For too many people, the easiest thing to do is assume everything sucks. Becoming passionate about something—really loving it—requires putting yourself on the line. It also requires that at some point, you might be let down by that which you love. We all disappoint each other, and nobody’s perfect. We say these things, but too often, we don’t really believe them. Deep down, we’re hoping we’ll find someone or something that never lets us down, that will forgive us every time we let them down. To a real degree, that’s probably why many people lose themselves in the pop culture of their childhood: When you were a kid, disappointment was barely a word in your vocabulary, and if you loved something, you loved it without reservation. Now, you’re an adult. Even if you love something, there’s often a detachment, a sense that if you pull away just far enough, you can stay enamored without falling too far. Then when the time comes, you can cut bait and head home, secure in your ability to keep from being hurt too much.
It’s telling that the most significant moment in “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the best episode of Community since “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons” and very likely one of the 10 best episodes the show will ever make, is somebody saying no. Community is often seen as a show that’s all ironic detachment, all sneer and standing back and making fun of the cool kids. But Community has always been a show about the wonderful things that can happen when you start to open up and let other people into your life, not when you push them out, in addition to being a show about how co-dependency can get people trapped in harmful feedback loops. If last week’s episode explored the latter half of that equation, this week’s episode explored the former half of the thesis. This is a show that’s all about what happens when the person who says no isn’t there, and everybody’s allowed to go on with what they’d normally be doing.
At first, Britta bursting out with the first word in The Police’s “Roxanne” seems like a simple gag to orient us in the ever-changing timeline. Jeff will always hit his head on the ceiling fan, Pierce will always launch into a story about having sex with Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom, and Britta will always (except for the time she goes to get the pizza) try to sing “Roxanne.” Because of how the show’s been constructed, we assume the joke’s on Britta, who’s insane enthusiasm for things can be as weird and off-putting as anything else. (Watch how she tells Abed his Indiana Jones diorama is sexy or how she races out from the bathroom to get pizza.) Also, she’s high, and we know that network TV loves to laugh at people on the drugs. But the joke is actually on Jeff, who shuts her down every time except the last, when he has to go get the pizza. And when that happens, Shirley joins in with the sing-along, Annie gets up to dance (and Abed invites her to move in), and the group joins each other in an infectious love-in. It’s the kind of goofy group-hug that used to end many season-one episodes, but it’s different this time: Jeff’s on the outside, eating pizza and smiling, unsure just how far he can commit to these people. Also on the outside? Pierce, who’s pitching a troll figurine out a window. (Piece and Jeff are also linked by being the only two people who do something in every single timeline, even when they have to go get pizza.)
There’s not really a story to “Remedial Chaos Theory.” If I were to tease out its structure, I guess I would say it’s a story about seeing the different things that happen when you remove one person from the group. It’s about teasing out the group’s dynamics at the start of the third season, after 50-plus episodes of television. The basic story is that someone has to go get pizza, they’re selected randomly (except the one time they’re not, which becomes the “real” timeline), and the ramifications of that act of random chance play out with the other characters. The story ends the same way every time: Somebody comes back with the pizza, but everything has changed. One time, the apartment’s on fire. One time, everybody’s gotten into a squabbling match. One time, Troy and Britta have a moment of real connection. One time, everybody gets up to dance.
The problem with a lot of “alternate timelines” episodes is that they try too hard to be clever. For me, the gold standard for this kind of episode is the Malcolm In The Middle half-hour “Bowling,” which works not because it focuses on all of the crazy things that happen in each timeline but because it examines Malcolm’s relationship with both of his parents. Where Rashomon-style episodes are best at showing us how the character see each other, these types of episodes are best at showing us just how they relate to each other, and how that differs as situations change. Since the basis of all situation comedy is putting a group of characters together in a space and seeing what funny things happen, this is essentially a potent distillation of the whole form.
While this may be reading too much into the episode (and when have I ever done that with this show?!), I think how the situation changes each time people leave subtly suggests their role within the group as a whole. It’s difficult to suggest Annie’s role, since her time away is mainly set up to let us know the various things that will be happening in each iteration of the timeline, but I guess I’d argue her role is caretaker (since Jeff tells her she’d be such a good nurse), even as she’s lousy at taking care of herself. Shirley, meanwhile, is the mother, but in a more nuanced way than this role is usually expressed on these ensemble comedy shows. Being the mother means she’s often just as angry with everyone as she is trying to guide them and nurture them. They refuse to take responsibility, and they mock her ideas for betterment, even as they secretly really like what she’s doing. (The mini-pies, after all, taste just like regular pies.)
