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Community Recap: Trapped in the Dreamatorium

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

Abed is … well, he’s a complicated character. As much as Community has a Pierce problem (still relevant one year later, as evidenced by “Kevin Please Come Over For Gay Sex”), it’s also got the opposite problem with Abed. Pierce is given little to do other than be a source of aggravation for the group, whereas Abed is the focal point — everyone bends to accommodate his every whim. They even went Claymation to support one of his delusions.

It makes sense that episode after episode would involve letting Abed run free, enacting My Dinner With Andre simulations for his own enjoyment: Dan Harmon most closely relates to Abed, or so says this excellent Wired profile from a while back. There is a point in which the show exists solely in Abed’s mind; and the characters, unable to stand up to an obviously wounded guy they so direly care about, gamely play along.

The Dreamatorium is the physical manifestation of Abed’s whims, a place where he is lord and master despite the way the rest of the world feels and behaves. I’d imagine it’s a very comforting place to hang out. Like Abed and I’d imagine most New Yorkers, I suffer from anxiety that stems from my inability to see outside my own mind — to let the world simply be despite my expectations of how it’s supposed to operate. I’m sure it’s a product of a whole lot of things, but it tends to flare up when something inexplicable passes in front of my eyes. And let me tell you, there’s no way I can explain that homeless Santa Claus I saw on the L train a few months ago. Nor can I explain the fact that the Greek restaurant across the street turns into a karaoke dance club every night and they won’t fucking shut up so I can bring the people the Community recap they so deserve!

I probably felt unduly uncomfortable during the first half of “Virtual Systems Analysis” because the only thing more unsettling than anxiety is unexplained anxiety — before the self-reflection, the acceptance, the therapeutic catharsis. Annie acted as the cipher of Abed’s murky mind, joining him in the Dreamatorium when the study group was greeted with a canceled biology class and therefore an extra-long lunch break. Seizing the opportunity to meddle in other people’s affairs, Annie successfully hooked Britta and Troy up for lunch at a Mexican restaurant Abed hates because the waiter has no respect for Die Hard, thus ensuring they’ll be by themselves. Seeing Annie’s actions as a personal affront to his and Troy’s Dreamatorium time, Abed grudgingly agreed to show Annie the room. He berated her choices as Constable Geneva — terrible cockney accent and all — and wouldn’t acknowledge that her decision to set Troy and Britta up was one born out of true empathy. Why would she do something for others if it meant raining on Abed’s parade, he wondered?

Annie, always the meddler (I can’t stress this enough), saw the inner workings of the Dreamatorium — a series of cardboard tubes — and moved a few things around. No longer would Abed’s whims be the force powering the room’s mystical power; now it would come from the needs of others, “true empathy” as she put it. Abed started screaming, fainted, and reemerged possessed by Jeff. Then Britta, Troy, and eventually everyone from the study group. They all played a part in the mystery of the missing Abed, and Annie was the lead detective on the case, questioning these manifestations (actually Abed) about his whereabouts. His brain was broken, and Annie, using the Dreamatorium as a guidepost, was going to have to piece it back together.

This is where things went totally off the rails, because one of two things was happening. Perhaps Abed’s brain was legitimately broken, and he was using what meager psychological tools he’d fashioned from years of anxiety to fit genuine empathy into his rigorous, regimented brainspace. Perhaps Abed was actually one step ahead of Annie and was letting himself go on this trip, having already reached the inevitable conclusion, merely to test Annie’s mettle as a friend. Whatever the case, it turned me off, for a bit at least. In the absence of new information, I could only conclude that Abed was being extremely selfish, once again demanding the study group (or just Annie) bend over backwards. If he genuinely had no idea something was wrong, then jeez, I could sympathize with the guy, but after three years it seemed unlikely he wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that his actions were harmful to others, but mostly to himself.

The key here was “absence of information,” which is pretty much the textbook definition of anxiety: piecing events together in your mind that you have yet to experience, in an attempt to soften the blow when those things actually occur. Because as “Virtual Systems Analysis” unfolded — as Annie went deeper into the recesses of Abed’s mind, mostly as Annie but partially as Abed himself — I found myself understanding Abed more and more. When Annie finally confronted Abed, she found him shackled to the wall inside a locker, where he claimed to have spent a lot of time when he was younger.

Everything Abed had done in that Dreamatorium, whether it occurred today or in the past, or maybe in the “Dreamatorium” of his mind, was out of fear of being alone. Unable to relate to his peers, he’d withdrawn even further into himself until there was nothing left on the surface except the silly games the group sees him playing. It took a while to get there, but Annie had perhaps the most genuine conversation with Abed that anyone has yet had on this show. She reassured him that all their friends experienced the same feelings, and that he wasn’t going to be able to do things by himself. Britta might be the psychology student, but Annie is the one with enough anxiety to recognize it in herself and her friends.

I’ve wondered in previous recaps why I should be rooting for these characters and what it is I should be rooting for them to accomplish. “Virtual Systems Analysis” offered a peek at an answer: Maybe they were simply meant to find and understand each other. Blorgons be damned.

Photo: Neil Jacobs/NBC