I liked "The Science of Illusion" quite a bit. I suppose this would be the part where I would tell you why, but I'm genuinely not sure why this level of weird - involving Pierce seemingly believing he's a Buddhist meteor wizard - is preferable to last week's level of weird. I guess I could say it just is and go straight to the funny quotes, but that wouldn't really be earning the ol' paycheck. So we'll talk about a couple of things I've discussed here in the past but not really gotten in to. And let's start with the fact that the show makes lots and lots of pop culture references, but it's not always necessary to have seen the work in question to laugh at them.
Here's the deal. When Pierce put on the robe and picked up the cookie wand, I had no idea it was a Cookie Crisp wizard, and despite even a passing reference to Cookie Crisp (from Starburns, I think), I didn't put two and two together. Like Troy, I grew up with Cookie Crisp having a burglar (and his dog) on the box, and I didn't know that there had been a wizard. (Wikipedia informs me the wizard was around through 1985, when I would have been alive and cognizant of breakfast cereals, but my earliest memories of the cereal - WHICH ARE QUITE VIVID, I ASSURE YOU - involve that damn burglar.) Immediately after watching the episode, I said on my Twitter feed that I didn't know just why the episode worked more for me than last week's when they both hit similar levels of oddity, and someone wrote back to say that all the episode needed was Pierce as the Cookie Crisp wizard. But did it?
I think the pop culture references on the show work because the references themselves are an added layer that makes you maybe appreciate a joke just a little more if you get them. As much as I loved the show Mystery Science Theater 3000, it's probably the most basic level of reference humor, featuring jokes that are little more than name drops of things the writers have encountered on their wanderings through the world of watching stuff. Then you have things like Family Guy or Disaster Movie, where the joke is often just a direct quote of another movie or TV show, and that's supposed to be what makes us laugh.
The best references - like the ones on Community, I'd argue - never start from the idea of, "Hey, what if we made Pierce look like the Cookie Crisp wizard?" That's a one-scene joke, and it's a scene that's probably over very quickly. But build that joke up around a series of character relationships and real emotions that play well - from Jeff's enjoyment of making fun of the people in his life to Pierce's desire to just fit in with the others in the group - and you come up with something that's funny in and of itself. It also helps that the look of the gag is really funny in and of itself. That robe is ridiculous, and the cookie wand, regardless of if you get what it's referencing, is still a damn COOKIE WAND. Community's references are already built on such solid foundations that they don't need the added reference to be funny. If you get the reference, great. If you don't, you're still laughing.
Over in the main storyline, Annie and Shirley became temporary security personnel on campus because the dean feared that things could go crazy over April Fool's Day. (And maybe I went to a sedate college, but I don't recall the day being one full of wacky tomfoolery, though I'll buy it as a TV premise.) I wasn't entirely sure whether I liked what was going on here for a while, but I really came around on it once Annie and Shirley were on the case, which involved finding out who killed a frog and dumped a body out of the window of the biology lab. Abed's role - as the "director" of the whole scenario - could have been irritating, but the script and Danny Pudi found a way to play it that made him sort of a writer surrogate. He's the guy who is always trying to turn his life into some sort of fiction, and the more the show plays to those strengths, the funnier Abed becomes.
But the episode's other half of the main story belonged to Britta, who tries to prove she's not a buzzkill by breaking into that lab to put a sombrero on a frog, the better to use it to make fun of Senor Chang. Naturally, things go wrong, and she's soon accidentally dumping bodies out of windows, but I liked the show using this moment to comment on just how far Britta wants to go to be a part of the group. In an episode that's about all of these characters changing just a bit to fit in better, Britta realizes just how little she can change, how being the "buzzkill" is sort of a part of who she is. I'm on record as thinking Britta's one of the best new characters on a sitcom to come along in a long while, and I love the way the show plays with her attempts to be goofy and funny and her general failure at the same. That last scene - where the whole gang comes together over their shared realizations of their failures - is both side-splittingly funny and strangely warm. Right now, Community's about the only show on TV that regularly pulls off that combo, and a big part of that is thanks to the show's willingness to tell weird stories that nonetheless find heartwarming things to say.\
- I actually wonder if this was the episode Dan Harmon was talking about at the Paley Festival event where he said the show was doing its version of an action movie. It sort of seems that way, at least in the main storyline, but Harmon talked at length about how expensive the episode was, and I just don't see how this one would have cost all that much. On the other hand, TV costs are often deceptive in that regard, so maybe just renting that little card Annie and Shirley rode around in was $1 million per day or something.
- "Just reminding you to keep any April Fool's pranks physically safe, politically balanced and racially accessible."
- "They allow student volunteers for campus security during times of heightened shenanigans."
- "I assume I'll fight better if I can see more, dumbass."
- "You're more of a fun vampire."
- "Did you read the hat?"
- "Britta, why waste your time envying my gift for levity when there's so much you could be doing with your natural talent for severity?"
- "Buddha arrived on a meteor!"
- "Mornin' boys. I'm Annie Edison, but people call me Psycho because I had a nervous breakdown in high school. My partner's a Christian housewife."
- "Last night, someone murdered a partially clothed animal."
- "April 1st is officially March 32nd forever."
- "That African-American police chief Abed was playing was right."
- "Oh! Colonial burn!"
- "Penis! Two penises!"
- "Of course a silly little joke ends with a dead body on the lawn. I should have known that."
- "Knock knock. Who's there? Cancer. Oh, come in. I thought it was Britta!"
- "It's not a meteor; it's a cookie wand. Me and Jeff made it because it made you look more like the Cookie Crisp wizard, which is not even a reference I get because the Cookie Crisp mascot when I was growing up wasn't a wizard. It was a burglar."