Episode 120: The Science of Illusion

Community Season One, Episode Twenty Review by Todd VanDerWerff


The Science Of Illusion

One of the most common complaints from Community fans who think the show has lost a little something in the last year or so is that it will never again be as good as it was in season one, particularly late season one, when things really got cracking. This school of thought holds, basically, that "Modern Warfare" was great and much of what followed has been great, but the show never again attained the pure, whimsical sense it had in these late season one episodes, when it was content to just be a really, really good sitcom, not try to change the medium of television. It's interesting to watch "The Science Of Illusion" now, because to watch it is to return to that time when the show was content with what it was and not yet bursting off in all directions.

And yet, this is an episode that offers plenty of intriguing signposts that point toward where the show would go, particularly in the Annie and Shirley plotline.

Let's start with some of the things that don't work for me. The scene where Annie chases after Jeff down the alley and ends up spraying pepper spray in her own face feels a little too wacky for my tastes. I like the idea of the gag, and I like the way Abed feeds her and Shirley their lines to start the scene, but the whole thing is so overtly slapstick-y that it's hard to really get a bead on it. (I think a big part of the problem is the music, which is very, very omnipresent throughout this episode, in the grand tradition of single-camera sitcoms trying to find a way to tell you to laugh via their soundscapes.) I'm also not a big fan of the direction, which feels curiously flat throughout, particularly in Dean Pelton's office.

But this episode deserves to be in the long list of near-great Community episodes for one reason: It's the one where the writers finally and beyond all shadow of a doubt proved they knew how to make Britta funny. Now that she's everybody's favorite character, it's easy to forget this, but back in season one, people hated Britta. Hated, hated, HATED her. (I never did, but that's because I'm awesome.) She was seen as the character the show was trying to force on us, while the Jeff and Britta pairing was seen as forced. Instead of trying to keep up with the character as conceived, though, the show steered into what everybody already thought of her and made her (in a phrase one of you coined, and I wish I could remember who, since Sepinwall and I use it all the time) a sitcom character who was bad at being a sitcom character. The writers also realized Gillian Jacobs had a real gift for physical comedy.

Really, this is an episode with great physical comedy moments for all the women of the ensemble. Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown are very funny as the bad cop-bad cop duo at the center of the A-story (and Danny Pudi is nicely understated as someone watching their "movie"). But it's Jacobs who really sells this one, with some great gags about what Britta thinks is funny, the terrific moment in the lab, and her photo of her cat in a necktie. He's formal!

I'm not AS big a fan of the Pierce-as-Cookie-Crisp-wizard bit as I was back when this first aired (at least I think, as I haven't gone back to read my review), but there are several solid laughs in it as well. This is a really solid episode, from a time when the show was hitting a really great stride.

Grade: B+

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-459717439 (page 150)


  • Loki100


    This episode is one of my all time favorites. In fact, when we did our top 30 lists, I was the person who placed this episode highest on their list (at #11). I think, like Todd indicated, that this is the transitional episode. This is the episode that shifted from season one to what would be the rest of this season and season two. The A plot of Shirley and Annie as cops is incredibly season two. It's broad, but very deeply based on the characters and their insecurities.

    Meanwhile Britta's plot is very season one. That's a character study based around Britta attempting to fit in with the group more. All the way from "Spanish 101" Community had been knocking Britta off her high horse. At first it was Pierce thinking that she was somehow hideously ugly and Annie thought she wasn't likable, then Shirley couldn't talk to her in the bathroom, and then everyone started ragging on her. Britta might be strong enough to take it, but she's not that strong, she's not Juno, homeslice. So she winds up attempting a practical joke to prove once and for all that she is a fun person, and hopefully people will like her.

    This is also is the episode that gave us one of her best lines ever, "My joke is going to cause a sea of laughter and your going to drown in it." Gillian sells the hell out of it.

  • Nice work, Todd. Your Insight-to-Words Ratio sabermetric is appropriately kickass for a first rate professional.

    In particular, the comparison between the first season and everything since (and how fans were before some of us were fans) is interesting. We were just discussing in regards to some other late S1 eps how naturally they wove together A, B and C plots so they wern't burdensome and so the campus-world felt big and developed on all sides, and there were no "Ta-da! look how cleverly we dovetailed this" endings, ala Seinfeld ("Were you conditioned to mock the form of your own damn show, Sein-field?" was the Wise Lunchlady's biting remark). The fact that Britta's April Foolishness triggers Annie & Shirley's Adventures in Copland isn't a very memorable trick, but that's in part cause it's written it so seamlessly, and the actors' energy is so natural that it sells the hi-jinks. (Although, as per the review, some of the physical humor is a bit much in spite of them.)

