Community: Season 3, Episode 4
Remedial Chaos Theory
Now that's what I'm talking about. I had several problems with last week's Community, but nearly all of them evaporated here. This is the type of episode I gear up for, one of the reasons I think this show is one of the best comedies on television. "Remedial Chaos Theory" is high concept, character driven, whip smart and hilarious. In short, its a great episode of Community.
I've talked before about how this season of Community is about what these people do now that they freely admit that they love each other. But that is a scary thing to admit. Cynicism is easy, especially for these characters. Jeff and Britta, especially, but really everyone in this group is mostly used to the world being a pretty cold, cruel place, and thus have developed a pretty strong protective sheen to keep themselves from getting hurt. This is a show about people learning to open up and let others into their lives, learning to allow themselves to say "yes" to things they are defaulted to keeping themselves away from. I find it very interesting, then, that the most significant moment in this, one of the best Community episodes yet, is a no. This is an episode about what happens when the guy who is always saying no finally leaves the room and everyone gets to do what they would be doing otherwise.
The episode's high concept, that we examine seven different timelines that might have occurred between these characters at Troy and Abed's housewarming party (complete with toilet olives, because it's a fancy party) feels at first like it might just be a fun little gimmick, and it is that, but it also tells us something more. It tells us what each of these characters mean to each other, and what each of them contributes to the group as a whole. It shows us everyone at their best and at their worst, and perhaps best, it leaves us off, like most evenings do, somewhere in between the two.
Before I get into that (trust me, I will), I think its important to point out that two people are left out of the love fest that is the final scene: Jeff and Pierce. These two characters are very closely linked, and we are often reminded that Pierce is the man Jeff could end up being if he doesn't change his life. They are also linked in another way: throughout the episode, only two characters do the same thing in every timeline, even when they go to get the pizza: Jeff and Pierce.
The story here couldn't be more simple: The gang is hanging out and pizza has been ordered. Someone has to go get it. The person is chosen by random chance, by the roll of the dice (except for the one time it isn't, which, again, I'll get to) and the ramifications of removing that character are played out. Every time someone leaves, everything changes. What happens in the interim between that person leaving and them returning tells us quite a lot about the role they play within the group, and what it would look like without them.
Annie goes to get the pizza first, and when she leaves, it is clearly displayed that she is the caretaker of the group (the "good nurse" that Jeff calls her in every other timeline), even though she's never been very good at taking care of herself. She lapsed into addiction earlier in life, and she lives in a terrible, terrible neighborhood nowadays (so much so that she has to carry a gun and helped tourniquet a wound a few days back), but she is the one that will help these people lick their wounds. She is the one who will be nice to them when no one else will.
If Annie is the group's caretaker, Shirley is the group's mother. This show gives us a much more nuanced and realistic view of motherhood than many; Shirley doesn't just love these people unconditionally. Sometimes she gets angry with them. She wants to guide them, and she wants to nurture them. She wants to teach them the right way to live (as she sees it), and they mock her for it. They ridicule her baking, but if they gave it a chance, they'd like it (her mini pies do taste like regular pies, after all). When Shirley leaves, no one takes the pies out of the oven. Mom isn't around, and the kids aren't going to be responsible. They're too caught up in themselves to recognize the time, thought, and care Shirley put into the pies she was making for them.
Pierce's role in this group has always been clear. He is the person who puts everyone on edge, the guy that pushes people apart because he is miserable and alone. Pierce has gotten used to saying no, to keeping people at arm's length, and he helps the rest of the group (especially Jeff) to do the same. Without Pierce, everyone is a little bit better off. Troy never has to find out about the awful gift Pierce got him (a troll that terrified Troy when they lived together) just to be mean. He gets to have a moment with Britta, where they recognize their mutual attraction. Jeff and Annie also get to have a moment together. Shirley gets her pies out of the oven. Each of these people ends up where they've been headed all along, and each of them is on a better path. Pierce isn't just a dark mirror for Jeff of the man he might become, Pierce is a cautionary tale for all of these people to let go of their concerns and let each other into their lives, because if they don't they might end up bitter and alone.
What happens when Britta gets the pizza is especially interesting, because her role in the group is not as clearly defined as the other's (except that, usually, she's the one everyone gets to hate on). Yet when she leaves the group, when they are deprived of the Britta-mocking moment of Jeff cutting off "Roxanne," everything gets...awkward. No one really knows what to say (Troy tries an awkward, "you guys are my best..." but Jeff, of course, cuts him off). They quickly devolve into cliques. Shirley goes to check on the pies, Jeff and Annie head for the bathroom, and Troy and Abed bond like usual. Pierce, feeling lonely, lashes out at Troy. And without the group's mockery of her, which tempers her wilder side, Britta decides to marry the pizza guy.
