Episode 209: Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design

 

 Tereglith

209: Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design Review

In an important way, Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design is a part of one of the greatest runs of episodes that Community has ever done – the seven-episode run fromMessianic Myths to Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas is by turns unrelentingly hilarious, extremely poignant, and deeply introspective about the nature and purpose of the study group for the people in it. The second half of the run in particular is one of the darkest sequences the show has ever done, with the bottle-episode dysfunction of Caligraphy, the probing character study of Mixology, and the heartwarming but very melancholy holiday musings of AUC. Conspiracy Theories keeps the momentum of this sequence alive through its energy and extremely high quality as an episode of Community – two more episodes of this quality in the place of APS and Pharmacology would have welded the MM-AUC sequence to the AD&D-Romanticism-IDF trio, making for the longest consistent run of quality in the show’s history.*

And that’s the important way that Conspiracy Theories is not truly a part of the run. It’s not dark. It’s not melancholy. It’s not a groundbreaking change in episode format. It’s not meditative on the nature and necessity of the group. While it does have some serious character work (more on that later), it’s ultimately a huge, fluffy, gut-bustingly hilarious episode in the middle of a bunch that was far more experimental, off-format, and thought-provoking. In comparison to the weighty subject matter of the episodes on either side of it, CT&ID is merely puffs of hot air. It’s not quite insubstantial enough to be from the lips of a ghost, though, and a location in the shadow of a unicorn’s dream is right out.

The story is extremely Greendale. It has many high-concept, genre-parody elements, yes, but they don’t overrun the entire story of the episode as the genre elements of the truly genre episodes do. The A-plot is a conspiracy/thriller story, but the episode as a whole couldn’t pass for a conspiracy/thriller short film, which is the test that I use to determine the degree of genre/high-concept incorporated into Community episodes**. It straddles the line between being a high-concept episode – and being the King of All Pizza Episodes.

The A-plot is of course the more genre-y, and dominates the first act of the episode. I would say that it’s basically one of the greatest starts to an episode of anything ever, even besides the great jokes that get tossed out over the study room table (which are numerous and hilarious).  The Dean finds out that Jeff has a fake-sounding independent study course about Conspiracy Theories with the obviously made-up Professor Professorson (I think it’s Dutch. It means professor!). Jeff offers to take the Dean to Professorson’s office, though it is clearly a ruse on his part. He opens the door to reveal a broom closet, and the Dean is just about ready to write it off as the most brazen lie ever – when Professor Professorson walks out of a nearby door, eyebrows waggling, confirming Jeff’s story. The Dean is sorry to have doubted him (I always love when the Dean’s overly zealous PC-ness comes into play, in this case when he instantly feels sympathetic towards Professorson because his grandparents fled from the Nazis), and walks away, satisfied with the explanation. Annie, too, is sorry to have doubted Jeff, until we have the first (and best) twist of an episode filled with them: Jeff has never met Professorson before in his life.

Aaaand commercial. What a great piece of writing. That concept would be good enough to start off anything, comedic or not. It could start off an actual thriller movie, a tense conceptual short-story, an existential play… it’s such a great hook for a story that whatever comes afterwards seems bound to feel disappointing at some point.  The episode manages to keep on the rails for quite a long time, with the investigation leading ever deeper into a pretty compelling mystery throughout the second act. The reveal that Professorson is actually Wooley is very well done, as is the faux-disturbing setup that is the shell of the Greendale Night School. The subsequent reveal that Wooley is in fact Drama Professor Sean Garrity is even better, with Kevin Corrigan turning in an amazing performance as he displays Garrity’s increasing disgust with the Dean’s script, then instantly switches gears into his true form.

