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TV Tonight: Community Rolls the Die

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Community has always been a deeply but not broadly loved sitcom, and its fans may be justifiably nervous about its future given the season’s ratings so far. (The show gave a meta-nod to these worries a few episodes ago, with Abed’s anxiety over the prospects of Cougar Town: “Six seasons and a movie!”) Well, if you’ve been waiting for an episode to recruit new viewers with, to urge your relatives, your Facebook friends and your actual friends to watch, it is tonight’s, “Remedial Chaos Theory.”

Some Community fans prefer the show’s pop-culture parody episodes (like last season’s zombie and Apollo 13 episodes), others the more conventional, character-centric ones. But I think “Chaos Theory” is an example of the show at its best: an episode with an ingenious premise and structure that uses it mainly to illuminate the characters.

I don’t want to spoil much of the episode, but that premise is simple: Abed and Troy are throwing a party at their new apartment and invite the study group over. When the pizza arrives, in the middle of a heated Yahtzee game, Jeff rolls a die to determine who has to go downstairs to receive the delivery. His tossing the die creates several alternative timestreams, and we see the events (slapstick, hilarious and touching) that unfold differently depending on which group member leaves the room.

I won’t spill any more, but what makes this an excellent episode is that it’s more than a cool idea. It’s an elegant way of getting, from several angles, at the question Community asks itself each week: who are these people, and what do they mean to each other? “Chaos Theory” unfolds like a series of experimental trials, looking at how the group dynamic changes when each individual is taken out of it, and thus showing what they each contribute to the collective organism that is the study group. It’s an especially strong episode for Troy (Donald Glover, above), the former high-school jock trying to find himself as an adult, who may be the show’s best-realized character.

Will this be the episode that turns everything around for Community? I doubt it: it’s a very funny, very unusual comedy, and its audience is probably right around what it’s going to be. But at these numbers, every little bit helps, and if there is someone in your life you’ve been trying to turn on to Community, this episode is a great introduction for those who are fans of things that are funny.

Try it. Who knows? That could be the small act that creates a happier alternative timeline for this deserving sitcom. Six seasons and a movie!