“Let’s talk about evil.” – Britta Perry
(…Well, let’s talk about some other things first. We’ll get to evil eventually, I promise.)
One of Community’s biggest strengths is its veritable wellspring of thematic versatility. As a television show set on a college campus, it’s always had a sort of built-in proclivity for conveying overarching lessons, morals of the story, and general larger truths. Because along with that academic setting comes the natural expectation that the characters are going to learn things, whether within the classroom or without. So when the show does have a lesson to teach, it rarely feels clumsy or out of place (which can’t be said for many sitcoms). At their best these “teachable moments” actually resonate and seem completely natural and organic, like they’re an integral part of the show’s DNA; and at their worst they might be slightly annoying to some but at least excusable, even perhaps adorable, like a drunk but well-intentioned friend cornering you outside the bathroom at a party and talking about the importance of loving one another when all you really wanna’ do is pee.
Of course, a key way in which Community structures its thematic endeavors is by framing them against the backdrop of whatever class the study group happens to be taking. In season one, the group took Spanish, and the show was all about them learning to communicate with one another despite their differences. In season two, they took Anthropology, and we got a deeper look at how the group functioned, both as its own miniature civilization and in connection with the larger civilization around them. Season three, which ended last night, saw the group taking Biology*–and in looking back on the season as a whole, I feel like it makes a certain amount of sense to start there.
(*Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the final three episodes has a great paragraph on the significance of cellular mitosis in the finale and its relation to the broader themes at work in the show. Be sure to check it out.)
Biology is the study of life, evolution, and growth. And season three did spend a lot of time hunched over the study group with a microscope, looking closely at their respective identities and attempts at engaging in (and at times resisting) various kinds of growth. Pierce, our “closest, oldest, craziest, most racist, oldest, elderly, crazy friend,” is as old and crazy and racist as ever, learning (hopefully) to be less of those things while dealing with some daddy issues along the way. Troy, air conditioner whisperer, comes face-to-face with his own impending sense of responsibility and adulthood when he’s offered an elite position in Greendale’s secretive repair school annex. Annie, perfectionist and college student extraordinaire, continues to struggle with her need for validation and attention and her desire for an ordered life, as well as her romantic feelings for Jeff. Shirley, wife/mother and ever-devout über-Christian, struggles to balance her recommitted marriage with her entrepreneurial goals while (as always) learning to be more accepting of those who believe differently than her. Britta, self-conscious stoner and psychologist-wannabe, continues to struggle with her need to impress others (stemming–as Evil Abed points out in the finale–from her fear of being average). Abed–well, Evil Abed is a thing, so clearly he’s dealing with some shit. And Jeff, former lawyer, in the meantime shoulders the show’s central ongoing story arc: the growth from selfish sarcastic douche to caring, slightly less selfish sarcastic douche.
But biology is also about ecosystems, about connection, about how various organisms and types of life interact in complex ways to produce dynamics that are larger than any one of those organisms alone–dynamics that invariably affect the way each member of said ecosystem functions and, yes, grows. And truth be told, every episode of Community is sort of about that. But perhaps the most potent exploration of the study group as an ecosystem was “Remedial Chaos Theory,” one of the best episodes not only of the season but of the series as a whole. Of course, plenty has already been said about the brilliant alternate-timelines episode, so suffice it to say that its depiction of how the absence of any one member of the group affects the group as a whole is a really impressive accomplishment, providing a stunning look at the ecological nature of human interaction while functioning perfectly as an example of the season’s broader biology-oriented themes. Removing Pierce or Troy or Britta from the group is tantamount to removing a pond, a forest, or an entire species from an ecosystem–in short, it changes everything, creates alternate timelines, alternate ecosystems that aren’t quite as nice (especially not as nice as the imagined ecosystem posited in the season opener, in which all of the elements of Greendale flow together in a perfectly harmonized musical number–but we know this can’t be real, can never be real, because ecosystems, for all their functionality, just don’t work like that. Ecosystems are messy. There are blood and guts and natural disasters and boiled roots. There’s pain involved.)
So, yes. Biology. Ecosystems. Growth.
