Community: “Virtual Systems Analysis”
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Community: “Virtual Systems Analysis”

In season one, Annie Edison was one of my favorite characters on Community. She was smart and funny, and she was played by Alison Brie, whom I’d already liked a lot on Mad Men and was playing an entirely new character here. “Debate 109”—in which we got to see Annie being “hot”—inspired me to one of the passages I’m least proud of in my career, and, in general, I had fun with her throughout the season.

That started to shift a bit in season two. I didn’t hate the character or anything, but she was increasingly used to, as my wife puts it, “have boobs and want to fuck Jeff.” It seemed a little unfair to the character to reduce her to one third of a love triangle, but since season one, that’s increasingly been her role, because the love triangle has become one of the show’s more traditionally marketable elements, and everybody loves a good love triangle. (Well, I don’t, but I’m a renowned crank.) Annie went from being one of my favorites to, potentially, my least favorite (give or take a Chang) on any given week. Sure, Pierce was an unrelenting asshole, but at least that was a strong characterization.

A curious thing has happened in the last couple of episodes, however, and it’s something that tonight’s episode just cements: The show is reorienting Annie as the group’s beating, optimistic heart, something she played so well back in the first season. She’s still got the occasional flirtation with Jeff, but she’s facilitating the hook-up of Troy and Britta, and tonight, she proves to be about the only group member who could both break Abed and put him back together in such a way that he seems like he might push outside of his pre-established boundaries. Given how much the series uses Abed as a meta-commentary on itself and its success, it would be so easy for this last stretch of episodes—the “no one understands poor Abed!” stretch—to solely be about how soulless dullards encroach on the creativity of geniuses like Abed. Yet every time the show seems headed in this direction, it pulls up at the last possible second, and turns Abed’s fears into something else entirely. If you’re going to be a creative genius, it says, you’re going to have to reach out to somebody.

That said, I’m still not sure what to make of “Virtual Systems Analysis.” At all. I’m giving it my, “I know I liked it, but not how much” grade, and I’m hoping you guys can talk me into either outright loving it or enjoying it with reservations. It’s not the show’s funniest half-hour, but, like “Critical Film Studies” before it, it’s aiming more for serious, intense character dissection than constant laughs. So I can forgive it a few laughs, especially since it has some big moments that absolutely kill, even in the midst of the introspection. (Abed’s impression of Troy revealing everything secret about himself—played by Donald Glover—is another great piece of evidence for the fact that if you put Glover near tears, it will always be funny.) No, the more I think about my single, substantial reservation with this episode, it comes down to one thing: Abed’s kind of a dick.

This isn’t a big shift. Abed’s always been kind of a dick. The show has played it off, however, with him being sort of self-aware of this fact and modulating his behavior just enough where he could be “cute weird,” instead of “scary weird.” But in these last few episodes, his lack of ability to compromise has started to fray his connections to others. In retrospect, it should have been obvious this would eventually be the case, but it’s been sort of interesting how far the show has been willing to go with it. I’ve got a friend who now just hates the character, placing him in the same category as Pierce and Chang, characters he thinks can utterly destroy an episode or scene, and in “Systems Analysis,” I, for the first time, could sort of see where he was coming from. We’ve always known the interior of the Dreamatorium was just a black room with orange lines taped along it, but we also find out here that… there’s a closet you open to reveal a machine made out of cardboard that supposedly powers it and is run on Abed, a machine that has a very high prediction rate.

This, again, is nothing new. We’ve known for a while now that Abed has an ability to see the various permutations and problems within the group, and that he has a pretty solid rate of figuring out how these scenarios will play out. Thinking back to the Halloween episode, one of the things I didn’t like about it was that ending where we learned that Abed was the only sane one. Now, if we’d never found out which of them was sane, it could have led to us discussing this all season, so I’m glad that choice was made on that level. But it also felt a little too easy to say that Abed, the one group member who closes himself off and doesn’t engage emotionally, was the only person who was able to see things clearly.

“Virtual Systems Analysis” plays like the flipside of that joke. After we get through the initial weirdness of what actually makes the Dreamatorium run, we start to play around a bit with Abed being a Cassandra figure, who can see everything that’s coming but is unable to stop it. (Well, he could stop Troy inventing DancePants in 2019, but who would want to?) This plays out for a while, and I was all prepared to write the episode off as an interesting experiment that didn’t work, an episode that solely wanted us to say “poor Abed!” and feel bad that the dynamics of the group were shifting in ways he couldn’t quite predict.

