“The Science Of Illusion” originally aired on NBC Thursday night March 25, 2010
All it takes to redeem a whole episode is one perfectly-executed scene. Not that “The Science Of Illusion” ever comes close to being bad, but until the climactic study group confessional breakdown in the third act, its excessively goofy setups — Pierce’s wizard outfit, Britta’s prank gone wrong, Annie and Shirley’s battle over who’s the real badass — don’t seem like they’ll amount to much more than the sum of their parts. If anything, it may even appear that the show is going a little more broad and silly than it should — or at least, that the silliness is a little too frontloaded, where most episodes that enter “heightened Greendale reality” mode tend to start from a more mundane place and then build up to absurd wackiness over time.
But then the final scene hits, and ties everything back to the characters and what they mean to each other, and the payoff is well worth whatever missteps it took along the way. When in doubt, just put these personalities around the study table and let them bounce off each other for a while. You’re almost guaranteed a few laughs, and you may even end up revealing a thing or two about these characters, to the point where the story, somewhat perversely, arrives at a place of emotional catharsis. The scene manages to achieve all of the above, most remarkably, without ever losing sight of just how inherently silly all of this is in its specifics. While not overtly “meta”1, it plays almost as a satire of the typical feelgood sitcom resolution. Community is demonstrably not above playing these kinds of moments straight, but the essential balance of the show was in maintaining its consistent tone while taking as many sharp turns away from square one as possible.
Much has been made of the seeming betrayal of Britta’s original character over the course of the show — that she initially comes off as an intelligent, free-spirited and independent young woman and gradually devolves into some absent-minded goofball that everybody piles on for her airheadedness. This episode gives some indication as to how that character choice became the go-to option both on a writing level, and within the world of the show. Britta’s funnier the more she leans into her ditzy persona, sure, but she also fits in better with the group that way. The role in which she truly thrives is not that of “buzzkill”, but as the person who can be the butt of the joke while remaining as endearing as ever.
“The Science Of Illusion”2 captures Britta’s character at its exact midway point, as she attempts to reconcile her innate compassion and highmindedness with her newfound love of screwing around with her friends and her continual need to belong. Her idea for a mildly amusing April Fool’s Day stunt — putting a tiny “Señor Chang” sombrero on a frog in Spanish class — is perfectly in keeping with this version of her character, as are all the reactions of those around her. What keeps this April Fool’s plot from being just another “Britta as the group’s punching bag” story is that her motivation for this dumb, dumb behavior is actually kind of sweet. She just wants to share a laugh with her friends, without hurting anyone’s feelings, as if truly aspiring to fulfill the Dean’s edict that all school pranks must be “physically safe, politically balanced, and racially accessible”3. The most important part of her character, and the one that never changes, is that she’s always depicted as having a good heart.
But as we know by now, every Britta plot must involve some form of brutal punishment for her attempted good deeds. Whether it’s becoming the unwilling subject of Abed’s short film or suffering a literal ass-whupping from Troy’s grandma, Britta can’t catch a break any more than she can help sticking her neck out for the people she cares about. “Of course a silly little joke ends with a dead body on the lawn,” as she puts it. Add to that death toll an innocent anatomy-lab frog, throw in a bitter feud between the study group’s two kindest and gentlest members, and the ramifications of Britta’s attempt at a practical joke end up doing far more harm then Jeff and Troy’s constant clowning on Pierce.
All of these story threads are heightened to the point of cartoonishness, but the plot that goes a little too hard into “silly Greendale energy” for me is the dueling-badass-cops storyline between Annie and Shirley. Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown work extremely well together and generate some brilliant moments, but the setup just feels sweaty. Annie has shown an ambitious and competitive side, sure, but where is this coming from for Shirley? It all just feels like they’re putting on a show for Abed, who of course has to take over when the Dean proves unable to play the “angry chief” role correctly. Plus, i hate the “self-inflicted friendly fire” scene. It’s just too stupid for Annie. Overall, this feels like a glimpse into what the show might have looked like if they kept doing these kinds of pop culture riffs without committing wholesale to the aesthetic and filmmaking style of the genres they were riffing on. There’s something shallow and inauthentic about it, as if it needs to break from the default reality of this world in order to work properly.
