‘Community’ – ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’: I have a Dreamatorium

Senior Television Writer
04.19.12 108 Comments

AP Photo/NBC

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I cry during “About a Boy: The Soundtrack”…

Towards the end of the “Community” panel at PaleyFest, Dan Harmon talked about upcoming episodes, and when the basic plot of “Virtual Systems Analysis” was discussed, there was a palpable sense of both anxiety and enthusiasm about it from everyone. Alison Brie admitted that she and Danny Pudi had no idea what it was about as they were making it, producer Garrett Donovan said even the writers didn’t figure the story out until they got into editing, and Harmon suggested it would either be the best or worst thing in the history of television – which, he also admitted, was what he was saying in the run-up to last year’s “My Dinner with Andre” homage.

And watching the episode, it was easy to understand both the excitement and the nerves relating to it. Given how special-effects dependent it was, you can see why Brie and Pudi might have felt adrift filming so much of it with a green screen, with other actors playing their characters playing other characters, etc.

Most of all, what you can see is the connection to “Critical Film Studies,” not just in it being such a weird episode even by the standards of this very weird show, but being one that did some heavy psychoanalysis on Abed, and on a fellow study grouper who really wants to be his friend but can’t quite figure out how to do it – and who sees in Abed’s emotional limitations a reflection of some of his/her own.

Rather than a riff on a cult-y ’80s art film, this one played out as one of those “Star Trek” episodes where the holodeck runs amok for an hour. I mostly liked the visual device, but with some reservations. On the one hand, the show has a tradition of letting us occasionally see the world the way Abed does (see also the stop-motion Christmas episode). In his mind, the Dreamatorium works, and the episode is all about getting Annie to understand how Abed thinks and what his fears are. So even if she’s not seeing Greendale turned into a hospital, Abed turning into Jeff, etc., she’s trying to see what Abed sees, and this is it. But on the other hand, I think we could have used a little more real world perspective in this one, not only to give us a better sense of what the experience is like for Annie, but to give Pudi and Brie more of an opportunity to impersonate their co-stars. They’re both good at it, and it would have added some humor to an episode that, even more than “Critical Film Studies,” was light on jokes. Maybe not so much as to undercut the emotional stakes, but enough to remind us that A)Annie isn’t really on Enterprise-D, and B)even when “Community” goes dark and introspective, it’s still a comedy at heart.

Still, if you look at the episode as a character study and not a joke-delivery system, I liked what it had to say about Abed and Annie. We know a lot about his Asperger-y limitations to begin with, and we know that he’s aware of them as well. But the idea that he’d fear losing his friends even after nearly three years of closeness and adventures was pretty heartbreaking. I also hadn’t recognized the parallels between Abed’s control freak tendencies and Annie’s before now, but they’re very clearly there.(*)

(*) Though the same story could have been told about Britta or Shirley, who also try to take charge of the study group at times, to varying degrees of success. Really, the only member of the group who seems completely satisfied being a follower and not a leader is Troy, and even he’s had to take charge on a couple of occasions, as recently as last week.

Though Annie is now living with Abed (and Troy), the show hasn’t spent a lot of time on the two of them and no one else over the years. There’s been brief, occasional sexual tension between them, but only when Abed has been playing a part (Don Draper, Han Solo), and any character-building stories they get individually tend to match them with study group members with whom they don’t have as much in common. (Jeff and Shirley have made good foils for both of them.) But they connected this week by recognizing they’re more alike than we or Annie might have realized.

Ultimately, this was a strange episode, and not an especially funny one, but I like when “Community” tries different things, and I like all these characters well enough to be fine with the occasional episode devoted mainly to psychoanalysis, with the occasional Blorgon attack mixed in, even if it didn’t have a spellbinding sequence like Abed’s “Cougar Town” monologue the last time they tried something this strange.

Some other thoughts:

* I’m not surprised, but still glad, to see some follow-up up on the Troy/Britta material from last week (and which the show has been teasing for a couple of years now).

* Because the main story was so odd and introspective, most of the laughs had to come with running gags in the margins, like the restaurant manager turning out to genuinely hate the “Die Hard” films, Shirley’s clean bathroom fixation or Pelton beating himself up over his half-drag costume. (“Come on, Craig: get your life together!”)

* Though there were some good gags within the Dreamatorium fantasy, particularly anytime Annie threw herself into the role-playing. (“Who do you think inseminated her?!?!”)

* The tag featured an excellent “Troy and Abed in the Morning,” with Annie not only breaking Abed for a second time in the episode, but Troy holding up the “we’re experiencing technical difficulties” picture and humming music. We’ve heard it enough times by now that I can comfortably state that, like Donald Glover crying (see his “Inception” confession), Danny Pudi squealing in pain and confusion is never not funny.

What did everybody else think?

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