NBC premiered The Endgame last night, a new conspiracy heist thriller starring Morena Baccarin (Homeland; Deadpool) as, essentially, the Rose Byrne character in Spy crossed with Blacklist (James Spader) from The Blacklist. As promised, the show is big and twisty and full of explosions, and at one point Baccarin's character does a magic trick:
Anyway, the series is some of the most action-blockbuster-y stuff to hit network TV in a minute, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Justin Lin, who direced the series pilot and serves as an executive producer on the series. Lin's a filmmaker who's received the lion's share of his career acclaim for his work in features, starting with his Sundance breakthrough Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002. But it's his place of prominence within the world of The Fast and the Furious franchise that he's best known for, having directed five of that series' films — the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and (most recently) ninth installments, with a tenth to come. Presiding over the series as it graduated from a hot-guys-and-hot-cars series to an ever-escalating speed-and-action extravaganza, Lin himself graduated to the realm of the most elite action directors in Hollywood. He comes to The Endgame as a master of the craft, and there's no better reason to want to give that show a look.
But this isn't Justin Lin's first foray into episodic television. He directed the pilot of Scorpion (you remember Scorpion, right? Katharine McPhee and a buncha nerds doing NatSec stuff?). He also directed two episodes of the second, sadly misbegotten season of True Detective. And most importantly, he directed three episodes of the NBC comedy Community, including the 23rd episode of its first season, "Modern Warfare."
It might seem an odd assignment for an action movie director to helm a sitcom episode. By this point, Lin had directed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and 2009's Fast and Furious, though not yet Fast Five, which was the installment where the franchise turned the corner into the joyful behemoth it is today. Still, it might have seemed like an overqualification to have someone so well versed in car chases direct an episode of a show about a study group at a community college, but that's only if you didn't know what Community was really about. Even in its first season, the Dan Harmon-created show was already exploring ways to transcend the reality of its premise. Just a couple episodes prior to "Modern Warfare," the show did a fully committed Goodfellas parody about the chicken fingers on campus. Over the course of its run, the show would end up transforming iself into everything from stop-motion animation, 8-bit video games, a zombie movie, and so much more. Whether or not you think the show burned itself out on gimmick episodes and genre parodies is a question for another endeavor, but the "Modern Warfare" episode itself was a revelation, and it helped put Community among the best-reviewed shows on TV.
In the episode, the study group — which includes sarcastic Jeff (Joel McHale), annoyingly PC Britta (Gillian Jacobs), canonically young Annie (Alison Brie), religious mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), movie-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi), excitable Troy (Donald Glover), and old a-hole Pierce (Chevy Chase) — is busy eye-rolling Jeff and Britta's constant bickering/sexual tension when Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) stops by with news of a campus-wide game of "Paintball Assassin," with prizes to be determined. Jeff, per usual, isn't interested and goes for a nap in his car. When he wakes up only an hour later, Greendale has become a paint-speckled wasteland.
The genre parody at work in "Modern Warfare" is certainly clever — the various friend groups and clubs at the school have become gangs, and the writers have some fun with the chess club sending a pawn out as a distraction, or the glee club harmonizing menacingly offscreen (which also gives the show a chance to be petty about the then-very buzzy Glee). But it would have remained a mere exercise in cleverness without the expert-level filmmaking Lin brings to bear. From that very first shot of Jeff in a deserted quad, we're in a note-perfect nod to 28 Days Later's empty London. Never sticking in one referential space for too long, Lin glides past homages to The Matrix, Predator, The Warriors, and Die Hard as Jeff teams up with Troy and Abed, and forms an uneasy alliance with the girls. Sometimes the parody is more about the genre tropes than specific 1:1 recreation, like when everybody's huddled around a campfire telling stories about what they'll do with the grand prize (priority registration privileges!). Other times, it's Ken Jeong in a white suit at the center of an extended John Woo homage.
While all of this genre work is happening, "Modern Warfare" is also pulling the pin out of the grenade that is the Jeff/Britta sexual tension storyline, having them finally have sex in the throes of painball-survival euphoria. This, of course, comes with its own handful of action movie references (Jeff's Die Hard tribute via a dirty, sweaty tank top is a crowd pleaser, and that's well before we get to see him in only some square-cut briefs).
The reaction to "Modern Warfare" at the time was rapturous, and despite the fact that the subsequent seasons of Community made its dedication to genre parody less special — the second season revisited paintball with a two-part "Modern Warfare" sequel — the episode still ranks among the series' best remembered. Uproxx ranks it as the #1 Community episode of all time. Time named it the 3rd-best TV episode of 2010. Variety put it at #21 on their list of the best TV episodes of the decade.
And for Justin Lin, "Modern Warfare" is easily the best thing he's ever done for television, and probably ranks in the top 5 of things he's directed in his entire career, depending on how strongly you feel about some of the lesser Fast & Furious movies. Even if you didn't stick with Community when it really started to travel up its own navel — heck, especially if that's the case — Justin Lin's "Modern Warfare" remains an unalloyed TV triumph and a tribute to paintballers everywhere.
All six seasons of Community are available for streaming on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. The Endgame airs Monday nights on NBC and streams on Peacock.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.