Episode 316: Virtual Systems Analysis

Community3x16_0627
 
 
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.

Stray observations:

  • 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.
Discussion topics
  1. 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?
  2. 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)?
  3. Would you be interested in seeing Community re-visit the idea of a Dreamatorium episode?
‚Äč

Discussion:

    • 1. Yes and no – I don't think a singular episode could do irreparable damage to a TV show in terms of quality, story, character, etc. – that can always be resolved. But a singular episode (although generally more, with a single episode as a breaking point) could do damage to a show's reputation and get people less willing to watch the show resolve its problems, or the show might not live long enough to resolve them.

    • I was actually referring to another post I made about the relationships in season three. I'll see if I can find it (is there anyway to search within comments? Either for an article or a person?).

  • I'm afraid it's just by force. You go to the person's Disqus profile and keep scrolling back. But there's a trick: instead of pressing "End" on your keyboard you have to use a milking motion with your mouse at the very bottom by the down arrow. A continuous up and down motion will load them much faster. I loaded a year of your comments within a minute. I wouldn't do this with someone like Semi's 25,000 comments, though..

    • I think you've hit on some of the underlying complications of being a fan of this show. I want to love every episode but when you have a sitcom like Community doing character study with such audacity, ambition and success (must of us can say we relate pretty intensely to the characters) it creates expectations and it doesn't feel good ("cognitive dissonance" is putting it lightly) when they're not met or when it feels like the characters are not being who they're supposed to be. It's further complicated by the fact that Community has spoiled us with episodes like this that do work to near perfection. I don't think VSA is one of them. I've also seen it suggested/implied that the episode is a success just for its ambition* and the flaws are secondary or irrelevant. That's not a standard I'm comfortable with.

      *Is it really even that ambitious? Are there not many other episodes that are just as formally daring and/or have more on the line? After getting used to its framework, you can see that it's actually a very straight forward episode with an average amount to say about the characters.

    • Great write-up! This episode was not one of my favorites and Abed all of the sudden being a complete dick was a big part of it.

      Glover's Abed as Troy was really great though.

    • An alternate perspective

      Virtual Systems Analysis is not the best episode of Community. I feel the need to say this upfront, so that nobody assumes that my admiration for it comes off as an overestimation of its quality. This piece is merely to look at the episode itself, and isn’t going to look too deep into its place within Dan Harmon’s failed attempt at serializing a seasonal narrative.

      Who is Abed Nadir? It’s a question worth asking, because we see so many sides of him over the course of the series, that it’s important to remind ourselves on which one of these he really is. Jeff Winger aside, he is the very reason why the study group found each other to begin with. Is he a highly functioning community college student with Asperger’s? Is he Dan Harmon? Han Solo? That one creature he embodies in “Physical Education” that was a cross between a vampire and a velociraptor? Who knows. Virtual Systems Analysis doesn’t answer this question, so much as explores it. Which is far more important and revealing.

      There are so many great moments in this episode, that I probably won’t be able to mention them all. I agree that the Inspector Spacetime was worn out before we got to this episode, but it’s kind of worth it for this episode alone. It’s not amazingly used her, but it’s a great all-purpose role-play environment to start Abed and Annie’s play-acting in, to further relate the themes back to Abed himself. (In fact, one could make quite the list of similarities between Abed Nadir and the Doctor, and by “the Doctor” I’m merely referring to the character, not a specific incarnation). It makes sense that this story would get its start in a well-known pop culture homage, before diving into the characters’ psyche, because for Abed Nadir, the two are especially dependent on each other. You can’t get to the latter without going through the former.

      The reason why this episode works so well, for me, is the decision to make Annie his “companion” in his journey towards learning empathy. Troy is his best friend, and therefore doesn’t see (no matter how hurt he might be as a result of some of his actions) why Abed needs to change, and Annie’s always been the kind of character to try and impart lessons on the others, whether they need them or not. The thing is, Annie is just as mistaken as Abed is in this episode.

