The Smartest Show on TV Becomes a Video Game

Slate's Culture Blog
May 18 2012 10:01 AM

Community Gets Pixelated

Community20a
A still from Community (NBC)

“The cinema is truth 24 times a second,” Godard famously said (sort of). Video games may or may not be truth on a grid of many tens of thousands of pixels. On last night’s Community—that is to say, the first of last night’s three episodes of Community—life became TV, which is sort of like the movies; TV then became a video game; and that video game, finally, became suspiciously metaphorical for life.

And it was all about death. Sort of.

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In Variety a few years ago, James Cameron disputed Godard’s “cinema is the truth” line, arguing instead that movies aren’t the truth, but are rather created for the camera. The remark provides a great deal of insight into Cameron, who, plainly, has no sense of metaphor (or irony, for that matter). Godard reveled in the multiplicity of meanings that are coiled in such aperçus. A photograph captures reality, so it must be truth. But of course the photographer (or filmmaker or video game-maker) can use the medium to distort this “truth.” Even so, since the result inarguably exists as well, and is thus evidence of some sort of reality, that lack of truth is truth, too. Similarly, actors don’t, by definition, represent truth—but some find their own truth, and their quest for truth is its own truth, in a sense. Even on a sitcom.

All of which you could cite to make the argument that cinema (or a videogame, or a sitcom) is more truthful than life.

Anyway, we got all of that last night (I swear) on Community. Godard also said that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun, and we got that, too. (The girl, for the record, is a binary concoction, but the gun is real.)

The episode was another triumph of conception and execution. Also sound cues.

Pierce and the group go to visit the former assistant to Pierce’s late father, who, you will recall, was an antediluvian quack with a violent fixation on racial genetics. (Jeff killed him, sort of, earlier this season.) The old man has left Pierce with a devious challenge: Pierce and his friends must play an antiquated video game in which they will vie for his inheritance.

The great bulk of the remainder of the show is animation—a highly pixelated, 1980s-era, two-dimensional video game, with hopping avatars, arbitrary landscapes, bridges, drops, strange challenges, and random attack creatures. Including dogs that try to hump you.

I am not an expert in this corner of the popular culture, so I will have missed what I’m sure was a raft of video-industry in-jokes. The name of the episode, for example, is “Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne” (sic: Pierce’s last name is Hawthorne), which I’m sure is an oblique reference to something. The object of the game—which, remember, is drawn out of Pierce’s dad’s race-baiting—is described thusly: “You unlock the castle with the white crystal of discipline, which you must free from the black caverns.”

Whatever allusions I’ve missed here, I can tell you that the result is a mind-blowing concoction, so dense with plot twists, fast dialog, background jokes in the game landscape, and teeming metaphors that it makes your head hurt.

“This game is more complex than you can imagine,” says Pierce’s father’s assistant. Abed agrees: “This game is incredible.”

Pierce’s father designed it to pit Pierce against his friends in the study group. They are supposed to fight him, inside the video game, for his inheritance. One of the best jokes of the show is that Pierce hasn’t the faintest idea of what to do inside the game, so he’s always off to the side, banging against a wall, or stuck in a hole. (Pierce’s father, though, wouldn’t have known he would end up like this.) The group assures him they wouldn’t take advantage of the offer anyway. Among other things, it wouldn’t be a challenge. “I mean, look at you,” says Abed.

Instead, the group battles the father’s former assistant, who is black and, it turns out, Pierce’s half-brother. One of the overarching intentions of the episode (which gets a little lost in the video game stuff) is to provide a more sympathetic background for Pierce—some of the stuff that made him the unhappy slug he is. Whether this was designed by Community creator Dan Harmon as a peace offering to or a dig at Chevy Chase—who plays Pierce and has been recently involved in some public spats with Harmon—isn’t clear. But after Pierce’s father gets one last run around the track to try to humiliate him again, Pierce ends up handling the issue well in the end.

The effort put into the video-game animation is extraordinary. After the group deals with some early trials, like those humping dogs, they arrive at a small town, and there inflict chaos. Shirley and Annie, who don’t know what’s going on, accidentally set an innkeeper on fire, and then gamely try to put it out with the first tool that comes to hand, which is unfortunately an ax. This becomes first blood for Shirley, who doesn’t look back. In the meantime, Troy is balancing bottles on the head of a bartender.

As for Abed, he thrives in this new environment, and immediately finds love with a well put-together collection of pixels. At certain moments, he touches her, which produces a remarkable list of her personality assets and odd elements of intimacy. “She has only three moves that you activate with basic patterns of stimulus,” he says admiringly. “I’ve never felt this way before.”

Now you know what the rest of us have been going through, Abed.

Here’s where the show’s meditation on life comes in. Some characters, like Pierce, are completely unequipped because they don’t understand the game, or how it works, and probably don’t have the evolved brain to cope with it even if they did. This is, in a way, how Abed, who suffers from Asperger’s, goes through life in the real world. Annie and Shirley are thoughtless and stupid, and create a great deal of intentional carnage, just as people like Britta and Jeff do in real life. Abed is freed of the mystifying social demands that reality requires of him, and so he flourishes. He finds love, happiness, and great success in a world that doesn’t require traditional social cues—a world in which, by contrast, people respond and act in accordance with a set of strict, if varied, protocols.

There’s also a pretty funny strip-poker joke. The group goes through a quick series of locations near the end that illustrate more of Pierce’s dad’s unhealthy genetic interests (including a Valley of Laziness illustrated with a sombrero). The “black caverns” are populated by “jive turkeys.” And then there’s Gay Island, which is shaped like an ejaculating penis. “You did great in there, Jeff,” Pierce says.

Jeff, to Britta, in one particularly weird room: “This place is twenty cat turds and a Pixies poster away from being your apartment.”

Britta, at another point: “I assume nothing, because I’m not racist.”

Last night was Community’s last of the season. Two more episodes were broadcast later in the evening. This one was so weird I think all NBC figured it could do was throw it on on the same evening as the two-part finale and hope no one would notice. We’ll have an analysis of the finale up shortly.

Further reading: An analysis of last week’s episode, “Curriculum Unavailable”; 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. More at www.hitsville.org.