This post contains spoilers through the April 19 episode of Community.
Over the years I’ve been watching Community, I’ve written a great deal on and off about Dean Pelton. Often, it’s been about the way the show’s handled his sexual orientation in the absence of another gay character. But there’s an extent to which I think, if Abed Nadir is Dan Harmon’s stand-in on the show, Dean Pelton represents Community itself with the study group as audience proxy. Pelton is the clearest articulation of the show’s desire to be weird, and to be happy in that weirdness, whether it’s embracing a Dalmation fetish or splitting the show into six different timelines. But Pelton isn’t a happy, untroubled freak—he’s a freak who both wants to let his flag fly and is in a constant state of anxiety about how it will go over with the people he wants to impress. And when he tells the study group “Can I be perfectly honest with you guys? I think I went too far with this one. I have to go to the bank today. What am I supposed to tell people in line?” and then tells himself “Come on, Craig. Get your life together,” it’s the perfect prelude to Community’s most conceptually and emotionally ambitious episode in quite some time.
I like Community’s high-concept stuff, but ultimately, the show’s emotional capacity is more important to me than its experimental riffing. It’s why “Mixology Certification” remains my favorite episode of the show: it took a deeply normal concept, let all the characters bring their own type of weird to the proceedings, and reaped enormous emotional rewards, from Pierce’s self-destructive cussed independence, to Shirley’s past as a drunk, to Abed’s confrontation with a social world that’s less forgiving of his foibles. Tonight’s episode was much more narrowly focused than “Mixology Certification” was. But putting together Community‘s most-empathetic character and its least-empathetic ended up reaping considerable payoff for the most serial storyline the show’s done, Abed’s ongoing confrontation with the fact that his way of seeing the world may make it special, but it also doesn’t make him a very nice person.
The episode really kicked into gear when Abed tries to explain how the Dreamatorium works, and ends up insulting Annie. You see it that way because it’s calibrated to a specific level of brain function,” he tells the girl who’s volunteered to play with him so Troy and Britta can go on a date. “Not stupid, just less able to see what I see.” In response, Annie jams the works, spitting out “We lower-functioning brains call this empathy.” What follows doesn’t resolve anything—it’s not clear if Britta and Troy did or are going to get together, Annie may not know what’s going to happen between her and Jeff next, and who knows if Troy’s going to air conditioning repair school—but we do know more about how Abed sees the group he’s terrified of losing.
He assumes that Annie wants to be overwhelmed by Jeff, imagining that she’ll like it if he, as Jeff, tells her: “Make love to me, Annie. I know I’m just a surgeon, and you’re a hotshot upstart administrator. But damn the rules. Damn the system. Damn our two-foot height disparity. I want you.” And Abed sees Britta and Troy as a joyless couple, who tell him things like “We just saved an uninsured homeless man’s life,” “Using an unapproved procedure. Now we’re going to kiss.” (Troy’s confession that “I’m more turned on by women in pajamas and lingere. I just want to know they feel comfortable,” is, however, unintentionally the best ever.) Leonard is a cable-less peeper. Abed’s terrified that Annie truly does see him as a “Control freak with no empathy. People bend over backward to help him.” And he’s terrified to admit to anyone how he really sees himself. It’s deeply poignant when he tells Annie “I don’t get married. I don’t invent a billion-dollar website that helps people have sex. I don’t make it into Sundance, SlamDance, or DancePants. Troy invents DancePants in 2019, but don’t tell him. He has to stumble onto it.”
If Abed’s stuck categorizing the world, Annie, at least, is able to confess that she has the opposite problem: trying to bend the world to meet her needs. “We’re just in love with the idea of being loved. And if we can teach a guy like Jeff to do it, we’ll never be unloved,” Annie tells Abed. “We both need to get more comfortable wining it.” And after several episodes of Abed asking for clarification on what to feel, or whether something is a social cue, he finally gets it right. “I’m hungry,” he says, asking Annie “Are you hungry? I’ll make us buttered noodles.” It’s a small foundation for redemption. But sometimes, you wear your Duala-Dean outfit to the bank and end up out to lunch. For Community‘s often-stunted characters, life’s all about taking enormous risks for potentially small emotional payoffs. The show takes huge creative risks for small ratings payoffs, but the emotional gifts, when it gets things right, are enormous.