When Dan Harmon and the cast of Community spoke at a PaleyFest event in March, right before the show returned from its hiatus, they spoke about their anxieties for “Virtual Systems Analysis.” They didn’t know what the episode was until post-production, both in terms of Danny Pudi and Alison Brie not being able to visualize their special effects scenes, and what the general story would end up looking like. Harmon said it would either be the best or worst thing in TV history. Their nervousness makes sense now after seeing it: it’s an episode that makes little sense out of context (kind of like Inception, which Abed-as-Troy really doesn’t get), and that’s what separates Community from nearly every other sitcom, for better or worse, on now — and why its ratings will never really improve. We’ve grown accustomed to being able to turn on the TV, see Seinfeld or Friends or The Big Bang Theory on, and pleasantly relax into an episode. Most sitcoms are designed with this in mind; you should be able to join at any part, and be able to enjoy it just as much as someone who’s been watching the entire time.
Imagine doing the same thing with “Virtual Systems Analysis.” You’d be fucking lost within 15 seconds. “Why is this guy with Asperger’s morphing into his friends and why are there two Trudy’s from Mad Men and why does a hospital have buttered noodles and why is that bald fellow from the Oscars dressed up as a half-man/half-woman and WHAT THE HECK IS A DREAMATORIUM?” Even I got tripped up a few times. But was it a successful episode? Depends on what you wanted out of it.
My biggest criticism with “Virtual Systems Analysis” (and why I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to) was its lack of a centerpiece scene. Think back to the show’s other high-concept, character-dissecting episodes, in particular “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Critical Film Studies” — the former had Troy and Jeff’s timelines, with the troll and everyone finally being able to dance and sing to “Roxanne,” respectively, and the latter had Abed revealing to Jeff that he set up an elaborate My Dinner with Andre homage because he was worried that Jeff had been slowly slipping away from the group. “Virtual Systems Analysis” doesn’t have singular, defining moment. Or, it tried to, but wasn’t totally successful. The emotional climax is when Chang arrests Abed “for being Abed” and throws him into a locker, which is, as we find out, is where Abed spent much of his time during high school. He’s literally chained to the walls and silently terrified of the day where everyone in the study group, especially Troy, realizes he’s not special, that he’s just a guy who plays make believe to escape his own life. Annie comes in to convince him otherwise, but there’s something off about the scene and the episode as a whole. Not only was the chain metaphor a little weak (I get that our mind would likely resort to such clichés, otherwise everyone would be a brilliant novelist, but on top of the locker stuff, it was a bit too much), but “Virtual” just wasn’t that funny.
Community has gotten away with “less funny” episodes before, like the aforementioned “Critical Film Studies,” but there was an odd disconnect in “Virtual.” I appreciated what the show was trying to do, and I respected the heck out of it for trying, but…I’m not sure how much I enjoyed the episode, as much as I admired it. (Call it the Dinosaur Jr. principle.) A part of that may be because I’m at Maximum Abed/Inspector Spacetime Capacity. “Virtual” would have played better had it been separated from “Pillows and Blankets” and “Digital Exploration…” and “Urban Matrimony…” and basically every episode of Community since its return. This is deserving of an entire article in itself, but: is Abed worth the trouble? Let’s face it: he’s kind of a dick and definitely a control freak. Sometimes I wonder about his role in the group, other than as someone who gets pop culture references. Danny Pudi is a good enough actor that Abed can get away with a lot and still seem lovable, but I really want Community to spend some time away from him, like they have with Chang. He’s more effective in smaller doses. That being said, it was nice episode for Annie. She’s arguably the most “important” member of the group and the one who’s trying to keep everyone together (I imagine her as being someone who Likes everything on Facebook), from the Troy and Britta pairing to her and Jeff, obviously. She’s also the only one who Pierce genuinely likes and Shirley sees as the least dissimilar.
There weresome other nice scenes sprinkled throughout – like in the Dean’s bank story and Leonard peeping and Jeff as the Doctor and why does the waiter hate Die Hard so much – but how much you liked “Virtual Systems Analysis” as a whole depends on whether you want comedy from your sitcoms, or whether you want to be impressed. Community has often brilliantly pulled off both in the same episode, which is why I believe it’s the best sitcom on TV, but “Virtual” was not one of those occasions, especially considering how great Parks was later that evening. At least next week’s the Law & Order episode!