    I'm fully in the camp of S2, conceptual highs and dark, developed backstories. But the easygoing charms of S1 have their own verisimilitude.

    Also, it's great to have the Word of Todd on Britta's development. I remember reading some of the shit commenters were saying about her in S1 and it's a fascinating comparison to the way we on this board regard her now as the holy grail of comic characters. The fact that she had to earn it probably has something to do with that. The flip side of that coin is how psyched everyone got for Annie after she kissed Jeff in "Debate" and how cleverly the writers held that as an ace up their sleeve and teased it very subtly up till the finale (When Annie in "Second Language" said she was going for kind of a Professor thing, I think steam came out of my ears, like, "Oh, they're NOT going to…"). Now everyone hates Jeff/Annie*, but such is the way of TV romances…as soon as they break through the surface, they begin to wilt.

    * By everyone I apparently just meant me and a bunch of other previously stated opinions that maybe I imagined?

  • I know this is probably more of a thing that should be discussed in a new thread, but I really don't get the Jeff/Annie hate.

  •  That's because so many of the posters here are jealous of Jeff and want to keep Annie for themselves.

  • Loki100

    OFFENSE! That's rude. Some of us are jealous of Annie and want to keep Jeff (and his sexy, sexy sunglasses) for ourselves. I'm gonna go dance.

  • Look, I know that Jeff will eventually see the light and know who truly loves him. Annie can go with Stephen77 , I don't care…


  • Loki100

    It's a Parks and Recreation reference. During "The Fight" Leslie and Ann keep saying "No offense, but…" until Ann says, "Offense! That's rude! I'm gonna go dance." Which has now become my go to phrase for when I take mock offense…

  • I'm okay with this.

  • I'd say the main reason is they dragged it out too long and purposely tried to emphasize the wrongness of it so often. Plus that irritating tease-that-went-nowhere joke at the end of "Asian Population Studies."

    MAGIC TABLE had the best theory, but it was something like: Too many of Annie's plots were focused on her hot-and-cold flirtation with Jeff. It made her less funny and less sympathetic as a character.

    Not to take away from the highlights that were "Conspiracy Theories" and much of S1. But their romance was too often epitomized by Annie's "Horror Fiction" story, which did a hilarious job of satirizing the selfishness at the heart of their lust.

  • Despite all that, it doesn't really bug me at all. I can identify a few reasons why:

    1) It doesn't strike me as something that can be wrapped up in a neat, tidy bow. Even though they go well together (it's called chemistry, and Jeff has it with everyone), we're still talking about an age difference of 15+ years. Even the other members of the group would be slightly weirded out by that, let alone non-groupers. That means that a long, slow build is appropriate from a character perspective, if not a storytelling perspective.

    2) The characters aren't ready for a real relationship. Jeff still needs to open up more, and Annie still needs to mature emotionally. Annie's Horror Story struck me as proof of both of those-Jeff needs fixing, but Annie is still fixated on the Jeff/Britta thing and reacts by messily devouring Jeff. Not exactly a mature response to the situation. Since both characters need to change before they can truly decide what to do (whether it is act on their attraction or remain just friends), stretching things out makes sense.

    3) I'm a big softie. Will they/won't they stuff doesn't get under my skin the way it does most other people. That's the way real life works. The buildup can take a long time, but you stick with it if you think the payoff will be worthwhile.

  •  While I can see how 1. can be a problem for some people (doesn't really bother me, because Alison Brie is so clearly not 19), 2. and 3. seem more like reasons for the relationship to continue. Not to end in some sort of cheesy "hey, those two really are soulmates" thing, but just to see how these two interact as they mature and change.

  • Annie's 21 now.

  • Semi-bored torontonian regarding #1, I meant in the show's universe, not in reality. I know that if I was 35 and a 20 year old and I had that kind of attraction, I would SERIOUSLY slow play it and hope that it goes away at some point. I don't think any viewers would be morally outraged, but if the writers made Jeff and Annie a couple without putting them through some major paces and a good long bit of "will they/won't they", then it would have to be dealt with on the show. That is the kind of thing that would cloud the air for several episodes at least, and glossing over it would threaten the reality that the show has established. Even in the weird world of Greendale, Jeff and Annie hooking up quickly and everyone glossing over it would be unusual.

  • Everybody hates Jeff/Annie? I sure don't. Their dramatic bits may wear a little thin on occasion, but they are still one hell of a comedic duo; see Annie's "Horror Fiction" story or "Teach Me To Understand Christmas".

