TV Review: COMMUNITY 5.08 “App Development and Condiments”

Greendale goes sci-fi.

"This is something I would have wanted to kill!"

Last week's episode was praised for toning things down and focusing on characters instead of a high concept, so in Community's world, it actually makes perfect sense that they'd come back with an episode that pays homage to Zardoz, of all goddamn things. The great thing about the show is that it can swing back and forth like this without giving its fans whiplash - it's always done fine with both ends of the spectrum. I don't think "App Development & Condiments" represents the best of the show's high-concept tales, but overall I think it balances out the need to tell a real, character-developing story amidst an insane, campus-wide "game" slightly better than "Geothermal Escapism", as it's allowed to be as silly as it wants without the threat of a major character's departure fighting for attention. There are stakes, but they're not all that important this time, so there's never that feeling that they could be using their time more wisely - unless you count actually going to class.

The target this time is Yelp-type apps; we've all seen someone's tweet or Facebook message saying that they have decided not to go to a restaurant because it had a couple of low Yelp ratings, and similar ratings systems can make or break a new mobile game. So what happens when people themselves are rated? An app company sends two reps (played by Brian Posehn and Steve Agee, two of this episode's many guest stars from the comedy world) to Greendale in order to launch a beta test of "MeowMeow Beenz", an app that, as Abed puts it, "takes everything subjective and unspoken about human interaction and reduces it to explicit, objective numbers". In regular terms, people can be rated 5s if they're awesome, 1s if they're not, and 3s are merely glad that they're not 2s. This being Greendale, eventually everyone in school is using the app and overturning the campus once again, with 5s wearing majestic white robes and turning the study room into some sort of palace, while the 1s are banished outside.

So how does our heroes fit in? Well, Shirley becomes the de facto leader of the 5s, using her manipulative pleasantness to get high scores from everyone while passive aggressively inspiring her minions to down-vote her "enemies" (when Vicki merely rates her a 4, she is quickly reduced to a 1 by her peers). Jeff, annoyed that this new system upsets the previous one that just let cool people such as himself call the shots, decides to game the system and work himself up to a 5 by appealing to the lowest common denominator (he performs a Dane Cook-esque standup set at a talent show, boosting his score instantly), just to get back at Shirley. Meanwhile/of course, Britta judges the system as fascist and mounts a "Review-lution", after learning that if she has mustard on her face when she talks, people will actually listen to what she has to say for a change. It's an interesting dynamic for an episode - we're used to two people being at odds (the Jeff vs. Shirley stuff causes some deja vu to the legendary Foosball episode, in fact), but the 2nd half of the episode gives us a three way battle once Britta rises to power.

On the sidelines is Koogler, a new character played by Mitch Hurwitz (returning the favor, I assume, as Dan Harmon appeared briefly in Arrested Development's fourth season - neither man is known much for their acting). We'll probably never see him again, but he's a delightful addition to the episode; Koogler is a Ty Webb/Bluto type party guy character who is just sort of hanging out and having a blast - we even get a full length trailer for his 80s style campus comedy for the episode's tag (if you read the credits for at the end of the trailer, titled Koogler, you'll see that it's based on a French novel that translates to "The Desperation of Workers"). Hurwitz has made a few recent appearances on Harmon's podcast, and it's amazing to watch him - in real time - engineer the same sort of callback humor that made Arrested so great; an off the cuff remark from Dan or even an audience member will come back as a joke from Hurwitz an hour later, rewarding your attention span in surprising ways. So it's a lot of fun to see him play, essentially, an idiot with minimal awareness of the world around him. He doesn't appear in any more episodes this season, but hopefully he can be enticed back for season six if it occurs.

Honestly, given Dan Harmon's well known love of various sci-fi properties, I'm surprised it's taken them this long to do an homage to 70s sci-fi like Zardoz and Logan's Run. I suppose it's been an idea that they just had trouble cracking, as the rule of the show is that there are no throwaways and everything actually happens, which can make it difficult to fit an episode into the framework of such fare (I assume we'll never see a Westworld parody, dammit). Indeed, perhaps in response to complaints in previous "and the campus goes nuts" episodes, there are a couple of things that actually ground it in more reality than normal - the "palace" we see turns out to be the study room with sheets hanging everywhere ("Those come down?" Koogler dazedly asks, when Britta tears one down), and after Jeff makes his speech (yep, there's a Winger speech! They've been pretty rare this season so I have no qualms with it) and everyone uninstalls the app, the Dean can be heard asking everyone to just forget it ever happened. But the one I loved the most was from Jeff, who closed his speech by informing everyone that it's a Saturday and they're all still at school for no reason. If you recall, one of my issues with "Geothermal Escapism" is that I thought they could have milked some humor out of the reality of the situation (i.e. Hickey, the most normal one of the group, trying to figure out how to build a tank), so I loved that they tossed in these little jabs at the campus' tendency to do anything BUT go to class, and how they go about going back to normal once they've all calmed down again.

And it's also another strong episode for Gillian Jacobs, who had been sadly sidelined through the season's first few episodes. I love love LOVE the idea that Britta suddenly sounds more reasonable when she has mustard on the corner of her lip ("It dilutes or distracts from your excessive intensity," Annie explains), which of course leads to the actress tossing whatever vanity she may have aside in service of a sight gag where she tries to boost her control over her audience by smearing it over her entire face. When Jeff's speech effectively ends everyone's obsession with the app and returns things to normal, it's not hard to feel sad for Britta, who for a few short hours, actually had the respect of her fellow students for a change. It takes a bit away from the Jeff vs. Shirley stuff, but again, we've seen them have this same sort of argument before in the Foosball one (and come to the same conclusion when they go off and have fun on their own), so it's not a big deal.

Curious what you guys think of this one; I was a bit cold the first time around, but had a lot of fun on my second viewing (I watch them twice before posting the review). At times it feels like they're biting off more than they could chew with regards to the story - this maybe should have been a two part episode to let the various story developments (particularly Jeff's arc) breathe a little and let us actually see how this class system fell into place seemingly within minutes. For example, Hickey goes from hating the idea (the above quote is his, after all), to pretending to go along with it, to seemingly just being OK with it - all in about 2 minutes. And who the hell made all of their costumes??? But at the same time, it consistently offers us hilarious sight gags (I quite loved the "I'm just not very good at public speaking!" bit, and Jeff's rundown of his douchebag jock pals' names is classic) and a fun, if brief, look at what it'd be like if Britta was in charge, so overall I'd give it a B, B+ if I was a grading man.

Also - and this couldn't have been predicted in the slightest - with the recent passing of Harold Ramis, it can almost work as a tribute, as the episode leans heavily on the "regular guys vs. the system" concept that informed many of his films. This has been a common thread on Community as well, but one that's been subdued over the years as our heroes have grown to love their school (indeed, this season is about them trying to save it), so to have it come back so overtly in the wake of Ramis' death is kind of perfect in a sad sort of way. So we have an episode of Community that can inspire a younger viewer to check out Stripes (which provided Jeff's last name, after all) and Zardoz - two movies that couldn't be less alike - and make it look easy. This is why I love this show.