Community: The Conspiracy Episode

If Community did nothing but offer pop culture parodies free of context or characterization, it would get old awfully fast. (This is what scientists refer to as "The Family Guy Effect.") But the brilliant thing about the series is how artfully it's able to work these loose satires into its actual world. Sometimes it's a paintball game that gets out of hand, or a weird bug that makes people act like zombies. But other times, like in last night's hilarious "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design," it's something smaller and sillier but no less real for the men and women involved. The gloriously over-the-top conspiracy thriller story parodied everything from Inception to The Game, but every twist was designed to either advance the story (as Jeff and Annie waded to the bottom of the mess) or enhance a character (Jeff's bottomless duplicity, Annie's not-yet-extinguished feelings for Jeff). Everything was funny, but nothing was wasted. Years from now, we will teach our children with this show.

Directed by series mainstay Adam Davidson and credited to writer Chris McKenna, the episode was a relentlessly entertaining riff on conspiracy thrillers and the inherent paradox in claiming that a fact is proved by its lack of proof. Jeff's clever attempt to fake a course and earn a free credit was a typically Wingerish idea, but the way it played out was fantastically, goofily complex: The phony Professor Professorson turned out to be Professor Wooley, who turned out to be Professor Garrity, and his conflicting motives tied him to the dean's desire to punish Jeff, Annie's desire to help the dean, Jeff's plan to get revenge on both of them, and more. It was basically Inception on Four Loko, and it totally worked. The dean turned out to be out of the loop on all counts, and Jim Rash played his breakdown with the perfect amount of terror and adorable confusion.

The B story, which only briefly overlapped with the main one, was the episode's chance to get sillier while also commenting on its own existence (again). Abed and Troy's ever-expanding blanket fort was just the kind of thing they would cook up to pass the time, like their homemade version of Kick Puncher, and the insane number of rooms, groups and fetishes that sprang up inside were truly something to behold. Yet it ended with their idea being embraced by campuses nationwide, and that acceptance into the mainstream prompted them to destroy the fort and move onto something else. It's probably unfair to read too much of a mission statement into that -- after all, Dan Harmon wants this show to be watched by enough people to keep it around for a while -- but it's hard not to see the intentional parallels. Abed and Troy just want to do their thing, and once it goes past a certain level, it becomes impossible to maintain with the same level of creativity and devotion. Maybe Community is like that: brilliant but destined to forever remain the favored show of a small but devoted following. Ricky Gervais said, "There's nothing wrong with getting 20 million viewers, but I think there's something wrong with aiming at getting 20 million viewers, because then you have to take away all the things that will offend, and you'll end up with something so anodyne that it just washes over you for half an hour." Clearly, Community remains dedicated to charting its own path, hoping we'll be there to watch but, thankfully, unwilling to cheapen itself to get us.

Scattered thoughts:

• Tons of great little flourishes in this one, especially Professorson's ringtone being the same dramatic music sting that's been skewered everywhere.

• "Enjoy eating fiber and watching The Mentalist."

• Always good to see character actor Kevin Corrigan pop up. He was the perfect choice for Garrity: slightly rough-edged but still soft enough to be a Greendale product, both annoyed with the dean but resigned to his fate.

• Annie's environmentalism diorama was mainly a plot device to set up her being saved by Jeff, but still, I could do without the tie-in to NBC's latest Green Is Universal week. It's not enough to get the green logo on screen and the repetitive commercials; we have to get it in the actual plots of their shows? The only series to ever handle this well was 30 Rock, which mocked the whole thing to perfection with Greenzo.

• Maybe my favorite element of production design the show's ever offered: the Kick Puncher poster on Abed's wall. NBC would be crazy not to sell those.

• "Would that this hoodie were a time hoodie." Jim Rash, you are a national treasure.

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