  • "I'm….lying?"

    I was trying to use a shorthand for the zillion conversations about it in the comments sections of earlier S3 episodes. But I guess everyone's ready to revisit those conversations. I don't remember anyone sticking up for it at the time.

  • Unregistered Guy Named Eric Oh, I'd agree that it wasn't that good in the early parts of S3, but as far as I'm concerned RCT, Horror Fiction and Regional Holiday Music redeemed J/A.

  • I agree about Horror Fiction and RHM but I was a little "meh" about the interaction throughout RCT. It was the weakest part of the episode for me. However, I'd love to hear what you liked it about.

  • I agree Stephen77 that the RCT interactions with them in the kitchen was a little 'meh' compared to the greatness we got from exploring Troy-Pierce, Britta-Troy, Shirley-Britta, and even Jeff-Troy. 

  • Stephen77 I enjoyed the further exploration of Jeff's character, that he actually seems to have serious feelings for Annie, and was able to articulate that for the first time, and I thought that the scene in the bathroom was indeed very sweet. It wasn't anything ground-shattering, but I liked that the two had a nice moment without angst or drama.

  • Barnitosupreme


  • That does it. We are through the looking glass.

  •  YAY TODD!!!
    huh, i never thought that the single camera soundtrack was their way of creating the effect of the laugh track but now that you have said it it makes perfect sense.  Which is of course a very movie thing to do, use the soundtrack to trigger emotional responses, so it is weird that tv sitcoms would have had to wait for the single camera renaissance to really see the effect of this. 
    I am a pretty big fan of this episode, it is one of my favorite season 1 episodes because it just brings the funny.  But i really love Abed's role in this episode.  He is the mvp here (though Britta is great too) but i loved seeing Abed feeding lines to people and them just going along with it until Dean Pelton pushes back and Abed takes his place as the no-nonsense captain.  Just a fantastic scene and reminiscent of one of my favorite scenes from So i Married An Axe Murderer. 
    I agree that Annie's run into the pepper spray seemed a little broad and out of character for her but i loved seeing her and shirley get really into their roles and their competition to break out of their usual character traits. 
    Finally the cookie crisp plotline may not be that great but the sight of Pierce in the full outfit?  magnificent.

  • I don't necessarily think that the pepper spray run was out of character. It fits in with Annie trying to change the way that others perceive her, when the truth is they kind of do perceive her in the right way. In this episode in particular, she wants to be seen as a bad-ass, as a grown up (this arc pops up throughout season 1, stretching back to Politics of Human Sexuality and Debate 109, culminating at the season's end).

    Despite that, even though she may present herself as the young woman who has let her hair down and is learning how to use her looks to manipulate others, she's still the frazzled, overachieving, slightly neurotic 18 year old who is comfortable with being uncomfortable. The pepper spray scene encapuslates this perfectly. Annie wants to take the initiative in solving the crime and goes to somewhat ridiculous lengths to catch a suspect; running, leaping, yelling, and pepper spraying (Annie presenting herself as a grown up). However, she has no idea how to wield that personality and ends up with a bad case of self-inflicted friendly fire (the group's perception of Annie as a young girl proving to be correct). As time goes on, that paradigm would begin to shift more towards Annie's way of thinking, but that scene does a good job of demonstrating the awkward transitional phase that Annie was in the midst of at this point in the show.

  •  You are right about her rebelling about her perceptions but even so it seems too stupid.  More than being out of character for Annie though, i think it is out of character for the show and that is probably the bigger reason i have never found that scene funny

  • SpongyandBruised

    I think this may be the most metatextual event in human history.

  • I think that'd be if he a) reviewed his own review or b) left a comment on one of our reviews complaining that it was too wordy or digressive.

  • Awesome review! The fact that this actually happened is wrinkling my brain.

    I'm a big fan of "Science of Illusion", overall; it's absolutely hilarious, and as you observe, finally sets Britta up as "the worst".

    Plus, Abed as Danny Glover is just priceless.

  • Agitating my sciatica!

  • one of my favorite moments from the show is when annie slams jeff's head into the table. it's so unexpected the first time it happens (because seriously, who would take it that far?) and no one there comments on it except jeff, and his befuddlement throughout the rest of the scene seems to stem from this strange acceptance of blatant cruelty toward him. 

    i wish there were a word for expressing my pleasure in viewing his pain.

  •  I like the how Shirley is threatening to cut him with a pizza slicer.

  • The whole array of kitchen "torture implements" was a fantastic detail.


