Community is at its best when it experiments with wildly inventive formats or plot concepts, making it a trademark of the series through its 65 aired episodes. ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’, hard to believe it, is near the top of that list, as left-field and meta as an episode like ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ with the Abed-centric plots of an episode like season 2′s ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.’ The conclusion of the episode isn’t as strong as the aforementioned episodes, but as always, any story that focuses on Abed is bound to be some of the weirdest – and occasionally, darkest episodes of the show.
No matter how comfortable Abed is with his personality, his shortcomings, and his abilities, it can be hard to remember that fast-talking kid from the pilot who was so excited to have someone to talk to, he tells Jeff all about everyone he knows on campus when Jeff asks what his name is. His reality is one that is carefully constructed and difficult to maintain, both for Abed, and the group of friends around him who sometimes still don’t understand the world he operates in (although as Annie shows, she might not get it all, but she’s learned enough about him to keep up).
That self-conscious, socially rejected kid is still inside him, just as the sometimes racist, desperate unaccepted child at the heart of Pierce. Yes, people change, and Community‘s third season is about the changes caring about other people bring, but it’s not always a quick change, or one that’s easy to accept. For Abed – and everyone else in the group, really – there’s an inability to truly embrace the changes the Greendale 7 are going through, because they’re not used to being so vulnerable to a group of people.
While a lot of the episode is meta-commentary by Abed and Annie on the rest of the group, through the shared virtual realities of their imagination, it’s really about something they have in common: the need to be in control of their surroundings, playing out what might happen in their lives over and over until they become depressed and disillusioned. As much as Abed knows, and as much as Annie likes to plan things, they can’t control their futures. It’s just impossible to do, and until they accept it, they’re not going to be able to enjoy the lives they are living, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s one of the season’s best scenes, and another example of how well these writers know these characters.
There are a number of impersonations sprinkled throughout the extended dreamatorium session, keeping the rest of the cast from feeling totally dis-involved from the important parts of the episode (although when they’re all back together at the end, it does feel a bit odd.) It allows for some humorous moments (the manager who doesn’t like Die Hard, Pierce being confused, every Troy phrase Abed impersonated – but it really is just a lot of character re-enforcement, with some Troy/Britta teasers sprinkled in without (though those are necessary, since it’s Annie sending them off to lunch together that is the catalyst for the 3 hours in the dreamatorium). There’s nothing wrong with it, and as long as there is some cross-dressing (or in this case, we could call it dual-dressing?) Dean action involved, it’s always worth some screen time.
But the heart of the episode of course, is about both Annie and Abed. “Virtual Systems Analysis” was a bit lighter on Abed than “Uncontrollable Christmas” was, his tough-to-stomach character moments softened a bit by one of the best Annie story lines the show has ever had. Her self-awareness has grown over the seasons, and it looks like she is really starting to take a more mature approach to her love life (I don’t think she’d be going after Vaughn if they met for the first time this season), and her explanation of her feelings about Jeff were a more layered approach than most sitcoms would bother with (but then again, this is why we love Community).
It did feel like the concept began to run out of gas towards the end, when it became clear the episode was trying to reiterate the theme of season 3: these people need each other equally, and their friendships are more important than they probably thought. It gets a little heavy handed at times, especially with the numerous angles its been explored with the Greendale 7 this season. It still was a fantastic concept, even if the visual effect wears down after constant use.
I wonder what an episode like this is to film – although I assume the cast of Community is used to showing up every week to film a different kind of comedy. We did get to see Annie and Abed do a lot of funny impersonations of the group, and while it was light on jokes, it swung for the emotional fences (as most of the less joke-intensive Community episodes do). It wasn’t the best episode of the season, but it another inventive concept that doesn’t just rest on its impressive technical laurels (editing this must’ve been a bitch!), bringing out a connection with Annie and Abed not even the most dedicated Community fans would notice.
- it’s been awhile since we saw Troy cry. “I didn’t get Inception!!!”
- the Troy and Abed in the Morning with Annie is arguably the best tag of the season. Hilarious, from Annie’s effervescent energy, to Abed’s reaction to a makeover.
- Very intelligent way for the show to address Annie’s feelings about Jeff. The writers are still leaving it open (anything can change, right?) but its nice to see her not drooling EVERY single time he walks into the room (sometimes, even I can’t help it.)
What did you think of ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’? Do you like the episodes where humor takes a backseat to character exploration? Feel free to leave your comments below!