Community: Greendale points to fictional dystopians to comment on social media apps [s5e8]

Never let it be said that Community goes halfway in its genre homage episodes. “App Development And Condiments” is a full-on dystopian meltdown that pitches Greendale into a disastrous state of rigid social classes determined by an upstart social network. It’s not as airtight as some of the show’s other clear homage episodes, nor is it as coherent as some of the more sprawling, cafeteria-homage episodes (like the David Fincher Ass-Crack Bandit episode earlier this season), but at least it has a kernel of a clear message. If I’m placing this on my scale of Community styles, this is a batshit insane, throw-everything-at-the-wall stylistic extravaganza, but not everything sticks.

The Greendale campus is apparently so mutable that any slight tinkering can throw the entire population into upheaval. The Halloween party from “Epidemiology” destroyed the library; all three paintball episodes destroyed the entire campus (the tag at the end of season two even referenced how ridiculous it would be to clean up); and the blanket forts in “Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design” and “Pillows And Blankets” completely took over campus as well. There was even a campus wide game of Hot Lava a few weeks ago. So there’s basically nothing that can’t take hold of Greendale and turn that little slice of heaven into a sociological nightmare. The school is basically a giant incubator for genre variations on the Stanford Prison Experiment on a macro level.

If I remember correctly, the last time Community delved into the friendship between Jeff and Shirley was the foosball episode in season three when they discovered how their paths had crossed in childhood. As Shirley commented in last week’s episode, when she and Annie got shunted to the background, she wants to be featured more and deserves to be. When Pierce was around, Shirley got to be involved in business-related plots, either in classes or starting a sandwich shop on the side. When her marriage was on the outs, she had episodes of reconciliation and remarriage. She took charge as a leader when most of the study group took an elective on a sailboat. And she’s been one of the no-nonsense campus security guards along with Annie in the episode where Britta tried to pull a prank and ended up just killing a frog.

But unlike “Foosball,” this episode pits Jeff and Shirley against one another for most of the half-hour without speaking to each other. It starts with a simple act of cutting a corner: Jeff organized dinner plans with the rest of the group, but didn’t invite Shirley because he knew she had a prior commitment taking her son to karate. Shirley views the lack of invitation as inconsiderate, a purposeful slight meant to keep her from participating. It’s not that, but the lack of clear communication—and Shirley’s passive aggressive attitude (which she has admitted on multiple occasions) combine to reopen an old wound.

Then, because this is Community, the episode gets turned on its head. The Dean introduces two men—played by Brian Posehn and Nelson Franklin (one of Cece’s boyfriends from New Girl)—who are running a beta test of their new mobile app MeowMeowBeanz. It’s a kind of Facebook/Yelp hybrid that allows anyone to rate anything—but what it gets used for at Greendale is rating other people. It’s kind of obvious where this Pandora’s box is going in terms of structure: Greendale goes absolutely apeshit with people ratings others, then stratify into castes based on the one-to-five MeowMeowBeanz rating. Professor Hickey has it right when, in the cold open, he struggles to muster up exactly the reason he finds this app so horrid. He fought for this country, and now it’s creating something awful that turns people against each other.

To Shirley, MMB is the ultimate vindication for her behavior. She’s outwardly nice to everyone, and shoots up to a five. But that also gives her a kind of unlimited power to take down others: when Vicky only gives her a four for something, Shirley loudly proclaims her “satisfaction” and “thanks,” and suddenly others downvote Vicky immediate on the app so that she plummets in social standing. Integrating the ratings on the screen like other shows like House Of Cards incorporates text messages is a nice touch, and it’s clear that once MMB sweeps the campus, Shirley takes over with passive aggression to get what she wants.

Jeff, a guy used to skating by on his charming appearance, initially stays above the fray. But he’s so bothered by Shirley’s attitude that he joins the app in order to prove that MMB doesn’t just reward those being genuinely nice, it can be fooled by someone pretending to be nice in order to gain approval. This is all based on one missed invitation, which spirals into factions and one man raging against a dystopian machine. On one level that’s impressive, but when it boils down to Shirley and Jeff at odds over how to handle the respect of one social interaction, it loses a bit in the foundation. It’s still entertaining to watch, and full of some insanely funny sight gags, but it’s not as well constructed as some of the other homage episodes this season.

Abed views the app as a way to categorically quantify social interaction. He learns to make small talk with others associated with his rating. He’s thrilled by the easy to follow give-and-take process that involves assigning a number value to social cues. Unfortunately, Britta discovers that her insurgent message to ditch the new app is met with immediate downvoting. She can’t even get anyone to listen to her—except when she has a mustard stain on her face (thus the “Condiments” in the episode title). It’s stupid and degrading for her to need something like mustard on her face to disarm the message enough to get through to other people, but that’s the point. The plucky would-be liberator can’t fully break through without dealing with her personality weaknesses that come off as too domineering.