The show has always had trouble with third acts, and the third act of this A-plot is no different. For no apparent reason other than to set up the third-act setpiece, Jeff suddenly turns his stance from “Do as little work as possible”, which is his ground state of being and is in fact emphasized more than usual during the first two thirds of the episode, to “create a nesting series of elaborate ruses for no real reason”. It’s understandable that Annie would go overboard with something like that, and the fact that she’s the one who developed the entire Wooley/Night School ruse in the first place is certainly in character and makes more sense than the Dean having done all of it on his own (as Jeff points out). What doesn’t make sense is for Jeff to have gone to the effort to conspire with Annie against the Dean, then with the Dean against Annie, then with Annie against the Dean again, especially when said conspiracies involve him wearing squibs, which kind of hurt when they go off and also ruin one of his shirts. Once all the twists have been puzzled through, they do fit together, but only in a loose sort of abstract way and one that doesn’t make a ton of sense from a plot perspective. Luckily, the plot is at this point no longer what’s carrying the A-plot – it’s the characters and the humor.

The B-plot is really what elevates this episode beyond simple genre parody, by being so aggressively Greendale. The entire concept of a pillow fort growing into a city is ridiculous, and the fact that everyone at Greendale simply goes along with it and contributes is even moreso. But despite the absurdity, it feels exactly like something that would happen within the universe the show has set up by this point in its existence. Troy and Abed would spend a day off building a pillow fort. Troy would use his latent engineering skills to make it bigger and better. Without supervision it would grow out of control. Pavel, Leonard, and other Greendalites would see nothing odd about showing up in their pajamas to crawl through a huge blanket city all night – or at least, they would be game to go along with it. Troy and Abed actually follow a very complex, if very silly, character journey in this episode, as they start building something childish and pathetic, are ashamed of it, and instead of stopping, simply push forward with it to make it bigger and more legitimate. At a certain point, they cross a line (“When does a fort stop being a fort?”) and the childish thing requires an adult level of planning and responsibility – their City Planning phase, where they act as competent administrators for this fluffy town that they’ve set up. When their creation goes mainstream and other adults begin to do it, it becomes no longer childish, and for them, the fun is no longer there. The two of them – but particularly Troy, if we look at his face in this scene, rue the fact that they’ve gone too far, essentially ‘growing up’ against their wills over the course of a single night. It was doubtless unintentional, but for Troy this reading of the story has a lot of parallels with S3’s AC Repair School arc.

None of that comes out on a first viewing though. It’s simply a very funny story about a pillow fort that spirals out of control. The jokes about how huge, complex, and like a real city Fluffytown is never outstay their welcome (“You should really check out our Civil Rights museum.” “They had the proper permits!”) and Leonard’s gleeful thievery is always welcome.

It’s because of this duality between A and B plot that CT&ID is one of the few Community episodes to have what I call “The Seinfeld Effect”, the phenomenon of remembering two (or more!) subplots from a sitcom but not realizing until you see the episode that features them that they were ever in the same episode.  People who are not obsessive super-fans like us (my Dad is a good example, and has had The Seinfeld Effect occur for him on this episode) remember that there’s a Conspiracy episode, and they remember that there’s an episode with a giant blanket fort, but not until watching it again do they remember that the two go together. And not until the utter absurdity of a hands-and-knees chase through a blanket city do they experience the Strong Seinfeld Effect, where both plots connect in a way the viewer didn’t remember to make each other better. And that connection is what makes  the single best scene in the episode – Annie and Jeff’s crawling chase after Professor Professorson as he scurries through Fluffytown (“I know a shortcut. Quick, through the Turkish District!”). This is one of those beautiful moments, like the climax of Intro To Stats, where two absurd, wonderful plots collide to make something even more absurd and wonderful. The chase both elevates the genre conventions of the A-plot and fleshes out the surreality of the B-plot, making both funnier.

