Community: Season 3, Episode 16
Virtual Systems Analysis
Community has been having a bit of an existential crisis this season. The show recognizes, and probably has since early in its run, that is is too off the beaten path to attract a large audience, and yet it wants desperately to live to see another season, and so it has teetered between normalcy and absurdity, toyed with a version of itself as a more regular sitcom, and experimented with that it might look like on the other side of this hypothetical looking glass. To put it in the terms of tonight's episode, Community has taken a trip through the Dreamatorium, and come out more assured than it has ever been before.
This season hasn't been free of rough patches. Some episodes were guilty of mischaracterization, a cardinal sin on a show that hopes to be as serialized as this one. Sometimes, the show has fallen flat on its face. But I think the lesson it has learned, like the one that Abed learned tonight, is that there are ways it can reach out to people without losing its soul and becoming "just another sitcom."
Annie has been one of the characters the show has had the most trouble with over the last two seasons. In the show's first season, Annie had a pretty strong character arc--she was a young girl who had made a bad mistake and was doing some serious over-correcting, turning her anxiety fueled lapse into addiction into a tightly controlled quest for redemption through perfection. Season two shunted the character to the background, turning her struggle over her feelings for Jeff into little more than fodder for jokes. This didn't bother me much at the time; I had confidence the show knew what it was doing and that it was making a conscious choice to focus on Troy, Pierce, and Shirley over its three acts (and each of those focused arcs worked very well in my mind). Yet then season three, which by my calculations should have been a Britta, Abed, and Annie season came along, and Annie still seemed too far in the background for my liking. Tonight, however, was an Annie episode as much as it was an Abed episode, and it may signify a large movement toward an Annie story in the final stretch of the season.
If the show has just given us a pretty solid Abed arc since its return (from Troy and Abed's attempts to be normal in "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" to Troy's tough love in "Contemporary Impressionists", to the Troy-Abed fight and now to a trip through Abed's subconscious), it seems tonight acted as a bit of a baton pass to Annie, who got some good moments that were reminiscent of her season one role as the heart of the group, but also came up against her own motivations for rooting for Troy and Britta.
"Virtual Systems Analysis" is not a very funny episode for the show, but then that's hardly what it is aiming for. The most obvious point of comparison is last season's "Critical Film Studies," wherein Abed had his My Dinner with Andre dinner with Jeff, which revealed his character's struggle to connect. Tonight, the problem is approached again, as Annie forces Abed to play his game by her rules That's not accurate, though, actually. Annie never takes control of the Dreamatorium, she just maneuvers Abed's control to get him to look at what drives his simulations; she forces him to confront his own anxieties, and in the process, to learn a lesson in empathy that may help him in weeks to come.
The episode walks a very careful line (that some of you may accuse me of reading too much into): on the one hand, its about Annie's confrontation of Abed's tendency to be a pushy, brittle control freak who manipulates everyone into playing their part in his own larger story, but on the other, Abed manipulates Annie, playing on her sympathies and insecurities to get her into his game, to make her play her part in their Dreamatorium session. This is a very clever move by the episode, and works incredibly well as part of one of the things Community does best: play the inherent stasis of sitcoms off as a part of the nature of gradual change. Maybe Abed learned a lesson tonight, sure. But even if he did, he learned it through exploitation of the very flaws that were being revealed to him, which means that even if his awareness has grown, true change is still a long way off.
Abed has always been an outcast due to his inherent oddities, but as Annie puts it tonight, he is usually more "cute weird" than "scary weird." Not so of late. Over the last few weeks, Abed has gotten deep in debt with impressionists, gone to war with his best friend, and ignored Britta's emotional crisis in favor of vampire kick-boxing. Over the last several episodes, Abed has showed himself to be, in a lot of ways, as selfish as Jeff, as uncompromising as Annie, and as childish as Troy used to be. In some ways this makes Abed a bit of a cipher, but that has always been the case. He can be anything the show needs him to be because he makes himself so malleable and adaptable that he almost disappears. On command, Abed can be Don Draper or Han Solo, but he can also become, and convincingly, any member of the study group, to the point that he understands them all better than he understands himself.
I don't think Community gets enough credit for how dark it is willing to go. My personal pick for greatest episode of the series (though its position is tentative), "Mixology Certification" was basically a story about the gang going out for drinks and hitting a downward spiral. The middle third of season two was an arc about how far Pierce could go into assholery before the group just snapped and Jeff physically attacked him. A lot of people loathed the Pierce arc, wondering why the show was making Pierce into an outright villain (and many have since read a lot into the feud between Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon that I think is ancillary at best to the point of the arc), but I personally found it as satisfying as it was brutally realistic. Similarly, the show has been unafraid to make Abed a dick in these last few episodes, and taking that character to a darker place, revealing the flaw at his core, makes him all the more compelling as a result.
If the Dreamatorium is run on Abed, perhaps the most brilliant thing the episode did to bring this arc to a close (I'm guessing. For all I know, there is much more to come for Abed this season) was to have Annie switch the boxes, to make the Dreamatorium run on other people. This turns the episode from a fairly staid "experimental" episode into something much more fascinating--the episode that is seemingly about Abed metaphorically removes him for much of its runtime, allowing him to impersonate the other characters while he runs Annie through his game, getting her to understand his conundrum the only was he knows how.
In this way, the episode ultimately ties Abed and Annie together in a way that floored me until I realized how clear it has been as a runner throughout this Abed arc: the two of them are constantly running scenarios, planning out the way things should go and becoming intractable when their plans are thrown off. Look back at the Annie stories of the past few weeks, as she tries to change Jeff by making him notice Kim, tries to win him over by being noble and distant during the pillow war, and finally, tries to break away from him, recognizing he is a self-destructive match, before faltering and falling back into the same pattern. This isn't a revelation the show stumbled upon in "Virtual Systems Analysis" and plays off very well--it has been there the whole time, a permutation that my personal Dreamatorium didn't run, which makes it that much closer to reality and that much more stunning a shift from the show.
I don't think that "Virtual Systems Analysis" will ever be my favorite episode of Community. Something about it feels too....clinical, to me, which makes perfect sense, considering this is an Abed episode. It's a very smart piece of television, and a brilliant capper to an arc that has been forming since the show's return. As it ends, we see that each of the character has had an experience through lunch, and that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for all of them. Or maybe that's what they're telling themselves to cover up for the fact that they're all about to sit on their balls. And that is going to hurt.
-"The duali-DEAN of humanity." I cannot get enough of Jim Rash in silly costumes. Rewatching the show over the hiatus gave me a new appreciation for The Dean, and while I always loved the montage of him in a variety of costumes in "Paradigms of Human Memory," I am truly enjoying the way that continues to play out over this stretch of episodes. Tonight, he has some self doubt, but then he goes out there and has the best conversation of his life. Good for him.
-"Three hours? I can watch the first hour of three movies!"
-"You think this is just a room where Troy and I play dinosaurs vs. riverboat gamblers?"
-"And another thing about Die Hard: two FBI Agents named Johnson?"
-"I left my wife for you when she was pregnant!" "Who do you think inseminated her?" I like to think this was the show's way of saying it could do a "Medical Soaps" episode if it wanted to.
-Still never-not-funny: Donald Glover crying. His whole truth serum breakdown was the comic highlight of the episode.
-Blazer tag: Its lazer tag in a blazer. It sounds uncomfortable...and awesome...