      Annie claims that Abed could stand to learn empathy, but that would be insinuating that he already doesn’t have this capability. I think this is a good character distinction to make, and not a bad writing choice, because Annie has always been written as a character trying to “fix” things that didn’t need fixing (just look at most of her interactions with Jeff). The thing she doesn’t realize (that the episode not only realizes, but also demonstrates), is that he does have empathy, he just filters it through his very idiosyncratic (and pop cultured) mind.

      Let’s start from the beginning of this descent. After Abed shows Annie his version of how Troy and Britta’s date must be going, something’s off… You see, in the past when Abed had impersonated characters from films and TV shows, it was uncanny. TV and film characters are archetypes at their foundation, and then it is up to the writer to make them more complex and nuanced (hopefully). It’s why Abed can impersonate them impeccably. He can study them, and actually gain insight as to “who” they are, because there is a limit on the actual amount of knowledge he can learn about them. Human beings on the other hand, are a far different story. It’s why his “impersonation” of Troy and Britta only seems right on a superficial level. The mannerisms and cadence of their speech is right, but their essence is gone (FORESHADOWING THE ENTIRETY OF SEASON FOUR). There’s some funny stereotypical stuff (Britta’s line about breakfast; Troy’s response to that), but it’s all a very shallow read, because Abed doesn’t and never will have the tools to be able to fully get inside the heads of his friends, no matter how smart he thinks he is. It’s not that Abed lacks empathy, but that he mistakes science for it. This is why they’re both wrong in the episode (Annie and Abed) and how they’re both able to learn a little about each other, and themselves before it is all over.

      Here’s where I’ll make the Virtual Systems Analysis detractors scream like Abed: the episode doesn’t actually get astute until Annie puts “Empathy” filter onto the engine of the Dreamatorium. Abed lets out a scream, but here it’s actually right at home. Abed is play-acting along with Annie’s new scenario. By putting that filter on the engine, Annie is essentially telling Abed to become a “different person” (which is subtly condescending in its own way, which is intended, I believe). So Abed gives her exactly that. In fact, what is the first thing that Abed does after he makes this transformation? He “simulates” a TV hospital parody because he remembered that Annie would rather be doing a hospital scenario than an Inspector Spacetime play-through. When that fails, and Annie continues to try and “fix” him, he tries to go deeper (all in service of Annie) and gives her Jeff and the moment from the season one finale. Annie is learning what Jeff tried to teach the study group in Physical Education: that Abed doesn’t need to be a different person (even if he could stand to be a little more compassionate sometimes).

      So thinking that there’s really no use for him left, he puts himself where everybody else has put him in the past: a locker. It’s here where Annie meets up with him, as the locker is a stand-in for a place that he hasn’t let anybody else in other than himself. Because Abed never needed to learn “empathy,” all he needed to learn was to open up a little. Annie reminds him that he has no way of knowing his future, no matter how astute his social observations might be. Abed’s fear of not fitting is not seeing how universal that feeling is. Annie worries that she’ll be alone just as much as Abed does, because in her words: “great news, you share that with all of us, so you’ll never be alone, and you’ll always fit in.” I think what’s important to note here, is that Annie is not talking down to Abed and positing that her situation is exactly the same as Abed’s situation, but that what brings them together as human beings, and more importantly as friends, is that they are going to have the same fears. At the end of the day, isn’t that what this show is about, really? Being accepted because of our flaws, rather than not acknowledging them altogether? Is this a perfect episode of Community? Nah. But it doesn’t have to be. Nothing can be perfect when trying to get at the heart of the human condition. Because humans, by definition, are imperfect.

      So that’s why I refuse to see Abed as “acting like a self-involved dick,” when we don’t call the others out on their bullshit nearly as often. Abed’s flaws may be more overt than the others, but that’s simply because he is not trying to impress anybody. Annie is just as self-absorbed and narrow-minded as Abed in this episode, and the Dreamatorium helped shed light on the flaws that bind these characters (and the study group as a whole) together.

