Uh oh. A theme episode. These special stories have become the epitome of that which is wrong with Community: lazy references and weak character development in the name of cheap humor and heavy stylization. Does this episode follow suit, though? Well, let’s recap what happens, and I’ll discuss opinions at the end.
The group discusses potential dinner plans, but Shirley can’t make it, which causes her to begin her guilt storm. The tension is briefly broken but not forgotten, as two app developers, David and Bixel (Steve Agee & Brian Posehn, to my great delight) enter and tout some rating-based crapfest called “MeowMeowBeenz,” where people rate each other from one to five…MeowMeowBeenz. The characters are deliberately infuriating, although Agee and Posehn are pretty great and make the bit carry some humor. Buzz Hickey begins to criticize the two, but is interrupted by Bixel’s phone setting off a reminder, telling him he should “go number two soon.” Although the social media crowd is an easy target, I think the show managed to do it with equal parts comical cuteness and light critique.
The campus begins to devolve as the app spreads through the faculty, staff, and student body. The number-based rating of all interactions transforms behavior, such as Chang’s dedication to limping, since it gets him more MeowMeowBeenz. Everyone is hooked, from Abed, to Hickey (who admittedly only does so to make sure he doesn’t get left behind, comparing Mark Zuckerberg to Fidel Castro), to Annie. Britta has turned against it, as Annie told her that people with higher ratings are given more weight when they rate others. She sees this as oppressive, and like last week, we actually see Britta speaking out about something with realistic character motivation. Woah! She tries to tell the students to rebel, but her rating goes down, to her dismay.
Shirley, meanwhile, is rocking it, as she guilts anyone who rates her below a five and is super friendly to everyone. Jeff decides to partake in order to reveal the flaws in the game, shamelessly pandering to crowds like bros, with appealing lines like, “Women are objects.” He does know how to work an audience. To his dismay, though, he learns people with “five” ratings get to choose the air conditioning options. Jeff also notices that color patterns are emerging in clothing, and Abed informs him that colors are largely reserved for fours and fives, while threes and twos stick to neutral colors in order to not seem like
social number climbers. Abed is in that group, and has befriended those in his caste ranking.
Flash forward about a week, and the problems have been carried to their logical extreme: a caste system has been instituted, with Fives wearing pure white, extravagant garments; Twos and Threes in grey being neglected; and Fours acting as glorified servants. There are some heavy sci-fi undertones, reflecting the stylized class divisions in the likes of Logan’s Run. The Fives separate themselves from the school in a room with stark white walls and colorful decorations, and included in this group is Koogler (Mitchell Hurwitz, the showrunner behind Arrested Development), who is clearly an aging man striving to remain cool. He proposes a talent show wherein a Two can become a Five, in order to appease the masses. Abed, who is now a Five, expresses his boredom, and the rest rank him with fives to ensure he cannot move down the ladder.
Meanwhile, Jeff climbs in rank, now a Four and thus garbed in flamboyantly colored garments. Britta accidentally enters a “Fours and Higher Only” zone, and is mocked by wonderfully dressed fours played by Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim (of Adult Swim fame), along with someone who I can’t say I recognize, but is also quite delightful: Jen Kirkman. This episode is seriously cameo’d, but it’s used well, fortunately—the actors are given roles that they excel in, so the humor is in the delivery, not just expecting you to know who the people are. Jeff and Britta discuss the tyrannical new system and how Jeff can use his rising status to dismantle it, but the Four played by Tim catches the two conversing; after a bafflingly touching monologue about his experience loving another class, he promises to keep the friendship a secret.
The talent show opens with a baton twirler, who is viewed unfavorably by Shirley; his rank drops from a Three to a One, meaning he will be banished to “the Outlands.” As a traditional sci-fi goon goes to take him away and decree the banishment, he stumbles over words, and his ranking also drops to a One. He cries out that he struggles with public speaking, but is dragged away regardless. I thought this small gesture was a rather brilliant comment on the way society privileges certain characteristics and determines the value of a human being based on expectations of certain skills. But anyways, moving on….
Jeff takes an opportunity to speak to the crowd, and delivers a comedy routine that highlights the class differences, to everyone’s delight. Only Shirley is not won over, but before she can announce her negative rank, Krooger lauds the performance, pushing Jeff up to a Five. Britta worries that the power has gone to Jeff’s head, but he assures her that he will take Shirley down from her throne. Jeff confronts Shirley’s attempt to manipulate other Fives into ousting him, but the outbursts result in both becoming Ones.
Britta, meanwhile, has managed to gather the Twos and Threes into an army, although she could only attract their attention by smearing mustard on her face (and thus having “color”), which has its own set of societal implications. Jeff and Shirley, meanwhile stand in the desolate Outlands, and discuss the dinner debacle. Both reveal themselves as control freaks, and manage to reconcile. However, Britta has led her revolution, stripping Fives of their power and lowering their rankings. Jeff seizes this opportunity to reveal that the MeowMeowBeenz app has gone on sale on the app store, and is ranked five stars. Because they cannot lower its rank as beta testers, they realize that the only way to defeat that which is outside of the system is by deleting it. Only Britta is distraught by everyone’s abandonment of the system, because she has, for the first time, seized power. Britta is a self-acknowledged hypocrite, so this was a surprisingly effective representation of the negative side to her character.
In a fixed Greendale, Jeff tells Shirley that he has solved the dinner problem: they will get takeout and eat in the study room, so Shirley’s conflict with her son’s karate practice does not preclude her participation. The end tag is a parody of the slacker student comedies a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but featuring Koogler, giving us a bit more time to enjoy Mitch Hurwitz’s brilliant comedic timing. Seriously, the dude can act.
This episode has received mixed reviews, and I’m the first one to bemoan a theme episode, but I think that “App Development and Condiments” is rather brilliant. The homage focuses on character development rather than wallowing in its own “cleverness,” and the social commentary actually reflects that of the sci-fi it references while adding some of its own sentiments and ideas. If Community is going to do a theme episode, then this is how it should be done, rather than a mimicry of the Paintball Episode format. The humor here is present but not separate from the story, which has also been a problem in recent episodes. And of course, I’m always glad to see Buzz Hickey get some memorable lines. Hopefully this upswing from last week is indicative of what is to come.