But growth isn’t easy. It’s hard. (And I’m talking about people here, not just yams.) We struggle to learn the same lesson over and over again, thinking we’ve learned it only to realize down the road that we haven’t actually learned it after all–that we’ve somehow forgotten it and that we have to learn it again. I talked about this a little bit in my review of this season’s Christmas episode, but the examples don’t stop there. In the season premiere, Jeff seems to have learned a lesson when he sends his phone to Professor Kane with a blade of grass growing through its center–something about the importance of life breaking through the static, maybe. But he went on to use his cell phone almost constantly in season three, texting at times when texting just wasn’t appropriate (like, for example, when a civil war was erupting in the study room!). Speaking of civil wars, in that very episode he seems to learn a lesson about being considerate of others–particularly a guy named Kim. But when Annie tries talking about it with him later, his response is a smug, “Who’s Kim?” Of course, the line can easily be seen as a throwaway joke wrapping up a somewhat inconsequential storyline, but it’s actually extremely telling about how easy it is for us to forget the lessons we’ve learned. The same goes for the ending of “Pillows and Blankets,” when it seems like Jeff’s learned a lesson about not always using words to manipulate others, about keeping some words to himself–but then goes ahead and shares his journal entry with the film crew anyway.
In fact, some key moments in the last several episodes of season three hinged precisely on this tendency to forget the lessons we’ve learned. At the memorial service for Starburns, the entire final act of the season is precipitated by Jeff and the rest of the Greendale Seven’s completely irrational reaction to having to retake Biology over the summer. Jeff knows he doesn’t hate Greendale as much as he sometimes feels–this is a lesson he’s learned time and time again. And yet he falls into the old habit of being possessive of his time and resentful of the school he thinks is wasting it. Annie joins Jeff in being selfish and reactionary because of her own weakness: her fear of failing. She rails against the Dean (who she knows she loves) and against Greendale (which she’s also learned to love) because she’s terrified of her academic life not going exactly as she planned. Meanwhile, Shirley’s anger at Greendale over stealing her sandwich shop idea is slightly more legitimate, but still misplaced: the Dean didn’t betray her, and neither did the school–the school board did. But it’s too late. They set in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to the Dean being kidnapped and Chang taking over the school (and for anyone who thinks this is too over-the-top for Community, need I remind you: in season two there was a zombie outbreak. I’m pretty sure the show can do whatever the hell it wants now).
And when the group is expelled, what do they do? They accept their fate and ignore Abed, who insists that the Dean who expelled them is an impostor. And in a hilarious follow-up to last season’s flashback episode, they need to be reminded of something that should have been obvious from the start: that Dean Pelton would never expel them–he loves them! It’s a lesson they’ve learned time and time again, and yet they forget it when remembering it is most crucial. And when they do remember it, it’s a significant turning point. It allows them to grow out of their expulsion-blues stupor and get down to business saving the Dean.
And what of the Dean? How does he grow this season? Our lovable pansexual imp begins season three trying to force his own growth by fitting himself into a mold that’s just not for him: a goatee’d mean dean who wants to take everything seriously. But that’s not who he is, nor should it be. Real growth for Dean Pelton isn’t about becoming more serious about improving Greendale; rather, in “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” it’s about recommitting himself to the school that he loves and the people who inhabit it. It’s about ridding himself of his self-aggrandizing need to “improve” Greendale in the first place. (It’s also about accepting and being proud of his own “duali-dean”–an apt metaphor for a show that tries to be so many things at once and damned well ought to be proud of it.)
Of course, the one character who doesn’t seem to grow is Chang. He starts the season living in the air vents at Greendale, and ends the season living in the air vents at City College. Sure, he had a roller-coaster of a ride in between, but he’s still on the fringes of his ecosystem, still feeling the need to establish himself in it parasitically, by hiding, dominating, feeding on others. Chang just doesn’t know how to function in his environment. He’s still… well… crazy.
But here’s the thing: we’re all crazy. In Community, craziness has come to represent the fear (or, in Chang’s case, the reality) of being out-of-sync with one’s surroundings, of not having a comfortable, defined place in one’s ecosystem. In “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” the group obsesses over which of them may or may not be crazy, with Jeff making the keen observation–through his Chang-as-serial-killer story–that the crazy often act crazy out of fear. And in “Curriculum Unavailable,” the group meets with a therapist to confront Abed’s craziness and ends up confronting their own, even believing for a time that they’re legitimately insane and that Greendale was all in their heads.
