Werner Heisenberg, the father of quantum mechanics, stated in his uncertainty principle that the observer in any situation inevitably influences the very thing he or she is trying to analyze objectively. The act of surveillance in itself taints the subject. (I think that’s what he was saying. I am remembering this all from high-school physics.) Heisenberg’s theory plays out in practical, human terms as well. Think of the anxiety produced when a doctor with a stethoscope tells you to “breathe normally.” All of a sudden, a function that your medulla oblongata controls all day without incident becomes a source of conscious despair. “How the hell do I normally breathe?” To realize you are being watched strips away the idea of normalcy. Community, as a series, is obsessed with the idea that it is being watched, and perhaps no episode highlights this theme more than “Paranormal Parentage.”
It makes total sense that Community can’t stop thinking about who’s watching. That the show is still on the air at all is a testament to its loyal, vocal fan base. A show like NCIS, doesn’t have this problem. They can keep churning out terse, identical military procedurals, and everyone’s dads will tune in each week. Because of ratings concerns, Community sleeps with one eye open, in constant motion like a shark, banging together all the pots and pans it can find, mixing every possible metaphor in an attempt to stay afloat, like a struggling couple married twenty years who just this week purchased a copy of the Kama Sutra and tried pad thai for the first time.
Abed is the audience’s most consistent reminder that they are watching television because he is often as much an onlooker as a participant. At his most detached, though, is when he is most relatable. He deadpans that watching Annie watch Cougar Town has become his third favorite show. That is a weird, voyeuristic thing to say, the kind of utterance made right before dressing up like one’s mother and murdering a hotel guest. It’s not a totally alien concept, though. There’s a real pleasure in watching someone enjoy a movie or TV show you already love. (Also, there’s a potentially breakup-inducing horror of watching a lover stare blankly at your favorite comedy, but that’s a story for a different Valentine’s Day.) My roommate Matt would probably tell you that the tensest contemporary drama on television is Breaking Bad. For second place, he would nominate the imaginary program My Roommate Josh Wrings His Hands Like a Goddamn War Widow While Watching Breaking Bad. In the midst of the study group’s Scooby-Doo–style caper, Abed delightfully quips: “I remember when this show was about a community college.” Amen, brother. Don’t we all. Community is now largely about watching Community.
Less charming is Annie’s self-aware quip about hating reference humor, which I have chosen as my Oh, Go Fuck Yourself, Community moment of the week. When Abed winks at the audience, it’s because he sees himself as a spectator, even among his friends. When Annie breaks the fourth wall, she seems like a child waving to her parents during a school play. Not everyone on this TV show can realize they’re on a TV show! At this rate, the season finale will consist of Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs sitting on my couch, while on television, Chevy Chase dances awkwardly in a Childish Gambino music video. In case you were wondering, this week’s runner-up OGFYC moment is the opening scene when the study group appears onscreen in Halloween costumes in an episode airing on Valentine’s Day. You think you’re so precious, don’t you, Community? I’ll be sure to glue bangs and a ukulele to my TV next Thursday at eight o’clock as you 500 Days of Summer your way across my screen.
We spend much of this episode watching the characters watch each other on screens. As it turns out, the answer to the twenty-five-year-old comic-book question: “Who watches the watchmen?” is “The audience of Community.” So much of this show is concerned with the characters serving as entertainment for each other. Jeff thinks Pierce’s panic-room act is a work of fiction. Abed enjoys the security footage of his friends like it’s an episode of Cops. Any more overt peeping and a surveillance camera would catch Shirley taking off her bikini top and diving into a swimming pool like Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Because Community calls so much attention to itself as a piece of entertainment, it’s impossible for me to fully immerse myself in the relationships between the characters the way I can with, say, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt. Instead, I found myself mesmerized by the twisting, recombinant double helix of character pairings. We see Jeff and Britta, arguing the way sitcom characters might, right before they start to make out, except then they don’t. We’re presented with Jeff and Annie, a couple that makes almost no sense, as she is a 20-year-old naïf, and he is a significantly older dirt bag. On second thought, that dynamic plays out all the time in real life. Carry on.
Most intriguing is the relationship between jaded Britta and oblivious Troy, who mistakes Pierce’s sex dungeon full of leather collars for a gym filled with “secret dogs.” They have a weird, unstable chemistry, like baking soda and vinegar. I’m interested in what’s going to happen when Britta tries to have sex with Troy’s papier-mâché volcano. Britta wants this to work so badly. Gillian Jacobs walks the tightrope between playing Britta’s hypersexual past for laughs and mining the present romance for “aww shuckses.” The sweet, Valentine’s Day part of me wants it to work too. The other, whiskey-drinking part of me thinks they’re too different. That part thinks they should give up right now because Troy and Annie would be perfect together. You have to take whiskey-drinking me with a grain of salt, though, because he thinks the band Boston is kind of awesome.
I’m also excited for the blossoming friendship/brotherhood between Pierce and Gilbert (the always quiet and intense Giancarlo Esposito). I am secretly rooting for their partnership to end with an explosion in a nursing home. (Reference humor. No apologies.) With Abed off in the traveling Dreamatorium that is his brain, poor Shirley is left without a foil, which is the episode’s only real loose end.
The final scene (aside from the guffaw-inducing tag) features Jeff drinking alone and looking at his father’s old boxing gloves. Finally, we’re getting the Dick Whitman behind Jeff Winger’s Don Draper. Writer Megan Ganz created an episode full of dichotomies: Audience vs. performer. Innocence vs. experience. And now, Public Appearance vs. Private Reflection. After the chaos at Hawthorne Manor, we get to see the show’s most guarded character in a rare moment of vulnerability. When Jeff is in full alpha-dick mode around the study group, it’s hard to tell exactly what makes him tick. Now we see him alone, insecure, and searching. As usual, the moments when no one knows they’re being watched are the most revealing. I think that’s what Heisenberg meant when he stated his uncertainty principle back in 1927, probably while watching the first episode of Cheers.