      One thing to note is that it’s not a very funny episode of Community. There are a ton of jokes, but they never really land, because they seem to only be there so that NBC doesn’t come back to Harmon with: “isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?”

      If you disagree with me, you’re worse than Hitler.

      Oh shit… I’m turning into Troy.

    • Great stuff. I like your read on "Abed learns empathy". Though I would still contend that Abed did always have "true" empathy and not just a special kind filtered through pop culture. On the other hand, maybe that's a flaw of prior characterization making him too empathetic for someone who maybe shouldn't be.

      The idea that Abed was acting starting with the squeal is something we talked about after the airing and I think it's accurate, but it doesn't necessarily excuse his behavior.

      It's also funny to think of it now as Abed's "no one can tell me to stop talking" tantrum, except where Abed actually heeds the advice coming back to him.

  • I agree that he did have empathy, and I can see where I got away from that in my piece. I wrote it over the course of two days, so it's probably a little rambly.

    But my main point is what I think we all believe: that Abed already had empathy. He needed to grow, but that was never what he was missing. I don't think his empathy is always filtered through a pop culture gag, but I do think it's the most prevalent form of it (the ending of CAP is him seeing it from Jeff's perspective… while an homage to Sixteen Candles plays out). His empathy isn't filtered through pop culture so much as that's when it comes out the most, because it's when he's the most comfortable.

    Of course, that's my take on it.

  • I think he needs to be reminded/ remind himself that he has it. Whenever he gets overexcited about something (chicken fingers, advanced documentary filmmaking, Jesus movies), he tends to inadvertently turn into a dick. It's been a consistent trait of his since S1.

    • This is actually a pretty great take. I like the idea that Abed is just pandering to what Annie wants in this episode, as it would be very like him. I still find the locker scene a little less effective than similar scenes in the show's past, but it still works pretty well with your reading.

  • I'll admit that the locker scene works for me on a very personal level more than anything else. That "scenarios" speech hit way too close to home for me to not champion this episode, simply because I used to be like this in high school (and middle school, to an extent). But I also find it to be the development for a genuinely mutual respect and understanding of two people who have drifted apart a little bit. In fact, I'd say this does for Annie and Abed, what Critical Film Studies does for Jeff and Abed.

  • I think I might like this episode more in retrospect if the show had taken its limited opportunity to build upon it. After all, Annie and Abed's new dynamic doesn't play much of a role at all in the last few eps of Season 3 and is more or less ignored in the Season 4. Season 5 could redeem those mistakes, perhaps.

  • Yeah, I agree with that. I feel like the show didn't have much time to do anything with it, though. The remainder of Season 3 had to focus itself on tying up the serialization, and Season 4 had bigger issues it needed to solve. I hope we get more in Season 5.

    • Superb analysis as always /cheer. I concur that Abed is giving Annie what he thinks she wants. A lot of what happens in VSA feels like a course correction on Abed's part leading into the locker scene where it becomes essentially Abed's true "memory cave" from AUC that he had always been trying to avoid up to this point. In this episode, all that unstoppable force meets the immovable object tension from Nocturnal Vigilantism comes to a head (and where that one was humorous sitcom-y and light with dark undertones– this one is dark with a thin lining of hope).

      That having been said, all I can really add to either excellent perspective above is to submit one idea here: Abed as the unreliable narrator/element for this episode. He may act like he doesn't have empathy or comprehend it, but we know from past episodes in this show such a thing simply isn't true. Abed is so stuck up his own Dreamatorium analysis trying to keep Troy and the group together, as depicted/illustrated from all these past episodes of becoming MORE insular when conflict arises instead of facing conflict and becoming stronger (like Jeff, who reached a turning point in JUST the last episode, OVM). He wants to believe he's the glue keeping things together AND YET he can't help but presume all hope is lost because the calculations say Troy will leave, the group will break apart, and he'll be left alone.

