Episode Title: "Virtual Systems Analysis"
Writer: Matt Murray
Director: Tristram Shapeero
This week's episode of "Community" began with something that we rarely see: the study group actually studying! Given the craziness of their lives at Greendale, it's amazing that all of them aren't flunking out of school. Case in point, Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) comes into the study room doing his best "Glen or Glenda" impression to give the group good and bad news.
But it turns out that the good news about their exam being pushed back far outweighs any negative connotations. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) sees the resulting three hour lunch as an excuse to check out a fast food restaurant further away from campus, while Pierce (Chevy Chase) and Jeff (Joel McHale) each make their own plans for the downtime.
Finally honing in on the obvious attraction between Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Troy (Donald Glover), Annie (Alison Brie) sets them up on an impromptu lunch date; much to the frustration of Abed (Danny Pudi), who attempts to maintain his valuable Dreamatorium time with his best friend. Annie practically has to drag Abed away by offering to fill in for Troy. Even then, Abed still seems resentful about it. Here's a quick rule of thumb: if you have to ask if you're missing a social cue, then the answer is probably yes.
"Virtual Systems Analysis" is an off-format episode for "Community" in that there are no subplots. For the most part, the remainder of the episode follows Abed and Annie in the Dreamatorium; which is just like the holodeck from "Star Trek: The Next Generation"… except for the not actually working part. The Dreamatorium largely exists solely within the minds of the people inside of it as a test of their imagination.
And while Annie seems game for a few hours of make believe, Abed's resentment towards her quickly builds. It's not that Abed is ridiculously protective of his daily routines… well okay, yes he is. But Abed is also well aware that a relationship between Britta and Troy could upset the entire group dynamic. He probably did the math for that as well.
To prove his point, Abed acts out not only Troy and Britta on their date, but also the annoying manager of the restaurant who obsessively speaks about how much he hates Die Hard. And to Annie's puzzlement, Abed shows her the inner workings of the Dreamatorium: a bunch of cardboard boxes and parts labeled among other things: other people's thoughts. Not buying into any of it, Annie rearranges the boxes to make Abed more empathetic to the needs of the people around him. But this only sends Abed into a catatonic state. As Troy warned, Annie has broken Abed.
In place of his own personality, Abed takes on the roles of all of the group members as Annie pursues him across a hospital administration fantasy that lampoons almost every medical drama ever. It was brilliantly broken down in this line by Abed as Jeff: “It’s a sexy, emotional school where doctors save lives and make love, often simultaneously. Our stories? Ripped from the headlines. Our passions? Unbridled. Our cafeteria? Meh…”
There was also a clever visual cue of a disembodied Abed jumping into the bodies and personas of the people in his life. However, the role that Abed kept coming back to was Jeff, in order to confront Annie about her pursuit of someone who is unattainable just so she can always be loved no matter what. Abed even takes on the persona of Annie herself; which forces Annie to admit that she may not actually be in love with Jeff.
As Abed threatens to disappear among a sea of competing personas, Annie finally feels real empathy for him and becomes an Abed herself. This leads Abed as Chang (Ken Jeong) to lock Annie as Abed up in a cell/locker, where the real Abed sits in chains. And it's here that Abed lays out the heart of the episode: Abed has run countless scenarios about his life and he's determined that he's never going to be married or become a wild success. His time with Troy and the study group may be the highlight of an otherwise lonely life.
Annie's response about Abed's predictions was actually a good illustration of the sci-fi genre in general: "illuminating" but not "prophetic." Abed can change his life if he wants to, because there's no script for life. This happy moment of clarity helps Abed to declare that he can now cut down on his Dreamatorium use to a mere 18 hours a week.
After last season's paintball adventure, there were some "Community" fans pulling for an Annie and Abed romance. But that just wouldn't work, because Annie and Abed now have a more fraternal relationship than anything with romantic connotations. Abed's not exactly built for even short term romances. But for all of Abed's personality disorders, he's not entirely wrong about how he sees the rest of the group. For all we know, Britta getting together with Troy could be a disaster of Britta-ish proportions and rupture the group like never before. There's even some evidence that Troy's not ready for a romantic relationship either when he calls Annie to check up on Abed in the middle of his lunch with Britta. Yes, all is forgiven in Trobed-land, but almost any other woman could have been put off by that.
At the very least, Abed demonstrates a newfound empathy towards Annie. But with Abed, who can tell if the change is simply his way of taking on another persona for the benefit of people around him? Judging from Abed's previous behavior, that's far more likely than Abed suddenly becoming a normal person. But really, do we want Abed to be well adjusted and just like everyone else? Or do we just want Abed to be Abed?
The closing moments put to rest any lingering doubts about Abed changing his ways, during a charming "Troy and Abed In The Morning" segment with Annie as their special guest. Everything goes well until Annie reveals that she's redecorated Trobed's living area, sending Abed into one of his air raid drill screeches.
Needless to say, weird Abed isn't going anywhere. The only character on this show that I'm concerned about is Pierce. The recent feud between Chevy Chase and "Community" creator Dan Harmon has partially centered on Chase's profanity laced assertion that "Community" isn't funny. Obviously, I disagree about that condemnation of the show. But when it comes to Pierce, Chase may have a point. Pierce may have been more villainous last season, but he made a good foil for almost everyone in the cast.
Here, Pierce comes off as a neutered version of himself with lukewarm jokes at best. Even in several of the most recent episodes, Pierce is barely a player in any of the main plotlines and he seems to be getting marginalized alongside Chang. Pierce just isn't as funny as he used to be and it's getting more and more noticeable on the show. Hopefully that will change in the remaining episodes of the season.