But the episode does something fairly smart right around the time Abed collapses on the floor after Annie rearranges his engine (so that it’s fueled by other people, instead of Abed): It removes Abed from the episode entirely. We know he’s still there—playing out Annie’s desired “Hospital School” scenario—but within the scenario, he’s playing all of the other characters and refusing to give up information on where Abed really is. At first, this annoyed me quite a bit, since I was walking in with my preconceptions from the first act: Annie was going to find Abed and apologize for whatever it was she did, and he was going to escape, once again completely in the right. Instead, as Hospital School plays out (and is, I should mention, a very funny parody of medical soaps), Abed, in the guise of other people, keeps trying to distract her from talking about Abed. He tries everything, up to and including impersonating Jeff on the night he kissed Annie at the end of season one. But nothing works. She keeps looking.

It’s here that the episode becomes an episode about a tie between Annie and Abed that I didn’t see coming: They both keep running the same scenarios, looking for different results, instead of just moving on with their lives. I’ve complained a lot here about how the Jeff and Annie scenes fell into a rut very early in season two, then didn’t seem capable of getting out of that rut. Now, I’m certain the show wasn’t building to this moment from that point on, but this moment is a very nice acknowledgement of that particular problem, and a promise to move on from it. (Let’s hope. Annie’s been much more engaging in scenes with other characters this season than in scenes with Jeff.) Annie’s monologue to Abed about the similarities between them is deftly written and surprisingly sweet. You can’t know the future. You can’t even think you know it. Because once you start trying to predict things, you get almost as caught up in trying to make them come true as you do anything else. Anybody trying to predict the end of the world is inevitably trying to predict that their way of seeing things will be right, and something roughly similar is going on here. Abed foresees disaster for the group, because every future he foresees involves the group moving on from him. It’s what’s always happened to him. He’s not predicting that Troy and Britta coupling off will go poorly for them, actually; he’s predicting it will go poorly for him.

Abed can be selfish and awful, but so can anybody else in the group (even Annie). The great thing about the world is that it’s unpredictable. Even when “Virtual Systems Analysis” doesn’t work—I’m just never gonna get into this Inspector Spacetime stuff—it’s still building to a hell of a climax, one that cements a bond between two characters who’ve had their problematic moments lately. Creating these bonds is easy, but maintaining them is hard. “Virtual Systems Analysis” works best when it digs into the thorny question of what you do when you’ve got a friend who increasingly seems to be off on his own little tangent. Do you just let him drift off into space? Or do you try to bring him back, gently but firmly? Annie opts for the latter, and the scene that results—set, I should point out, in the locker Abed used to get shoved into in junior high (for extra maudlin points)—is one of the best of the season. There are still a bunch of weird things on the way there, and I think the episode is less self-evidently great than “Critical Film Studies,” but I could very easily be talked into loving it even more than I do.

We end on the group gathered around the table, at the end of their three-hour lunch. They have to get back to memorizing facts for their biology final, but they’ve all had some interesting moments on their break. Shirley realized that going to the same fast food place clear across town wasn’t really different. Pierce didn’t sit on his balls for once. Troy and Britta had a lovely time. Even the Dean had some nice conversations at the bank about his half-man/half-woman outfit. Jeff posits that maybe the sun is rising, that maybe the long night of Greendale is finally coming to an end. Pierce admits that, okay, he actually did sit on his balls. It was very painful.

And, yeah, sometimes you’ll sit on your balls. And it’ll hurt like hell. The night always comes and goes. But it’s best when you have people you love and trust there to see it through.

Stray observations:

  • Your metaphorical balls, ladies. Your metaphorical balls.
  • And, of course, Abed’s right back to being kind of a dick, when he doesn’t like the—very nice—redesign Annie does of the room he shares with Troy. Still, I enjoyed Annie’s enthusiasm at being a guest on Troy And Abed In The Morning. (And Troy talking about having an “oriental feel.”)
  • The Dean’s outfit really is so amazingly hideous that I can’t believe Jim Rash could wear it with a straight face. I thought the show was done with “Dean in a silly costume” gags last season, but, man, if it can come up with outfits this weird week to week, I’m willing to see where this is going.
  • I like that the show plays Abed letting Annie use the wrong imaginary implement to undo his imaginary shackles as a major emotional breakthrough.
  • Script credit for this episode goes to Matt Murray, who also was credited on the generally enjoyable “Advanced Gay.” I just thought I’d give you all a head start on your arguments about what this “proves” about the writers of the show. For what it’s worth, I will reiterate my claim that individual script credit on a sitcom means basically nothing, since these shows are so heavily room-written. The massive turnover in the writing staff between seasons two and three—and seasons one and two, if we’re being honest—might mean something, but since the primary showrunners have remained in place since day one, I doubt it means as much as we’d all like to think it does. Any problems Community is having this season—in your eyes or mine—are just the natural growing pains of a show in its third year.
  • Another funny episode for Chevy Chase, who sometimes works best when he has these random little asides. I particularly liked Pierce having no idea what was going on.
  • And with that, I’m going to say this grade is both entirely provisional and able to be affected by you. I drop in on the comments from time to time. Convince me this was either better or worse than it was over the weekend. I’ll change the grade (or not) on Monday. 

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