Each Friday in The Televangelist, Richard Clark examines the met and missed potential of television.

I would be genuinely surprised if last Thursday’s episode of Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory” doesn’t go down as the single best episode of Community yet. It’s a slow burn, for sure, a concept that seems horrifically over-complicated and misguided. But it justifies itself by the end of the show, or half way through, or however long it takes you to realize what is going on here.

And what is going on here? By providing us with a glimpse of seven different versions of the same few minutes, each centered around the absence of a particular member of the study group, the show manages to provide a glimpse into the delicate balance this group of friends maintains simply by being around one another.

For the most part, at least. What makes the episode more than a mere experiment is the heartbreaking and illuminating final parallel timeline: the one in which Jeff Winger’s will is thwarted and his absence is felt. After watching him manipulate, dismiss and humiliate his friends for the majority of the episode, it’s clear that the best thing for the group is for him to simply leave. We become acutely aware of this, and then to our surprise, so does he. When he walks into the apartment and finds his friends dancing stupidly and carelessly with one another he asks rhetorically, “You guys see what happens when I leave you alone, huh?” He then stands aside and observes, refusing to take part in the fun. Maybe because he’s too proud to make a fool out of himself – or maybe because he doesn’t feel deserving.

But was it Winger’s absence that caused the group to unite in a show of unadulterated joy, or was it his selfless (if forced) act of going to get the pizza? It only stands to reason that relationships are better off without the manipulation and frustration of treating everyday activities as if they are games of chance – the opportunity to do things for those you know isn’t something you roll the die for. It’s a privilege, even if it feels like an obligation in the moment.

The good news for Jeff, and for those of us who find ourselves acting like Jeff entirely too often, is that with this realization comes the ability to change and progress as a person. Yes, as Abed says, it’s important to recognize our friends for who they are, even if their qualities are less than ideal – but it’s equally important to allow for the possibility of change and to root for it, in others and, most importantly, in ourselves. This is what takes place when Jeff steps aside and simply watches the silliness rather than shutting it down completely. Newly enlightened, he decides to give selflessness a try, albiet in passive, self-conscious and distinctly Winger-esque style.

Maybe the group would be better off without Jeff Winger – that seems relatively clear. But the largest net gain would be a Jeff Winger who sees who his friends are, stops trying to manipulate them for his own ends, and simply appreciates them.

1 Comment

  1. Loved this episode! Throughout the show I kept saying to myself, “why doesn’t someone just point out that there are 7 people? Why don’t they make Jeff get the pizza?” Terrific stuff. Also that gnome is scary.

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