This post contains spoilers for episode 5.08 of Community, “App Development and Condiments.”
You remember that thing teachers make you do on the first day? When you sit in a circle, or a square all facing in, and go around the room, introducing yourself and say something about yourself? Invariably, what you say in those 30 or 40 seconds determines how whoever hears you thinks about you for the rest of the term. It’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone: ‘Hey! Say something short but funny, brief but pithy, and remember: These one or two sentences will define who you are to the people you’re about to spend a lot of time with for the next couple of months.’ When you consider that, normally, the people introducing themselves are teenagers or young adults, who may not have a fully developed sense of self – let alone know what they’ll be having for dinner – it seems extra unfair.
The unfailingly sad – and frustrating – part of life is this doesn’t stop happening when we leave school. It happens at jobs – menial, part-time and big, fancy shmancy ones – and it happens in other, unexpected circumstances. And, nearly every time, it sucks.
This week’s episode starts with another meeting of the Save Greendale Committee, wherein they’ve agreed to seek estimates on how much putting grass on the soccer field will cost.* As the meeting draws to a close, Shirley discovers Jeff has organized a dinner outing with everyone else but to which she was not invited. Jeff explains he didn’t invite her because he knew she’d be unavailable**, and before they devolve into an argument of foosball levels (and before the rest of the group fumblingly tries to reschedule), Dean Pelton arrives with an announcement: Greendale has been chosen to beta test a new mobile app.
The app, created by David and Bixel (guest stars Steve Agee and Robert Patrick), is more ridiculous than its name: Meowmeowbeenz is a ‘rating’ app, where users can rate each other, and their ratings become weighted over time, with the ratings of users with higher ratings themselves given more importance.
As you might suspect, the app, with its wide-open parameters, leads to a total breakdown of society within Greendale. Shirley and Annie, along with Buzz Hickey and Chang, advance to the top strata, while Abed hovers around the middle, and Jeff and Britta struggle to break out of the lower ranks. The rules become increasingly absurd as the levels become more and more clearly delineated.
At the episode’s climax, Jeff performs a bizarre, and offensive***, stand up act to gain the approval of and join the uppermost tier, letting Britta down after agreeing to help her overthrow the system. He and Shirley argue again, are kicked down to the lowest level of the new society, and then resolve both their current and earlier arguments. Meanwhile, Britta embraces her own absurdity and manages to overthrow the skewed social order on her own, only to impose a new, vindictive system in its place. However, when Jeff and Shirley are brought before her for judgment, Jeff manages to destroy Britta’s new world order. The episode ends with Jeff inviting Shirley to dinner. She explains she’s probably unable to attend, but Jeff has thought ahead: They can order take-out for the entire committee, which means Shirley won’t have to arrange for a different schedule to see her kids.
The first element of the episode, largely because it’s totally inescapable, is that it was designed as an homage to the 1976 scifi film Logan’s Run, with just a dash of the alternately campy and bewildering Zardoz.****
Logan’s Run is, in many ways, a predecessor to the current crop of dystopian future novels and films we’ve been swimming in for the last decade; it has nearly all the required elements. Wacky futuristic jumpsuits and/or diaphanous outfits in colors associated with your place in society? Check.
A rigid social order that is as arbitrary as it is (mostly) understandable? Check. A dire secret that can bring the entire society crashing down? Check. A cross-social class alliance that will end in rebellion and romance? Double check.
But what’s particularly interesting is how, in the context of social satire, Community has embraced the traditional role of scifi, which is to hold up a mirror to our own lives in order to highlight the parts that are awful and ridiculous. In Logan’s Run, the social commentary focused on overpopulation and the glorification of youth culture.
In “App Development and Condiments,” the commentary reflects our obsession with technology; our inability to communicate effectively with real people; and our tendency to overinvest on social media. (Full Disclosure: I fully include myself in those ‘ours.’ I’m as guilty as anyone of these same dependencies.) However, while other modern satires – The Colbert Report, Weekend Update – take a more direct approach to pointing out societal absurdities, Community used scifi conventions to show the logical (but sped up) conclusion to a new social media trend. (Klout, anyone? Twitter? Facebook? Ahem.)
The other interesting aspect of this episode was the focus on relationships. First and foremost was the tug-of-war between Jeff and Shirley. Season three’s “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” illustrated how compelling they can be when they work together, given that Jeff now is modeled on Shirley then, while season one’s “Social Psychology” showed how their similarities (both gossipy and thoughtless) make both of them genuinely unpleasant to spend time with, at times.
