TV Talk: COMMUNITY’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” Is A Series High Point

Brian takes a moment from horror movies to wax on about the latest COMMUNITY episode, which could be the best one yet.

Those who follow my Twitter because they are fans of my horror-based writing (or just love hearing passive aggressive snipes at coworkers and various local businesses) might wonder if I’m on the Community payroll, as it makes up an increasing percentage of my tweets. Sadly, I am NOT on the take, nor am I BFFs with Chevy Chase, a dream I had from childhood and have obviously been over for… weeks. No, I just talk a lot about it because I think it’s the best show on TV right now, and I figure if I can convince just one person to watch it (preferably one with a Nielsen box), it will be worth bugging those unfortunate folks who either dislike the show or simply refuse to watch it (I know a guy – a screenwriter in fact! – who refuses to watch it because it’s a “network sitcom”, a put down I couldn’t even begin to comprehend).

When I first watched the show, there was really only one reason I was interested – Chevy Chase as Pierce Hawthorne. As I alluded to earlier, I’ve been a fan of his work since I was a kid (my oldest memory is, not a lie, watching Seems Like Old Times with my dad), and as anyone with even a vague awareness of the man can tell you, it hasn’t been easy to hold on to that fandom for the past two decades. In a peculiar turn of events, he enjoyed his biggest ever box office success (and his most quotable movie, tied with Fletch anyway) with Christmas Vacation, which came out at the end of 1989 – and then it was like a switch went off somewhere. His next bunch of films all tanked (deservedly so for the most part), his talk show is the stuff of (awful) legend, and then he decided to do nothing but kid’s movies for the next 5 years (ironically, some of them were hits). It was like his ability to find good roles (save for a great turn in Dirty Work) ended the second that the 80s did.

But anyone who provided that much entertainment growing up wouldn’t be abandoned, and so I kept the faith, enduring solo outings to see things like Zoom and Doogal because I couldn’t find anyone else to go with me, hoping to see that spark return. And thus I tuned into Community in the fall of 2009, not expecting much, but figuring Joel McHale could earn a laugh or two from me. In fact, when I first moved to LA my first job was working at the E! channel (a job I hated so much that to this day I still get a sinking feeling in my stomach just driving by the place), and the only times I didn’t feel like smashing my head into a wall was when the live feed of McHale recording The Soup would be on in our office and I’d catch a few of his quips.

And honestly, the pilot isn’t that great, in retrospect, but it was amusing enough to keep watching (judging a show from its pilot is never really fair anyway, IMO), and I figured since it was a bit of an unusual show and also aired on NBC, it would be canceled after six episodes anyway. But it really started coming together, and by the Halloween episode I was a legit fan. By the Valentine’s Day episode I was enthralled, and by the end of the season I was annoyed that it wouldn’t be on again for another 12 weeks.

Oh, and then Season 2 was even better.

So now we’re in S3, and the ratings have dipped a bit. Worse, even die-hard fans have been underwhelmed with the first three episodes (I’ll give them that on the 2nd one, but the premiere was good and I flat out LOVED the 3rd episode, featuring a Frank Grimes type character named “Todd”). But based on the talkbacks I’ve read and discussions with a few real life friends, any doubts that the show had blown its wad were eradicated by last night’s “Remedial Chaos Theory”, which may be one of the finest episodes yet. Written by Chris McKenna (who was responsible for Season 2’s brilliant “Paradigms Of Human Memory”, aka “the fake clip show” episode), the “bottle episode” type plot finds Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy (Donald Glover) inviting everyone over for a housewarming party. When the pizza arrives, someone has to go down and get it, and from there we get seven different timelines, each showing what would happen to the group once a character left.

As with other “gimmick” episodes, it’s not just that it turns out to be very funny (I am still laughing at the reveal of Pierce’s housewarming gift to Troy), but it actually deepens the characters, ending on a rather bittersweet note as one realizes that the group may be better off without him/her. To me, that is one of the best things about Community, why I am baffled that Emmy voters don’t seem to recognize its quality over generic horseshit like Big Bang Theory (a show I hated even before it became the timeslot rival). They do these high concept episodes that any other show would just ignore once the next episode rolled around, but make them part of the continuity. Hell, last season featured a zombie outbreak that not only didn’t turn out to be a nightmare or whatever, but actually kicked off what would become one of the season’s main storylines (Shirley’s baby). In other words, there are no throwaway episodes; even though you could dismiss the bulk of last night’s episode as “not real”, it was 100% important to the overall timeline.

And I say that even though it aired out of order. Continuity nerds will point out that this and last week’s episodes were swapped. But there’s a tradeoff – a joke from Pierce in last week’s episode (the “Todd” one) now makes a lot more sense, and the writers even had a little fun with the switch in the show’s meta opening shot concerning Troy and Abed’s apartment number. However, I think this actually inadvertently was a blessing for the show; with so many hating the behavior of the characters in the Todd episode, it would have been a shame to kill the goodwill from tonight’s had the order been swapped. Onward and upward! Indeed, the ratings for last night's improved quite a bit over last week’s, which is always a good sign, but an even better one when it was an episode that can make a newcomer say “OK, this is something I should watch.”

