Friday, April 20th, 2012

Community Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”

When Dan Harmon and the cast of Community spoke at a PaleyFest event in March, right before the show returned from its hiatus, they spoke about their anxieties for “Virtual Systems Analysis.” They didn’t know what the episode was until post-production, both in terms of Danny Pudi and Alison Brie not being able to visualize their special effects scenes, and what the general story would end up looking like. Harmon said it would either be the best or worst thing in TV history. Their nervousness makes sense now after seeing it: it’s an episode that makes little sense out of context (kind of like Inception, which Abed-as-Troy really doesn’t get), and that’s what separates Community from nearly every other sitcom, for better or worse, on now — and why its ratings will never really improve. We’ve grown accustomed to being able to turn on the TV, see Seinfeld or Friends or The Big Bang Theory on, and pleasantly relax into an episode. Most sitcoms are designed with this in mind; you should be able to join at any part, and be able to enjoy it just as much as someone who’s been watching the entire time.

Imagine doing the same thing with “Virtual Systems Analysis.” You’d be fucking lost within 15 seconds. “Why is this guy with Asperger’s morphing into his friends and why are there two Trudy’s from Mad Men and why does a hospital have buttered noodles and why is that bald fellow from the Oscars dressed up as a half-man/half-woman and WHAT THE HECK IS A DREAMATORIUM?” Even I got tripped up a few times. But was it a successful episode? Depends on what you wanted out of it.

My biggest criticism with “Virtual Systems Analysis” (and why I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to) was its lack of a centerpiece scene. Think back to the show’s other high-concept, character-dissecting episodes, in particular “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Critical Film Studies” — the former had Troy and Jeff’s timelines, with the troll and everyone finally being able to dance and sing to “Roxanne,” respectively, and the latter had Abed revealing to Jeff that he set up an elaborate My Dinner with Andre homage because he was worried that Jeff had been slowly slipping away from the group. “Virtual Systems Analysis” doesn't have singular, defining moment. Or, it tried to, but wasn’t totally successful. The emotional climax is when Chang arrests Abed “for being Abed” and throws him into a locker, which is, as we find out, is where Abed spent much of his time during high school. He’s literally chained to the walls and silently terrified of the day where everyone in the study group, especially Troy, realizes he’s not special, that he’s just a guy who plays make believe to escape his own life. Annie comes in to convince him otherwise, but there’s something off about the scene and the episode as a whole. Not only was the chain metaphor a little weak (I get that our mind would likely resort to such clichés, otherwise everyone would be a brilliant novelist, but on top of the locker stuff, it was a bit too much), but "Virtual" just wasn't that funny.

Community has gotten away with “less funny” episodes before, like the aforementioned “Critical Film Studies,” but there was an odd disconnect in “Virtual.” I appreciated what the show was trying to do, and I respected the heck out of it for trying, but…I’m not sure how much I enjoyed the episode, as much as I admired it. (Call it the Dinosaur Jr. principle.) A part of that may be because I'm at Maximum Abed/Inspector Spacetime Capacity. “Virtual” would have played better had it been separated from “Pillows and Blankets” and “Digital Exploration…” and “Urban Matrimony…” and basically every episode of Community since its return. This is deserving of an entire article in itself, but: is Abed worth the trouble? Let’s face it: he’s kind of a dick and definitely a control freak. Sometimes I wonder about his role in the group, other than as someone who gets pop culture references. Danny Pudi is a good enough actor that Abed can get away with a lot and still seem lovable, but I really want Community to spend some time away from him, like they have with Chang. He’s more effective in smaller doses. That being said, it was nice episode for Annie. She’s arguably the most “important” member of the group and the one who’s trying to keep everyone together (I imagine her as being someone who Likes everything on Facebook), from the Troy and Britta pairing to her and Jeff, obviously. She’s also the only one who Pierce genuinely likes and Shirley sees as the least dissimilar.

There weresome other nice scenes sprinkled throughout – like in the Dean’s bank story and Leonard peeping and Jeff as the Doctor and why does the waiter hate Die Hard so much – but how much you liked “Virtual Systems Analysis” as a whole depends on whether you want comedy from your sitcoms, or whether you want to be impressed. Community has often brilliantly pulled off both in the same episode, which is why I believe it’s the best sitcom on TV, but “Virtual” was not one of those occasions, especially considering how great Parks was later that evening. At least next week’s the Law & Order episode!

