Since its first appearance, the dreamatorium—which may seem like a fixture of the show at this point, but actually just arrived nine episodes ago—has functioned as a way of compartmentalizing Abed’s strangeness. It allows Community to have fun with his pop culture obsession without having it take over the entire show as often, but it’s also a metaphor for what the show frequently wants us to think about Abed: an open space that can imagine anything but requires input from the outside. He’s a character who supposedly lacks the sort of inner life that’s found in other humans, and “Virtual Systems Analysis” spends a lot of time emphasizing this point of view, which makes sense given that it’s how Abed frequently sees himself.
The problem with this is that the audience doesn’t feel this way about him, or at least hasn’t since very early in the show’s run. After all, this is the character who delivered a baby for people he’d never met before simply because he wanted to help. His pop culture references are wonderful for jokes, but inside of that it’s impossible not to see the person who cares desperately for his friends and (up until recently) almost always puts their interests first. This is where “Virtual Systems Analysis” runs into a wall. Having an episode centered around the dreamatorium is a great idea, but spending much of that time telling us about how Abed only thinks of himself seems forced and goes against what we already know about him. It’s not telling us something new about the character, it’s contradicting the person we’ve been told he was for nearly three seasons.
This creates a divergence between the wonderfully playful formal aspects of the episode and its emotional core. The episode is well-written, with some wonderful jokes and fantastic editing that makes its pacing sizzle, but it doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the show. Community’s impulse to make its characters grow has always been admirable, but since they keep returning to where they were before, after having an entire episode be so centered around their emotional development, just doesn’t work. At the end of “Virtual Systems Analysis,” Abed has worked out his need to empathize with others, but this is something he already had. Likewise, Annie, despite her attraction to Jeff, has long since turned away from him. While their reversion to before may have some element of realism to it (real change comes slowly), there’s also aspects that which just feel hollow. The epiphanies at the episode’s finale don’t work, they feel like what a TV writer wants characters to say rather than something honest about themselves.
I can’t say enough good things about the format itself. The dreamatorium transitions worked well (not to mention they looked much better than some of the show’s prior CGI), and the central conceit of jumping back and forth between reality and the world of the dreamatorium was fantastic. But the weird disregard for who we know these people are at the center of “Virtual Systems Analysis” kept it from becoming one of Community’s mini masterpieces, despite the perfect execution of its central concept.
•“You don’t have a patent on being a control freak, Abed.” “I kinda do.”
•Actually, Inspector Spacetime in the dreamatorium looks significantly better than early episodes of Dr. Who. Or to be more precise, almost any episodes of Dr. Who.