Community #3.16 “Virtual Systems Analysis” Recap & Review Community #3.16 “Virtual Systems Analysis” Recap & Review
Derek B. Gayle reviews the April 19 episode of NBC's Community. Community #3.16 “Virtual Systems Analysis” Recap & Review

Annie and Abed spend an entire episode in the Dreamatorium, leading to quite possibly the most complex and touching discussion the show’s ever had.  Get ready folks, this is going to be a big one.

Recap:

The group is cramming for a Biology test.  Dean comes in dressed as “DualiDean” (half Dean, half woman) because he has good news and bad news—bad news: Professor Kane has the flu, good news: the Biology test is cancelled.  With an extra three hours opened up, they go their separate ways; Annie tries to hook up Britta and Troy by getting them to go to lunch together, while she keeps Abed occupied in the Dreamatorium.

They play Inspector Spacetime in the Dreamatorium (with Annie as temporary constable Geneva on the HMS-Spacetime 12 from the worst season ever.)  Abed isn’t happy with Annie’s performance, but she figures out that Abed is mad about her hand in pinning Troy and Britta together.  Abed reveals that he doesn’t like Annie messing with the fabric of the group—he says he uses the Dreamatorium to simulate and determine every possible outcome and knows they all turn out badly.  The “engine” to the Dreamatorium uses his thoughts, distilled by logic, and recombined as objective observations in seven unique situations and a “half-accurate Chang.”  He also keeps a separate box with his friends’ thoughts.

Troy calls to check in on Abed, where Annie assures him that he’s fine since people “bend over backwards” to take care of him.  When Annie returns, she suggests Abed add his friends’ thoughts to the engine so he can think about other people first, by using the “other people” box and attaching it to his machine.  Abed collapses, and Annie believes she’s “broken” him.  He gets back up, suddenly impersonating Jeff, and creates a new scenario called “Hospital School” to appeal to Annie’s sensibilities.  Annie plays along so she can find the real Abed, who is supposedly not there.  The next simulation is of Troy and Britta, where Abed simulates them kissing (albeit awkwardly) but Annie tells him that’s not what she wants.  She injects “Troy” with a truth serum,who then tells her there’s a file on Abed, bringing them to Dr. Shirley and Pierce (an Alzheimer’s patient.)  ”Shirley” tells Annie that Abed isn’t there, because the simulations have been filtered through other people’s needs, and he’s been filtered out because nobody needs him.  They find a file revealing that Abed is a patient.

They start to go to him, but “Jeff” instead takes Annie to the last scene in “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”, where their first kiss took place.  Annie tries to get Abed to knock it off.  “Jeff” reads the file on Abed out loud, which reads back words Annie had said about Abed throughout the episode—that he’s a control freak with no empathy, and everyone bends over backwards to cater to his needs.  He then reveals he thinks Annie’s intentions for hooking up Troy and Britta was for her to get together with Jeff, who doesn’t care that Abed is gone.  Annie denies this, says she knows Jeff cares about Abed, and that getting with Jeff would have only been an “added bonus” and not the sole reason.

Annie says she wants to be alone, so Abed creates an Annie/Annie simulation where he plays Annie.  “Annie” tries to tell Annie that “we love Jeff,” but Annie reveals that she’s in love with the idea of being loved, and if she can get a man like Jeff to love her, then she’ll never feel unloved, and she’s been running scenarios to make it happen.  Running scenarios is exactly what Abed does, causing her to become Abed in the simulation.  Being Abed gets Annie arrested and thrown into the same prison as real Abed—a locker, where he spent time in Junior High.  Abed’s “metaphorical locker” is the place people like him get put when everyone’s fed up with them.  Abed has run simulations for his future, and determines that he never gets married or has a fulfilling life.  Annie tells him that the simulations are like Science Fiction—they’re ideas about what might happen, but not accurate for crap.  In reality, the simulations are just his anxieties, the same ones he shares with everyone, and thus he’ll never be alone and always fit in.  Annie admits she was trying to make life follow a script by trying to hook up Troy and Britta, and that they both just need to stop trying to control everything.  Annie frees him, and they do an Inspector Spacetime simulation where they fight off Blorgons to make everything less anticlimactic.