But as Britta points out in that therapy session, “What you call insanity, we call solidarity.” It’s a sentiment strangely reminiscent of the heart-swelling scene in last season’s “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” when the study group confronts Duncan about the “delusion” of Christmas: “…when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens… It becomes true.” That power of shared delusion pops up a few times in season three. In the premiere, Jeff admits in the end that the study table really is magical–that there is actually a power about that table that unites and bonds them, and that they shouldn’t be in a hurry to dismantle that shared mystical reality. Similarly, in “Pillows and Blankets,” when Troy and Abed are stuck in a perpetual end-of-war pillow-fight (as Abed explains, it’s the last thing they’ll ever do as friends, so they can’t stop–the scene reminds me of a heart-wrenching chapter in Ray Bradbury’s excellent Dandelion Wine in which Douglas Spaulding tries to keep his best friend John Huff from moving to another town by not letting him unfreeze in a game of Statues), Jeff resolves the conflict with a pair of Imaginary Friendship Hats. The point is that sometimes, even if you don’t feel connected, it’s possible that you can rekindle that feeling just by imagining it’s there. When we accept that there is a bond between us, even if the bond is difficult or impossible to see or feel, then immediately the bond exists just by virtue of our shared ability to conceive of it! In a way it’s a testament to the old adage, “Fake it ’til you make it,” but it’s even more a testament to the power of shared imagination.
Speaking of imagination, of course, the Dreamatorium functions as the perfect visual metaphor for what I’m talking about. It’s a place where shared illusions come true for whoever’s using it. When you join the power of imagination with the power of friendship, anything seems possible.
Of course, when you join the power of imagination with the power of egotism, darker things are possible. LIKE A FUCKING INFILTRATION BY THE DARKEST TIMELINE. In my review of “Contemporary Impressionists,” I talked about how Abed’s fear of giving up some of his agency to Troy caused him to retreat into the Dreamatorium at the end of the episode, alone. It’s another example of someone feeling out-of-sync with their ecosystem and not knowing how to deal with it. Abed doesn’t want to sacrifice any control to Troy, because control is what makes him tick–it’s what makes him comfortable, and he doesn’t know how to function without it. So he retreats from his ecosystem into an egosystem–a world of his own devising where he doesn’t have to deal with the needs of others. But when you use something like the Dreamatorium as a way to keep yourself separated from the people around you, you leave yourself open to some dark thoughts. And for Abed, those thoughts manifest in the form of Evil Abed. (I’m tempted to talk about how brilliant it is that the writers were able to introduce the concept of alternate timelines early in the season, introduce the Dreamatorium a bit later, and ultimately use a combination of the two concepts to believably pull off one of the most “crazy, and inaccessible, and maybe too dark” things ever to happen in a sitcom–but I won’t.)
Putting Evil Abed aside for a moment, the power of the Dreamatorium is on peak display in “Virtual Systems Analysis.” One criticism that’s been levied upon this episode is that it might have benefited from showing Abed and Annie (in their own forms) playing the various study group members. But what’s brilliant about seeing the actual likenesses of Jeff, Troy, et al, is that we’re forced to participate in the Dreamatorium along with Abed and Annie–we’re forced to see their imagined world the way they’re imagining it–and this mirrors the way Annie forces Abed to see the world the way others see it, to filter his perceptions through others’ realities before his own. By committing so fully to the illusions of the Dreamatorium and making us see them, the episode does to us what Annie does to Abed–shows us a dizzying world that’s hard to keep track of and understand, much the way other people’s feelings must seem to Abed. It’s truly a stunning parallel.
But does Abed really come to see the world the way others see it? No. When Annie forces him to empathize with others, his own warped conception of how others view him takes over, and he becomes marginalized in his own fantasy. Annie confronts him about this, pointing out that he’s not as out-of-sync with his ecosystem as he might feel: “Your simulations are nothing more than anxieties. You’re afraid you don’t fit in, you’re afraid you’ll be alone. Great news: you share that with all of us. So you’ll never be alone, and you’ll always fit in.” Abed learns that empathy doesn’t mean imagining more fervently what you think others feel about you, or running scenarios in which everyone else is more important than you; it means acknowledging that the people around you are just as insecure and vulnerable as you are, and then allowing that reality to inform the way you treat them.
And in Community, there’s plenty of insecurity and vulnerability (and thus plenty of need for empathy) to go around. In “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism,” in one of the most touching moments of mutual empathy and understanding so far in the show, Jeff and Shirley–who have every reason to pity themselves and to be angry and resentful toward each other because of events in their childhoods–both come to truly empathize with one another and forgive each other, making their connection in the ecosystem even stronger. When they’re able to understand the circumstances behind why they behaved the way they did as children, they grow closer as adults by realizing that they were both, as Plato/Philo/whoever might put it, fighting hard battles at the time. The rub, of course, lies in carrying that lesson over into their treatment of other people.
