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Tonight's 'Community': The Most Important Episode Ever

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Apr 19, 2012 | 1:25pm EDT

CommunityThe year has been a trying one for Community fans — that's something nobody will deny. Naturally, thoughts go immediately to terrifying hiatuses and unnerving cast-creator feuds. But even before all this, before angry voice mails and threats of cancellation, things were a bit uneasy on the Greendale campus. Think back to the first episode of season 3: It opened with a musical number, immediately (dis)satisfied its predecessor's cliffhanger, and then collapsed into a strange, uncomfortable mess. The week to follow didn't do much better. Nobody wanted to believe it, but Community's third season wasn't starting out that great.

Of course, everyone still loved the show, and still maintained that "Next week will be the winner." And when the life-affirming "Remedial Chaos Theory" rolled around, fans felt a little bit better. The greatest show on TV was still capable of being the greatest show about TV.

And then, the hiatus. I know, we're not supposed to bring that up anymore (the horror... the horror) but it needs to be mentioned. The hiatus inspired a surge of Community pride: Fans adorned their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts with dark timeline goatees. Shouts of "Six seasons and a movie!" could be heard on every street — or, more likely, read in every message board... we don't go outside a lot. People realized just how much they needed Community in their lives.

After it was announced that the show would be back, fans were treated to the majesty of Community at Paleyfest, where creator Dan Harmon and his cherished cast spoke on the remaining half of season 3. At the event, Harmon plugged several stories yet to come. He spoke of video games, Jeff and Shirley partnerships, pillow forts (as we've seen). But there is one plot that Harmon teased that seems to have stuck out in fans' minds: the episode where Abed and Annie spend the entire time inside the Dreamatorium. If that wasn't enough of a sell, the gravity that Harmon assigned to it sure was: "[It] will be either the best or worst thing that’s ever happened on television."

As such, ever since Harmon's mention of the episode, the aforementioned message boards have been a hive of anticipation. This was the episode everyone was looking forward to. This was the first truly Community story fans had heard about since "Chaos Theory." This might well join the ranks of "Modern Warfare," "Cooperative Calligraphy," "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" and (my personal favorite) "Critical Film Studies." This episode might be season 3's defining moment.

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And this episode is finally here. Titled, "Virtual Systems Analysis," airs tonight, April 19, at 8 PM ET/PT on NBC. The so-called "Dreamatorium" episode might well be the most anticipated Community story since the Second Coming of Paintball. But after a season like this one, there's a lot more riding on "VSA" (is it too early for shorthand?) than there was on "A Fistful of Paintballs." This is going to be a huge game-changer for Community.

Thinking creatively, there are worlds of opportunities with this plot line. Starting with Annie, a character is perpetually on the edge of growing up, but one who never quite gets there. Like Troy, she is young, and is being thrust into things and feelings she's not sure how to handle. But unlike Troy, she is resistant to this. Without a proper childhood under her belt, Annie is not prepared for adulthood. She's in simultaneously enamored by and at odds with both Jeff and Britta, sweet enough to care for Pierce but frightfully capable of deception and manipulation. She's a complex character who is due for a good, long inspection.

And then there's Abed. A character who is more fertile a ground for examination and development than anybody else on television. Abed isn't just resistant to change, he is nearly incapable of it. And while early season 1 depicted Abed as being content with his stagnancy, the more he comes to love his new, first group of friends, the more he feels left behind. After losing Jeff (a concept that was highlighted in "Critical Film Studies"), Abed has become more invested in Troy. But as anyone up to date with Community knows, Troy's personal growth and maturity has been threatening to shatter Abed's world. The conclusion of "Contemporary Impressionists" sat Abed opposite his dark timeline identity, speculating on where this problem will take him (all the while satirizing Community's own resistance to change).

Thus, there is no dearth of possibilities in accordance with what fans might see Abed and Annie learn about themselves and each other in "Virtual Systems Analysis." But a simple, straightforward character examination couldn't be what Harmon was referring to when he called the episode, "Either the best or worst thing that's ever happened on television." What fans are in for is doubtlessly something inimitably Greendale.

To speculate on how exactly the show will deliver whatever valuable story it has in store is futile — which speaks to the greatness of Community. This is a show that used an action film send-up to tell a story about two friends finally sleeping together. It's a show that used a game of Dungeons and Dragons as a frighteningly authentic illustration of an old man's painful loneliness, even especially when surrounded by his would-be best friends. It's a show that used My Dinner with Andre as a means of conveying the implausibility of genuine human honesty, a show that used claymation to highlight an emotionally challenged young man's heartbreak over his mother's abandonment of him, and a clip show (filled with all new clips, mind you) to reveal that those same two friends were still sleeping together.

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In short, when it comes to Community, anything is possible... especially in the Dreamatorium, where, literally, anything is possible. What is more pressing is just what "VSA" stands to accomplish, however exactly it carries its story out. And it might be a cop-out, but you'd have to answer that with another "anything is possible." This episode might well reestablish the show was the piece of unabashed, unique genius that fans realized it was halfway through season 2. It might go further, and bring out a new side of Community that the audience will come to identify as the show's golden age. Maybe the days of satire and trope examination as episode guides are in the past. Maybe, now, the show is focusing its experimentation on discovering who these characters are, and where they are bound to go. Community has never neglected its characters, but season 3 has most definitely upped the ante on the gravitas. These people never felt as real as they do now; what if "VSA" shows the world how much realer they can get?

But lest we neglect the fact that Community is already a show chastised for alienating mass audiences with its exclusively niche appeal, and "Virtual Systems Analysis" seems like it will be anything but an exception to this pattern. This might not bode well for ratings — an issue that got the show into its messy hiatus situation in the first place — but it bodes well for the dedicated fans. What they want is the Community they know and love, not something watered down for the sake of being approachable to the masses.

It's dangerous to invest so much hype into a single 22-minute episode of television, but it's inevitable. Dan Harmon cast this curse upon "VSA" when he made that remark at Paleyfest. His aren't the type of fans not to analyze every word spoken on the show's subject. The episode in question has a whole lot riding on it. But speaking from the perspective of someone who has loved every second spent devoted to the study group — good episodes and bad, it has all been part of one fundamentally worthwhile experience — faith is high in Abed and Annie to give the world of Community fans something wholly streets ahead.

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