In less than a week, the campus transforms from typical college societal norms into a hyper-gossipy and vindictive atmosphere, and then into a dystopian wasteland referencing Logan’s Run or 1984 or any number of futuristic films or books. The one-to-five MeowMeowBeanz structure is in place, with restricted areas for different numbers, and jobs assigned to the lower castes. The Fives—including Shirley, Hickey (with a birthday hat), a dejected Abed (whose humility gave him a high rating he doesn’t want), and “Coogler,” a generic laidback cool guy played by Arrested Development creator and frequent Harmontown podcast guest Mitch Hurwitz—rule from an elysian lounge, fed by other students. Annie comfortably slides into the role of Shirley’s obedient assistant, next to the Fives, but not confident enough to work up to that level on her own. But in order to maintain their grip on the social scene, they must project the image that social mobility is possible, and thus divine a Talent Show—where Shirley rates performers and then everyone follows suit, maintaining her grip on how society should be structured. There’s no mistake: she’s a passive-aggressive dictator with the same problems as Jeff.

Meanwhile, Jeff maneuvers his way up the social structure, reaching a four rating while Britta toils as a two, trying to make everyone else snap out of the loop with this crazy app. Jeff gets on the Talent Show bill, and initially he plans to use the platform to further Britta’s agenda. (Dean Pelton has one of the lines of the episode by summing up the ratings as Jeff prepares to go onstage: “You know what they say: Fives have lives, fours have chores, threes have fleas, twos have blues, and ones don't get a rhyme because they're garbage.”) But once in the spotlight, Jeff instead performs what amounts to this new society’s version of “white people act like this; black people act like this.” He talks about the various number castes—twos have a thing for apples apparently—and fires up the crowd so much that Coogler votes Jeff up to a five before Shirley makes her judgment, and the rest of Greendale follows suit.

If there’s something to be disappointed about, it’s the final act, where Jeff and Shirley basically just yell out the argument they should have had in the study room, since there’s such an easy solution. Jeff feel inconvenienced having to invite Shirley even when she’ll just decline, and Shirley feels left out when she doesn’t know her friends’ plans even if she can’t attend. Jeff is in the wrong—it should be easy to accommodate what Shirley needs, but her reaction of passive aggression is a systemic character flaw that she indulges in whenever she feels threatened. The constant bickering while at a special, extremely awkward social event for Fives gets them both demoted to ones and exiled entirely.

That coincides nicely with Britta finally having enough, slapping mustard on her face, and leading the Twos in a revolution. She rises to power, where she immediately turns on the Fives for revenge. Jeff manages to stem the tide, and in a Winger speech turn everyone’s ire to MeowMeowBeanz itself. Once the app is deleted, nobody has the power, but typical of this type of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” narrative, Britta doesn’t want her Che Guevara act to end. But the air is out of the balloon, and Greendale finally returns to normal—on a Saturday, when everyone is still at school for no reason. Part of me wanted there to be some other thing that made the students go so off the rails—like Harmon’s pet “gas leak” joke about the fourth season, or the contaminated food in “Epidemiology” and subsequent military intervention to affect everyone’s memories. But like “Pillows And Blankets” and the paintball episodes, it’s up to the homage to have the strength to overcome the burden of belief. I don’t think “App Development quite got there.

There are a lot of good points about the ways in which social media startups, and the ability to rate anything at anytime, have affected person-to-person interaction in a negative way. And though the episode is by Jordan Blum and Parker Deay, it’s hard not to feel like the central message comes from one of Dan Harmon’s rants on Harmontown about the way he feels that technology has, in certain ways, changed American society for the worse. For one, MMB favors playing to a certain attitude in order to please a broad spectrum, instead of acting naturally within codes of decorum determined by the masses to find a niche with like-minded people. But that message is buried in a bunch of plots struggling for more time and throwaway gags. It’s astute, but not fully coherent. That leaves another really fun and adventurous episode of Community, just not one that transcends to the level of other classics. I imagine that like other homage-heavy episodes, this will improve a lot upon multiple viewings, but for now it just didn’t click as easily as the best so far this season.

Extra Credit

• I’m fairly certain the revealing costume Starburns wears toward the end of the episode is a reference to the hilarious Sean Connery’s getup in Zardoz. Praise be to Zardoz.

• Jeff’s initial foray into MMB is impressing a bunch of frat bros with some incomprehensible douche-speak that ends in, “Girls are objects.”

• The episode tag is absolutely fantastic, featuring a fake 80’s movie trailer for Hurwitz’s Coogler character as some kind of Van Wilder college troublemaker.