But equally interesting was how Annie followed Shirley, riding the other woman’s coattails to the popularity she presumably always wanted in high school, if last season’s “Heroic Origins” can be trusted. Yet, despite Annie toadying to Shirley’s whims, there were points where Annie seemed aware her popularity was still unstable, which speaks to Annie’s continued lack of confidence: Much like Britta, her sense of self-worth is connected to her friends, but she also lacks the confidence to build her popularity on her own merits.
Interestingly, in a subtle callback to season three’s “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” Abed is again shown to be the lone voice of reason in his group of friends. While the beginning of the second act sees him super pleased with everyone using Meowmeowbeenz, and the close of the same shows him tickled that he can make small talk with others in his class, he realizes in the third act that being part of the popular elite is as isolating and lonely as being considered emotionally stunted and socially inept.
It becomes clear Abed had hoped his Meowmeowbeenz rating would help fill the void left by Troy, but what becomes clear is he’s not the same self-assured man he was in season one’s “Physical Education.” Whether his lack of confidence is a product of having had Troy as a crutch for the last four years, or if it’s a result of having lost sight of who he was because Troy was always there, Abed is both lonely and seems to have lost the spark he had back at the start.
Following on last week’s confession from Britta that she feels she has no friends, her discovery in this week’s episode that people would take her seriously only if she had mustard on her face was a sad addendum to her character having lost sight of her self worth. Now, it might be that I simply have strong Britta feelings (We do have similar names.), or it might be a matter of hating how she’s been misused and ignored for the better part of three seasons.
Shirley’s storylines have consistently been about her struggle to balance her personal and professional obligations with her desire for freedom, even if they’ve been couched in a poorly handled pregnancy arc, a poorly handled recovering alcoholic arc, and a marriage more confusing than Ross and Rachel’s on again/off again nonsense. Annie may have less backstory than any of the other characters, and the storylines she’s been a part of have disproportionately focused on her attraction to Jeff (and Vaughn and Rich and, that one time, Dean Pelton), but she’s always been represented as smart and driven. The same can’t be said for Britta.
Whatever the cause, I was genuinely upset by Britta’s willingness to make a mockery of herself. As much as her activism has often been played for laughs, her passion to make the world better is a huge part of what makes her believable as a person who might exist in the real world. And she’s always genuinely believed in the value of her activism, even if she’s equally aware that she’s not making a huge dent in the world’s problems.
Furthermore, her rise as a egalitarian-minded dictator isn’t as absurd when we remember this is a girl who felt her father was controlling, who was ignored by her peers as a teenager, and who made the incredibly ballsy (if ill-timed) move to tell Jeff she loved him in front of the entire student body, only to have him walk away and make out with someone she thought was a friend. (Second Full Disclosure: I am an unabashed Jeff/Annie shipper, but that was a pretty jerk move on Jeff’s part, regardless.) My point is Britta went a little mad with power, but her reign wasn’t as divisive as Shirley’s or as mindlessly violent as Chang’s; and her intentions, however clouded, were pure.
But like a lot of us, Britta is stuck. She wants to be taken seriously, but she’s unsure how to present herself in a way that won’t make others dismiss her out of hand. She’s trapped in high school and knows it, but can’t escape because everyone else is stuck there, too.
After last week, I am more convinced that Britta is on an arc where her loneliness, which is even more ingrained than Abed’s, will make her the weak link when the inevitable season-ending showdown happens. And if that showdown includes City College and Dean Spreck, well, the Save Greendale Committee will have its work cut out for them when they have to fight a foe from within as well as an outside threat.
* It’s fantastic to finally have the world of Greendale fleshed out. We’ve known for years now that their basketball team is really gay, their football team practically always loses, and the football field serves as overflow parking for the nearby mega church. But there are still little bizarre things about the campus we’ve never quite found out, as Kerry has mentioned.
** I think it speaks to the nature of Jeff and Shirley’s friendship that he knows her schedule, but also to a new commitment on Jeff’s part, after season four’s confrontation with his father, to spend more time actively engaged with his friends rather than keeping his nose glued to his phone all the time.
*** As a fellow former Seattlite, I can say that not everyone in the Pacific Northwest thinks people from New York sound the way Jeff was speaking. However, our impressions of Californians are usually more on point than when we try to mimic people from the other side of the country.
**** Unlike Logan’s Run, the social commentary of Zardoz is not really worth discussing, although if you haven’t seen it already, I recommend it if you have a couple hours to kill and you’re not huge on things like plot, story logic, or continuity.