Community Withdrawal: Overthinking Remedial Chaos Theory

The newest season of Community was meant to air on October 19th, but NBC delayed it right before it would air. I have defended NBC in the past, but this was kind of the last straw. It is hard to continue justifying their mistreatment of the show, so I have joined the ranks of the cynical whiners. Now, I’m not ranting for no reason. I have had some serious Community withdrawal, and I have gone back over the series in the meantime. Now I cannot seem to get Remedial Chaos Theory out of my head. It is such a banner episode. It is like a thumbtack on the map of these characters’ journeys; a Rosetta stone to their characterizations that we can look back on and say that’s where they were. With their on-coming season set to debut in February, I want to take some time to take a look at how these characters relate to the group as a whole.

First, a little refresher. Troy and Abed have moved into an apartment together. To show off their new digs and how mature they can be, they invite the rest of the group over for a fancy dinner party. In Troy and Abed’s world, fancy dinner party includes a bowl of olives in the bathroom, matching suits and ascots, and take-out pizza. They all sit down to play what would surely be an interesting game of Yahtzee when the pizza guy buzzes. No one wants to leave the party to go get it, so Jeff devises a random way to assign the task. He assigns everyone a number and rolls a dice much to Abed’s dismay since he believes it would create 6 alternate timelines.  Which it does.


Troy finds Annie’s gun

First Timeline:  Annie goes to get the pizza

Britta turns on an iPod stereo and starts singing “Roxanne” badly, and Jeff stops her. This happens in pretty much each timeline. Each time this causes her to go to the bathroom where she is smoking marijuana. Abed catches her and interrogates her about it. Meanwhile, Shirley is bothering with her pies, and Pierce is trying to give Troy a present. Both of them are ignored when Troy and Jeff find a gun in Annie’s purse.

To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot that happens in this timeline. This is like the “control” timeline. I think it means Annie needs the group, more than the group needs her. She has made leaps and bounds since the beginning of the show regarding her loosening up and removing the stick from her ass, but she still has plenty to learn.


Shirley and her burnt pies

Second Timeline: Shirley goes to get the pizza

Shirley is assigned to get the pizza, and she does so with a big smile on her face. The only thing she asks is that someone takes out her mini-pies. This causes Jeff to snap about them not feeding into Shirley’s baking addiction. Britta is stopped by Jeff again and goes to the bathroom to get high like usual. Pierce successfully gives Troy his present this time around. It is a twisted Norwegian troll doll (not the jewel belly kind) from Pierce’s mansion that used to freak out Troy. Shirley eventually comes back to find her pies burnt because none of her friends were paying attention. She goes into a big tirade about how hard it is to be an older woman among a bunch of horny singles.

From day one, Shirley has been the maternal figure to the group. She is the one who often points out how and why what they are doing is wrong, and she does it with a patented passive aggressive mom technique. She is the queen of guilt trips. And because she has practically volunteered for the role, it has left her as a bit of an outsider to the group. A lot like Annie, Shirley-centered episodes are usually about her loosening up and having fun, but there is added depth. She is not learning this for the first time. She is relearning it after years of being a bully and a drunk.


Troy and Britta have a moment

Third timeline: Pierce goes to get the pizza

Again, Britta tries to sing and is shamed by Jeff into needing a hit. Jeff also pokes fun at Troy, specifically about him being a kid. This shames Troy into joining Britta where he pretends to know exactly what she is doing. The two of them bond over not being taken seriously. When Pierce gets back, the whole group notices a nice little moment between Britta and Troy.

Clearly, Pierce needs the group, more than they need him. This was already made clear to us during Pierce’s drug addiction and his lashing out for being excluded from the second season. This timeline is a little more telling of Jeff, whose need to keep Troy down for being immature seems to be brought on by Pierce leaving the group. His vanity gets the best of him, and he becomes self-conscious that he is now “the old guy.”


Pierce terrorizes Troy

Fourth timeline: Britta goes to get the pizza

Jeff hits his head on the ceiling fan, and Annie checks his injury (which happens in every timeline). With Britta getting the pizza, the bathroom is free for them to use instead of the kitchen sink like they have been. They share a moment when Jeff says he is worried about her living in a bad neighborhood (hence her gun from the earlier timeline). They are interrupted by screaming and find Troy being terrorized by Pierce with the troll doll. Britta returns with the creepy pizza guy proclaiming they are going to get married.

