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Throwback Thursday - Community - Remedial Chaos Theory

10 Aug 2017

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Life, for better or for worse, always moves in one direction. It moves forward regardless of any one person's desires or regrets, enshrining mistakes and making memories as it goes. In a way, this is terrifying. The idea of every one of us being subjects to a process we cannot hope to reverse is, especially in a climate like today's, one of the most unsettling aspects of the human condition. It means, as tiny decisions cascade into sea changes, we abandon the lives we could have lived and take a path that's constantly branching out.

And, eventually, we have to accept our submissiveness - life wouldn't happen if we didn't. Ultimately, we have to go with the tide and move forward. But it's always tempting to disregard that just for a moment, and look back instead. What if we had done something different? What if we'd met someone different? Would we be the same people we are today? How much of life is just random chance, and how much is written in stone?

Or to put it in a more sci-fi way, what about those alternate timelines?

There are so many episodes of Community, a sitcom that has now spent two years in the big TV graveyard in the sky, that warrant a deep dive - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Paradigms of Human Memory, Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, Modern Warfare are just a few of the genuinely outstanding episodes this show produced in six seasons.

But Remedial Chaos Theory is the one I keep coming back to. It feels like the quintessential Community episode - an incredibly simple sitcom premise (the group argues over who gets pizza) executed in a brilliantly clever and slightly nerdy way (alternate timelines!) that's both utterly hilarious and nakedly emotional. It's intricate and tricksy yet very sentimental. It stops to laugh at every character, but ultimately decides to laugh with them. The show had never found, and would never find, a better way to express itself.

As with every good concept of Community, the atypical premise is secondary. The idea of alternate realities and viewing the same events from new perspectives is clever, but derives pretty clearly from a long tradition of 'Rashomon' episodes such as The X-FilesBad Blood or Jose Chung's From Outer Space, so the episode doesn't draw attention to it - it introduces the sci-fi idea with a quick line and then gets on with what it's really here for, which is character and comedy.

Remedial Chaos Theory threads a difficult needle that Community managed throughout season two but struggled to after this episode, which is expressing deeply human, mundane ideas through the language of science-fiction. If you lay out what actually happens in the episode, it's the group going to a dinner party and eating pizza while laying out a few personal conflicts. But through the seven timelines explored across Remedial Chaos Theory, that mundanity develops into something richly insightful and intricate - an opportunity to see the characters we've grown to appreciate over the last fifty or so episodes in a way that linear and conventional storytelling could never allow.

It's that opportunity to see that forms the backbone of the character material in Remedial Chaos Theory. Interestingly, for such a significant episode, there's not actually that much character development. There are a few realisations and small changes to the ongoing status quo such as Annie starting to think of moving in that stick, but for the most part, everyone is the same going into Troy and Abed's house as they are at the end of the credits. It's no surprise that, after seeing their dynamic torn up and moved around six times, the actual timeline reinstates and reinforces the central relationships of the group as we've always known them.

Instead of questioning and challenging the characters on a fundamental level, as Dan Harmon's other show, Rick and Morty, loves to do, Remedial Chaos Theory celebrates them by showing the study group in their most archetypal form. Each character's strengths and weaknesses are meticulously teased out and shown in relation to each other - Britta's honesty helps Troy in one timeline but destroys Shirley's confidence in another, while Pierce's competing desires to build up and knock down Troy form one of the episode's central points of tension, reflecting the strength and depth of the development they've undergone in the past couple of seasons and returning to Community's original selling point as the chance to see a collection of walking trainwrecks slowly learn to be better.

For all of the individual character arcs we get here, Remedial Chaos Theory is primarily interested in how each member slots into the group and forms an indispensable part of a uniquely messy whole. What's fascinating about this is that the episode never outright states how each member's absence affects the group - it forces the viewer to fill in the gap, to question whether the conflicts presented are an innate thing that are bigger than any one person, or a direct cause of the absence of whoever chooses to get pizza.

