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Community Watch: And That's Why…

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Last night’s blissfully weird Community, “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” was a buildup to two elaborately constructed payoffs: the twist-within-a-twist-within-a-twist conspiracy ending, and the chase through Troy and Abed’s teeming blanket-fort city. The latter was one of those fanciful constructions that makes Community, in a good way, like a live-action cartoon (while illustrating the overgrown-kids relationship of BFFs Abed and Troy).

The former probably looked familiar to any Arrested Development fan. The storyline gave a nod to the post-kiss tension between Annie and Jeff, and was a sendup of the double-, triple- and quadruple-cross crutch of conspiracy-movie endings. (It was actually not unlike the sort of pop-culture critique-via-story that South Park likes to do.) But it was also, as AD fans noticed, a callback to the life-lesson scenarios that George Bluth liked to pull on his children using one-armed ex-employee J. Walter Weatherman. (“And that’s why you leave a note!”)

So rather than a drawn-out review of “Conspiracy Theories”—which would boil down to a list of funny lines and scenes—let’s take a moment to look back at the original, above. (Or not quite the original. Hulu doesn’t have a clip from season 1’s “Pier Pressure,” though you can watch the whole thing if you have Hulu Plus; this clip is from season 3’s “Making a Stand.”)

I say all this not to suggest that Community is ripping Arrested Development off, but as an example of its shared DNA with another sitcom that was also—in the best way—like a live-action cartoon. Good work, Community. Some lessons are more worth learning than others.

Update: Alan Sepinwall posted some thoughts on the parallels between Community and AD that I think are worth discussing. From his “Conspiracy Theories” review:

The two series have the Russo brothers in common, but I’ve always said “Community” has a warmer, more humanist spirit than “Arrested,” which was an incredibly funny but also incredibly cynical show. So it was interesting to see “Community” do an episode so similar not only in content, but tone, to “Arrested.” Not a bad thing; just different.

I see the distinction Alan is making and I would agree, to a point, though I would probably phrase it differently. (And to be fair, maybe Alan would too if he were writing this as more than a couple-sentence aside.) I agree that Community is definitely warmer and sunnier in tone than Arrested Development, which had an often dark view of relations among its characters. But AD also had a lot of sentiment, genuine feeling and real issues at its heart—to the extent that, actually, I would say that it developed its characters more depthfully than Community has.

The two approaches to this exact plot device, actually, are a perfect illustration of this difference. With J. Walter Weatherman, AD is not just making a gag for a gag’s sake. It is illustrating, in precis, the entire generational pattern of this family which has made the grown children the way they are: they were raised by parents who often pitted them against each other, and who regularly used manipulation and deception as a means of parenting. (Also, they were raised in privilege by a dad who would do things like hire a disabled ex-employee to teach them life lessons.)

In other words, AD used the device both to further the Bluth family storyline and to deepen its background. Community’s “Conspiracy Theories” was not without character development–the Jeff and Annie business, as well as nice notes like Jeff noting that Annie works too hard even at passive aggression–but it uses the device itself pretty much to parody the use of that device in other movies and TV shows.

Again, this is not to bash Community; it is not an insult to be compared to possibly the best sitcom in the history of TV and certainly in the last decade. But it is a really interesting way of looking at the differences in comic style between two very inventive comedies, so I’m glad Alan brought it up.

(I’d also note that Alan uses the other of two title that have been given for the episode: “Conspiracy Theories and Soft Defenses.” I don’t know which is canonical, but I’ll update if we get a ruling.)