Friday, April 20, 2012

Community recap: Virtual perfection

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie in "Virtual Systems Analysis."

If "Virtual Systems Analysis" had contained nothing more than Troy Barnes breaking down and revealing all his secrets, it would have been a pretty solid episode of Community. Throw in Dean Pelton, dressed as a half-man, half-woman (someone has been reading Todd VanDerWerff's Carnivale coverage!) in a moment of crisis when he realizes that he has to go to the bank in this ridiculous outfit, and the half-hour gets bumped up several levels until it reaches "great" territory.

And then you add in a superbly constructed, highly emotional story arc that focuses on the unexpected pairing of Annie and Abed - and includes a killer soap-opera parody to boot - and what comes out is an absolute standout episode, the type of installment that demonstrates why, when Community is on its game, it's one of the best shows on TV.

I don't know if "Virtual Systems Analysis" will, in the long run, be considered one of the show's greatest episodes, like "Remedial Chaos Theory" or "Modern Warfare." But I suspect it has the makings of a stealth classic in the vein of "Critical Film Studies" or "Mixology Certification"; the kind of quietly great installment that combines some serious character development and pretty hilarious comedy.

"Virtual Systems Analysis" was, like "Critical Film Studies," all about Abed, despite the fact that the socially challenged pop-culture junkie spent much of the running time offscreen. Instead, we got a glimpse into Abed's head via the Dreamatorium, which provided some interesting insight into his views on the study group's internal dynamics and clarified some things for Annie in the process.

The most nakedly emotional moment in Abed's storyline came when he, as Shirley, said that he had been removed from the simulation because he was taking the needs of others into account, and no one needed Abed. While that realization of what Abed really thinks of himself was quite moving, the more interesting facet of Abed's mind was his fixation on other people's relationships. We see him worrying about Troy and Britta and assuming Annie's romantic attraction to Jeff. In purely formal terms, the simulation scenes were almost always set up in terms of pairs - even Shirley and Pierce appeared onscreen together - an indication of Abed's perpetual odd-man-out status.

Danny Pudi gave a great performance in the moments we did see him onscreen, but it was really Alison Brie who stole the episode. Her acknowledgment of the control-freak tendencies that linked her to Abed was a lovely character moment, and her reaction to Abed's assumption that she just wants to be with Jeff was perfect. It's easy to look at Abed as an audience proxy here, standing in for all the viewers who are focused on the possibility of a Jeff/Annie romantic arc at the exclusion of all else, but it's also telling, both for Abed (as mentioned above) and for Annie. It might be perfectly clear to Annie (although the scene where she talks to Abed-as-Annie indicates otherwise) that she isn't really interested in Jeff except insofar as she wants to be loved, but it isn't all that clear to anyone else.

As usual, I'm writing about Community as a character-driven psychological study and neglecting to talk about it as a comedy, which is a problem because, while "Virtual Systems Analysis" wasn't the series' funniest installment, it contained some pretty damn hilarious moments. Check out the list of quotes below for a rundown of the episode's best comedic moments, and remember: the question isn't where find the funniest lines, but when.

The Night's Best Quotes

"The tortillas are made with microfinanced flour!" Who wants to bet that Britta has either given or received a few Kiva loans in her day?

"Is this a social cue?" Not only a nice bit of foreshadowing for the rest of the episode, but also a great nod to last week's beautifully played "I need help reacting to something."

"Can I be perfectly honest with you guys? I think I went too far with this one. I have to go to the bank today. What am I supposed to tell people in line, I had good news and bad new? Come on, Craig, get your life together." Jim Rash did a spectacular job with the two speeches that bookended the episode. That man is a comedic for a nature.

"Tut tut m'lord, wouldn't give a tuppence for that sticky wicket!" "Okay, stop simulation." "More British?" I really, really hope that Brie's British accent in The Five-Year Engagement sounds exactly like this.

"Ooh, those appetizers were dope and legit!" Abed does a great Troy (see also: "I like football, but I don't," from "Advanced Gay").

"But damn the rules, damn the system, damn our two-foot height disparity!" A nice nod to Joel McHale's continual mockery of Ryan Seacrest's small stature.

"I didn't get Inception! I didn't get Inception! So many layers!" Not only was this one of those fantastic Donald Glover-crying moments, it was also a great acknowledgment of the episode's most obvious structural reference.

"So, whose memory is this?" "Maybe it's yours. Maybe the Dreamatorium really works. Or maybe Leonard was watching from the bushes and told Abed about it." "I don't have cable." Everything is better when Leonard is around.

"Can I just interject and say I don't know what the hell's going on?" Chevy Chase mostly spent this episode making random asides, and he sold every one perfectly.

"Blorgons? Intercept us? Well this mission has gone pear-shaped indeed!" That line could very easily be written into your average Doctor Who episode.

"The people at the bank loved my outfit, and they had all kinds of questions about it, and my answers seemed to amuse and even liberate them a little! A few of us went to lunch, and I had the deepest conversation of my life." Seriously, Rash is a comedy god.

"Okay, I didn't really avoid sitting on them. Sat right on them." Disgusting visual, brilliant execution. The group's empathetic reactions were the icing on the cake.

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