So, do they? Well, speaking of fighting battles, let’s deal with this Todd problem once and for all. Earlier in the season, in “Competitive Ecology,” an episode which was very funny but criticized by some as depicting the characters as slightly too “mean,” the study group’s ecosystem is invaded by a foreign organism (Todd, whose time in Iraq probably gave him a taste for invading things), and they react… well, less than ideally. Which actually makes sense in biological terms. Introduce a foreign substance to a stable environment, and things can get very unstable. So the study group treats Todd with intense hatred, mocking and offending and trying to get rid of him like a throat trying to dislodge a piece of meat. Todd seems like a decent guy, though, and he certainly doesn’t deserve their scorn.
So is there any redemption for the study group in the end? Do we get any sense that they’re learning to show empathy and understanding for others–even those outside the group, like Todd? “Basic Lupine Urology,” which was widely deemed hilarious but somewhat lacking in thematic substance, actually gives us a hint of an answer (thus offering more substance than might meet the eye). When Todd confesses in “court” to dropping the group’s yam, mentioning the jar being too hot in the process, Jeff manages to peer through his instinctual dislike of Todd and see the truth. He could, like Annie, have easily overlooked Todd’s mention of the jar being too hot, instead embracing the status quo of demonizing Todd and allowing him to take the fall. The fact that Jeff doesn’t join Annie in her victory dance is testament not only to his perceptiveness in the court room, but also to his ability to grow from hating someone for no reason to treating them with fairness and respect. It’s somewhat ironic that selfish sarcastic douche Jeff is the one who ends up being the one to reform his attitude toward Todd, but who knows–maybe he did learn something from playing foosball after all. Maybe he grew.
(For good measure, another touching example of empathizing with someone you have every reason to hate comes, surprisingly enough, from Pierce. In “Digital Estate Planning,” Pierce and the rest of the study group hate Gilbert–and for good reason. The executor of Pierce’s father’s estate–and Pierce’s half-brother, no less–hunts and slaughters them brutally in a video game, cheating along the way in an attempt to win his father’s inheritance. But in the end, when Gilbert’s victory is dependent upon his demeaning submission to the racist views of his father, Pierce realizes that Gilbert’s life as Cornelius’s son has been even harder than his own. In a sense you could even say that the group has become perceptive enough to be able to see when a person’s roots have been boiled: Gilbert’s roots have definitely been boiled, and the group decides to treat him more gently as a result. To see Pierce give up his inheritance so graciously, and embrace his half-brother at the end of the episode, is one of the sweetest moments he’s had all season–and none of it could have happened without empathy.)
Of course, the themes of empathy and selflessness come to a head in the season finale, along with those of craziness, of good vs. evil, of forgetting important lessons and of doing the right thing. Abed, worried he’ll go crazy without Troy (who, after the events of “The First Chang Dynasty,” has been forced to accept a position in the air conditioner repair school–yet another disastrous upheaval of Abed’s ecosystem), thinks he’s broken and agrees to let Britta fix him. But Evil Abed, a brilliantly concise manifestation of Thanatos, of the death instinct, of the voice in one’s head that yearns for entropy and chaos and destruction, returns to seduce Abed further into the dark side, convincing the good part of Abed to stand aside while he takes over. Which is about when Britta says that line: “Let’s talk about evil.”
Yes, let’s. In a blog post I wrote last year called “Let’s Talk About Community,” I quoted something Dan Harmon said that I think is vital to understanding the show:
“For all its apolitical, joyful, empty headed zaniness and experimentation, Community is a passionately humanitarian show. Its only religious and political point of view is that all people are good people, and while we often play the roles of villains and stereotypes to each other, it is always an illusion, shattered quickly by the briefest moment of honest connection.”
Seriously. Shit’s gold, right?
All people are good people, and villainy is an illusion. Okay. Is evil an illusion? No, I don’t think so. People commit evil–just look at Alan Connor’s betrayal of Jeff, at Evil Abed’s wanting to cut off Jeff’s arm and drop his cigarette into a stranger’s coffee, hell, at some of the ways the study group themselves have acted over the course of the show! Everyone commits evil at times. The illusion is that people commit evil just because they’re evil, which isn’t the case. People commit evil because they’re selfish; they commit evil because instead of thinking about others, they think only about themselves; they commit evil because they feel the overwhelming need to preserve themselves in whatever ecosystem they find themselves in. Is Alan Connor evil? Nah, he’s just trying to survive in the shark-eat-Drew-Carey world of law. Is Evil Abed evil? Well, he represents evil, but if you take his narrative seriously, not even he is evil–he’s just a poor schmuck who got stuck with the wrong roll of a die, and is out to make life better for himself and his (surviving) friends. Even Murray the AC Repairman, who murders Vice Dean Laybourne (a profound evil given John Goodman’s awesomeness), isn’t inherently evil. And Troy realizes this, realizes that not even Murray the Murderer deserves to die, and saves him. In his own opportunity to either commit good or commit evil, Troy does the right thing–he empathizes; he connects; he commits good.