We all know Troy wants to be seen as an adult. This has been a continuing story for the character since last season. What this group has yet to figure out (but what we've known since at least "Epidemiology 206") is that Troy, not Jeff, is the father figure this group needs. He is also the heart of the group and its default leader. When he leaves, everything imaginable falls apart. When Troy gets the pizza, we enter the darkest timeline (as the tag shows us), where Pierce dies from a gunshot wound, Shirley becomes an alcoholic, Jeff loses his arm, and Troy and Abed launch a plan to become goatee wearing evil versions of themselves, out to find the best timeline and kill themselves there. Troy is the essential component to this group. Troy is the study group at their best. He is honest, kind, and wants everyone to succeed. Most importantly of all, though, Troy says "Yes." Troy is the most enthusiastic person on the show, always excited for what comes next. He's the guy willing to tell everyone that they are his best friends. He is what each of these characters should be, where Pierce is what they all might become.
Abed keeps the group running smoothly with his awkwardness and astute observations of their interactions. At first it appears that without Abed, the group will be more honest with each other, and everything will work out great. If that strikes you as wrong, that's because it is: without Abed, things devolve very quickly and everyone ends up at each other's throats. They need to be told how they are supposed to fit together, otherwise they might quickly drift apart.
Then there's Jeff, who, as usual is rigging everything for his own benefit, having devised the whole system to keep himself from ever having to go get pizza. I've talked before about how Jeff and Britta are opposed in several ways, and how this tells us a lot about everyone. Britta wants everyone to embrace their wild side, to be more impulsive, more active, and more loving. If anyone on this show defaults to "no," it's Jeff. He's the guy who snidely mocks everyone, but deep down he wishes he could just let go and have fun with all of them. Jeff, like Pierce, is someone this group might be able to do better without. Without Jeff, this is a group of happy people having a fun, silly time. With Jeff, they are more likely to mock each other's innocent desire for fun, to shut each other down, to make each other feel worse. They are more likely to say no.
If Community started out as a battle for Jeff Winger's soul (spoiler alert: it did), it has largely become a fight for every character to improve themselves in some way. This season is very quickly shaping up to be about how far Jeff has come, and about whether he will let himself go further. In the season premiere, it was Jeff, not any of the other characters, who fantasized about a break out musical sequence in which everything ended up better. As I pointed out there, Jeff has to fantasize about that because not much about his actual life has changed. The flaws he started with are still there. He's still defaulting to "no" when everyone around him has moved so much closer to "yes."
Usually, Jeff gives the big, unifying speech near the episode's end, but this isn't necessarily because Jeff believes what he says (I would argue he does, but I bet that he would tell everyone its just good lawyering). Jeff persuades people to view the world in his way, but he makes that very obvious. He plays everything to his advantage to make sure he doesn't end up hurt. But he didn't give the speech tonight, because the lesson learned in this episode hasn't sunk in for him yet. Abed gives the speech, telling everyone that the world is random and chaotic, but that these people know each other, and that they should trust each other. That they should love each other, and say "yes" to having each other in their lives. Jeff has gotten to the point where he relies on these people. I imagine over the course of this season, he'll struggle to get to the point where he can admit it.
"Remedial Chaos Theory" is a brilliant piece of television (and hey, for readers of my feature Bottle Up and Explode, it is a bottle episode as well). It manages to get seven different timelines, plus a prologue and epilogue, into 22 minutes, and it manages to do so while being hysterically funny, incredibly intelligent, deeply moving and actually about something that matters to the core of the show. This is the kind of episode I dream about. This is (not to be too hyperbolic) the type of Community episode that actually might change my life. I am the sort of person who defaults to "no," who snarks when I might should just let go and join in. I'm the Jeff here, and this episode reminds me, as it should remind all of us, that "no" closes down your options. "No" gives you less, where "yes" almost always leaves you with more. This episode of Community was one of its best, sure, but it was something more than that. This was an episode that transcended the show it was on, that reminded me how good television can be at its best and why I allow it to take such a central role in my life. Not bad for a little sitcom that no one is watching. This isn't just an episode that everyone should watch. This is an episode that all fans of good television, and good living, should treasure.
-"Rule #2: Avoid touchy topics like 'the Negro problem.' The book was written in the '4os."
-"Chop busted, fellow adult. Chop busted."
-"I've hardly missed you at all since I had you removed from my portraits."
-"There's no such thing as Single Malt Platinum Boobs and Billiards Club? I guess I never said it out loud..."
-"Give it Pierce. It feels fun!" and later, "I demand to be house warmed!"
-If I didn't stress this enough earlier, the Troy-less sequence was a god damned masterpiece of a comedy of errors. I haven't laughed that hard in a good long while.
-"Ropes? Vines. Vines? Let him finish!"
-"Jeff, you crafty jack rabbit." Even when she's angry, Annie still wants Jeff.
-"You see what happens when I leave you alone, huh?"
-"From now on I'm evil Abed."