Friday, October 14, 2011

3x04 "Remedial Chaos Theory" (A Choose Your Own Adventure!)

"Remedial Chaos Theory"
Original Airdate: October 13, 2011

Last week, I began by discussing the episodes that usually made my list of not-so-favorites. This week, I thought I'd kick the review off by letting you in on a few of my favorite episodes. From first season, if I had to choose an episode, I'd probably say "Modern Warfare" was the best all-around episode of the season. (And if you have to ask why, you're obviously streets behind). From second season, I decided that my three-way tie consists of "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" (flawless performances by Joel, Alison, and Jim), "Paradigms of the Human Memory" (it was just such an innovative way to turn the clip-show trope on its head), and "A Fistful of Paintballs" (flawless, period). And last night, we introduced a new episode to the rank of my favorites - "Remedial Chaos Theory." I won't be presumptuous but... okay, I will be presumptuous! This is, hands-down, my favorite episode to date.

I called the fact that this would be my favorite episode long before it even aired. Many of you who are reading this are on Twitter, so you know what a big emphasis we all place on being tweeted or retweeted by celebrities. When I heard of the episode description, I tweeted Dan Harmon, asking if it was like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book (the best. books. ever.), and he tweeted back: "I think it has that appeal." I pretty much knew right then that I would love the episode, and it did not disappoint. It, in fact, far exceeded any expectations that I had (even in other timelines of my life). 

So, the easiest way to break this episode down and review it is probably going to be timeline-by-timeline. I'll work chronologically, and start with some pre-timeline stuff, and then end with the post-timeline stuff and the tag (which I am still laughing at, 12 hours later). Everyone in their DARSIT? Good! Let's begin our time-bending journey.

So we open the episode with a joke that Megan Ganz gives credit to Gillian Jacobs for: "Didn't they say 304?" Britta asks Annie. "303. I wrote it down twice." Brilliant inside joke over the fact that this was supposed to air as 3x03. So we enter into Troy and Abed's new apartment and learn that Shirley arrived first, at 3pm, and has been baking ever since. Slowly, the group trickles in, and they all decide to play Yahtzee. They never actually get around to playing the game, because - hello - this is Community, after all, and when was the last time they played a real game together? (Don't answer that: It was Dungeons & Dragons). The pizza guy buzzes to be let in and Annie freaks out (something from the real timeline which will bleed into other timelines later on). So the group plays "nose goes," to determine who will go down and get the pizza. I love this because 1) it's a callback from "Aerodynamics of Gender" where they all play and Jeff asks "When did we start doing that?" and 2) this is how we decided things at work. When it's 10pm and you don't want to go walk something back to the produce department, you play nose goes. By the way, it has official rules. Just an FYI for everyone.

Back on track: Jeff proposes a plan to see who will go and get the pizza - he'll roll the die, and starting on his left, whichever number he rolls, that person will get the pizza. Abed informs him that by doing this, he's creating six different timelines. So let's pause momentarily and discuss what each character looks like pre-timeline, because these characteristics manifest themselves in every timeline, as well as post-timeline (in what we assume is reality):
  • Shirley: insistent on being the "perfect hostess"/baker
  • Annie: seems to be on edge slightly (this is the apartment catalyst later on)
  • Jeff and Pierce: pretend to not care (Jeff about the party, and Pierce about Troy moving in with Abed)
  • Troy and Abed: insistent as being seen as normal adults
  • Britta: wants others to see her as fun
So these subsequent timelines build on each other in the way that they expand the character developments that each timeline preceding it establishes. And it's ironic because these timelines never actually occur, and these things in them never happen, but traits of these characters bleed through the imagined and into the reality. It's like dreaming, right? There are fundamental things in your dreams that don't ever make sense (you can magically jump from one place and time to another), but there's still grains of truth that occur in your dreams that are realities in your life. Okay, so I'm going to discuss the general awesome things about each timeline, what they all have in common, why I loved them, and what each timeline reveals about the characters in them.

Annie's Timeline:
The repeated elements throughout the timelines are especially important to note because these represent consistency among the group, regardless of what point in time - real or fantastic - we are in. Thus, the most hilarious "running joke," is Gillian Jacobs' "ROOOOOOXA-" and Jeff's "Nope." So in this timeline, we learn that Annie carries a gun, and this bit of information gets built upon in Pierce's timeline. We already know that the "canon" is that Annie lives in a bad neighborhood. This information comes to a head in reality, too, when Abed asks Annie to move in with them. So, basically Annie's timeline sets up some character stuff - in particular for her - which will bleed back in later on in the episode.

Shirley's Timeline:
We learn in this timeline that there is a group vs. Shirley dynamic (that, again, resurfaces in later timelines). They claim that Shirley has a baking problem and they are enabling her if they eat the stuff she bakes. Jeff chastises her: "You're not allowed to have baking things as an identity." And identity is an important running theme in this show - and episode - so this line should be carefully noted. This timeline establishes Torg, the troll doll, as Pierce presents it to Troy. This is the tiny catalyst for Jeff/Troy dynamics later on in timelines - we see that Jeff still treats Troy like a child (sniggering at his fear of the troll). And in Shirley's timeline, we establish a little glimpse as to why Shirley bakes - she feels outside of the group because she's married and everyone else is flirty (nice subtle "Romantic Expressionism" vibe). The important nugget of truth in this timeline regarding Pierce, also, is that he still feels outside of the group.

