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Welcome to my theoretical nightmare.

It’s a question that looms among many urbanites who are either planning to start a family or have just had their first child: Do you make the move to the suburbs? Do you give up the vibrancy of city living—the restaurants, the neighborhoods, the music and culture, the progressiveness—for more space, better schools, and the sickening probability that Bennigan’s will be the best option for dinner? It’s painful to consider, but necessary, because you want to do right by your kids and that involves making some compromises.

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Though it’s only really “scary” in the abstract rather than visceral sense, “Community” has tremendous fun exploiting the fears that many city-dwellers have about suburban, hyper-conservative gated communities that house cheery Stepford types and practice an invasive brand of “family values.” For people used to the anonymity of city life, where you can go years without getting past “hello” with anyone in your building, just the thought of neighbors ringing the doorbell with casseroles in hand seems a little unnerving. This episode takes that up-close-and-personal touch to the nth degree, and contemplates a world in which the “family values” platform adopted by politicians were actually applied without respect to privacy laws. I, for one, was a little skeeved out by it.

We begin with Bobby (Superman Returns hunk of steel Brandon Routh) and Tracy (Shiri Appleby), a young urban couple looking to have a baby, but not having the resources to afford a bigger place for it. All that changes when they catch wind of The Commons, a planned community that offers the a dream home at an affordable price, so long as their application is approved and they agree to a “Personal Conduct Agreement.” Had they read the fine print—which no one really does in property closings, based on my experience—Bobby and Tracy would have discovered some alarming rules, like the fact that they’ll face foreclosure if they can’t conceive a child within six months of moving in.

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The more time they spend in the Commons, the creepier it gets. The neighbors next door seem pleasant enough, but when the husband calls his time there “the worst 12 years of my life,” he’s just kidding but not. Later, the same man makes a scene at a Christmas party that prompts the other men in the room to haul him away. The adulterous woman across the street is punished by having to wear a pig mask and getting pelted with garbage in the city square. And any sense of personal space is violated by the presence of surveillance cameras on the streets and inside the homes, with feeds broadcast on everyone’s televisions. Now that’s what you can a neighborhood watch program. (On a personal note, community leader Candice, a menacingly robotic enforcer of its values, reminded me of my last real estate agent.)

Apparently, all Fear Itself episodes are required to end with a twist, though “Community” doesn’t do much to disguise it. Tracy wants to have a baby and wants to live in a nice house with good schools, so she’s willing to make the necessary sacrifices—including selling her husband out—to stick around. And here the episode taps into a separate but related fear, this one aimed at husbands who feel hijacked into commitment by their wives. There’s no getting out of The Commons, but there are gates within gates for Bobby, and that would be true no matter where the couple lived. He ends in the episode confined to an upstairs room in a wheelchair (anyone else thinking of the Routh/Christopher Reeve comparisons again?), but isn’t that just the ordinary fear of feeling “trapped” made more literal?

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This was another strong episode for me, the best since Stuart Gordon’s grisly Week Five entry “Eater.” Director Mary Harron, best known for her brilliant adaptation of American Psycho, is the ideal choice to satirize the squeaky-clean lives of suburbanites. She doesn’t play up the horror too much, other than suggesting the grim fates of those who don’t fall in line, but she gives the whole scenario a sinister vibe that’s unlike anything we’ve seen from Fear Itself so far. I particularly like the scattered bits of deadpan humor throughout, like when the policeman informs Routh that the public pelting of an adulteress is slated to last “only for a few hours.”

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• Sorry to post this later than usual, but a Pineapple Express screening last night kept me from watching this episode until this morning.

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• A telling line at the Christmas party: “These people drink a lot.”

• “Crime is something that happens on the other side of town.”

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