316 – Virtual Systems Analysis
More than anything else I feel about the show, I am just glad that Community exists. It is weird and wacky, funny and charming, original, new, unique. It is above all else a show that I simply enjoy. I am not a bitter person at heart, and so I feel drawn to shows (specifically comedies) that reject cynicism and embrace acceptance.
I feel this is part of the reason why long ago I accepted the show would have its ups and downs. Sometimes I feel like I am a little out of sync with the rest of the fanbase when it comes to the future of Community: I do not really care how long it runs, or even necessarily with what quality (though I suppose I would feel the plug should be pulled if things ever got really dire). By all rights economics should have doomed the show years ago. Every episode is a bonus.
What I am building up to is that I do not like “Virtual Systems Analysis,” and ultimately that this does not really matter. I am not a fan; others are. My enjoyment of the series is not affected. The episode has a host of issues, but they are not ones that permanently or even moderately affected the rest of the show, negatively or otherwise. I can explain why I do not enjoy this episode, but I am not going to get worked up about it.
The center of the episode’s problems is Abed. I was not alone in thinking that the characterization of Abed was a low point of season three, and “Virtual Systems Analysis” seems to me to be the nadir. Contrast the Abed of past episodes with the one on display here. Abed, who was previously established as an intelligent, self-sufficient, and above all kind human being, is reduced to being a needy, self-absorbed dick. Previously it was emphasized that Abed’s indulgences in pop culture were not a manifestation of some sort of social detachment, and that he deeply cared about his friends. “Virtual Systems Analysis” ends with Abed learning the concept of empathy. It is a fairly absurd reversal of his character, and is kind of emblematic of how I feel this episode tries to create some semblance of conflict and meaning by magnifying things rather than searching for nuance.
Even if one was to ignore the problems with his characterization, he is just so aggressively aggravating this episode. He is a petty, snide, passive-aggressive dick to Annie. His own self-pity and emotional neediness is accurately dismissed as “maudlin.” The infamous wailing does not really merit further comment. All of this might be acceptable in an episode that was funnier, or less focused on Abed. This Is one of the downsides of a sitcom attempting a character study: things succeed or fail based on the character work.
The second principal character here is Annie, and while she is not rewritten to nearly the same extent as Abed, there are a couple of things I object to. Her frustration and annoyance with Abed is completely understandable, but when the episode gets around to turning the spotlight on her things fall apart rather quickly. I previously wrote a fairly long piece about the pandering nature of the Annie/Jeff pairing, which has been teased and distributed in small parcels over four seasons like the writers were feeding fish. “Virtual Systems Analysis” plays a part in this frustrating dance by retconning all their interactions as Annie just being “in love with the idea of being loved”; a rather bizarre notion that is adopted for this episode and then immediately discarded afterwards.
The reason why I wanted to review “Virtual Systems Analysis” is because it is at the very least one of the more interesting episodes in Community, and those fans who love it (including many critics) are very vocal about it. I can understand why someone would enjoy and even love this episode, and if they do, why not? I am not a bitter guy (hell, I would argue the existence of season four is merited even by just the few solid episodes). I just feel a desire to articulate why this episode does not move me. I think that to some extent whenever Community drops its comic front, whatever it says tends to be accepted as brilliant or insightful. Maybe that is a product of the legitimately excellent episodes (particularly from season two) that utilize this approach, or simply the fact that adopting such a tone is effective at manipulating audiences; I am not sure. I do not wish to make it sound like those who enjoy this episode are “brainless” or whatever, just that art’s intention at its base is to manipulate its audience. Harmon is fond of dropping these big, broad, declarative statements in the third act, and the problem with these is that if they conflict with what has been presented on-screen (as was often the situation in the third and fourth seasons) it creates cognitive dissonance within the viewer and the episode. Whatever the case, I feel that the seriousness of the tone at times in “Virtual Systems Analysis” only underscores how silly some of the characterization is (as well as the actual plot mechanics of the Dreamatorium section).
So I do not really care that I do not like “Virtual Systems Analysis.” I think it is a thoroughly mediocre episode that bungles its characters, tone, and message, but ultimately it does not affect my enjoyment of the rest of the series at all. It is not likeCommunity was ever a show that was slavish in its attention to character continuity, or reliant on serialized storytelling, or even consistent in tone. The show and its writers have always been fond of chucking things at the wall and seeing what sticks. I would much prefer this sort of failed experiment than the overwhelming sense of complacency that envelops so much of the medium. Even in all its faults “Virtual Systems Analysis” showcases so many of the show’s strengths. So what if it is a misfire? It is an interesting and ambitious one, and the kind of episode that, regardless of its quality, makes me glad that such a show could or did exist. If this episode were a person, it seems the sort that would end up at Greendale. And that’s alright with me.
There are some funny lines here. I will not indulge in details because I do not wish to just re-quote lines, but I will note that upon multiple re-watches I ended up particularly enjoying “I saw eagles.”
I remember when I first saw this episode hoping that it meant the end of “the Dean is a crossdresser!!!” jokes. It was not to be.
I enjoy that the restaurant manager sort of had the mentality of those videos on Youtube that dissect a movie’s superficial elements and point out how “wrong” everything is. Two FBI agents named Johnson? What a terrible movie!
The episode looked a lot worse than I remember it. It was kind of endearing though. Made it feel like a throwback sci-fi film.
- Do you think that episodes can do irreparable “damage” to a TV show? How do bad episodes affect your enjoyment of the rest of the series?
- How self-contained is “Virtual Systems Analysis” really? Are there elements of characterization or plot introduced here that have had longer term effects on the show (I’m thinking of Britta/Troy, actually)? What are the least self-contained episodes of Community (at least thematically)?
- Would you be interested in seeing Community re-visit the idea of a Dreamatorium episode?