Pierce's Timeline:
So we build even further on Shirley's timeline, because at the table, Jeff and Annie actually are making eyes at one another (while Shirley groans in disgust). This timeline is ironic because with Pierce out of the room, all of the "younger" characters get to develop. I like how Annie notes that Troy is becoming more mature - which incites Jeff to snidely note the bunkbeds that he and Abed have. In the previous timeline, we got a very subtle nod to Jeff tearing Troy down, but this one is more fully developed. It's the first real glimpse we get of a Troy/Jeff alpha male rivalry (solidified by Britta/Troy later on). Let's remember something for a moment: Jeff is selfish. Jeff wants the group's love and attention - their FULL love and attention, no matter how small the issue. So when Annie praises Troy, Jeff's reflex is to cut him down. This is followed by Annie giggling at Jeff's joke and Troy storming out of the room. 

Another running gag is Jeff hitting his head on the fan. So in this timeline, we kick off some more Jeff/Annie moments, as Jeff tells her: "You'd make a great nurse." So this is a nice glimpse into Annie as a character (built upon more by the time we reach Britta's timeline) and Jeff and Annie as a pairing. We also get further exploration into Troy's insecurities with a lovely Troy/Britta bathroom conversation. And this is a prime example of the realities of each character bleeding through the timelines and also into reality. I love this conversation because: 1) It's so honest. These two have a great dynamic together. 2) It's setting us up for the future. Britta is going to back Troy up this semester because she believes in him. She tells him: "You're a threat now [to Jeff]." And it's true - Troy is older, more mature, and is now a threat to Jeff's authority. This will bleed back into the real timeline at the end, and I'll explain that later. (Also, take note of this: "His whole personality is based around guarding himself." This will come back around later on too).

Britta's Timeline:
Can I say something? I love Britta Perry. Because first off, without Britta in the room, the entire group lapses into weirdly awkward silence. I like this because throughout the whole episodes, Britta is belting (and annoying Jeff) and trying so hard to be the "cool one," yet in the one timeline she's not there, it's weird. She's cool and she doesn't even know it. Anyway, now onto Pierce: throughout the timelines (and the pre-timeline), Pierce shows that he cares what the group thinks and doesn't like being left out. This timeline expands on that by having him visibly react to Troy and Abed's discussion at the table about being roommates. It's nice to see that Abed's face falls a little when Troy gets a gift from Pierce - competition for the better housemate begins (despite it really being one-sided on Pierce's part).

We jump into Jeff/Annie stuff again, as the line "You'd make a good nurse" resurfaces. This time, however, it's built into a conversation, with Jeff telling Annie that she needs to get out of the apartment (which builds upon Annie's timeline and foreshadows the real timeline at the end). I love that Jeff and Annie also make reference to their conversation a few weeks prior (about him not treating her like a kid, because - take note - this resurfaces in the Abed timeline). We get an added: "I can't help but worry about you, Annie. You're important to me." (Further evidence of building on the timelines). We start off Annie's timeline with the faintest hint of flirtation and by Abed's - well, we'll get to that. In this timeline, we establish more feelings and the two nearly kiss. (Yay for Jeff being the one to lean in)

We end this particular timeline with Pierce terrorizing Troy because he's jealous of the Troy/Abed dynamic. He then calls Abed "lonely and crazy," which - of course - is more of a commentary about Pierce's life than a dig at Abed. Britta ends up with the pizza guy at the end of the timeline and it's hilarious.

Troy's Timeline:
This one is what I'd like to call "the timeline to end all timelines." By the end of each of the previous timelines (anyone else starting to think the word 'timeline' sounds weird?), chaos develops in some way, shape, or form. It's a subtle form of chaos, usually finding one or two victims, but not the entire group. So we keep building in this one upon every timeline and pre-timeline concept: Pierce's jokes, Shirley's baking, and the never-ending question: will Britta EVER get to finish "Roxanne"?! This timeline, however, feels a bit more disjointed, perhaps because it LITERALLY dissolves into chaos, rather than fully build upon character stories.

So, here's what happens: Annie falls; alcohol breaks on the floor; Annie's purse goes flying (with the gun from her timeline); Pierce gets shot in the leg; Britta's cigarette falls and catches the alcohol on fire; Troy re-enters with pizza, sees the troll doll, and freaks out. Cha-os

This one is interesting to play with because when Troy leaves the room, the group dissolves into full-blown chaos (unlike the other group timelines, or the internal chaos of Abed's, or the lack of chaos in Jeff's/reality).

Abed's Timeline:
Building on our other timelines, no one is listening to Pierce's story, so he makes it more blunt so people will pay attention to him. This timeline is where every other timeline really converges, which would make sense because it's Abed. It also makes me wonder slightly if this was the real timeline. I mean, for Abed to call it out is, and was, completely meta of him. But wouldn't it make sense for this one to be real, in a way? 

