It looks like I’ll be postponing my Indiana Jones write up by a week. Why? Because with Captain America: The Winter Soldier coming out next week, some of the guys over here at Action A Go Go figured it might be a good time to take a look at some of the work of that film’s relatively unknown directors: Joe and Anthony Russo. And I couldn’t agree more.
The Russo Brothers are primarily known for their work in television, comedies, to be specific, such as Arrested Development and Happy Endings. However, my personal favorite show the Russo’s have worked extensively on would certainly be Dan Harmon’s Community. It is also this show which serves as a prime indicator to me that the Russo’s are deserving of the big time seat that Marvel offered them.
Community is far more than a sitcom. It’s a mixture of comedy and personal insight all through the lens of pop culture. And that lens has only become thicker as the show goes on. Starting late in Season One, Community has taken to sharing it’s stories in the form of hyper-specific genre-based movie send ups. The first truly extreme example of this would be the first season episode Modern Warfare, wherein a campus paintball competition turns into something far more ridiculous; an aesthetically post-apocalyptic battleground. A mix and match of Mad Max, Die Hard, The Warriors and quite a few John Woo movies. And while that episode was directed by Justin Lin, the Russo’s have been given more than a few opportunities to flex their genre-bending skills during Community’s run.
So today, in honor of their big break into the really big time, I have compiled for you my five favorite Russo-directed episodes of Community.
5. Geothermal Escapism (season 5, episode 5)In Donald Glover’s send-off episode, the gang gets swept up in a campus-wide game of “The Floor is Lava”. Transforming the school into a post-apocolyptic wasteland that can only be traversed by way of elevated structures (tables, chairs, bookshelves), all in parody of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. It’s a massively over-the-top episode, as per Community‘s tradition, and is a fitting final episode for the character of Troy. Community‘s abilities at mimicking big budget blockbuster action are so good they start eventually coming across as the real thing. I’ve felt the same “action movie” adrenaline rushing through me during quite a few episodes of this series, Geothermal Escapism is no exception.
4. Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism (season 3, episode 9)What will forever go down as one of Community‘s most genuinely heartwarming episodes, the gang tackles the two incredibly relevant subjects of Batman and Foosball. From an aesthetic and genre standpoint, this episode is relatively straight forward (and I mean that only by Community‘s standards), only occasionally dipping into genre when comedically convenient (i.e. a brief sequence of Abed playing Batman, a Foosball game switching over to an intense anime battle at its emotional height). The real centerpiece of this episode, however, is the character drama. Without spoiling it, the episode really focuses on the relationship between two of the show’s least paired characters with truly beautiful and moving results, all while never losing comedic steam (on the contrary, many of the series all-time funniest jokes are in this episode). It’s a delicate balance that’s hard to perfect, but with stellar writing, acting and directing, this episode pulls it off.
3. Documentary Filmmaking: Redux (season 3, episode 8)
In Community‘s take on Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, the school’s dean tries to really the students and faculty of Greendale together to create a new commercial for the school. But as his project becomes more grandiose, things, and minds, begin falling apart and succumbing to the dean’s growing insanity. It’s a testament to Community‘s highly flexible tone that they could take on such a strangely dark series of events without ever feeling out of place or just too weird. It’s a hilarious descent into madness, the kind only a show like this could handle. It’s also no surprise to me that they selected one of the Russo brothers, Joe to be specific, to take on such a challenging episode.
2. Cooperative Calligraphy (season 2, episode 8)
Community‘s original “Bottle Episode”, Cooperative Calligraphy sees the main cast locked up together inside the main study room for the vast majority of it’s runtime. It’s a lengthy exercise in character work, and a successful one at that. Community is easily the most grandiose comedy on television, but it can minimize to the extreme and still outdo virtually every other comedy out there. The episode has very few pop culture references (by Community standards, anyway), and relies entirely on the strength of the direction and the strength of the performances. This episode set the stage for the show to repeatedly return to the hyper-isolated “bottle episode” set up, with consistently fruitful results. It’s a testament to the show’s versatility and a true challenge to the director’s who take on it’s consistently shifting style and tone.
1. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (season 2, episode 14)
Dungeons and Dragons stands as not only my favorite Russo-directed episode of Community, but my favorite episode of the show’s entire run. Period. Again taking on the “bottle episode” format, Dungeons offers a twist; a Lord of the Rings style fable told through an actual game of dungeons and dragons. With minimal visual and audio effects, the episode manages to be just as exciting and loopy as any of the paintball episodes, if not more so. This episode does two things very, very right: first being it’s humor, this is probably the most comedically on-point episode of the entire show. An absolute riot from start to finish, one that has brought tears to my eyes from laughter on more than one viewing. The second thing is the story. I said before that Community has a knack for taking on subjects with serious dramatic weight and somehow making them work without ever sacrificing comedy. Dungeons sees the group attempting to save the life of a suicidal young man, using D&D as a tool to make him feel included and appreciated. It’s a legitimately powerful episode, particularly in its final stretch, as the group not only has to try and lift this boy out of darkness, but also deal with the increasing malicious and cruel behavior of Pierce, the group’s resident old timer. It’s a challenging episode that punches all the comedic buttons when necessary and all the dramatic ones in the same manner. This is Community at its absolute finest. An episode I have seen many times and am sure to revisit again more than once in the future.
Honorable Mention: A Fistful of Paintballs (season 2, episode 23)
The first part of a two part sequel to Modern Warfare, A Fistful of Paintballs swaps out a post-apocalyptic motif for a spaghetti western. The comedy is high in this one, and it also proves to be one of Community‘s most visually well constructed. The action is also high-paced and fun to watch, even on a low-rated sitcom budget. This is Community at its most immersive: when the show takes a break from its normal (?) shenanigans to switch gears entirely and delve into a whole different world for a little over twenty minutes. It’s kind of beautiful how unapologetic the show is, and Joe Russo’s directorial abilities are such that the episode sucks the audience in from it’s very first, completely ridiculous frames. The second part in this two-parter, For A Few Paintballs More, doesn’t quite stack up, but it’s still quite fun regardless.
Andrew Allen is a television and film writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.