      The pop culture analogy I'd use here is DS9's The Wire (Bashir trying to heal Garak yet needing to diffuse all his lies/personas to succeed). Bashir: Annie as Garak: Abed. Layer upon layer upon layer of delusion and deception, trying to give Bashir/Annie whatever will placate the situation, but cutting through all that internal obfuscation is Annie's doggedness to not be labelled, mislead, or undone by someone else. So while Abed wants to believe like Garak that it's all over and there's nothing left for him, Annie cuts through those lies and finds the self pity, then cuts through that too to give Abed the pop culture filter to accept what empathy he has– to embrace his own capacity for change and acceptance to change (and not just preaching the idea of accepting change like he did back in Physical Education).

      Again, back then the blade was untested in the fire– Abed was a shaman in his protected zone– this is him on unstable ground now, potentially losing everything. So just like Jeff reached a turning point and realized he had to accept change in his own way, so to does Abed reach a minor turning point here. It's not enough to fix all the damage Season 3 has done to Abed's spirit, but it keeps things steady up until Introduction to Finality. It keeps the Evil Abed of despair inside Abed at bay at least.

  • Sorry, this was sinking fast off the first "page" of my comment load so I wanted to contribute something substantive to the great discussion ASAP while still trying to get work done for the day (busy week). I'll add a Doppeldeaner Count© later once I'm done.

  • OK, back from work and nap, all set for this episode's DOPPELDEANER COUNT©

    We have each copy of Annie's view of characters to Abed, each of Abed's view to Abed, to Annie, and to Annie's idea of what Abed would have them to Annie while trying to placate her (everybody GOT that?). So for example in one scene we have Troy as Abed perceives him as Annie perceives him as a theoretical relationship between he and Britta would BE perceived breaking down over how inconceivable Inception is. "SO MANY LAYERS!" My favorite doppeldeaner found on repeat viewing for this episode is as follows:

    Abed as the waiter who hates Die Hard articulating objectively why he hates Die Hard with terse, to the point analysis (One Outfit):

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    The waiter in reality just bluntly and out of nowhere slamming Die Hard like it REALLY is something he just needs to do to everyone in front of him (showing Abed's seemingly hyperbolic version of him is actually restrained– and in a different outfit to boot):

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    We also have Abed and Annie as Inspector Spacetime and his new assistant with varying degrees of immersion and successfully integration therein. Annie's no longer on the outer fringe of Abed's imagination trying to deflect Batman's actions– now she's neck deep in his imagination pushing at his core defense mechanism this season.

    And, mentioned previously in these reviews but worth restating here– we have this direct parallel established:

    Inspector Spacetime Disembodied Head versus Abed's Head versus Cornelius Hawthorne's head:

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    And finally, we have Craig Pelton's Two Face attire and the symbolism it represents for the Pre-Lunch and Post-Lunch Study Group. Everybody tried to do something different (aside from Jeff who had his major shakeup LAST week). Shirley beats the matrix, Pierce tries not to sit on his balls but couldn't course correct in time (again in a way paralleling a future version of Abed just as much as Jeff- trying to outwit fate only to make things worse this Season), and of course Abed/Annie and Britta/Troy.

    So a lot going on in this episode beneath all dem layers.

    It's almost too conceptual to follow, but I love it.

    http://fishsticktheatre.com/TV…

    • Great work, Affro. I'm definitely in the pro-VSA camp. I hadn't thought it through as completely as you do here, but I definitely kept in mind when watching the ep that everything we were seeing was actually presented by Abed, to Annie, as a way of exploring his own mind. So if he's without empathy, that's his own fear and self-perception. Really, both sides of the argument are within him the whole time.

      PS: It seems like when Abed enters one of his alternate or play-personalities, which he commits to so fully that his motivations while being "in character" can seem obscure, he uses the opportunity to try to kiss Annie, or watch her sleep, or even just forgive her for breaking his DVD. Coincidence…or Conshipspiracy??????

  • I think every now and then Abed needs to "recalibrate" and re-learn empathy. Whatever he has, whether it's autism, or "TV autism" it's been consistently presented on the show as a tendency to become too self-involved and forget to account for how others may feel, mixed with a certain degree of self-loathing (he starts from the assumption that nobody could like or care for him, and he gradually rises to that standard*).