All that said, i do love how Abed’s “real badasses work together” speech gets them on the same page, complete with an iconic fist-bump/pinky swear that i’m going to need in GIF form right now. Jeff and Troy never quite have a moment of connection like this as their pranking of Pierce grows ever more ridiculous, but that’s more fitting since no one in this storyline is acting in good faith. Jeff isn’t quite as cruel towards Pierce’s religious beliefs here as he will later become in “The Psychology Of Letting Go”, but his childish need to prey on Pierce’s gullibility makes him look bad enough that no one is willing to rule him out as a suspect when Britta tries to pin the breaking-and-entering rap on him. Pierce, for his part, was willing to go along with it to compensate for having been held back as a Level Five. And Troy pretends to understand jokes. Everyone’s guilty of something4, and in the end a tearful confession session becomes the only way to patch things up.
Britta goes first, with a pathetically maudlin and self-pitying monologue, but one that accurately encapsulates the character and her place within the group. It’s important to have someone around who will keep you honest, but being that person is a thankless task. As if to underline the unenviable “worstness” of her position, this emotional breakdown spreads to the others in the group until nearly everyone is crying and confessing something. Each new revelation escalates in ludicrousness until you end up with, essentially, a grown man weeping over a cookie wand. Once again left on the outside, Jeff chooses this moment to try to connect with Abed, who shushes him.
And that’s how this scene saves the episode: by giving us the essence of these characters using exaggerated comedic gags, to illuminate their emotional core. It may not ring entirely true when Jeff tells Britta “You’re the heart of this group,” but what’s important is that Jeff wants her to believe it, because he recognizes that’s what she’s trying so hard to be. Community uses rather familiar scenes like these to interrogate the notion of a “lovable gang of misfits” and show us what that might actually look like when you strip away the sitcom trappings. And then it went and applied this approach to as many different storytelling modes as possible. We’ve got our very first full parody episode coming up next, and arguably the one that defined the show soon after that. From that point on, nothing will be the same.
⁃ End tag: “Troy and Abed in the morrrrning!” One of Community’s most legendary running gags makes its debut here. Although they do revisit this “fake morning show” concept a few times, i think the majority of callbacks are just Troy and Abed singing yet another variation on that jingle
⁃ Despite not having much to do plotwise, i think Troy might be the secret MVP of this episode. Donald Glover’s ability to steal every scene he’s in is well-documented, and everything does here, from subverting the “snake in a can” gag to outcrying all the others, solidifies his breakout star power
⁃ The Dean is funny here too. Jim Rash is really growing into his role of “bumbling authority figure”, and the episode integrates his character into the plot very well
– What’s with the title of his episode? i never understood it. Is it supposed to be about Pierce’s wizard robes?
LEONARD (over PA): Bababooey, bababooey, bababooey!
SHIRLEY: Oh Abed, you’re so silly. (sternly) i’d be the badass
PIERCE: My Buddhist church is having its annual ascencion ceremony, and i will be becoming a Level 6 Laser Lotus. (beat) i know, i was speechless too
TROY: You’re more of a fun vampire, because you don’t suck blood, you just suck
DEAN: Now, i only have the one pepper spray. It’s mine, but i’ll just get my groceries in a better neighborhood this week
JEFF: Britta, why waste your time envying my gift for levity when there’s so much you could be doing with your natural talent for severity?
DEAN: …And what makes it worse is this was a brand-new sign
ANNIE: Morning, boys. i’m Annie Edison, but people call me Psycho because i had a nervous breakdown in high school. My partner’s a Christian housewife
SHIRLEY: He makes one false move, i’m gonna go Shirley on him
ANNIE: Drop ’em if you smoke ’em
ABED (as police chief): Agitatin’ my sciatica!
ANNIE: That African-American police chief character Abed was playing was right
TROY: Oh! Colonial burn!
PIERCE: Penis! Two penises! Agh, this is gay. It’s so gay
ANNIE: (grunts while slamming Jeff’s head on the table)
BRITTA: Knock knock! Who’s there? Cancer! Oh good, come on in, i thought it was Britta
ANNIE: The only reason i slammed Jeff’s head against the table is because i wanted to feel like an adult
TROY (crying): It’s not a meteor, it’s a cookie wand. Me and Jeff made it because it made you look more like the Cookie Crisp wizard. Which is not even a reference i get, because the Cookie Crisp mascot wasn’t a wizard when i was a kid. It was a burglar