon’s Best Homages To Pop Culture On Community
With tomorrow's Season Five premiere marking Dan Harmon's return to the show, we look back at his best moments.
“Abed! Stop being meta. Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.”
As much as his detractors would hate to admit, Dan Harmon IS Community. The dishevelled showrunner might wield an equally dishevelled personality, but his absence from Season Four of NBC’s self-conscious single-camera sitcom proved that even with a cheat sheet, no one could recreate his voice and vision.
Thankfully, tomorrow’s Season 5 premiere sees Harmon back behind the control panel, ready to steer his ship towards a more recognisable galaxy. And as long as he hasn’t lost his ability to so expertly riff on stuff we’ve seen and heard and played before without stifling character or forsaking theme, who gives two sheets of Zoloft about the man’s emotional problems?
With that in mind, lets ignore the possibility that we’re drawn to referential humour because our lazy, devolving brains feel comforted by the familiar, and instead celebrate the return of Chevy’s Greatest Nemesis with some of the best Harmon-era homages to popular culture.
Episode: ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ (Season 1, Episode 21)
Synopsis: Lead by Jeff and Abed, Greendale Community College’s favourite study group annex the production and distribution of the cafeteria’s most delectable dish: Chicken Fingers.
The first homage to frame and span an entire episode, ‘Poultry’ was something of a turning point for the show. Like the early-era The Simpsons gem ‘Cape Feare’, this episode appropriates the plot mechanics and stylistic flourishes of a Scorsese classic. In this case, Harmon borrowed Henry Hill-style voice over, flamboyant camera movements and freeze-frames, but he did so to explore Abed’s Asperger’s-driven reliance on popular culture in order to connect with his fellow ‘Human Beings’.
Episode: ‘Modern Warfare’ (Season 1, Episode 23)
Synopsis: Greendale descends into a multi-coloured shell of its former self when students partake in a Battle Royale-style paintball contest.
Okay, so this particular tribute wasn’t as concerned with character or emotion as others, but man was it fun. ‘Modern Warfare’ recreates moments from nearly every action blockbuster ever produced (Die Hard, The Terminator, Predator, The Matrix, The Running Man, Face/Off, Scarface, Rambo: First Blood — and that’s only the tip of the plastic semi-automatic), and nails every single one of them. It’s a 21-minute extravaganza more satisfying than most feature-length action films in recent memory, and its popularity amongst viewers lead to a pair of ‘sequels’: ‘A Fistful Of Paintballs’ (a homage to the Western) and ‘For A Few Paintballs More’ (a homage to Star Wars).
Episode: ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ (Season 2, Episode 8)
Synopsis: The Greendale Seven are unable to leave the study room until someone admits to stealing Annie’s pen.
If you’ve ever seen the complete runs of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, you’ve already seen a ‘bottle episode’. With ‘Pine Barrens’ and ‘The Fly’ respectively, Chase and Gilligan took viewers on an episode-long holiday from the main action to somewhere less plotted and more intimate (and usually less costly to produce). The further we move into ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ and the longer it takes for Annie’s pen to surface, the more the cracks in character relationships widen. In the end, the gang decide they’d rather entertain the delusion that a thieving ghost was to blame than believe a friend would do such a thing. And somehow, the fact that an air vent-dwelling monkey stole it actually adds to the emotional resonance of the episode.
Dungeons & Dragons
Episode: ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ (Season 2, Episode 14)
Synopsis: The study group orchestrate a game of Dungeons & Dragons in order to make Fat Neil feel less fat.
This one’s a fan favourite for good reason, and proof that you don’t need breathtaking landscapes or CGI battalions to tell an effective fantasy tale. Harmon uses his actors’ power of performance, genre sound effects, and a Lord Of The Rings-style score to harness both the audience’s imagination and emotions — and in the process manages to tell a touching tale about friendship and inclusion. An added layer of brilliance comes with the way the group plays the game: when a character is in their D&D guise, the others serve as audience members, reacting as ‘we’ would. We’re watching a mini-play where the performers and the audience are on the same stage, and there’s been nothing on television like it since.
‘Clip show’ episodes
Episode: ‘Paradigms Of Human Memory’ (Season 2, Episode 21)
Synopsis: The seven leads look back at their two years together at Greendale, and don’t like what they see.
Nothing makes a viewer feel more gipped than a ‘clip show’ episode — a sitcom trope that sees fresh content replaced by ‘highlights’ from previous seasons. No matter how much tele-writers attempt to wrap old footage in new packaging (characters ‘remembering’ past events for fresh perspective), you can’t conceal the fact that these are not new episodes of television and could very well have been cut together by a rabid fan on YouTube. With ‘Paradigms Of Human Memory’, Harmon raised his middle finger at this lazy practice by having his seven leads recall moments that were never part of an episode (which basically means that every brief flashback actually had to be shot).
See also: ‘Curriculum Unavailable‘ (Season 3, Episode 19)
Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
Episode: ‘Documentary Filmmaking: Redux’ (Season 3, Episode 8)
Synopsis: Dean Pelton heads up the production team for a Greendale promotional video and loses his mind in the process.
If you tell a particular kind of cinephile of your affection for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), you’ll most probably be met with a stifled scoff and the ‘fact’ that the behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts Of Darkness is the much superior work. In ‘Documentary Filmmaking: Redux’, Harmon gives Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash his time to shine, pushing the supporting character of Dean Pelton past the point of insanity as his advert for Greendale balloons out of control at the same rate as his ego. It’s a dirt black episode but a rewarding one, as it not only adds dimension to Pelton’s inferiority complex, but draws a satisfying conclusion on the importance of putting the right muscle behind the creation of a work.
See also: ‘Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking‘ (Season 2, Episode 16)
Episode: ‘Regional Holiday Music’ (Season 3, Episode 10)
Synopsis: The study group is ‘recruited’ into Greendale’s Glee Club.
Many of us long for the day when the word ‘glee’ is once again associated with that particular brand of joy, and not with a bunch of 35 year-olds harmonising through high school hallways, and in ‘Regional Holiday Music’, Harmon mines this collective contempt for comedic gold. Community’s Glee Club is less a club and more of a cult: its members brainwash anyone in the vicinity with perfect pitch, unsettling optimism, and relentless mentions of the word ‘regionals’. One-by-one, and in a series of cleverly written songs, the seven leads fall to the light side, lead by a baby-faced vocal coach who might’ve been a pretty nice guy if he weren’t a mass murderer.
Other equally-as-good homage episodes include:
The Right Stuff; Apollo 13
Episode: ‘Basic Rocket Science‘ (Season 2, Episode 4)
My Dinner With Andre
Episode: ‘Critical Film Studies‘ (Season 2, Episode 19)
Episode: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas‘ (Season 2, Episode 11)
Episode: ‘Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design‘ (Season 2, Episode 9)
Horror short stories
Episode: ‘Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps‘ (Season 3, Episode 5)
Episode: ‘Epidemiology‘ (Season 2, Episode 6)
Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War
Episode: ‘Pillows And Blankets‘ (Season 3, Episode 14)
Law & Order
Episode: ‘Basic Lupine Urology‘ (Season 3, Episode 17)
8-bit video games
Episode: ‘Digital Estate Planning‘ (Season 3, Episode 20)
Jeremy Cassar is a screenwriter from Sydney.