In a voiceover, Abed admits he adapted, and can now use the “illusive technique known as empathy” to enter the minds of others (which he demonstrates by offering to make Annie lunch.)  After the group reconvenes at Greendale, Troy and Britta note they had a good lunch, and Abed says he had a good time with Annie in the Dreamatorium.  Dean returns and says, despite his anxiety about going to the bank dressed as DualiDean, people loved his outfit.  With everything so positive, Jeff wonders if “after a long dark night, the sun is finally starting to rise on Greendale.”  Abed says “Maybe, maybe not.  You never can tell what day you’re gonna have.”

Review:

It’s rare for Community to go too terribly in-depth with Abed.  Like I’ve said before, his character’s appeal is his relative simplicity and the unlikelihood that he’ll change.  And yet, anytime we’ve delved into his psyche and anxiety—particularly “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Critical Film Studies”—we’ve gotten some of the most complex material the show has ever delivered.  It’s a nice reminder that Abed is a much more fleshed-out character than being a walking meta-commentary gimmick, but these episodes are also interesting peeks into what it’s like to be the person that’s the “gimmick.”

The big elephant in the room is that the show’s sort of half-established (albeit jokingly) that Abed likely has Asperger’s Syndrome, or something on the Autism spectrum.  This episode never directly addresses it (probably a smart decision since it would veer too close to “very special episode” territory) but the writing is certainly on the wall, and the subject matter is no doubt a tricky beast.  The thing to remember is that the plot isn’t about breaking down that disorder—it’s about one character dealing with his anxiety, and the connection it forms with Annie, and by proxy everyone else.  As I’ve said before, Community never gets truly “deep”; there are plenty of layers, sure, but at the core the things it has to say about people and life are usually very simple.  So, it took a complicated issue—Abed’s psyche—and boiled it down to its basic core: Abed needs learn empathy.  He’s brilliant at determining tropes and possible outcomes, but as his paper thin views on Jeff/Annie show, he doesn’t understand the more abstract, humanistic “heart and soul” aspects of these situations.  In order to see these and truly understand how to treat people beyond objective analyses, he has to find a way to empathize with them.

There’s more to Abed than this one issue, sure, but Annie wasn’t going to change him completely.  Abed doesn’t change his personality, he just recognizes what’s been causing problems with his friends recently, and is working on finding ways to mediate it.  This is, ultimately, what makes the conclusion of this episode so strong: Abed isn’t forced to really change or be “cured” of anything that’s wrong with him.  He’s still the same person with the same brain.  But he does have a major breakthrough with recognizing the little things he can do to make it easier for his friends, even if it takes a little work from him.  And, despite the connections that could be made with specific disorders, this is a simple lesson any person needs to learn to maintain a worthwhile friendship.  With Abed, the journey to figuring this out just happens to be more interesting, partially because of his own imaginative and pop culture-ridden personality, but also because it’s just more of a struggle.

Abed at one point tells Annie that she’s “not stupid, just less able to see what I see.”  This is one of the best lines of the episode, in part because it works with how people see Abed, too: because he can’t see what they see, the first thought is something’s wrong with him.  Abed’s smart, and he’s completely aware of how he’s different, but being aware of those concepts and being able to grasp them and do something about them are very different things.  That too is what makes this little arc for him work—he doesn’t come off as dumb or ignorant or broken.  He’s still Abed, a very loveable and entertaining character, and his flaws—just like those of the other characters—aren’t seen in any condescending light.  This is just who he is, and it’s another thing he has to figure out, just like Jeff had to understand his narcissism, Britta had to stop feeling shame, etc.

This is where Annie comes in—she began as the “straight man” in the Dreamatorium scenario, but in reality, she’s the most similar to Abed in the group.  They both see the world around them as some puzzle they can piece together, analyze, and fix; they’re both meticulous “control freaks” in the same sense, Abed’s just more prone to using pop culture to justify it, while Annie is a bit more focused on how it affects her life.  The biggest connection for Annie here is Jeff—she has a huge revelation which, in true Community style, is very underplayed.  While she certainly has an attraction to Jeff, and the possibility is still there that they could maintain a relationship, the endgame she’s had in mind is ultimately selfish, and very much in control freak territory.  She’s not out to naturally form a relationship with someone she loves, she wants to make him love her so she can feel better about herself.  Spelling it out makes Annie seem like a terrible person, but the thing is, it’s something we’re all capable of; doing something for someone specifically to get something else in return.  Annie realizes this now, so hopefully we’ll see her take a step back, and if she continues to pursue Jeff, it would be because of Jeff as a person, because a relationship has to be his decision too; just like Abed has to consider other people with everything he does.