Pierce is the sand in the oyster, the guy who keeps people rubbing up against each other in ways that push they away from each other, ultimately. Britta’s the one who works to negate the influence of someone like Pierce (or Jeff), always looking for ways to bring everyone together (and deciding to marry the pizza guy on a whim—I loved Gillian Jacobs’ careful kissing of each of his fingers). Troy prevents chaos; he’s the stable one who is a better “father” figure for the group than Jeff, even if nobody really realizes it yet. Abed’s the pressure valve. Without him there to dissect how the group works as a unit of pop culture, just as much as it works as a group of human beings, it’s far too easy for everybody to be at each other’s throats, even if it initially might seem like they’re going to be emotionally honest with each other. And Jeff is the flipside of Britta or roughly the same as Pierce: the guy who’s there to snidely mock everyone but secretly wishes he could let go and just be a part of what’s happening. Remove Jeff from the group, and it’s just a happy group of friends. Keep him there, and there’s always the temptation to stand at an ironic distance to point and laugh.
All of this is a lot of philosophical foofaraw that ignores one simple fact: This episode is really fucking funny. The writers use the setup of multiple timelines to setup jokes that the punchlines won’t arrive for several minutes, such as when we learn that Troy’s scared of the troll, but we don’t see the real punchline until he arrives back at the apartment bearing pizza and sees the troll sitting, surrounded by a ring of fire. (He screams, of course, like you do.) Similarly, we get callbacks in other timelines to things like the bowl of olives by the toilet or Jeff apparently getting everyone to swear not to try Shirley’s pies because baking things isn’t an identity (See what I mean?). We actually get something like a whole story about Pierce’s jealousy about Troy moving out to move in with Abed that plays out across multiple timelines, as well as a runner about everybody being concerned for Annie (who will apparently move in with Troy and Abed now). And, of course, we have the scenes before the Yahtzee game, where Troy talks about how a good host won’t discuss the “Negro problem” and the long, ridiculously funny tag that involves everybody on Earth-Troy in a dark, depressed place and deciding it’s time to take over the real timeline. (Back in reality, Abed is startled, as if he just sensed their malicious plotting.)
The episode must have been murder to write, direct, and edit, and it’s amazing just how crystal clear and easy to follow it is. It’s a storyline that fits seven different timelines (plus an opening and closing sequence) into just over 20 minutes, plus makes time for the credits. Malcolm only had to deal with two. Granted, the show doesn’t cut back and forth between timelines (which would make all of this a mish-mash), as some stories like this do, but it’s still impressive just how well everybody involved is able to set up jokes that pay off much later or just how nicely everything coalesces at the end. This is a reminder that when this show is at peak capacity—as it hasn’t been the last three weeks, even I’ll admit—it can do things that no other show on television can do.
But none of it would work without that final sequence. Abed’s speech is perhaps a bit much—though I liked Britta interrupting herself with “Let him finish”—but the final sequence where we see just what happens when Jeff is removed from the group is silly, moving, and revelatory. I think when Community is at its best, it hits all three of those marks, and that can only mean this is one of its best episodes yet. For those of you who worried the show was done or worried the mostly new writing staff had killed some of its momentum or even worried that it would never do a concept episode again, this one was for you. Who’s doubting the show can cross the ambition of season two with the heart of season one now?
- Okay, I’m sure at least one of you will be doubting the show’s capable of it still. Please inform me.
- In the spirit of the times, alternate grades for alternate timelines:
- F—“I dunno. I laughed a bunch, but I just kinda hate The Police, and if they had to pick a Police song, it couldn’t be ‘Synchronicity II’? Also, dancing? Gross. Can’t they just hate each other?” (In this timeline, Archduke Franz Ferdinand lived on, and you are all forced to call me "The Emperor.")
- B—“Community attempts to argue that too much of the world is random chance, but I just can’t abide by that reading of the world. The world is random, yes, but it’s also affected by our own choices, by our decisions. Better, then, to pick a story where there was some sort of seven-sided decision and play out the timelines from there, not leave everything to chance.” (In this timeline, Zack Handlen is a badger.)
- A+—“If I ever see a better episode of television, I will have led a very happy life indeed.” (Also, ha ha, this timeline doesn’t exist! There is no A+! I just made you sad!)
- I hope NBC puts up a version of that little troll doll in its online store. I would very much like to torment my wife… er… own one.
- Gillian Jacobs physical comedy moment of the week: Her little dance during her “pizza, pizza” chant was ridiculous and awesome.
- Donald Glover line-reading of the week: Okay, this isn’t a line reading at all. The way he ate that candy cigarette was both charming and hilarious.
- Danny Pudi moment of the week: The quick close-up on his face when he’s smiling for Britta and Annie after they arrive was just great.
- And for all you shippers out there, we got a Jeff and Annie kiss, a moment where she said he reminded her of her dad (and he criticized her bubble gum lipstick) that didn’t feel forced like the one two weeks ago, and a neat way to erase it all from the “real” timeline.
- Favorite “Eartha Kitt” line? Mine was probably how Pierce kept trying to insist the whole thing came up “organically.”
- I do hope that Community got money from the Yahtzee people so if we all have to save the show, we can do so by purchasing board games and sending them to NBC.
- My screener didn’t have the VFX of the timeline map. How were they?
- "Wait. There are other timelines?"