    *he's a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock in that way – a self-declared "high functioning sociopath" who needs to be reminded (or remind himself) that he's capable of friendship and self sacrifice. Or like Dan Harmon.

    • Is that really something quantifiable? Or something that can be generalized? Isn't empathy something that's far more situational? Sympathy, on the other hand, is something that can be a characteristic of a person.

      Also, my team is so…

  • I meant in the sense that he's on the autism spectrum. It should be rephrased as, "in what manner is it most realistic for Abed to be empathetic?" or even "how autistic is he really?", because we've seen some wild swings to serve a certain narrative.

  • Ah. Sorry! I know three people who are autistic, but all three are really, really autistic and it's pretty devastating for their families. Highly functional autistic people are a thing of TV for me.

    The major hurdle that Abed is crossing in VSA is not necessarily Abed's relationship with others in the Study Group, rather the Study Group's relationships with each other without his involvement. I see it as three levels of empathy and that he's capable of the first two, but hadn't quite perfected level three. He is capable of being empathetic on a one on one basis. He is capable of functioning in the group. But his empathy needed to extend to others' one on one relationships which he either generalized or relied to tropes. I, of course, made up these three levels and could totally be wrong. I agree that they've not been consistent, but at least, that's how I saw the episode.

  • I feel the same about TV autism. My little cousin (15) is autistic, a little more than Abed, and it's really hard for his family. I was with them for a few months last year and I saw all the effects. All the things shown about Abed hold true — unable to recognize emotion and social cues, doesn't understand money, difficultly expressing feelings — but there's stuff you wouldn't see on TV like the outbursts and mood swings. He's extremely bright, happy and caring but he can't do the things he wants at school. It sucks because he wants to doeverything but he can't. (Side note: He also loves Call Me Maybe and he loved Community when I showed him a few episodes.)

    One thing I know for sure is that Abed shouldn't be doing that Danny Pudi smile he does in History 101. That was extremely unsettling and not at all Abed. My cousin doesn't exactly squeal like Abed but he does freak out. One thing he doesn't do is smile on purpose.

    • For me, the fact of the matter was that any episode with screaming Abed was not going to be an episode I would enjoy. That's probably not an ideal way to view the show, but for me that noise that Abed made was emblematic of the blatant disregard for character that Season 3 showed. If the people making the show didn't care, why should I?

    • "If the people making the show didn't care, why should I?"

      I think this is particularly harsh, and in fact would posit that an episode like VSA only comes out of true passion, not apathy. I tend to view Abed to be the Dan Harmon of the series, not because of self-proclaimed extension, but because sometimes characters, like people in real life don't do what we expect/want them to do. It just means that the show's perspective and your perspective are different (which is natural). But to say that this episode is a result of the creator (somebody I'm not even all that fond of) not caring at all, and due to one character moment is pretty narrow-minded. I never want a television series to do what I expect/believe it should do, only what it wants to do. If I don't like it, fine. But I'm never going to assume that because I don't see it their way, that they must not care about the characters as much as I do.

  • Yeah, that was probably a little flippant. I don't want the show to just do what I want (that would be pandering), but I certainly reserve the right to dislike what the show feels like it wants to do, and the back half of Season 3 seemed to me to betray a real lack of actual interest in the characters at the expense of whatever they were trying to do with serialization.

  • I agree with that, and it's why I really have no use for the "Chang takes over the school" arc even if parts of it were excellent (well, mostly just CU). But I like VSA because it feels like the episode from that time period that cares the most about the characters, even if its a little flawed in parts. (I feel similarly about OVM, another episode that I like more with each viewing).

    • I'm a little busy today, so I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to chime in as much as I want to (still haven't finished reading your review yet, nor have I even started Affro's rebuttal), but I just wanted to make sure I say that I love this episode. In our rankings last year, I placed it 5th, and I would now place it 2nd.

    • I like it more every time I rewatch it, to the point where I'd consider calling it my 2nd favorite Season 3 episode after RCT. It'd probably be either that or DF:R.

