“It’s almost too conceptual. But…I love it.”
Abed’s line from a few episodes ago could pretty much sum up how many of us feel about Community. And especially last night’s “meta meta” installment, “Virtual Systems Analysis,” a half-hour of white-hot coruscating genius that more than once dipped its proverbial toes in the obscure. At one point during our live chat on EW.com I even wrote, “This is all some Jungian deconstruction of the latent desire to annihilate the Self, right?” For all its silliness—pillow fights, blanket forts, Dreamatoria, “Daybreak”—Community has become one of the most profound shows on TV. So much more than just a clever hodgepodge of pop culture references. To quoteTroy, “There are so many levels!”
On one such level “Virtual Systems Analysis” was a master class in high concept that required Community’s actors to impersonate Abed and Annie impersonating their own characters. Community seemed to be entering the end stages of deconstructing itself. But on a deeper level, this high concept set-up revealed an essential existential truth: we can’t ever truly know another person. We can come close, sure. But we can never perceive objective reality, as it were, because the very act of perception changes reality. All we know of the people around us, even our most cherished love ones, is filtered by our personal histories, innate preferences and prejudices, desires and aversions. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to so very much more than just electron behavior. It tells us that, in the end, we all truly do stand alone.
That’s why “Virtual Systems Analysis” is fundamentally different from “Remedial Chaos Theory.” While that masterpiece of characterization prismatically dissected the entire study group, “Virtual Systems Analysis” was really just about the craggy fissures and folds of two singular psyches, Abed’s and Annie’s, as revealed through a makeshift game of mental chess. Did Charlie Kaufman write this episode?
It all began with a mnemonic device: “Kevin, please come over for gay sex.” (Line of the Night #7, Courtesy of Pierce Hawthorne) Many of you probably agree with our Community live chat commenter Ipyngo when he said, “Wish I had that in high school biology!” Yes, the study group was cramming for Professor Kane’s bio exam. Despite their continual presence in the study room, they never actually seem to get anything done. “Definitely maybe” because they have such fun together.
NEXT: Professor Kane has the flu. Maybe he’s gone back to Baltimore? And Annie plays Cupid for Britta and Troy.
But sometimes Fate smiles upon you, and it did this day for the Greendale Seven. Dean Pelton, dressed as half-man/half-woman to represent the Jungian Duali-Dean of Man and sticking his leg out in a repeat of Jim Rash’s Angelina parody at the Oscars, bore some delirious news: Professor Kane had the flu! And the exam was pushed back a day! That meant they had three whole hours just to themselves. What to do with this heady thing called freedom? Pierce suggested they could watch the first halves of three movies. Britta could sample the tortillas made from micro-financed flour at Señor Kevin’s and Troy could confront the manager for his unfortunate dislike of Die Hard. Oh, and they could have a date together! That meant Abed could finally show Annie how to play in the Dreamatorium.
Since Abed would be powering the Dreamatorium without Troy’s assistance, the most he could conjure was the HMS Spacetime 12 from Inspector Spacetime’s worst season ever. Hardly the best vessel to protect a universe full of innocent unremarkables. Nor was Annie’s Constable Reggie stand-in, Constable Geneva, particularly equipped to fight Blorgon scum. (Line of the Night #6, Courtesy of Abed/Inspector Spacetime: “It’s Blorgon with an ‘r.’ ‘Blogon’ means ‘thank you’ in Blorgon.”) But put Annie in a hospital administration simulation, and she’d be all over that.
The main problem, though, was that Abed was upset at Annie for disturbing the fabric of the group by playing Cupid for Britta and Troy. Since he’s incapable of confronting emotion head-on without elaborate distancing devices, he used the Dreamatorium to examine hypothetical timelines and show Annie how her efforts were doomed. Just goes to show how this is so much more than a place to play “Dinosaurs Vs. Riverboat Gamblers.” I don’t know what Abed was worried about, because Troy—having completely forgotten about the recent rift that engulfed Greendale in a swirl of feathers—called Annie to find out how Abed was doing: “I worry about him when I’m not around.” That was really thoughtful of him, especially since he had to have been spending that time crafting a rebuttal to a man who had the nerve to say “Another thing I hate about Die Hard: two FBI agents named Johnson?”
NEXT: Annie “breaks” Abed and finds that her Grey’s Anatomy fantasy isn’t as McSteamy as she’d like.
Annie was fed up by Abed’s total inability to relate to other people. So she switched out the Abed filter with the “other people” filter in the Dreamatorium’s engine to give him the ability to transfer his consciousness into other people, an esoteric skill known as “empathy.” She nearly upset the delicate balance of his psyche, though, because the moment she subbed in that “other people” filter, Abed started into his air raid-like cry and collapsed to the ground. JakShowtime from our Community live chat anticipated Annie’s response: “She broke Abed!”
Abed quickly recovered, though, but took the empathy concept to its absolute limit: the complete dissolution of his identity in the dynamics of the group. He could become anybody else now, but this thing called “Abed” would no longer exist. Now his only function would be to give his friends what they want: fulfilling their fantasies and stroking their egos. So, to please Annie, he immediately became Jeff as a doctor in a Grey’s Anatomy hospital administration fantasy. (Line of the Night #5, Courtesy of Abed Nadir’s take on Jeff Winger’s take on Dr. McDreamy: “It’s a sexy, emotional school where doctors save lives and make love, often simultaneously. Our stories? Ripped from the headlines. Our passions? Unbridled. Our cafeteria? Meh…”) And he’d be able to love her the way she needed to be loved regardless of their two-foot height disparity. To be honest, though, if Abed wanted true authenticity in his Grey’s Anatomy fantasy he should have included more OneRepublic on the soundtrack.
Annie couldn’t find Abed, so she had to play along with Dr. Winger, who might be able to track him down in the hospital records. Dr. Winger was indignant because he left his pregnant wife to be with her. Administrator Annie fired back, “Who do you think inseminated her?” Touche! As God was her witness she’d have his stethoscope if he didn’t tell her what she wanted. So he led her to Dr. Perry, who was fooling around with Dr. Barnes. And since this was Abed’s fantasy, “fooling around” meant that Britta and Troy were just lightly petting each other and air kissing. When Annie pressed “Troy” about the whereabouts of Abed, Troy fired back, with the chill-inducing dread of Danny Torrance, “There’s no one here by that name.” (Line of the Night #4, Courtesy of Abed Nadir’s take on Troy Barnes’ take on Dr. McDreamy: “I was raised on the mean streets of Harlem. I’m not scared of you.”) To get answers, Annie injected him with sodium pentothal. A flurry of revelations spewed forth about Troy, among them that Abed’s name is in the hospital school’s files; Troy cried during About a Boy (and while listening to its soundtrack); he doesn’t wash his hands before surgery; he uses comparisons to Hitler to win arguments online; he can see why women find Clive Owen attractive to the point he might as well find him attractive too; he’s turned on by women wearing pajamas rather than lingerie because he wants them to be comfortable; and he didn’t get Inception. That makes two of us, Abed/Troy. That makes two of us.
NEXT: An aside about why we should all have an inception to forget about Inception.
Aside: Forget Inception. How Community reveals the path high-concept storytelling should take.
I could also have titled this aside “What Makes Community One of the Most Formally Daring Shows on TV Today.” But the Inception comparison makes the most sense because I think it illuminates how truly unique Community is. For the most part, we live in the Era of Plot. A film like Inception uses its high-concept framework to spin off an intricately knotted yarn. It literally is a “conceptual” film, in which the elaboration of its ground rules and the dispensing of exposition is the entire point of the movie. The characters are no more than variables in an equation, abstract cogs who facilitate the deployment of a plot located within a tightly controlled generic formula: in the case of Inception, the heist drama. (Because we all know people’s dreams look like Michael Mann movies.) Yeah, you’ll say that Inception is all about the working out of the Leonardo DiCaprio character’s grief, but it seems to me that the loss of his wife is just a perfunctory attempt at adding an emotional maturity to the plot that is otherwise absent. The film does astonishingly little to explore the implications of Leo still being visited by his wife in his dreams. If Hitchcock had gotten ahold of that material, he would have fully exploited—and rightly so—that character’s oh-so-obvious necrophilia. But sexuality doesn’t have a place in Christopher Nolan’s world.
Community, as typified by “Virtual Systems Analysis” or “Remedial Chaos Theory,” goes in a completely different direction. It’s not interested in plot for plot’s sake. It’s entirely concerned with exploring its characters: not just what makes them tick, but how they perceive themselves and each other; how they sublimate and express their anxieties and insecurities; what they want even if they themselves don’t know what they want. The Dreamatorium, far from being a portal to escapism, is actually a mirror held up to all who enter it. It merely reveals desires that are already there.
