Remedial Chaos Theory, 10 years later

Last year, I started a series where I had planned to review every episode of Community, as I had done with Game of Thrones. Surely, it would be easy, since the episodes were shorter, and I wouldn’t have to have a long review for all episodes. That series didn’t continue beyond the first 10 reviews, mostly due to 2020-related burnout, but there are still quite a few episodes that I wanted to take another look at. First among them, one of the show’s best episodes, Season 3’s fourth* episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

And I wanted to take a look at this episode in particular, because it’s such a stand-out. My personal favorite episode is actually “Pillows and Blankets” from later in Season 3, but I always have to concede that this might be the best episode of the show. This episode was nominated for a screenwriting Emmy and a Hugo award – an Emmy nomination isn’t entirely out of the ordinary for a show like Community, but a Hugo award is for works of science fiction, so its nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation is a bit noteworthy. But, I think everyone can agree that this is a work of science fiction – Abed’s exploration of different potential timelines is something straight out of science fiction. The only thing that divides this from something that is traditional sci-fi is the fact that these timelines are imagined, and not actually traveled to.

This episode is a masterful exploration of the show’s core characters. The situation in the apartment with all of its variables is established, and we get to see what happens when each person leaves the room. And it’s interesting to see how the variable of people leaving the room changes things. Shirley leaving results in her having a nervous breakdown. When Abed leaves, it sparks conflict between Britta and Shirley, Jeff and Annie, and Pierce and Troy. Pierce leaving improves the mood between Britta and Troy, who connect on a personal level. Troy leaving plunges the room into chaos of The Darkest Timeline.

The Darkest Timeline is perhaps the comedic height of the episode, because it really pays off on all of the environmental hazards which are shown throughout the episode. Annie’s gun goes off, the boulder rolls off of Abed’s replica Raiders of the Lost Ark, Britta’s blunt lights the broken rum bottle on fire. The apartment’s burning, Pierce is bleeding, and everything’s a mess; it’s so horrifying and sudden and surprising that it can’t help but be riotously hilarious.

Arguably, I’ve always found Abed’s timeline more upsetting. Jeff and Annie’s disagreement is fairly inconsequential, Britta seems to upset Shirley, and the rift that arises between Pierce and Troy seems profound. We watch as the fabric of the group rips apart. It’s devastating.

But then, in the True Timeline, when Jeff leaves the room, the housewarming party truly gets started. Jeff isn’t there to stop Britta from singing and dancing, leading to everyone having a great time. This makes a broader point about how Jeff’s desire to not be embarrassing leads to him potentially ruining the mood for everyone else; but when everyone else lets loose, Jeff has a lot of fun. When compared to Abed’s Timeline and the Darkest Timeline, the True Timeline is absolutely jubilant. It really hits home just how wide the emotional hills and valleys this episode reaches. It’s such effective storytelling, reaching the highest highs and lowest in less than 25 minutes.

10 years later, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is still one of the show’s best episodes. Strong emotions, funny jokes, and great performances are only the tip of the iceberg for this episode. So many episodes of this series end up being a type of parody or homage – an action movie parody, a western parody, a horror parody, a Ken Burns documentary parody – but “Remedial Chaos Theory” ends up being something so profoundly its own thing. It’s a masterpiece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s