      It's not perfect, I'll admit – Abed feels off, even taken into consideration the points of Affro's rebuttal, but mostly I don't really care, because I think it's one of the shows most interesting and complex character studies – for Annie but especially for Abed. Although I do think VSA is a great Annie episode, too. I know a lot of people think most of her development in it was ephemeral, but I wouldn't quite agree. I think it was meant to mature her character in a way that fixed what much of S3 did to her. We don't really get much Annie in Season 3 after this episode though (aside from BLU but that's almost all straightly comic) and Season 4 treated her horribly but doesn't really count, so we'll see if Season 5 will do anything with the developments she made in this episode.

  • Yeah, I responded to VSA more as an Annie ep than an Abed ep, myself. The show may not have followed up on her "epiphany" about her feelings for Jeff. But it was still valuable IMO. Obviously, real people don't change entirely, or all at once, because they figure out something about themselves. Hopefully it would have a gradual effect on her, over time. But even if it doesn't, it helps to solidify her relationship with Abed in that moment.

  • I also thought of VSA as more of an Annie episode than an Abed episode. Perhaps it wasn't intended to be and as you said they didn't really follow up on it, but it felt monumental at the time. I really liked what it said about her as a person now and the character's evolution these past few years. It's too bad we didn't get to see her putting the "epiphany" into gradual action. Attraction is a funny thing and you can't always help yourself, so I wouldn't have expected it to be permanently gone. But I would've liked to see her actions change slowly.

    • Even though I'm on the other side of this issue, I wanted to say great work on this critical review, Gauephat. I especially liked your comments on the Jeff/Annie relationship, which I completely agree with (and as a result, while I sometimes enjoy their romantic tension, other times it feels like the show's weakest spot).

      I like what you had to say about Abed, too. I did think he was being a dick at times in s3, for sure. They probably pushed this strain of his character too far without explicitly justifying it (I liked his screaming as basically a meta-comment on that, but I can't help but agree that it's broad characterization for the sake of a goofy gag). But I see the premise of it, and I like that premise: Abed can see the others more clearly than they see themselves in S1-2 because he's more emotionally removed, he doesn't personalize the emotional stakes of their problems with their own lives and each other. He's kind, but he sees it all as a game to a degree (this comes across fairly well at the end of "Doc Redux", too). But the prospect of the group splitting up forever and Troy ditching him to pursue the rest of his life shakes Abed too much. I guess maybe it's something that's first triggered back in AUC. But it can definitely be understood, IMO, as another side of Abed's personality…the same proactivity that serves him so well when he didn't feel threatened becomes toxic once he does.

      If anything, the fact that he was so flawless in eps like "Physical Education" and treated as so innocent after "Poultry" and "For a Few Paintballs More" makes the Jekyll-and-Hyde polarity that much more believable and even kinda necessary.

    • I actually haven't seen this episode since the week it aired. I saw it a few times that week and read so much about it and thought about it a lot. I might have made a few uncharacteristically long comments about it as well. So it obviously had an impact on me. But it was one of the three episodes I skipped when I rewatched S3. I didn't really enjoy this episode. I don't think it's bad (quite the opposite) and I consider it quite important in the grand scheme of things. Still, I've no desire to go through it again. It stands alone in that sense. It might be the episode that makes me dislike S3's attempts at serialization.

      Also, I agree with you about the future of Community. I'm pretty grateful for what has already come and whatever might come.

    • Great review!

      I like this episode. I don't consider it a classic, but I do think it continues a very solid character arc for Abed, it's funny, and, most importantly (for me at least), it continues the show's defiantly experimental streak that characterizes the second half of S3.

      Thematically, the episode continues the neurotic, solipsistic streak that was introduced since Biology 101. The characters know they must change, but they're horrified of what may come out of it. Jeff takes an axe to the table, Annie reverts to googly-eyed Jeff worship; Troy gives in to his and Abed's every whim; the group expels Todd like some freakish kidney stone. The only character who exhibits real growth is Britta (Shirley and Pierce are in stationary mode). And Abed?

