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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dystopian COMMUNITY

Article first published as Dystopian COMMUNITY on TheTVKing.

This week's installment of NBC's Community is called "App Development and Condiments." A pair of software developers (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee from The Sarah Silverman Program) introduce Greendale to a new social rating app for their smart phones, MeowMeowBeanz. Soon, as is par for this college, the app makes the campus devolve into a futuristic dystopian society where the highest rated rule the caste system, and the lowers are treated as slaves.

Only at Greendale Community College can the world change so rapidly. It's not like we haven't seen it before, even within this fifth season. A scenario is introduced into the population, and they whole-heartedly embrace it. Until, that is, it gets too dangerous and real and the study group find a way to dismantle the whole system, having worked out their own personal problems. It's the closest thing Community has to a formulaic episode, and it's highly enjoyable.

MeowMeowBeanz is a clever idea. While "App Development and Condiments" doesn't seem to parody any other particular work, it's sort of like if facebook and hot or not went crazy and evolved into a Hunger Games type of world in which everyone is ruled by this bad, useless technology. And having little cat faces all over the dark set is absurd in the best of ways. Toss in some strange future dance and some white curtains, with a flamboyant class just one step below, and suddenly Community has created a familiar and, at the same time, wholly original landscape.

Of course, these are all trappings for the real story. This week finds Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) with her feelings hurt because Jeff (Joel McHale) didn't invite her to a dinner he knows she can't attend. Community doesn't do Jeff-Shirley stories often, but whenever they do, it's great. They are such similar people in their love of other people's adoration, while also being completely different in their belief systems and manipulative tactics, and they make for a surprising friendship.

"App Development and Condiments" lets Shirley and Jeff play out their feud on a grand scale, drawing everyone else into the battle. This hyper reality is a major draw of the show, and it's quite fun when a personal beef is taken to such extremes. At heart is the argument which can be solved with a simple apology, but everything has to fall apart before either can swallow their pride enough to mend the bond, forced to take a look at themselves by their friends forcing them to do so.

Everyone has their own way of coping with the circumstances of the episode, showing beautifully the wonderfully varying people who make up the show. Annie (Alison Brie) becomes Shirley's butt-kisser. Abed (Danny Pudi) succeeds because he understands numbers and stats, but then doesn't like being in a position of authority. Professor Hickey (Jonathan Banks) gets ahead by pretending its his birthday, every day for over a week, while Chang (Ken Jeong) discovers people like limping and commits to that fully. Star-Burns (Dino Stamatopoulos) tries to serve everyone at once, spying and sneaking, but never rising far.

We also have new character Koogler (Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz), who seems to come straight out of an 80s film, a fact hit home by the fake movie trailer in the tag. Not an actor, it seems unlikely that Hurwitz will become part of the recurring cast, which makes his appearance superfluous. I enjoyed his role, but would rather he not be included at all if his presence isn't going to be explained or repeated.

Lastly, we have Britta (Gillian Jacobs) doing what she does best - championing a cause. In this case, she's the one that brings down dystopia when she stages a revolution. Her fellow students begin to listen to her only when she has mustard on her face, so she embraces that until eventually the effect wears off. But it's great to see self-righteous Britta, desperate for approval, making it less likely to be given.

"App Development and Condiments" does seem like a fairly typical episode of Community, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. They are layers of story, always present in the best of the series, and some terrific one-liners, such as when Jeff scolds the students for playing through this on a Saturday, when they could have gone home. Tiny bits, like a 4 approving of 'forbidden love' between 4 Jeff and 2 Britta, sell the universe presented. Very good job.

In fact, if I have one complaint about this season, which we are more than halfway through, it's that the Dean (Jim Rash) hasn't really had any story, reducing him back to the small, supporting role he used to occupy. Rash deserves better material, and he is hilarious when he gets it. Let's hope there's at least one meaty Dean story before the end.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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