  • Here's what I see: chili pepper flakes, lemon squeezer, meat tenderizer, parmesan grater, turkey baster, some sort of whisk (?), a bottle of vanilla extract, electric turkey carving knife, a potpourri bag (?).

  • I'm not seeing any of Shirley's pepper jack in there. You know you can use pepper jack in just about everything. Just crumble some pepper jack up and toss it in a salad. You can melt some pepper jack for a pepper jack dip. You can make anything with pepper jack. *sassy voice* I KNOW YOU GONNA USE SOME PEPPER JACK.

  • I love Annie's revelation that she did it to feel like an adult ([through sobs]: Like Shirley!) even more. Because the hallmark of maturity is, of course, slamming someone's head on a table, a sentiment borne out byJeff's reaction.

  • Loki100

    She'll grab you by the back of yo' head and slam it through a jukebox!

  • Yeah, the absurdity of the situation is really brought home by that comment. It's one of the things that sticks with me from that episode.

  •  Acceptance of blatant cruelty is a great lesson that sitcoms teach us.

  • I don't have much to add to what's already been so well-said by all of you about the significance of this episode in the show's evolution and in various characters' arcs.  I will say that watching it recently I was so impressed by how many great character moments there were even in the first study room table scene before the wacky hijinks got rolling.  Jeff saying "reminds me of my favorite college comedy…" is so very Abedian and a nice reminder of their shared childhood being raised by TV.  I also thought it made a lot of character-sense that Troy understands pranks (which can often be based in a bit of meanness/reinforcing social status and probably reflect his high school experience) the way Abed understands jokes (more based on TV/film).  And, of course, Britta being the only one not to go along with the cookie wizard prank means she's the only one actually being kind to Pierce, but he shoots her down and assumes she's being a buzzkill instead. Plus: "I assume I'll fight better if I can see more, dumbass!"

    Dean Pelton snuck some killer lines in as well.  My favorite: Rash's delivery at the "crime scene" of "And what makes it worse is this was a brand-new sign…"

  • The Science of Illusion is the perfect example of the classic 'Greendale Adventures' phase of the show. Back when the show was still about being at community college, haha. It's one of my favorite season 1 episodes. Part of me misses the whimsical, fun, 'happy' tone of these sorts of episodes (like Pottery and Physical Education also) – but it is important to realize that this was meant to be 'Summer' in Harmon's 4 season plan, so it wouldn't work for the current episodes to have this same tone (though I do wish for it sometimes). Season 4 is supposed to be Spring so I think we will see another tonal shift next season.

    excellent review Todd!

  • Good point about the placement in the story circle–you don't see that point made much regarding the difference in tone in S1 and S2 (because the concept episode difference is so much more obvious) but it really does make a lot of sense.

  • So how exactly does it break down?
    101-110 is Spring
    111-122 is Summer
    123-222 is Fall
    223-present is Winter?

  • I think the entire first season is supposed to be Summer. Spring is supposed to be season 4. 

  • I was just going by each season of the show representing a quadrant so season 4 WILL BE spring, no?

  • Season 2 being fall makes a lot of sense. The first half of season 2 is the end of summer. There are still many episodes that FEEL like season 1 episodes – 'Psychology of letting go', 'Aerodynamics', 'conspiracy Theories' – fun episodes exploring the Greendale world and the wacky stuff our lovable heroes get into.

    the second half of fall is really getting into turning into winter. The second half of season 2 is actually quite dark – with Pierce's developing drug addiction, the problems he has with the group, and ultimately Pierce's decision to leave the group. 

  • "Now that she's everybody's favorite character, it's easy to forget this,
    but back in season one, people hated Britta. Hated, hated, HATED her.
    (I never did, but that's because I'm awesome.)"

    Yes you are, Todd (regular inflection), yes. you. are.

    I can't wrap my head around hating Britta at any point in the run. Have people seen Intro to Film? http://www.fishsticktheatre.co… ? She's always been the same Britta as we know her now.

  • Loki100

    How could anyone hate someone so excited for
    Ravi Shankar tickets?

  • I feel a little intimidated posting here, but a Todd review posted in the comments to a Todd review is too tempting to pass up… Thanks for doing this, Todd! You pulled the perfect Abed!

    Anywhoo… I find this episode interesting because its A story involves a pairing that has never come up since : Shirley and Annie. I'm not sure why these two don't team up more often: they provide such a great mix of ruthless competition. I'm pretty sure that at this point Annie is the only one who can fight Shirley at her ragey-est (we've already seen that Jeff can only follow her lead and get himself into trouble, and Britta may be sanctimonious, but also quite incapable of channeling her preachiness into actual action). But Annie's ambition is just as ruthless and cutthroat as Shirley's anger, which is why they make such great foes/allies in this episode.