      I think Abed spends most of S3 worried, if not scared to death. His S1-S2 serenity was largely a function of internalizing his inability to connect. Abed had convinced himself he can't really feel emotion, so he had cast himself as a Spock or Data figure. And in a weird way, this detachment led him to being accepted: Jeff calls him a shaman in the pilot, and so on. But the hints that this was always a role were always there: from the film he makes for his dad, to feeding the Queen Bitch that devastating put down ("you're a freak AND NO ONE WILL LOVE YOU"), to Chad pooping his pants on the set of Cougar Town, it's clear that Abed is never fully comfortable in his skin.

      So is he in S3? He lives with Troy, indulging every possible crazy whim they have; he has a circle of very, VERY close friends who care for him. And he's close to losing them both. So, long story short, S3 Abed is in full panic mode and digging in desperately, trying to avoid a loss he knows it's coming. He starts in RCT, by running scenarios (and, once again, reserving the harshest appraisal for himself ("BECAUSE YOU'RE LONELY AND CRAZY!"). He amps up the nerdiness to 11 with Troy (the two bring the worst out of each other, with Troy enabling Abed's self-indulgence, and Abed manipulating Troy's fundamental worship of him) in the Dreamatorium and elsewhere. He gets hopped up on impressions – the lamest and most sincere form of pop-culture obsessiveness. And in the process, he loses himself a little.

      I don't think S3 undid Abed – if anything, it gave him an arc to rival Pierce's in S2. Abed's wails, his robotic demeanor are all an act – he's created a front of vulnerable neediness to keep Troy and the rest of the group around. I know I'm making him sound like some sort of devious asshole, but I think there's something deeper at play – the more he builds at this façade of quirks, the more he gives in to self-loathing and doubt. Hence, Evil Abed – both what he fears he will become if left alone, and what he thinks others will see him as.

      VSA represents the breaking of this bind. I think it starts off as an attempt to manipulate Annie into maintaining the status quo and not calling him out on his drive to split Troy and Britta up. So he wails and "breaks down." But since Annie can see through his bullshit, his role-playing ends up being revealing something about himself – namely his terrible fear of loneliness. It's the same pattern as AUC and CFS – an extreme form of pretense that can only be resolved through en extreme form of confession.

      So perhaps it's not a matter of Abed learning empathy, as much as re-learning, and relinquishing the obsessive need for control.

      tl;dr version: Abed is wail is a ruse. He's playing at vulnerably "crazy" to elicit sympathy from the group and keep it intact because he's afraid he'd be left behind if they ever broke up. This is consistent with Abed's evolution from S1 on.

      If anything feels odd about the episode is Annie's half-hearted reveal ("I'm in love with the idea of love" – what the hell does that even mean?). I truly resent what S3 did to her – whether they were trying to keep the shippers happy or simply couldn't keep all the plates spinning at the same rate, her character development is the sole blight on S3.

      This got very long, and I'm sorry; I hope it at least makes sense.

  • Stupid NuDisqus meant that I read yours first, thus unintentionally denying them credit as well. Grrrr. Their takes were excellent as well!

    Y'all have really covered it incredibly well, but here are some of my thoughts in brief (because I'm supposed to be working and HAHAHA).

    Abed is scared of losing the group, and most of his acting out in S3 is related to that. He's doubling down on all the things that he thinks make them them on a superficial level (heavy on the pop-culture references in CI, Pillow Fort Redux in P&B, as a couple of examples) as a way of coping with the massive changes he sees coming down the road. As others pull away, it gets harder and harder for him to cope. We see his fears enunciated in this episode, then we see those fears materialize in ITF via Evil Abed.

    Abed is incredibly perceptive about who he is and what he wants, and that is his primary setting. However, he's also capable of using that perception to understand and help others, it's just that he needs an inciting incident to get him thinking about others. It's why he waited until after the Dean had his breakdown to help in DFR, for example (this answers LloydBraun's question about Abed's empathy below-Abed should be capable of great empathy and perception, but it should be pretty deeply buried under a layer of what could come across as self-centeredness).