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  • http://Ringgaard.tumblr.com AlexRinggaard

    I kind of disagree with you. I thought this was a great episode, and at first I thought how great it was that they were back to form, since the last couple of episodes haven't really hit home for me. But when I thought it through, I guess it is not "back to form" but it was a really great episode.

    I'm also not sure what you mean by defnining moment, if you don't think that this episode had one, because the way I saw it, they used it to change Abed's world view or at least his view of his own role in the group. Before he kind of took the commanding role that he has in his relationship with Troy and applied it to the entire group, but Annie made him realize that that isn't needed.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I liked the episode, but for the stuff that wasn't part of the main storyline, like hating Die Hard because two FBI agents are named Johnson, or Shirley "beating the matrix" by not driving across town to go to a different "same fast food place."

    Season 1 I liked everbody.
    Season 2 Pierce was sociopath.
    Season 3, I still like everybody, but with each passing episode I realize I would never hang out with these people.

  • Nick S

    I'm so fucking tired of this show. The characters aren't growing, I only laughed at the dean jokes last night (AND OOOOO DID I LAUGH) and Abed has officially gone "full retard."

    I quit.

  • Erik Archer@facebook

    This episode will age well. I thought Troy not getting inception was the centerpiece scene. Community will eventually be regarded in the same light as Mr. Show and Arrested Development.

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    I really enjoyed the episode, even though I can see why some people might not be as enthusiastic about it. I've seen a lot of reviewers bring up "critical film studies" but this ep reminded me most of the claymation christmas special. It had to be a little weirder because we were seeing things from Abed's perspective. I'll concede that this one was definitely light on laugh out loud moments, but I had a huge grin on my face for the ending with Annie punching the blorgons/Abed. Which is good enough for me. Although it was really blatant this time with the writer just announcing before that scene on the spaceship that an emotional climax just wasn't enough. So, yeah I think this remain a pretty decisive episode. It happens from time to time.

  • Francis Rizzo III@twitter

    I'd say it was the least funny episode of the show's entire run, because it definitely felt like A Very Special Episode. Considering how the show has examined every TV trope and cliche in some way, it only makes sense that it would tackle this concept at some point, and who other than Abed would fit that concept without ruining the character?

    I thought it was slickly made though, and is hopefully a turning point, where Abed is no longer the autistic kid, and is now just the quirky, pop culture-obsessed kid.

  • Kenneth Toilet Hole

    I felt like the allgedly missing "centerpiece scene" was when Abed "broke" and crumpled to the floor in a heap, which set off Annie's sincere voyage into the essence of his being (and hers).

  • Michael Albright@facebook

    The episode will probably be a great one in the scheme of the entire series, but as a single episode I waited a week to watch it's not really one of their best. Most of the other episodes this season have been good (and the Subway episode and Pillows vs. Blankets hit it out of the park), but really in Abed's character arc this episode makes some degree of sense. Something happened to him between "Regional Holiday Music," when he was thoroughly invested in the group's happiness, and "Contemporary Impressionists," in which he was completely oblivious to them, and I kind of want to know what. What I'm guessing is that the seeds for this episode were planted in the Goodfellas episode and "Physical Education," where Abed's relative ability to understand the group were originally addressed; in the Goodfellas episode he admitted the pop culture references were a thing he used to identify with people because he couldn't do so with regards to their emotions, and in the latter he showed the beginning of a seed of being able to observe character traits in his friends that translated to fictional characters he understood better. It kind of explains why his interpretations of the other characters were so broad, and why his interpretation of their motivations was so simplistic: Annie hooked Troy and Britta up so that Britta would no longer be her competition for Jeff — while she was aware of that and saw it as a benefit, it wasn't her real motivation, because she has layers that Abed doesn't really understand. They all do.

    That said, Abed's re-enacting of Troy and Britta's date and of the kiss were just plain hilarious (as was the fact that the waiter appears to be every bit as shallow as Abed thinks he is), and it's nice to see NBC has given this show a budget — I'm guessing they took the hint from the cartoon.

  • Luap Namgreb@twitter

    "I" "like" "the" "way" "you" "put" "quotes" "around" each "word". "You know what I mean?" I don't g"e"t your article in the same way, yo"u" "do"n't get this episode and most "pe"ople "are"n't or (are)"n't" getting this "series". Anyway, great use of punctuation to make emphasis: on "what"?

  • B Westof@twitter

    I liked it, but this episode is Exhibit A in support of Chevy's voicemail message.