And good lord is this episode funny. All we have to do is look at how many quotes and CZ memes it’s spawned to see how on-the-ball the writing is. “Puffs of hot air, from the lips of a ghost, in the shadow of a unicorn’s dream,” is of course the highlight, but “Time Desk! The Adventures of Dean Dangerous!”, “Would that this [x] were a time [x]”, “I’ve always dreamt of playing charades with you, Jeffrey…”, “Have fun eating fiber and watching The Mentalist”, “Maybe I’m making a scrapbook!”, “Welcome to Fluffytown. No smoking, no farting, no pillow-fighting”, “Initiate Protocol Omega”… the list goes on.  I also use Pavel’s “I get wicked cold bros; mad sleepy,” way more than should probably be possible in normal conversation. But even beyond the most quotable lines, the episode is suffused with the character-based, pop-culture-steeped wit that Community has whenever it’s at its funniest. Everything from the wordplay about the Biodioramarama (which is itself a very amusing meta-joke about NBC’s “Green Week”) to the ethnic complexity of Fluffytown’s instantly-organized municipal government to the increasingly perfunctory performance Professor Garrity gives as Wooley as his ‘lines’ become more and more ridiculous (“Ride dinosaurs. Fight with… Jack the Ripper.”) is pitch-perfect, classic Community humor.  This episode marries the best of S1’s humor with the best of S2’s ambition to amazing effect. It’s an episode that could really only exist around this time in the show’s run – if it were earlier, pre-MW, the writers would have been too scared to put in enough genre elements. If it were much later, they would likely have put in too many, at the expense of the pure, genre-less Greendalery that is Fluffytown.

I said before that the third act is carried not on the strength of the plot, which is reduced to an engine for increasingly nonsensical twists, but on the characters and humor. If either of those elements had faltered, it would have severely hurt the episode. Luckily, all five actors involved are in top form, particularly Alison Brie as she gives us deceptively murderous Annie, fake-upset Annie, real-upset Annie, then briefly traumatized Annie. The speech that she gives Jeff is at the emotional core of the episode, and at the time it heralded a promising movement forward to a resolution on the Annie/Jeff relationship front – it’s a shame that the show never followed through on that promise. Joel does a similarly nice job portraying all of Jeff’s reactions to the rapidly shifting twists. The Dean is also at his best, not only here, but throughout the episode. He never once dresses in a silly costume, and because of that the other aspects of his personality are played up instead. I think that this is one of the best episodes for the character. While it did end up introducing his squealing, cartoonish side that was later overused, in this episode’s finale it’s entirely justified – he just thought that everyone in the room got shot, I’m pretty sure I would react that way too.  Officer Cackowski is always welcome, and in this episode he gives what might be the quintessential Cackowskiism (“Fact: In 100% of all fake-gun related shootings, the victim is the one holding the fake gun.”). His bursting in on the study room is also what brings the twistiness to the perfect comedic endpoint. Any more twists after that would have gotten tiresome, but without Cackowski bursting in and killing Garrity, it hasn’t gone far enough to be hilarious. While the third act isn’t perfect, it’s strong enough to bulldoze over its imperfections with the unstoppable Juggle Knob of the Annie/Jeff emotional intensity and the great humor derived from all the twists.

From a technical standpoint, this episode isn’t as spectacular as some of the others that surround it (like Epidemiology, for instance), but there are a lot of subtle things that went very right in the production. Once the conspiracy plot gets going, the lighting becomes a little darker and the colors a little more washed-out, to match the appearance of the type of movie that’s being parodied. The filming of the tiny, underwhelming model-car explosion is brilliant – whoever thought to film it from three angles is a genius. And I don’t think enough could ever be said about how wonderful Ludwig’s score for this episode is. It creates so much ominous atmosphere that you could apply it to most real thrillers and have them become more suspenseful.

All the different parts of this episode are pretty damn great, and in the end, the episode still manages to become more than the sum of them.

*As it stands, I think that the UM&SA-ITF run (basically the entire back half of S3) is the longest string of high-quality episodes the show has put out, though I do have my issues with CLU.

**Modern Warfare is a short action movie. Epidemiology is a short zombie movie. Intro To Poli-sci is not a short political film. Foosball is not a short sports movie. That’s the difference.

