"I don't have cable."
The (kind of annoying) fans of Community who only want the show to do crazy episodes every week should be satisfied with "Virtual Systems Analysis", which is possibly the nuttiest they've had ever, including "Remedial Chaos Theory". Whereas "Theory" only required you to follow the basic "What if?" concept (repeated 7 times over), this "Dreamatorium" episode can get a little tricky to keep track of who is who during the breathless (even rushed) third act.
Let's backtrack. As nearly every episode does, we begin in the study room, where the gang is actually talking about their Biology class for a chang(e). After some panic about their upcoming test, the Dean busts in with his funniest costume ever (not hyperbole) and announces that their Bio teacher is sick and they have the next few hours free. While Shirley, Jeff, and Pierce go off on their own adventures, Annie decides to play matchmaker, more or less tricking Troy and Britta into going on a date and getting Abed out of the way by asking him to show her how the Dreamatorium works. It's been a long time coming for this magical playroom, introduced in the 5th or 6th episode of the season and only glimpsed (and oft-mentioned) since then - I'm just as curious as Annie!
As it turns out, the room runs on Abed himself. A (cardboard) machine combines his thoughts with everything he knows about his friends, which allows him to perfectly simulate anyone in the group (and a half accurate Chang). After Abed inadvertently insults her skills as a playmate, Annie decides she needs to show him what empathy is, and dumps the "everything he knows about his friends" container (just go with it) into the machine's "Abed" brain. Or something. Layman's terms - he can accurately "be" everyone else in the group, and thus the rest of the episode follows Annie's exasperated attempts to find the real Abed, who is missing in the halls of a Grey's Anatomy type show Annie has imagined. So it's an Abed-centric episode where Danny Pudi doesn't appear all that much - leave it to Community to manage that sort of idea off.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast (particularly Joel McHale) gets to enjoy playing their characters as envisioned by Abed, a tough thing to pull off that would be a disaster in the hands of a lesser cast. Also, since Abed is playing everyone else on his own (Annie is pretty much always Annie), the other actors deserve props for standing still and emotionless while no one is there to play them (particularly Gillian Jabobs during a riotous Donald Glover meltdown). Unsurprisingly, Pierce/Chevy Chase is kept to a minimum, as the actor couldn't have been blamed for having trouble understanding his lines this time around. Though, as with last week's episode, they once again give him some hilarious lines that break up the more character driven/emotional beats of the rest of the episode; Annie and Abed break each others' hearts, Pierce sits on his own balls.
Jokes aside, it is an emotional episode on par with "Critical Film Studies", focusing on Abed's tendency to fracture his friendships with the way he is. In "Studies", it was Jeff - he was upset that the two weren't hanging out as often, but had no way of showing it beside staging a parody of a movie about two old friends talking. Now he's upset that he might lose his close (and recently repaired) bond with Troy, and blames Annie for setting him on the date with Britta and attempting to destroy the fabric of the group. So there's a lot of "Awww, poor Abed" moments tonight; if you thought Troy's "nobody wants you" line during the Civil War was harsh, it's nothing compared to Annie's thoughts as well as Abed's own interpretation of how the group sees him. But he's not the only one to feel bad for; Abed's view of Annie (mostly in relation to her feelings for Jeff) isn't exactly flattering at times, and the writers aren't afraid to go long stretches without any jokes at all, favoring the characters' bruised feelings and attempts at reconnecting after some of the season's events. It's a more subtle version of "Competitive Ecology", in that the episode isn't afraid to show that these people can be pretty dickish to one another, but without being so harsh (or taking down poor Todd and his stupid baby in the process). Going forward, I think they would be wise to handle any need to air a character's dirty laundry in this fashion. Not necessarily in the Dreamatorium, but one on one with another member of the group, instead of a study room scene with everyone yelling at each other.
That said, I WOULD love to see more episodes in the Dreamatorium. Too late for S3 (the show has been wrapped for months), but it'd be fun to see another character in there during Season 4 if they can convince the network to let them get this crazy again (guess we'll see how this week's ratings are). I can only imagine how great a Britta-centric episode (perhaps with Troy as her guide) would be - who wouldn't want to see how her brain works? One of my favorite things about the Halloween episode was seeing how everyone interpreted the others (like Shirley picturing them all as drug addicts and sexual deviants), so there's a lot of potential there. Hell, maybe if Chevy sees the error of his ways and returns to the show with a better attitude, they could use a trip to the Dreamatorium to humanize Pierce a bit. If you go back and watch the first season, you'll see a Pierce that was a bit daft but often willing to give thoughtful and honest insight to the others and help them with their problems (I think of the one with the boating class in particular), and I'd love to see someone do the same for him; it's been a while since anyone's really had his back on anything (Jeff defended him against his tyrannical father in "Advanced Gay", but that was more about him working out his own daddy issues).
In fact, I would like to see them do more of anything if it meant less Inspector Spacetime. It's a cute gag and I like that they have their own "Itchy & Scratchy" series of sorts, but the scenes of them fighting Blorgons and flying HMS Spacetime 12 seem to get more time than the far more interesting and effective dramatic bits. Annie's "Winger Speech" is like 20 seconds long, and then we get another 2-3 minutes of Spacetime stuff, with made up words and (I assume) Doctor Who references. Abed's obsession with Cougar Town was far more enjoyable, and the obvious lack of "product placement" for that ABC show kept it to a comfortable minimum. With Spacetime being their own invention, they are free to use it as a crutch a bit too often as of late.
Only flaw in an otherwise classic episode. The writers have been RTing angry comments from some folks who thought the episode was too confusing or crazy (damned if you do...), but I hope they don't take it to heart for future seasons. I love that the show can go big and ambitious within its own world (instead of a movie parody) and yet retain its strong focus on these flawed but endlessly lovable people and how they need each other. That's what makes the show great; many shows lose sight of their characters as the world gets more complex (see: Lost), others get so comfortable with their characters that they start coasting and not even bothering to tell a story (30 Rock and The Office). Community has consistently found a good balance between the two, and regardless of what happens when NBC makes its decision, I know that's the thing that will forever keep it high on my list of all time favorite shows.