So does “Virtual Systems Analysis” even have a plot? To me it seems like a Being John Malkovich-style consideration of individual identity and how our very concept of identity has evolved, as the boundary between private and public becomes ever more porous. But it’s also a metaphor for exactly what art—whether a film, TV show, novel, album, or videogame—should do: make you see the world through different sets of eyes. There’s a word for that…oh, yeah, empathy. That’s so much more relevant than depicting grief via the metaphor of a runaway train.
Speaking of runaway trains, that’s exactly where heart transplant patient Pierce Hawthorne imagined he was.
NEXT: Annie finally has her “magic moment” with Jeff, and discovers that she and Abed are a lot more similar than she ever realized.
Annie manipulated “Jeff” into giving her Abed’s files with the promise of making love to him. Abed/Jeff transported her back to the night they first kissed, which must have been her own memory. Or Leonard was watching from the bushes, because he doesn’t have cable, and told Abed about it. In the file, Annie’s words came back to haunt her as she saw that she had diagnosed psych patient Abed as a “control freak with no empathy. People bend over backwards to cater to him.” Upset by her own lack of empathy, Annie decided she needed to be alone. So Abed decided to play her and ask Annie why she wanted to ruin her magic moment with Jeff. Annie finally came to the realization that she’s not in love with Jeff, just the idea of being loved, and she’ll never be unloved if she can even make an insensitive cad like Jeff love her. Because of that logic, she keeps running the same scenario over and over, hoping for a different result. Meaning that she herself is like Abed, and the moment she started saying words like “Star Wars” and “cool cool cool” Chang popped up and arrested her for being Abed. Wow, suddenly this episode revealed deep, deep self-loathing on the part of Mr. Nadir.
Once she had followed her own advice and utilized empathy—to literally become Abed—Annie found herself standing before the real Abed, chained up inside a metaphorical locker, the nexus of all his doubt and insecurity. In Line of the Night #3, Annie explained that Abed’s theorizing in the Dreamatorium is like science fiction: illuminating, yes, but far from prophetic. “Look at 2001. Did we have a space odyssey? No. We got snowboarding in the Olympics and we overvalidated Carson Daly.” (Take that, The Voice.) Annie helped Abed see that life can’t be lived according to a script. And he was convinced. At least this would help him cut down on his Dreamatorium time by 18 hours a week.
NEXT: Why Community really is in the best timeline.
So Abed stopped worrying and gave Annie the Dreamatorium experience she was truly looking for as a wannabe Constable. They found themselves back on the bridge of the HMS Spacetime 12 battling, you guessed it, Blorgons. (Line of the Night #2, Courtesy of Inspector Spacetime: “Blorgons in this sector? Well, this mission has gone pear-shaped indeed.”) This may be the first time I’ve ever heard the word “tachyons” uttered on a non-Star Trek TV show.
It seems like Greendale is now firmly in the best timeline. Abed’s become a more integrated human being; Britta is for once on the verge of a fulfilling romance; Troy told the manager of Señor Kevin’s that he should be ashamed of himself for not liking Die Hard; and Pierce even avoided sitting on his balls. Actually, it turns out that he did sit on his balls, and it hurt so bad he saw eagles. Or maybe Eagles. Because somehow Glenn Frey and groin injuries go together.
As if to show how well everything is now going, Troy and Abed even aired a new episode of their morning show, Troy and Abed In the Morning. I can’t think of a better way to start your morning right. Annie was on as a party planner who suggested taking pillows from your bedroom and putting them on the floor to give your party a Moroccan feel. (Line of the Night #1, Courtesy of Troy Barnes: “Ooh, a taste of the Orient.”) She then revealed that she had given their Casa Trobed blanket fort a makeover. Abed immediately launched into his air-raid cry and Troy had to soothe him by humming “Daybreak.” Ah, the fragility of happiness. Personally, though, I’m still upset that Troy and Abed don’t seem to have their Naboo starfighter sheets any longer.
What did you think of “Virtual Systems Analysis”? Do you think Britta and Troy’s romance has any future? Has Annie put her feelings for Jeff aside? Can we expect Abed to become, [gulp], normal? And what would you say to someone who doesn’t like Die Hard?