Review: Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory”

Do you really ever know if you’re the problem? How can you know? And if you do know, what do you to do to fix those problems? As we move along season three of Community, these are the big questions that one Jeff Winger has to answer. He – and admittedly, the rest of the group – was convinced that Pierce was the problem, the toxic member of the group. Jeff didn’t have to worry about his issues as much because he could easily project them onto Pierce.

But as this season has shown us a few times now, including in tonight’s tremendous “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Jeff is struggling to fully define his place within the study groups’ dynamic. Jeff knows he needs the group (and I think he’s known for a while), but there are questions about how he is going to actually show that he does care. The tension between how Jeff feels and how he wants to let himself truly feel appears to be a dominant thread in Community’s third season and although “Theory” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it, the conclusion to the insane fun here crystallizes Jeff’s current state perfectly: When he’s not around, the group tends to let loose and have lots of silly fun. This is fun he wish he could join in on, but just can’t bring himself to do because he’s too busy being cool and detached – even though he wants to join. So badly.

Though small, this is a lovely moment of self-awareness for Mr. Winger. Instead of scoffing at the immaturity of those around him like he’s done so many times, Jeff recognizes that dancing around like a fool while singingly terribly to The Police is probably kind of awesome and looks like a great bonding experience. He no longer truly looks down upon the other group members for having fun and being dorks. He can make fun of them when they take it too far – such as when Abed warns about the separate timelines – but there’s not the same sense of disrespect that came in the early going of the series.

However, Jeff has two problems: One, as I mentioned, he’s not quite willing to embrace the kind of fun the group likes to have, oftentimes in his absence. And two, I’m not sure he’s yet aware that this is a problem and he’s certainly not aware that he might be what leads the group into all the terrible fights and arguments they have. He’s getting there and I’m guessing that much of this season is going to be about Jeff waking up to how he interacts with people and either changing or slipping away from the group because of said newfound awareness. I don’t know how the series has managed to progress this thread through an extended 2001: A Space Odyssey homage and an entire episode about fractured, alternate timelines, but I guess that’s Community for you folks.

And of course, the framework of “Remedial Chaos Theory” was a great way to show us at home how the group changes when Jeff – and everyone else – isn’t in the room. Though each alternate timeline is short and often contains repetitive material – which is of course the point – Chris McKenna’s script does a wonderful job of showing how each member of the study group really does play a large role in the dynamics. Without Jeff around, the group is able to be loose and fun. Without Troy and his underrated leadership and sense of calm, things devolve into horrible, horrible madness. Without Abed, people start getting a little too real and honest with one another.

Moreover, the timeline structure allows the episode to find a way to have each character put forth some of their biggest qualms with everyone else. Jeff’s problems we’ve covered. Annie’s upset that everyone is always so damn worried about her. Troy wishes Jeff would view him as an adult. Pierce is upset that Troy moved out and seems so happy. Shirley hates feeling that she’s being left out because she’s happily married. Britta feels like she has to hide herself (and her smoking) just a bit. And Abed? Well, I guess he’s just happy to be living with his best friend, but always fearful and reticent of how to uphold the boundaries of the time-space continuum.

It’s pretty amazing that “Theory” makes room for all of these little moments and beats while still sticking to a ridiculous framework that includes seven separate timelines, each filled to the brim with wonderful in-jokes and callbacks to other timelines and distinct tonal baselines. This effort presents all the different sides of Community within just one episode, buttons it off with a ridiculously funny final sequence and still informs a number of character positions that should be integral to the rest of the season.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few weeks about the “state of Community.” With a rabid, fervent fanbase, the good times are going to be so great: “Everyone” on the internet talking up how the series is the best on television, how no one can top its imagination and risk-taking, how Dan Harmon is a genius and so on and so forth. But that passionate fanbase can go the other way and that’s led to a whole lot of panicked conversations, comment threads and tweets about Community’s quality.

I completely disagree with most of those hyperbolic assertions because I generally liked the first three episodes, but I can see where some people are coming from, especially those who love the “theme” or “concept” episodes.  I have to imagine that those people will be happy with this episode. This episode is complex, it’s sharp and it’s damn smart. As Dan Harmon has said in interviews, these big “theme” episodes have to include a “Britta and Jeff having sex” moment* to affirm their entire existence and I think “Remedial Chaos Theory” has one of the better “Britta and Jeff having sex” purposes for all the theme episodes. I love what the series is putting Jeff through and I hope Community keeps forcing him to see the reality of his circumstances.

*This is of course in regards to the first paintball episode and I think it’s what makes the big theme episodes so damn successful. The only one that lacked much of a “Britta and Jeff having sex” moment is “Basic Rocket Science” and it’s no coincidence that it is the least successful of them all.

Other thoughts:

  • Speaking of coincidences, it is definitely not one that the first episode to rely heavily on Troy and Abed is the season’s best. I like that the writers are focusing some attention elsewhere, but my lord those two are just so fantastic.
  • Obviously, the framework of the episode allowed for a number of great moments that couldn’t necessarily “stick.” People are going to be talking about that Jeff-Annie kiss and their subsequent mature conversation that followed and they have every right to, it was solid. However, I think the conversation between Britta and Troy in the bathroom was probably my favorite dramatic moment. Their relationship is one of, if not the, most interesting pairing the series has and I really want to see more of it. Immediately.
  • Speaking of Britta, can we take a moment and throw some love to Gillian Jacobs? She’s been fantastic this season, but she was at her best here. From the slight differences in how she’d start to sing “Roxanne” in each timeline, to the hilariously random, pot-induced pizza walk to her sudden proposal to the delivery guy, Britta was the MVP of this episode for sure.
  • Is Pierce’s assertion that his Eartha Kitt story was “organic” the new streets ahead? Are people going to keep saying things were organic on Twitter? Should we?
  • Community has had a lot of purely hilarious sequences, but I’m not sure a single episode has had two tremendously LOL-worthy extended bits like this episode. The two sequences in “Troy’s Earth” were unbelievably funny. I could not stop laughing during the post-credit tag. The goatees, Troy’s voicebox, Britta’s hair color, I CAN’T EVEN.
  • They were totally watching Inspector Spacetime at the end, weren’t they?

5 responses to “Review: Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory””

  1. I def. agree about Britta, the writers are finally using her better and let her shine. I thought she was great in “Geography of Global Conflict” as well.


  2. […] The reviews for the complex, complicated alternate timeline-centric episode are all super positive (including my own) and most of those folks who were worried about the series’ quality have reaffirmed their […]


  3. […] The reviews for the complex, complicated alternate timeline-centric episode are all super positive (including my own) and most of those folks who were worried about the series’ quality have reaffirmed their […]


  4. Thank you, first review I’ve read that really touches upon the “Jeff as an outsider” aspect of the show.

    As well, I did kind of enjoy the first three episodes; but the focus on Chang’s storyline in the first did it a great disservice. I think Chang works best in smaller doses, and putting too much focus on him tends to draw away from the great group interactions.

    (P.S. “Encarta it!” should totally be Pierce’s new streets ahead)


  5. LOVED this episode. love love love. Great review, you really got deep into the character conflicts, it truly goes to show how expert the writers are and how amazing the cast is. 🙂


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