Before anyone can protest, we get it: “Modern Warfare” (Season 1, Episode 23) is a television masterpiece. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11) is a prime example of the risk-taking that made Community so beloved. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” (Season 2, Episode 16) with Levar Burton is the ship that launched a thousand Donald Glover memes.
Community premiered on September 17, 2009 and quickly amassed a small but vocal following — the rallying cry of “six seasons and a movie” still echoes through Twitter timelines to this day. The Dan Harmon community college ensemble show has become something of a cult classic and found another wave of fans when the series landed on Netflix in 2020.
Anyway, we’re here because a decade ago today (October 13th), the best episode of Community aired. “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the perfect distillation of the writing, performances, strangeness, and heart that made the show so special.
Perhaps most importantly, this episode arguably originated the phrase “The Darkest Timeline,” a concept that has so permeated the culture of the chronically online that many people might not even realize that it stemmed from a television show. (What are Evil Troy and Evil Abed up to these days?)
The premise of the episode (written by Chris McKenna and directed by Jeff Melman) is simple, but effective: Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) are hosting a housewarming for their apartment. The study group members will roll a dice to determine who has to leave to pick up pizza. Abed warns the group that this could yield unexpected results in the form of six different timelines, and each outcome is then explored.
The stories that unfold in each timeline underscore the thesis of the show, and, unfortunately, what hurt Community a bit towards the end — the study group, this family, is at its best when everyone is together. The Darkest Timeline arises when Troy leaves the group, suggesting that he is the glue that holds everyone together. For what it’s worth, the scene is also perfect comedy.
The various timelines play around with different romantic pairings, annoyances, pain points, and frustrations between members of the group. Jeff (Joel McHale), more than once, belittles Britta (Gillian Jacobs) for turning on The Police’s “Roxanne” and trying to sing along. In many of the timelines, Jeff and Annie (Alison Brie) find themselves drawn together, despite their better judgement.
Community isn’t a show that always tugged on the heartstrings, but it’s an emotional moment when the one true timeline finishes with the group together, Abed having identified Jeff’s plan — the die only has six sides, meaning Jeff would never have had to leave if the group had followed his plan.
When Jeff does leave, it is the only time Britta is able to relax for a moment, and when he returns, his found family is laughing together and singing at the top of their lungs. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) stops caring about her pies. Pierce (Chevy Chase) forgoes his plan of making Troy feel awful about moving in with Abed. Everyone is able to be at their best. Britta isn’t The Worst.
It’s a perfect episode among many great episodes. The high-concept risk paid off, and it still holds up a decade (!) later as dexterous writing and effortless comedy that allowed each actor to be in their element. Long before Donald Glover was selling out arenas as Childish Gambino, he was Troy Barnes, the heart of the study group at Greendale Community College.
We got the six seasons, folks. We even got a reunion. Now, the only thing we need is that movie.