Meanwhile, as Evil Abed plugs in the bone-saw, Good Abed appears as a Dreamatorium-apparition to act as Abed’s conscience, and Evil Abed easily dismisses him with a single electrical shock, showing just how easy it is to let an Evil instinct overwhelm a Good one. It’s a tragic little moment, but big in its tragic-ness, evoking the age-old struggle (and often failure) to do the right thing. As someone who often tells himself not to eat the whole pizza by himself, and then goes ahead and eats the whole pizza by himself anyway, I totally understand what it’s like to shock that good/healthy/rational voice right out of existence and get on with the disgusting pizza binge. It sucks.
Luckily for Abed (and for Jeff’s arm), in that moment Jeff is in the middle of actually succeeding in doing the right thing. Luckily for Abed (and, again, for Jeff’s arm), he’s a part of an invaluable ecosystem where he can observe his friends behaving in a certain way and learn from it. When Jeff needs to choose between helping Shirley and preserving his old job, it’s a moment that digs deep for him. His whole arc, his whole objective in the show is to get his law degree and get his old job back–so of course he should throw Shirley’s case, right? And yet he’s learned so much about friendship and selflessness during his time at Greendale–so of course he shouldn’t throw Shirley’s case, right? Will he remember the lessons he’s learned? Will he make the right choice?
It seems like the choice is made for him when Shirley tells him to throw the case. Easy out, right? But when Shirley shows him the selflessness and love of telling him that she wants what’s best for him, even if it means her not getting her sandwich shop, Jeff realizes the profundity of that. It would be easy for him to take advantage of Shirley’s grace, but he doesn’t. He instead takes it as a cue to act with grace himself, giving one of the best Winger speeches in the show’s history:
“She said what I want was more important. She’s right, right? I mean, guys like me will tell you, there’s no right or wrong. There’s no real truths. And as long as we all believe that, guys like me can never lose. Because the truth is, I’m lying when I say there is no truth. The truth is—the pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth is—helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good.”
Real truths? The season started out about biology, but here it starts sounding a lot more like philosophy! (A possible foreshadowing of their class in season four? Who knows!)
And just as Jeff takes Shirley’s grace as a cue to act with grace himself, so does Abed take Jeff’s grace in the same way, putting away the bone-saw and being shocked out of existence himself by Good Abed. And the grace keeps rippling outwards, causing Pierce Hawthorne, resident bigot, to do the right thing himself not only by dropping the case against Shirley but also by declaring, “Don’t use ‘gay’ as a derogatory term! Booyah, good person!”
Booyah, good person, indeed. In the end, the ecosystem works flawlessly. These organisms are interconnected, have grown in the context of that interconnectedness, and have evolved into more empathetic, more selfless, more downright-good individuals. We see that these particular roots are far from boiled. They’re fucking thriving.
…But are we really done talking about evil? Are all our problems solved? Are the lessons finally learned? Jeff does say, “It’s that easy. You just stop thinking about what’s good for you and start thinking about what’s good for someone else. And you can change the whole game with one move.” So everything’s great, yeah?
Well, no, it’s not always that easy. As we’ve seen over the course of the show, and as I’m sure we can all testify to in the reality of our own lives, none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We even repeat the same kinds of mistakes over and over and over again, even as we learn the importance of not making them, over and over and over again. It’s like a cycle in an ecosystem; like a photosynthesis of frailty or a Krebs cycle of the soul. Abed himself, though he tells Britta that she cured him, is self-aware enough to admit that he’s not actually cured and that he’s going to need more help. And surely enough, the last thing we see after he dismantles his egosystem, the Dreamatorium, is Abed surreptitiously retreating into a miniature Dreamatorium in his blanket fort. And so the photosynthesis of frailty goes on…
But that’s okay. It’s okay because, as trite as it might sound, that’s life (in the most biological sense of the word). And as Troy and Abed might say: we’ll get through it. We’re alive, and we’re fine. Things might be bad—and at times so might we—but we’re together.
And that makes this the perfect timeline.