The character discussion is really the meat of the episode, but the structure of such a strange plot was also extremely well-handled.  Admittedly, much of it didn’t feel clear or cohesive at first, but upon second viewing (and the act of recapping) many of the nuances and meticulous plotting became more apparent.  I’d recommend multiple viewings for this episode above many others—even though it wears its heart on its sleeve, great finesse was taken in writing (Matt Murray, “Advanced Gay”) and directing (Tristram Shapeero, “Pillows and Blankets”), establishing elements like the Dreamatorium’s engine and filtering system, Annie’s remarks about Abed, and references to seasons past and intertwining them to create a surprisingly tight story.  Even though the episode builds on long-term character arcs and stories, the groundwork is all laid out in the 22-minutes to deliver its ending.

The Dreamatorium itself was well-rendered.  The effect used to show Abed hopping from one impersonation to another was very clever, as was his voice merging with the simulation.  The best part, though, was that it wasn’t overused—the effects are quickly phased out and only used sporadically in funny moments (like seeing Abed go from Annie to Chang to Pierce), while being  toned down in more intense scenes, like the Annie/Jeff kiss, preventing distraction and keeping it grounded.  Also, the hospital-school setting was a little odd at first (it appealed to Annie’s sensibilities, but…what?) but it served the episode well as it went on.

On par with previous Abed episodes, it’s far from being the funniest, but what it lacks in laughs it has in big, unadulterated heart.  Danny Pudi and Alison Brie, as always, are great in both dramatic and comedic moments throughout.  It’s creative, it’s touching, and it’s insightful, and it’s exactly why Community is, well, Community.

Some stray tidbits:

  • Tag: Troy and Abed in the morning once again!  Yes!
  • “DualiDean” is hands down Jim Rash’s best costume yet.
  • Blink and you’ll miss it moment: Chevy Chase’s reaction to Dean’s entrance.  It’s quick, but it is oh-so-awesome.
  • It’s beyond cute that Britta finds Troy’s care for Abed sweet, and not weird or annoying.
  • Abed’s vendetta against the manager of the restaurant who hates Die Hard is hilarious, as is his imitation of the Troy/Britta kiss, Shirley’s slap and Pierce’s Alzheimer’s quips.
  • According to Abed, Troy was raised on “the mean streets of Harlem,” loves butt stuff, hates spiders, stole a pen from the bank, cries during About a Boy (the soundtrack), can see why women find Clive Owen attractive to the point where he might be attracted to him too, use comparisons to Hitler to win arguments on the internet at the drop of a hat, knows nothing about wine, is more turned on by women in pajamas instead of lingere because he “just wants to know they feel comfortable,” and worst of all, he didn’t get Inception.  Also, he invents Dancepants in 2019.
  • Joel McHale’s “run in place” run dorky and hilarious.
  • The recreation of “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” was really cool, complete with the classic music cues (and Leonard watching in the bushes.)
  • Everyone’s reaction to Pierce’s balls story both times is adorable.
  • “Can I just interject and say I don’t know what the hell’s going on?” – Probably a big chunk of the viewers.
  • “Damn our two-foot height disparity!”
  • “I left my wife for you when she was pregnant” “Who do you think inseminated her?!”
  • “In 2001: Did we get a space odyssey?  No, we got snowboarding in the Olympics and we overvalidated Carson Daily.”
  • “This mission has gone pear-shaped indeed.”
  • “I went to the mall and got pizza.  I beat the Matrix today.”

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COMMUNITY -- "Virtual Systems Analysis" Episode 316 -- Pictured: (l-r) Alison Brie as Annie, Joel McHale as Jeff -- Photo by: Neil Jacobs/NBC

Derek B. Gayle

Derek B. Gayle is a Virginia native with a BS in English, Journalism and Film from Randolph-Macon College. In addition to being an avid Power Rangers and genre TV fanatic, he also currently co-produces, writes and performs in local theatre, and critically reviews old kids' cartoons. You can check out his portfolio here.