Stray Observations

  • Every time I added another awesome quote to this review I remembered two more. This episode is chock-full of them.
  • I was going to make this review have a clever conspiracy-based structure, but I couldn’t figure out a good way to do it and still include everything I wanted to talk about. So it’s just a plain old workmanlike review.
  • I have often mentioned that I watched this episode while in a hotel room at Disney World waiting for the midnight showing of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1. I would also like to add that this episode aired on the night of my fifteenth birthday. It was a pretty great birthday present. I would have found a way to put all this in the review, but there was never anywhere where it came up organically. Hey, you know what else came up organically…
  • If Annie wrote the Night School pages of the faculty guidebook (as the finale implies she did), she apparently thought that it would be convincing to include the teachers’ zodiac signs, favorite colors, and favorite foods.
  • Why haven’t we seen more of Agnes?
  • A lot of my favorite line deliveries in this episode are from Kevin Corrigan. ”Precisely!”and ”Ride dinosaurs… *sigh* fight with Jack the Ripper,” are just amazing.
  • McHale also does a great job on the “I don’t know!”s that close out the first scene. They’re so gleeful, which is exactly how Jeff would react in that situation.
  • Isn’t that him playing the trejdeksnis?

 

Discussion:

  • One of the problems with Community's large (perhaps too large) ensemble is that often the A, B, and C plots never come together in the ways that the best Arrested Development (probably the best comedy ever at managing a large number of characters) episodes did.  Frequently, they remain completely isolated.

    I think a big reason this episode is just so wonderful is that the show decides to focus solely on four characters (well, plus the Dean, but he really wasn't a part of the ensemble at this point), and then absolutely knocks the joining of the A/B plots out of the park.  This episode is just so marvellously enjoyable.  

  • While Britta was not used, she had a great cameo as the plots merged.

  • I'm glad that they left out the intended C-plot of Shirley and Pierce on a road trip to get Ultimate Burgers, because it would have made the episode too cluttered, and because it makes the appearance of said burgers at the very end of the episode all the more random and mysterious.

  • I wouldn't consider it a weakness of Community that its subplots don't often come together so much as a lack of a strength.  The subplots don't need to have anything to do with each other, other than taking place at the same time.  If they don't come together, then they don't come together.  But it is quite rewarding when they do come together, which is a major reason why CT&ID works so well.

  • Episodes like this one is where I wish Community had more than it's allotted 22 minutes or so for each episode. I really like this episode the way it turned out, but it would have been interesting to have seen the C plot with Shirley and Pierce. I'm not convinced that their plot would have been great, but anything that took Shirley away from Chang that season could have worked well. Also, I would have liked to see what Britta was up to in the blanket forts, but perhaps her cameo was just right. This really isn't a criticism of the episode, just more of a thought experiment.

  • There was a C plot about Shirley and Pierce driving across town to get the best burgers ever (they're all together eating them in the blanket fort at the end of the episode). It was cut for time. #dvdcommentary

  • I think of Conspiracy Theories as a weak concept episode, not a true one like Modern Warfare. There are a handful of others that can be considered weak concept episodes. I think the definition of a true concept episode is that the episode is completely overrun with the concept and the style completely changes too (at least throughout most of the episode.) Are there any exceptions to that? Any concept episodes that don't fit in that definition? Any weird ones? 

  • See my second footnote. I think "weak concept episode" is a good term for what I was trying to get across. Basically, the idea is that CTID could never be anything other than a Community episode, while something like Modern Warfare or Epidemiology could just as easily be a short film in its selected genre as it is a sitcom episode.

  • Edited for formatting for 25 minutes. DIIIIIIIIISQUUUUUSSSSSS!

  • The one thing that's always bugged me about this episode is when exactly Garrity is "acting" under the Dean's orders. Are we supposed to think that Garrity is following the Dean's script throughout the whole episode, from when we first see him near the janitor's closet? I always thought that the Dean's bewilderment there was genuine, that it was a crazy genre-spoofing coincidence that Garrity had a "Professorson" ID, and that the Dean somehow found out about the ruse and roped Garrity in after act 1. Then I realized that the whole "pay me in acting" agreement would logically have to have come way before the events of this episode, so I'm a bit confused. Maybe I'm just slow.