Sometimes, the episode is particularly subtle about this. Annie's timeline is basically a trial run that lays out the whole scenario for the rest of the timelines to show altered, but the changes brought on by her absence are minute (there's a sense that, maybe, she brings warmth to the group?) and it's clear that nothing has changed all that much in the group by the end.

 On the other end of the scale, the absences of Troy and Abed, arguably the two most distinctive personalities in the group, cause the entire situation to melt down, either figuratively (Abed's role in drawing the sting from the group's emotional drama is made abundantly clear when the group's conflicts boil over as he leaves) or literally (Troy's timeline is still one of the flat-out funniest sequences this show ever did).

And then there's the ones in the middle - Pierce's timeline sees some group members get a bit closer even at the expense of others - that force us to wonder whether each member of the group is indispensable after all. It's this nuance and openness to interpretation that makes Remedial Chaos Theory such a rewarding character study, as it refuses to make didactic statements on these characters, instead trusting the audience to apply their own knowledge and biases to the characters they've grown to love or hate. There's something here for every type of Community viewer, regardless of their outlook on the show.

But for all these insights into the characters, Remedial Chaos Theory is defined most clearly by being absolutely hilarious. That's the second benefit of the alternate timelines - it allows for elaborate and unusually structured jokes that only Community could tell. Troy's timeline is a perfect example of this, as it allows virtually every loose end or object of vague importance to play into the chaotic domino effect that unfolds, from boulder to gun to cigarette to troll doll, but there's dozens of exceptional jokes here that play out in a huge variety of ways.

One thing that's a constant across the episode, whether it's character development or comedy, an underlying element of sincerity that's easy to miss until it becomes the dominating mood right at the end. Objects of humour such as the troll doll or the Indiana Jones boulder, or running gags like Pierce's Eartha Kitt obsession (he never gets to tell it in the prime timeline, suggesting his pathological need for attention has been sated here), have a darker undercurrent that eventually unfurl as the episode plays out every conceivable scenario.

Characters who are usually easy to laugh at all reveal their own inner conflicts or value as people, such as Troy's struggle to compete as an adult or Abed's choice that saves the group from the chaos of alternate timelines at the end.

And, in the episode's defining moment, the throwaway joke of Britta singing and getting shut off plays out fully and becomes the thing that papers over all of the cracks shown across the different timelines. It's an unabashedly feel-good ending, a far cry from the nihilistic uncertainties of Rick and Morty, and it's easy to label it as cheesy and rote, a way to reduce the complications of the characters to a stock resolution. But the optimism of the ending is precisely what makes it special. Community's humour often plays out under several layers of irony, and rarely takes its characters seriously, but it's ultimately a show that wears its heart on its sleeve.

 Like Jeff, or Abed, the two characters who form the show's voice, Community cares about people deeply, even if it's sometimes afraid to show it. It examines and criticises the co-dependency that can cause unstable and emotionally fraught friendships, but also celebrates what it can bring to a bunch of lonely and messy people who don't work so well on their own.

It's about not caring whether something is cool or not, and just taking part in what feels right, and good with others by your side, even if it makes you look as drunk and confused as the people in the image to my left. Does that show have room, then, for someone like Jeff, a character predicated on ironic detachment and reticence to actually commit to people? Remedial Chaos Theory isn't sure. Its final, and most complicated statement is that the character that appears most crucial to the show might be the one who exists outside of it. We can celebrate the cleverness of the episode's sci-fi concepts and admire its humour, but its ability to constantly reevaluate and challenge what we know about deeply familiar characters we like is what made Community so involving in the long run, even through its rough spots, and the show never did it better than it did here.

What did you think of Remedial Chaos Theory? What about those alternate timelines? Would you have picked another favourite episode? Drop a comment below if you'd like, and remember; this is the darkest and most terrible timeline (clearly), so we don't have to pull any punches.