I found myself wondering the other day if Community had become too reliant on gimmicks. NBC's programming schedule meant that its Thursday comedies were in reruns last week, which gave me more time to process "Remedial Chaos Theory." That was a smart, funny episode, but it also left me feeling colder than I realized when I was writing my review. The show has always been willing to break the rules and play around with the format of televisual comedy, and it's done so in wonderful ways, but I couldn't help but feel that those moments of experimentation were being graded on a curve, as if anything outside the norm was automatically good simply because it was unexpected. Yes, it was amazing to see seven timelines juggled in 22 minutes, but it was a long road to walk just to learn once again that these people need each other. That's a good lesson, but one the show tends to default to telling.
This week's episode, "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps," had the potential to misfire, switching as it did between the action in the library and the increasingly lurid and crazed ghost stories the gang told each other. But what made the episode really work -- what elevated its aesthetic above gimmickry -- was the way each story was a sharp insight into its teller. "Remedial Chaos Theory" was about how these people need each other, but "Horror Fiction" was about how they're all worried that they're a lot more troubled and complicated than the personas they share with the world. Troy's story is about being sewn to Abed in a cartoonish riff on The Human Centipede, but it's also about his worry that he and Abed are becoming too dependent on each other's presence and approval. They already bumped against the issue doing their science project earlier in the year, but in Troy's story they howl about being "forced to be together forever." It's couched in goofy gags, candy-colored fantasy sequences, and the predictable avalanche of wit and style that have become the show's trademark, but that's a very real fear. Halloween, after all, is all about whistling past the graveyard.
The episode was also creator Dan Harmon's way of talking about his own issues, and how everyone's a little crazy, and how the crazy people are more okay than you'd think. The season premiere acted as a mission statement for the show in terms of narrative direction and tone, but this episode felt like Harmon's way of coming clean about his own fears. Although he has a hand in every story, this is the first script solely credited to him since the second episode of the first season (he and Dino Stamatapoulos shared credit for last year's "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"), and it's hard not to see his sweet, gentle defense of Abed as a statement about himself. It's not that one person in the group has an extreme personality disorder: It's that they all do, and only Abed has his shit together. Harmon has talked about how he conceived of Abed as just generically different but has come to associate the character with Asperger's syndrome, and more than that, how Harmon himself has realized that he falls on the continuum of the condition. "Horror Fiction" was Harmon's way of saying that Abed's weird, and awkward, and not very good at understanding social cues, but that he's not broken or screwed-up. He just is who he is, and he's making peace with it.
• "I hope you're as fertile as I am tonight." "More!"
• "Like a Dorito?" "A sociopathic Dorito. A cool ranch lunatic."
• Annie's story was a fantastically weird one, too, and it deftly incorporated personality flourishes that drew on her history with Jeff and Britta and her feelings about her role in the little triangle they've created. It wasn't for nothing that the fictional Annie referred to fictional Britta as Vampire Jeff's "skanky concubine." She also touched on her own fear of being needy and controlling, admonishing Vampire Jeff, "You should be proud how much I've changed you!" Community is always working on at least three levels at once.
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• "This a home invasion, you jive mother!"
• Fantastic triple-play on the pilates joke: first as a spot of relief from the evil dean's torture, then the reveal that Pilates is the name of "a demon that eats your genitals," then the disappearing dean's gleeful cry of "I'm off to Pilates!" Beautiful.
• "See? There was a twist!"