  • The nature of the conspiracies as revealed in the final study-room sequence requires Annie and the Dean to be pretty good actors themselves. If everything that's said in that scene is true, then both Annie and the Dean knew what was going on with 'Professorson' from the start. That's why I said that the plot is a weakness once we get to the third act – everything that went on, as it's ultimately revealed, was a little too complex to be plausible, at least with the Dean as a moving part. It does all fit together as a pure logic exercise, but it would never have come off like that in real life, or even in Greendale life. It's best to ignore that though and just enjoy the ride of the plot without looking back.

  • I didn't care for the ending because of the similar plot in Arrested Development where they keep teaching each other a lesson. But I love the episode so much and when I saw it Community became my favorite show. (Specifically, it was when Jeff said he had never met that professor before in his life.) The show is silly and fun enough to have an episode about a blanket fort and a hidden department at the college.

  • Right, I forgot about the Annie of it all (ha). I guess that means that Jeff, Annie, and the Dean were already in triple conspiracies with each other at the very beginning of the episode? I don't even want to think about that (so many layers!), so not looking back and just appreciating act 3 as a big joke is probably the best way to look at it.

    Also Capt. Blicero , according to the Conspiracy Theories commentary, Harmon and the writers either hadn't seen or had completely forgotten about the AD lessons thing when they wrote this episode, so the similarities are a coincidence.

  • Dr. Clash , I'm not saying I didn't like it because I thought they were unoriginal; I just thought Arrested Development did it better (and Miller's Crossing) and even on its own merits it wasn't that great.

  • Dr. Clash At the beginning of the episode, the Dean and Annie have already made the first conspiracy against Jeff, and Jeff's only subterfuge thus far is creating the fake class – he had always intended to use the "Oh no! Broom closet conspiracy! It's a test!" thing as a last-ditch escape route, hence the topic he chose to make the fake class be about. He was never expecting Professor Professorson to show up.

  • The line that always gets me in this episode is Kevin Corrigan's reading of "exchethera!"

  • "My Latin class was fake, Jeff. Just like all my classes. Like my life!"

  • This will always be one of my favourite because of when I first saw it. It was one of those crazy episodes that completely snuck up on me. Like, I knew Modern Warfare would be an action parody from the promos, or I knew AUC would be claymation beforehand. I just expected a regular episode for this one, but the moment Jeff said that he had never seen Professorson I knew I was in for a great episode and it totally delivered.

  • SpongyandBruised

    RTC snuck up on me like that. I wasn't heavily involved in the fandom at that point. What a mindfuck that was.

  • That snuck up on me a little since I knew there would be a multiple timelines episode, but I didn't know it would be that week. I almost sqealed when I realized what was happening.

  • my favorite stray observation-worthy tidbit of this episode is the fact that the day this episode aired, it was, in fact, latvian independence day.

  • That means my birthday is Latvian Independence Day! :O

  • This episode has so many of my favorite quotes, including the "slightly below the middle" line and the "thoroughly underwhelming message". The filmography for the latter scene is one of my favorite parts of the episode. Concerning the third act, I've always found that any attempt to try to explain it just lessens my enjoyment. It's more about getting caught up in the ridiculous nature of the situation. Because of this, I find that this episode improves upon rewatch, as I'm not focusing on the ending, but the journey. I'd compare this aspect of it to the Big Lebowski.

  • YAY!

    Return of the way too overintellectualized reviews makes me happy. 

  • Fantastic review! I can't believe you did this in like 24 hours!

  • Thanks! I think it was about nineteen hours from start to posting.

  • Good review, especially for such a short space of time! Personally, I have this down as a B+, although I do agree that it is pretty much the king of all pizza episodes.

    Favourite line: 'I'm guessing it's the worst thing you could possibly hope to be in…only at night.'