    Also, regarding the wail. The wail was part of him play-acting to try and get Annie to understand him. Abed's actions after Annie tells him to be more empathetic are all about bringing her to a point where she can better understand him. He wasn't leveling with her until he was in the locker. Everything before that was about getting her to the locker. Abed's a manipulative fellow, and we aren't always privy to how his mind works. A lot of his actions have manipulative motives behind them, which is why the moments when he completely levels with somebody ("you humble me") are so damn powerful.

  • I very much agree with all this. I think S3 also shows Abed the limitation of pop culture as a proxy for reality. There is a point when all the play acting stops being creative and insightful and becomes stifling and selfish (in a way, Evil Abed stands for that too – he's not just a representation of Abed's worst fears, he's also a walking cliche – the goateed doppelganger of a thousand lame SF shows). Incidentally, this is the lesson Fat Neil learned from Pierce in A D&D – there's a moment when you have to rip the fantasy apart and accept the reality behind it. And when you do that, the fantasy becomes truly powerful and useful, precisely because you can see how, and where, and why it diverges from reality.

    Abed still hasn't fully accepted that, probably out of anxiety, or maybe because of the limitations of his condition, or both. He goes on an impressionist bender. He disappears into the Dreamatorium. And it's only when he literally can't invent his way out of a bind, and he gets locked in that closet that he can be fully sincere.

  • I don't need to talk about how massively flawed S4 was, but it did do an admirable job of following this throughline with Abed to a point where you can really see how he's grown and changed. Jeff in particular regressed in S4 for the sake of plot mechanics, but Abed kept trucking along in a way that made sense for the character.

  • Since Gauephat's VSA review is already multiple clicks down, I'll post this at the top. I'd like to call everyone's attention to the theory that at the end of the episode, when Abed says he has learned the elusive new technique known as empathy, it's actually Annie as Abed delivering those lines. This is expounded upon by these fine folks:

    – http://crown-of-weeds.tumblr.c…

     

    http://flerica.tumblr.com/post… 

    I don't know if I agree with this idea, probably because I've never had a problem with that line, as I've always interpreted it as Abed continuing to play the part of the Abed that he thinks Annie sees him as. Since I generally trust the characterization of Dan Harmon-run Community, I think either of those possibilities is more likely than Abed not actually believing he had empathy before this moment.

    • Once again another entirely likely interpretation that just doesn't sit well because it should've been clear in the script to begin with. S3 had a nuance problem; it wasn't that there wasn't any (far from it), it's that it was so often murky. That happened time and again in episodes like 312, 314, 316, even 304 (until Shinigami's review I had never thought of it all being from Abed's perspective, yet that's probably the objectively correct reading). We shouldn't have to piece this stuff together like those Iranian kids in Argo assembling photos of the journalists. Nuance/complexity and clarity are not mutually exclusive. We've seen many prior episodes that are just as nuanced or more where the themes and characterization are clear.

    • VSA and the season finale made it very clear that we were supposed to take the events in RCT as Abed's perspective. I could go even farther and say that CI hinted pretty heavily at it, when it reintroduced Evil Abed.

      I wrote a pretty lengthy post on Abed's S3 arc (which, the more I think of it, the more it appears as one of the greatest things the show has done, second only to Pierce's S2 arc) on Gauephat's review. I'd be curious to read your thoughts.

    • I hear what you're saying, but on the other hand, I didn't find those episodes murky when I first watched them. These alternate interpretations have added to an appreciation that for me was already plenty strong in the first place. I mean, I get the interpretation of only going by what actually happened, but while VSA never explicitly states that Abed was play-acting not previously having empathy or that Annie was saying that line as ABED, it also doesn't specifically NOT state either of those things. Unless there's strong evidence one or way the other, I tend to go with the most gratifying interpretation. Maybe that makes me a tad optimistically foolish, but all's I know is, I didn't have trouble doing that for most of Season 3.