    I wasn't a huge fan of the Pierce as the Cookie Crisp Wizard either, but I'm giving it a pass because it resolved into an awesome moment of Troy crying.

    Also: "Knock, knock! Who's there? Cancer. Oh good, come on in, I thought it was Britta!"

    And this: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

  • I'd never noticed Abed feeding Jeff in the background.  Fantastic.

  • More proof that Jeff/Abed is the best pairing on the show.

  •  Yeah, it's a really good combo. Jeff's playful antagonism is tempered by Abed who often calls him out on it, and this, more than anything, is what holds the group together (see: the end of RCT). It makes sense, since it really is their group.

  • Shirley doesn't hang out pair up with a lot of people apparently…

  •  As I've mentioned before in these comments, I LOVE Annie running into the pepper-spray.  Sure it can be classified as broad, but I find it funny every single time.  It reminds me of the same Annie as the one trying to convince Jeff to come to her party in Intro to Stats. 

    I am also very glad that this story did not become an Annie and Abed story and was a Shirley/Annie storyline.  I find it to be a wonderful pairing with both being secret badasses but both not being able to express it because of their differing life experiences.    

  • That's what it reminds me of too. Annie has the characteristic of being very competitive and ruthless but also someone who doesn't take failure and rejection very well.

    Alison Brie can cry up a storm with the best of them.

  • Britta's earnestness when she's trying to sell the joke to Jeff is really sweet and one of the things (along with the revelations about her cat in Jeff's cross-examination later) that really sold me on her character. The "You're like the dark cloud that unites us" is a lovely moment too for Jeff, who is unprecedentedly honest and sentimental. Of course, he has to be tied up to get there…

    Thanks for making this board a little more me-ta, Todd!

  •  Yeah, I like both Jeff's reaction at the joke (it's condescending, but in a kind way, like he's humoring a little kid):http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

    …and Britta being irrationally giddy and proud of her fabulous prank:http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

  • OK, I kind of want that Britta as an avatar now. Must…resist…

  • Britta is SO adorable in that scene. Too bad that particular fishstick doesn't really capture her arm movements, which is just the best in that scene. It's still a great capture though.

  • Also, I love the line "Real bad-asses work together!" It's like the gritty cop melodrama through the lens of an after-school special, made awesome by Abed's great delivery.

  • Hooray for Todd!

    I really enjoyed this episode as a showcase for the female cast members. Shirley, Britta and Annie all knocked it out of the park on this one. They each seemed determined to change what they believe is the group's perception of them. Britta ruins a whole schools buzz while trying to show Jeff she can be a cool, fun prankster chick. So much funny with her story. April 1st is officially March 32nd at Greendale forever!!!

    Shirley and Annie fight over the "badass" role because they each feel marginalized. Annie is young, on her own, and driven to the point of self-destruction. As a result of her pill addiction in H.S., she ran through a plate glass door screaming "everyone's a robot!" She has no support from her parents (that we've seen) financially or emotionally, so it's important to Annie that the group sees her as strong and independent – even as she relies on them. Annie HAS to believe she can make it on her own in the vacuum of her family's support, so it's critical to her that the group believes she is strong.

    Shirley had tangible reasons for feeling marginalized. After all, Andre walked out on her and the kids and took her ring to give to his new girlfriend. Also, there was the time when Shirley didn't have her van because Andre needed it to drive his gf to work outside town. (Andre was such a jerk, you guys!) Shirley invested almost her entire adult life in her husband and kids, and is finally investing in herself at Greendale. It's important to Shirley that her new family at school sees her as capable and in control as she pursues her degree in baked goods and whatnot.
    I just really love this episode, and the Shirley/Annie dynamic when they team up in the end.
    Also, their double fist-bump-pinkie-grab is the exact inverse of the one they did in the cafeteria when they teamed up to get revenge on Chang for humiliating Pierce and Troy in Communication Studies. #coolcoolcool

  • The scene where Annie chases after Jeff down the alley and ends up
    spraying pepper spray in her own face feels a little too wacky for my
    tastes. I like the idea of the gag, and I like the way Abed feeds her
    and Shirley their lines to start the scene, but the whole thing is so
    overtly slapstick-y that it's hard to really get a bead on it.


  • Britta was the worst.

  • Goon_Diapers

    I loved the Cookie Crisp plot. Maybe just because I always loved Cookie Crisp but was slightly confused by the Wizard.

  • The series has only gotten better