The Wildest Episode Yet of the Smartest Show on TV

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 20 2012 12:12 PM

Community Goes Mental

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Alison Brie as Annie and Joel McHale as Jeff on last night's Community.

Neil Jacobs/NBC

Tonight, we embark on Community’s wildest episode yet, a workout that will take its place next to “Remedial Chaos Theory” and, yes, even “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Our star is Abed, a gnomic mystery and the embodiment of Community’s highest ideals—a bottomless vessel of pop-culture references and tropes, all dispensed with a curious detachment. (We still don’t understand what was going on in Community’s sentimental last episode, which was called “Origins of Vampire Mythology.” But we do know this—that Abed didn’t like it either.)

Tonight, what is either the fabric of the universe or Abed’s psyche is torn asunder after Abed’s best pal, Troy, is spirited off by comely Britta for …

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… Well, just lunch. But you know where that can lead.

The emotional and cosmological chaos that results will drive most viewers out of their minds. It’s Tron meets Shutter Island meets Inception meets … Gray’s Anatomy? (Or E.R., or House, or Chicago Hope—one of those medical dramas.)

Let’s call it “Breaking Abed, or, Dream a Little Dreamatorium of Me.”

Abed is broken, and the breaker is Annie. Annie’s role in the group is to be innocent and wide-eyed, all while emanating a budding sexuality designed to keep the guys off kilter. (For the filmmakers’ purposes, she can also be profitably dressed in provocative outfits, or used in running sequences—all of it, we are given to understand, done not to exploit that sexuality, but to, um, make a sophisticated point about how television devalues it.) Right now, she’s living with Abed and Troy, but for various reasons both are impervious to her buttoned-up voluptuousness.

As the show opens, we see Annie, in what appears to be a move of utter innocence, maneuver to have Troy and their classmate Britta go get lunch together. Over the last few episodes, we’ve seen Troy and Britta exchanging meaningful glances—and early in this episode they’re making goo-goo eyes again. Now remember, in Community, those tender looks aren’t genuine. They are markers that the characters are being moved around by the show’s creators according to pre-determined sitcom requirements—specifically, the one decreeing that all attractive heterosexual characters on the same show have to eventually hook up.

Annie doesn’t know that, but Abed does.

Anyway, with the rest of the study group out having lunch in one place or another, Abed and Annie end up back in the apartment to mess around in the Dreamatorium, a virtual-reality simulator that Abed built in the second bedroom. There are lines of yellow tape on the walls to create the feel of a Tron-like computer grid, and the window is covered with cardboard. The machinery of the operation, we see, is made from a laundry hamper, a plastic soft-drink bottle, and more cardboard. Despite these materials, the room is able to effortlessly produce some impressive visuals.

The rest of the episode takes place here. (There are no secondary plots tonight.) Abed values the Dreamatorium for its ability to play “Inspector Spacetime,” his and Troy’s favorite TV show. Tonight however, Abed’s mad at Annie for sluicing Troy away from him, and Annie’s mad at Abed for, well, basically for being Abed. Annie starts messing with the Dreamatorium controls, and insists that they inhabit a hospital scenario. Once there, Annie, playing the role of a no-nonsense hospital administrator somewhat based on House’s Cutty (and possibly someone from other medical dramas I don’t watch) has to solve the mystery of where Abed is in the hospital, with Abed basically impeding her.

Here’s where it gets complicated. In this VR world, the other characters of the show appear, but it’s important to note that the Dreamatorium, whatever its whimsicality, operates under certain specific rules. For the rest of the show, we see the other characters—Troy, Britta, Jeff the handsome disgraced lawyer, and so on—but for all of it we’re still in the Dreamatorium and Annie and Abed are the only people there. The show makes it clear that Abed is the guy inhabiting the other characters in the various scenarios that play out. But since Abed’s angry, he’s using the other characters for his own agenda. So when we see Troy or Jeff talking, the words we hear that Abed is putting into their mouths.

Got that so far? As with many things in Community, it takes longer to explain this than it does to watch it play out onscreen. And once the setup is created, some serious weirdness transpires.

This isn’t a love triangle, it’s a love pentagon. 1) Abed and Troy have a remarkable closeness, but one that’s been strained in recent episodes, culminating in the all-out war between them in the episode “Pillows and Blankets.” 2) Today Troy and Britta are out for a lunch à deux. (In the first season, incidentally, the pair kissed.) 3) The show’s biggest flirtation this season has been between Jeff and Annie. “We’re going to sleep together!” the pair crooned in the song that opened the season. (In the show’s cosmology, Annie is still just young enough to make this relationship slightly distasteful.) 4) Jeff and Britta, of course, have the longest relationship on the show (he was trying to get into her pants in the very first episode, and the pair even had a friends-with-benefits thing going on for a while.) 5) Jeff and Abed have also shared a certain closeness since the first episode. 6) Annie had a crush on Troy in the first season.

And so on.

The sequences in which Abed inhabits Jeff are the most pointed. He seems to be taunting Annie, somewhat cruelly. He even magicks them out to a warm spring night—the same place Jeff and Annie kissed at the end of Season 1. Annie, remembering that she’s talking to Abed not Jeff, is appalled. Later, during a sequence in which Britta and Troy are present, Abed, inhabiting them each in turn, has them kiss, quite unappetizingly.

He’s almost demonic. But over the course of the show Abed’s distemper eases. As he and Annie go from set to set, whooshing in and out of the VR worlds the Dreamatorium manufactures, Annie-as-Cutty keeps trying to solve the mystery. Gently, the show reminds us that Abed’s affliction isn’t the easiest thing to live with. You might even say it’s a prison.

The show has a lot to say about relationships and mental illness, but I liked how the Dreamatorium is a stand in for the TV-industrial complex. When Annie points out to Abed that his Dreamatorium engine is made out of cardboard, Abed basically tells her she’s dumb. “You see it that way because it’s calibrated to a specific level of brain function.” It’s a trenchant tribute to the complexities that go on in a lot of TV sitcoms. The engines do seem mundane: the recurring sets, the recurring characters, the recurring tropes. Not often, but sometimes, wondrous things come out of them.

Also:

Leaving aside a Chevy Chase sitting-on-my-balls line and an utterly magnificent appearance by Dean Pelton, this isn’t really a sitcom episode with jokes. There’s one deathless monologue from Abed-inhabiting-Troy, a wild confessional riff after he’s been injected with truth serum: “I can see why women find Clive Owen attractive to the point where I might just as well be attracted to him.”

Annie gives us a compact discourse on the unreliability of science fiction: “Look at 2001. Did we get a ‘space odyssey’? No! We got snowboarding in the Olympics and over-validated Carson Daly.”

And enough with the meaningful glances, already.

Further reading: Our analysis of the previous episode of Community, "Origins of Vampire Mythology"; a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or just read all of Slate’s Community coverage.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.