Without Britta in the picture both Jeff and Troy are far less distracted. Jeff and Annie’s romantic tension boils up, and Troy is free to open Pierce’s gift. Meanwhile, Britta shows up with an impulse engagement. Britta finds some kind of stability among the group. Remember the girl she thought was a lesbian. Or the night she drunk dialed because she went out partying with an old friend from her so-called anarchist days. Britta tends to jump before looking, but while she is among so many self-involved people, she seems to be way less self-involved. It kind of makes sense now that she would go for a psychology degree.


The darkest timeline

Fifth timeline: Troy goes to get the pizza

Troy sprints from the room so he doesn’t miss anything. When he slams the door, it causes the boulder from an Indiana Jones play set to fall on the ground. It trips Annie who then knocks a bottle of liquor, Pierce’s gift, and her purse to the floor. The gun in her purse goes off and hits Pierce in the leg. Blood splatters on Shirley and her pies. Britta is so shocked she drops her lit joint on the spilled liquor causing a fire. Jeff and Britta clumsily try to put it out. Troy returns to see the troll doll staring at him from the burnt remains of the gift box. He starts to scream.

Clearly, this is the darkest timeline, as the group is left in a wreck as seen in the credit sequence. It is the most absurd timeline of all, and it makes Troy’s role in the group that much more interesting. In retrospect, he seems to have the most chemistry with each cast member. He’s Abed’s best friend. Britta has a crush on him now, and Annie used to. Shirley sees him as one of her surrogate children. Pierce sees him as the young friend who makes him cool by association, and Jeff sees him like a younger version of himself occasionally forcing his style and attitude on to Troy. Troy also seems like he is the one who is the most moderate character type. He is impulsively immature but desires to grow up. He is not smart, but he wants to do well in school.  He was the coolest guy in high school, but he has embraced geek culture through Abed. The show might have started with the idea of developing Jeff from a self-involved douchebag into a caring and understanding person, but I think Troy’s development will become the secret backbone to the long arc of the show.


Now everyone’s pissed

Sixth timeline: Abed goes to get the pizza

Britta is caught smoking in the bathroom by Shirley with her pies. Shirley’s mom role kicks in and scorns Britta for using drugs. Jeff and Annie kiss in the kitchen, but when Annie tells Jeff that he reminds her of her dad, Jeff pokes fun at her. After Troy thanks Pierce for letting him stay in his mansion, Pierce tries to take the gift back, but Troy ends up seeing the troll. When Abed gets back, everyone is pissed at each other.

It is clear that Abed knows he is in a TV show. He points out the styles and tropes when they happen, which allows the show to be both self-aware and occasionally apologetic when they go too absurd or too basic. Even though it is revealed he is the only sane one in a later episode, he is seen as the weirdest by the group. He makes all of their faults less noticeable. He is also the only one who can trivialize their faults by relying on clichés to remind them that they aren’t that weird after all. Without him, they start picking on each other.



The canon timeline: Jeff goes to get the pizza

Abed catches the die and reveals that Jeff devised a way that would guarantee he would never have to go get the pizza. There are 7 of them, but there are only 6 sides of the die, obviously. Jeff laughs and is urged to get the pizza by everyone at the table. When he gets hit on the head by the ceiling fan for the 7th time, no one cares if he is hurt anymore. They laugh and blame karma. With Jeff gone, no one stops Britta from singing Roxanne, and the whole group gets up and starts singing and dancing. Pierce tosses the gift in the trash, and Shirley is able to save her pies. Jeff comes back amused at their ridiculousness and quietly enjoys some pizza.

Jeff is egotistical and self-centered, in case you haven’t noticed. Even though he has developed feelings for this group of people, he cannot seem to get out of his way. At least now, he isn’t just a douchebag but victim to a horrible upbringing and bad habits. What depressed me about this ending from the first time I watched it was that Jeff was sold to us as the hero, and he is clearly depicted as a bad influence, at least on the other characters’ happiness. On a second look-see, I am a little more optimistic. While Jeff’s self-consciousness is a speed bump to the group, as long as they can get over that, Jeff submits to the fun. And with the revelation that Troy might be the true backbone to this story, it makes sense that Jeff still seems a little stunted here.

This episode is very telling, and I do not think that many other sitcoms have dared to try something like it. There have been similar Rashoman-style stories, but not nearly as conceptual as this. The closest thing I can think of is an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine and George seem to switch roles. At the same time, this is nearly a stopover for these characters. This is one of the earliest season 3 episodes. As that season continues, Troy and Abed’s friendship is tested, Pierce’s relationship with his father is resolved, and Jeff’s continues to have the same revelation that he cares about the group (maybe this one will stick).