Remote Nomad: The “Community” continuum

Oct. 21, 2011, 12:31 a.m.
Remote Nomad: The "Community" continuum
Courtesy of NBC

People tend to group all “Community” episodes into one of two categories: high-energy genre parodies, like the paintball episodes or the stop-motion Christmas episode, and the regular old sitcom episodes. And while it doesn’t hurt to group the episodes this way, I think it’s a gross oversimplification. What makes “Community” one of my favorite shows on television is the way it manages to cover such a broad spectrum of stories. While last year’s critically-acclaimed bottle episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” was high-concept, is it really the same kind of episode as the paintball episodes? Even “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” is a fairly straight genre parody, but it uses the genre in a much more grounded, emotional way than, say, the “Apollo 11” parody in “Basic Rocket Science.”

In my opinion, the best episodes of the series are the ones that find a comfortable place in the middle of that continuum; they’re guided by some high concept, but motivated by the characters themselves. It’s not that the genre parodies aren’t fun, but it’s easy for the sound of paintballs firing to drown out the characters themselves. That’s why when I talk about my favorite episodes, season one’s paintball episode “Modern Warfare” doesn’t make it onto the list as it does for many other “Community” fans. I’ll take episodes like “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which parodied sitcom clip episodes, and last week’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” any day.

Remote Nomad: The "Community" continuum
Courtesy of NBC

Now, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the type of episode that falls squarely in the middle of the “Community” continuum. It’s high-concept–a single dice roll at Troy and Abed’s housewarming party causes the timeline to fragment into seven different stories–but it’s more about how the different combinations of characters interact in each of the split timelines than the split itself. In fact, it blends the elements together so well that many people consider it the best episode of “Community.” While I don’t necessarily agree, I’m not sure I could point to an episode that’s done a better job of showing the group’s dynamic.

It was also exciting to see the beginning of the power struggle show runner Dan Harmon has been promising between Troy and Jeff. People have been making a lot of the fact that the “darkest, most terrible” timeline (the one where Pierce died, Jeff lost an arm and Britta got a wash-away blue streak in her hair) happened when Troy wasn’t with the study group; only a few have been pointing out that it was his over-eagerness that kicked off the traumatic chain reaction. It’s easy to criticize Jeff for being too aloof, but everyone just sees Troy’s childish traits as adorable. Troy’s birthday episode last year was a big step for him, but even if he insists he’s a man, is he really ready to be a leader?

The real leader that emerged was Abed. After all, he’s the one who gave the Jeff-style speech at the end of the episode. And when he was gone, the entire group devolved in to squabbling. I’m not sure if it’s a misdirection, or maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it seems like there’s something there.

Of course, on top of all of this analysis of story and characterization, the episode is just a lot of fun. The recurring jokes that characterize a lot of “Community’s” humor play out perfectly across multiple timelines, and the ridiculous depths to which the dark timeline sink are probably the funniest escalation since the conspiracy theories episode last year.

While I didn’t have as many problems with the first few episodes of the season as most people did, I’ll admit that it stuck a bit too close to the sitcom end of the spectrum (Chang’s noir story being the exception). If they can continue to write episodes that balance the two sides of the show this well, then there’s no telling where the study group will go this year.

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