When we take the long view of Community, what may be most interesting—and riskiest—about the show is its total inconsistency with regards to “realism.” The word is worth putting in quotes, since it’s such a loaded term when you’re talking about television or film or any of the performing arts; it’s all fake, even the works praised most highly for their naturalism. But there are shows whose proximity to a recognizable reality are closer than others; The Wire is more realistic than, say, The Blacklist. Yet Community won’t let you find your footing; they change up their reality on an almost weekly basis.
Last week’s episode, “Bondage and Male Sexuality,” had a goofy D-plot with Chang and ghosts, but most of it was set squarely in the Real World, addressing everyday concerns such as dating rivalry, growing apart from friends, and crippling self-doubt. Yet in this week’s episode, “App Development and Condiments,” everything from the second act break forward is pure fantasy, Brave New World-style science fiction mated with political allegory, the Greendale campus transformed into a vast wasteland—much as it was in the aftermath of the flesh-eating Halloween party or the numerous paintball bloodbaths. What’s sort of amazing about Community is that it can make that transition without inducing viewer whiplash.
Again, it does begin in some kind of recognizable reality. Jeff has organized a study group dinner, but it’s on a night when Shirley can’t come, so he didn’t bother to invite her. Their argument over Shirely’s hurt feelings (“There’s no need to manipulate each other. You know that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it now, with your face”) is interrupted by the Dean, who introduces the group to the creators of MeowMeowBeenz, a new social media app that amps up Facebook likes and Twitter favorites into, eventually, a tyrannical organizing principle, complete with futuristic regal gowns, “zones” within the building for the elite, and a Gladiator-style “talent show.”
All of this, of course, is catnip for social justice advocate Britta, and Gillian Jacobs is in particularly fine form here, gamely playing the frustrated revolutionary who comes to embrace what makes her influential (“Look at the mustard on my face, but listen to my words!”), finally becoming, after “The Great Purge of About Two Minutes Ago,” a Che-style, beret-wearing judge, the “Great Mother of Ones, Mustard-faced savior.”
In other words, it’s all incredibly silly. (And smart; someone’s going to write a helluva term paper tracking the political analogies here.) Yet writers Jordan Blum and Parker Deay still maintain a tenuous connection to emotional truth, with a telling moment, following Shirley and Jeff’s banishment to the land of the Ones, in which we find out that it all goes back to that dinner invitation snub.
So where does that leave us? With a series that bounces from pure fantasy to emotional reality and back again, not just week to week, but within moments. Perhaps it all works because of the meta-narrative that Harmon and crew have so painstakingly constructed; it’s all “a show,” so the possibilities are endless. Or maybe it’s just a series that, by now, has conditioned its viewers to tune in and be prepared for anything.
(Sidebar: as anyone TV-nerdy enough to read a “Community” recap probably knows, the aging party boy Koogler—“He’s cool! He likes to get laid! He’s not that old!”—is played by “Arrested Development” creator Mitchell Hurwitz. His finest moment is not within the body of the show proper, but in the closing credits stinger, a perfectly aged fake trailer for an ‘80s college sex comedy about Koogler. The replication of those trailers is utterly bang-on—go watch a couple of “42nd Street Forever” DVDs if you don’t believe me—and its authenticity will presumably go noticed by only a tiny subset of “Community’’s already not-exactly-gargantuan audience, which is one more reason to hold this show in your arms and never let it go.)