“App Development And Condiments” reminds me of one of those movies or novels that tries to be a satire of some aspect of American life, then ends up pulling in every single possible other thing it can think of. For instance, do you remember that movie American Dreamz? (You probably don’t, because nobody saw it, but it is literally all I can think of at this moment.) It was the kind of movie that had one good idea somewhere, and then a bunch of other ideas piled on top of it, and, hey, we can get a lot of big stars to appear, so why not? And eventually, the finished product had so much going on that you couldn’t tell what the original impetus for making the movie was in the first place. Author Tom Wolfe has this problem from time to time, too, which is only compounded by the fact that he writes a book maybe once a decade (and keeps trying to catch Bonfire Of The Vanities, but that’s a completely different essay). The point is that it’s easy for the core to get lost in something like this, because everything else becomes so flashy.
“App Development” is nowhere near as messy as any of those, but some of the same principle applies. There are a lot of big ideas and weird notions flying around in this one. Some of it is wildly funny. Some of it is impressively original. Some of it has a lot to say about social media culture and the ways we try to make ourselves look better on Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet in general. And some of it is just a mess. It was probably the weakest episode of the season, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t keep coming back to its stronger bits time and again, because they were some of the stronger moments of social commentary the show has ever done. In its own way, it reminded me of the similarly messy but similarly unexpectedly brilliant “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror.
Community is not a show that likes to pull its social satire out of the “theoretical” range. It’s not really The Simpsons, where if there’s a new trend in society, you can expect to see the show do an episode about it. Its social commentary is mostly relegated to some of its jokes and the occasional B-story. But “App Development” takes as its central idea an app called MeowMeowBeenz that allows everybody on campus to rate each other from a scale of one to five. By placing an objective number on everything, Greendale’s campus quickly breaks down into some sort of social caste system, with Shirley and the Fives holding court in their futuristic palace and the Ones eventually being tossed out into a terrifying dystopia. (The Threes wear grey, so as to stay right where they are, safely in the middle.)
Now, obviously, this is an episode that wants to make fun of futuristic dystopia movies just as much as it wants to mock social media trends, and it’s agreeably silly at doing so. (I particularly liked the futuristic dance sequence in the Fives’ base after Jeff was allowed to join their ranks following his stand-up routine.) It’s also, belatedly, about the idea that revolutionaries almost inevitably replace the system they long to overthrow with something that can be just as—if not more so—oppressive, because people are people and have a tendency to overcorrect for past errors (and become corrupted by power).
The tropes that Community is playing around with, though, have been around for ages. Think, for instance of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with its Eloi and Morlocks, to see a very early version of this idea, though, admittedly, one that didn’t involve Mitchell Hurwitz as a party animal named Koogler. The idea behind this kind of story is almost always to say that if you think the futuristic society is bad, you should look around yourself, man, because it’s just what’s already happening! So by extending the idea of social media “likes” and “favs” into the real-world sphere, Community is mostly just making fun of that long-standing tradition by making it even more obvious than usual. The show is never less than diligent in digging into the things it’s aping, and that was the case here, with its willingness to come up with a conceit that would give everything an extra layer of faux-gravitas.
And yet I found it all kinda meaningful! As I said above, I don’t think this episode really worked, on a pure plot and character level (it kind of introduced that feud between Jeff and Shirley just for the sake of having it as a character foundation for the rest of the episode), but I liked a lot of what it had to say. When we place ourselves out there on the Internet, on social media and in comments sections and maybe even in overwritten reviews of TV comedies, we’re not really placing “ourselves” out there. We’re placing the version of ourselves that we want the world to see, the version that’s cooler or smarter or funnier than the real human being making those posts. We are, in some sense, reducing ourselves to fictional characters, less susceptible to pain or anger, at least until people needle at us, and we act as if that needling is directly attacking our core selves, instead of just some projection we’ve made to get more popular online. And that can turn destructive! The version of myself who writes these reviews is very different from the version who posts on Twitter, and both of those guys are nothing like the real me, who has insecurities and doubts and fears that the Internet doesn’t want to hear about. Yet the wish to be liked (or “liked”) is all-pervasive. I would gladly wear a party hat if you guys would give me some upvotes.
Or, put another way, think of these comments, and how so many of you used to freak out at the notion of downvoting (before Disqus took away the ability to see how many people had downvoted you—which I think was the right call). Or think of maybe when you make a post on Twitter, and nobody interacts with it, or when you say something on Tumblr, and nobody reblogs it, or, heaven forfend, when you post a cat picture on Facebook, and nobody cares. None of us wants to feel like we are all alone in the universe, calling out to nobody in particular. And the Internet has made it that much easier to find communities of people we feel like we belong with. But it’s also made it that much easier to hide the pieces of ourselves we don’t really like from those people, when even the act of sharing your deepest, darkest secrets can be a kind of performance art. There are both good and bad sides to this, but when somebody breaks the compact—when they don’t notice you or downvote you without saying why or just generally behave like assholes—it makes it that much harder to react without going Vesuvius all over the place.
“App Development” attempts to boil all of that down into a 22-minute episode of a TV comedy, and if it takes a few narrative shortcuts along the way (like having Shirley not be invited to a dinner we’re only just now finding out about), well, I ultimately don’t mind, because it got me to think about some of this stuff. By and large, pop culture has had a hard time talking about the effects of the Internet on our day-to-day lives, because so much of it happens in a context where we’re all endlessly typing to each other. (Notice, for instance, just how quickly TV shows and movies latched on to Skype, because it was a way to depict online interaction visually.) But Community has always been at its best when using the language of pop culture to dramatize complicated emotional territory. “App Development” bites off way more than it can chew—like why did Hickey change his mind about MeowMeowBeenz so quickly?—but I was glad to have it, simply for talking about some of this stuff.
- I actually (surprise, surprise) found Britta’s story arc to be the most interesting and best told here. People will only listen to her when she has mustard on her face. She argues that she doesn’t need to have that mustard there for them to listen to her, because her points are valid. But she finally caves in to popular demand, and people start listening to her, which is right when things get out of hand for her. Even the slightest capitulation makes you a part of the machine you’re trying to tear down.
- Mitch Hurwitz does a fine, fine job as Koogler, the party-loving Five who gets a movie trailer in the tag. He also gets one of the episode’s best lines when Britta and her gang tear down the sheets around the Five hive, when he asks, “Oh, that comes down?”
- Speaking of laughs, this episode felt a little light on them to me, but I am less likely to laugh at the big, conceptual stunts outside of saying, “Oh, that was clever.”
- When surrounded by the Threes in their grey outfits, Jeff feels like a Starburst commercial is about to break out. (Okay, I also laughed at this. And at him saying, “Women are objects!”)
- When it came to the other guest stars, it felt like some of them were barely even there to register. That was a complaint plenty of other critics had about the season’s sixth episode, but it didn’t really bother me there. Here, I can’t say it bothered me, per se, but it was one of those situations where a familiar face became a bit distracting, because they didn’t seem to have a concrete reason to be there.
- I would not be surprised in the least if this episode was edited down quite a bit from something much longer. It felt like it was making some crazy jumps of story logic all over the place. If there’s a producer’s cut, I would gladly see it.
- The Dean would ask that we all just pretend that none of this happened in the next few days, because we’re all probably pretty embarrassed about it by now.