Shirley's character circle comes to a close when she finally admits that the reason she bakes is because she feels like that's all she's good for in the group. Britta finally re-enters as "fun" (albeit high). Troy confesses that he's grateful to Pierce and is ready to be a man and make it on his own just like Pierce, while Pierce realizes that people do pay attention to him when he's not being a jerk.

Alright, Jeff/Annie shippers, I love you all. You are the wind beneath my wings, the song in my heart, etc. etc. But here's the thing about shippers (in general, not just you guys) - we read into things. And here's the thing about reading into things: it's fine, and we do it all the time. And we have two extremes: 1) taking things out of context that weren't necessarily meant to be in context (but they make us feel good, so we do it), 2) taking things personally (lines that weren't meant to be a certain way, but we take them that way). So, Jeff and Annie build upon their moments from the previous timelines. Jeff throws in his "I worry about you, Annie" and then adds "You're very important to me" (we add to the timeline). So maybe we're coming to a greater, more complete realization of the characters as the timelines progress. Maybe we're going from shallow knowledge and theories to foundations that are more reflective of the real timeline. That's my theory.

Jeff and Annie kiss and it's a really good kiss, and then Annie ruins it. Okay, not so much ruins it as just messes it up. Ironically, this doesn't deter Jeff or her. She says that the fact that Jeff says "I worry about you, Annie" reminds her of something her dad said. Let's stop there, guys. She did not stop kissing him and say "You remind me of my dad." Someone on Twitter said this (I think it's you, Stephanie): this is just Annie acknowledging that this is probably the first time someone else besides her dad really has expressed worry over her well-being.

Jeff doesn't seem deterred but does say "You could lay off the bubblegum lipgloss." And see, this is a trip back to Britta's timeline where Jeff says he's not treating Annie like a kid, and we realize that Jeff may have just accidentally called Annie a kid without meaning to. And that causes her to be a bit miffed.

So now we end up with a more controlled form of chaos, if you will. And it makes sense, right? Abed would want a controlled, episodic form of chaos, while Troy's timeline would lead to an insane, crazy, shenanigans-style mess.

Post-timeline/Jeff's timeline/reality:
Abed's speech holds the truth of the episode - that, no matter how great all of the timelines were in forms of development - the group was never together. Therefore, chaos always took its hold in some way, shape, or form and destroyed at least one member of the group as it did so (usually everyone but the person getting the pizza). I like the idea that the end is reality, and that none of the other timelines actually did occur, though they did hold dream-like truths. 

What is great is that we wrap up the best things about the characters at the end, and ironically see growth that we only notice because we have seen the other timelines: Britta belts out "Roxanne," Pierce decides to not attempt the joke or give Troy his present, Jeff agrees to get the pizza, Shirley forgoes baking to be with the people she loves, and Troy and Abed let loose.

"You see what happens when I leave you alone, huh?"

What is so great and sad about the episode is that this is the only timeline where no chaos occurs. And Jeff is the one who is absent. Jeff, the person we have been conditioned to believe is the leader of the study group. And I honestly did question at the end of the episode - is Jeff really the leader? Or is he merely the controller? Is there a difference? I think Jeff slightly realizes this too, at the end. We're left to wonder if he is the one who causes the chaos to occur. He's the constant, after all. And then there's Troy, who is inside of the dance circle (Jeff is standing outside on one end of the room, and Piece is outside of the dance circle on the other side), with the people he loves and who love him, taking that role away from Jeff little by little. Because Jeff is selfish and this episode may be the slight hinge on which the Troy vs. Jeff alpha male competition takes place. And I am honestly excited to see how this plays out.

Other de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- Sorry, I laughed the entire way through the tag. Stomach-clenching, rolling on the bed with laughter. True story.
- "You're a pie-pusher! You push pies to get love!"
- "Jeff! You crafty jackrabbit."
- I said it last week, but Joel looked really good this episode too.
- "Time flies when I'm baking!" "No, it doesn't."
- "Super cool. And sexy. Super sexy cool..." "Overselling it."

So next week is a re-run of "Biology 101." In celebration, you should go and read that review after watching the episode. ;) Until the Halloween episode, folks! As always, leave your thoughts below.


  1. Loved this episode so much I watched it again right afterwards. They also could have titled it Social Anxiety 101: Stressed out and trying too hard. The makeup of the apartment (being so small and that really weird color) made the whole episode feel claustrophobic, too.

    I think your observation about how the dynamic went more smoothly when Jeff had left the room is very interesting. But, then again, they established that dynamic from episode 1, when he threw the group into chaos on purpose.

    If the series is allowed to ultimately run its course and the characters do grow and change, I think the ultimate conclusion is that the group learns to not depend on Jeff as the leader. Like in this episode, where Abed gives "the speech" and we reach some resolution.

  2. If you search for the Paley Center videos on YouTube where Dan Harmon and the cast were interviewed, you'll find one where Dan (or Joel?) says that the interpretation that the group might be better off without Jeff is wrong. They weren't hinting at that idea at all. It's just that he doesn't have play the boss all the time.