Also, without spoiling much, what really sold the episode for me were the little moments of true pathos, something I don’t see in any other sitcom. Maybe the timeline didn’t happen, but at one point Pierce blurts out a painful truth that is very much true of his character as a whole – it doesn’t change when Jeff rolls the dice again (after spending so much of last year as a villain, they’ve done a great job of redeeming him this year – which makes this Chevy fan very happy). The writing is so good on this show that even they don’t let ANYTHING go to waste – each timeline presented an important moment for each character (even the insane “Troy” timeline, which features a Final Destination esque chain of events that even included gore! See, I’m not stepping TOO far out of my comfort zone).

All of that is due to the fact that show creator Dan Harmon and the writing staff truly care about these characters, which isn’t something I can really believe about, say, the Office writers, who can’t even bother to keep them consistent from week to week (Andy got Michael’s job but also apparently took over his personality too). And no one ever grows over there; Jim and Pam’s marriage aside, everyone is the exact same they’ve been for seven years. But if you had tuned into last night’s episode after not watching since season 1, you might have a bit of whiplash. Hell, Troy and Abed didn’t even LIKE each other at first, now they’re “Tro-bed”. That’s what happens when an intelligent and creative writing staff doesn’t hit the reset button at the end of each episode – the characters grow in believable ways, and thus the laughs come naturally, as we’ve come to accept these as real people, not stock characters in a generic sitcom.

Part of that evolution came from the actors. They are all terrific, and their chemistry as ensemble is the best I’ve seen on a show since Arrested Development. Most shows have some dead weight (I love 30 Rock, but if they got rid of Kenneth I would cheer), but honestly I couldn’t imagine the show without a single character. Even the Dean, a character I disliked at first (saying so to Harmon via Twitter got me reprimanded! I still feel guilty) has become an invaluable addition (and a series regular! Go Jim Rash), sometimes scoring some of the best lines in his limited appearances. And while Ken Jeong can get grating at times, his appearance as a Chow Yun Fat type character in the series’ first paintball episode has forever solidified his merit as part of the crew. Add in the college’s Springfield-ian roster of supporting characters (Leonard, Vicki, Garrett, Star-Burns, Magnitude, and, somewhere (I hope), Professor Whitman) and new additions like John Goodman’s Dean of Air Conditioning Repair, and you have television’s most wonderfully varied cast; people that you almost miss when they’re gone for more than a few episodes. Like the bar from Cheers, Greendale is a place that you’ll genuinely want to hang out at after a few episodes, not because it’s a cool looking place, but because you’ll wish you were part of the gang.

It’s also the rare sitcom that rewards a second viewing. I’m watching it again now as I write, and I now realize that Jeff’s “I’m going to get a drink” line is always prompted by something that ties into the episode’s final moments (not the post-episode “tag”), not just a random event prompting him to stand up and hit his head. It also helps re-confirm how little on the show is thrown away – the Air Conditioning Repair Annex that plays a part in this season is not an out of nowhere plot element – Pierce mentioned this sub-school back in one of the earliest season 1 episodes. It’s not exactly a Lost style serial – you can skip an episode or two and still get all the jokes – but there’s a real continuity to the writing that gives you the impression that things are planned out in advance (which is why swapping the order a bit is actually noticeable – it’s not uncommon to any show but rarely would anyone realize it).

So now I get to the part of the article where I ask folks to join me in watching the show. Now that NBC has killed a couple of its loser shows (adieu, Free Agents!), Community has sunk to the bottom half of their overall ratings, none of which are impressive to begin with (CBS just canceled a show that got better ratings than any scripted NBC show). Worse, it’s consistently the lowest rated of the four shows on Thursday, which means it could be shuttled off to another night to die once 30 Rock comes back (thanks for watching Whitney, jerks). To be fair I don’t think it should be in first position – Office or 30 Rock should be kicking off the night and giving it a good lead-in, but it seems stuck there for now. I don’t see them canning it halfway through the season, but as the show is ostensibly about a community college, it would be a damn shame for it to die now when they only have a year to go for a true finale at graduation (and a more likely chance at syndication). However, there’s no way that happens unless the ratings improve a bit. You can also do your part by buying the DVDs, handily linked below for your purchasing pleasure. Buzz also helps – the critical raves and vocal fanbase probably helped it secure the 3rd season, but nothing helps more than tuning in at 8pm on Thursdays and maybe even watching a few of those commercials.

Because look – ever since the show has been on the air, Chevy hasn’t made a single bad movie. Keep him busy/funny on Community, and we are spared another Funny Money. Everyone wins!

In case you missed it last night, here's Remedial Chaos Theory: