One of the best things about Community is that it’s a comedy with real ambition. Every episode of the show is supposed to be an event, and everyone making Community is willing to put it all out there on ideas that seem like a stretch. Unfortunately, sometimes it really is too much for the show, and the result is kind of a mess—and I mean that in a good way. “App Development and Condiments” was exactly that sort of well-meaning mess, and while it’s the worst episode of the season so far, it’s also not something to be missed.
That “App Development and Condiments” defies any brief description isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s not like any episode the show’s tried before, or that I’ve seen anyone else attempt either. For reasons largely unexplained, Greendale hosts the trial program of a new app called Meow Meow Beenz that allows you to rate anyone or anything. The anyone, though, is what the show really cares about, and as soon as the app becomes available, everyone in the school begins rating literally every person they talk to. It’s a very didactic, heavy-handed and in general weirdly off-base criticism against, well, criticism in the age of the internet. It also plays very little part in the rest of the episode, which takes this as a starting point before kicking things into overdrive.
By the end of the episode, the entirety of Greendale Community College has become a caste-based system in which people’s ratings determine their lot in life. Here, the show hearkens back to ‘70s-era science fiction, with heavy doses of pretty much any piece of dystopian fiction thrown in along the way—because why not? Jeff and Britta plan a revolution by getting Jeff to the highest echelon of the school and then taking it down from the inside. At this point, though, I’m going to lay off the plot summarizing because it completely fails to do this episode justice and is insufficient for describing what went wrong, as in summary the episode mostly sounds linear and, while large, not like the overreach it really is.
Suffice to say, Community bit off far more than it could chew. There are a lot of ideas being thrown out here, from the caste system to the Reddit-based rating system to Jeff’s relationship with Shirley to the establishment with no introduction whatsoever of a new character played by Mitch Hurwitz who overwhelms any part of the episode he’s in (the entire closing credits are a commercial for a fake movie he stars in). Any one of these could’ve been an episode. Any five of the episode’s major points, in fact, could’ve made an interesting episode. Instead, though, as soon as “App Development” began coming to grips with what was going on, it jumped forward a day and the situation was completely changed. As a result, we got glimpses of all of these ideas, plus a few quick jokes on them, but none of this was very deep. Because Community never really grounded us in any of these realities, the show’s humor didn’t stick well. There wasn’t much reality to laugh at, just another strange situation that was odd and fascinating, but not actually very funny.
It was impossible to shake the sense that this episode might have at one point been an hour long and we were only getting bits and pieces of what was once there. “App Development” featured a plethora of guest stars, but few of them did much, and some were practically unnoticeable (after seeing Jen Kirkman’s name in the credits, I had to have pointed out to me when she’d appeared). With more time spent in each of these days, it seems possible that the episode might have worked a lot better. But maybe not. It’s also possible the longer version was just as much of a mess because the episode wasn’t something that could work well. Clearly it seemed good as an idea, and it looks like it must’ve been a blast to shoot, but there was just so much attempted that it’s not surprising the results never cohered.
But there’s no shame in having a Southland Tales-style overabundance of ideas without the discipline to turn them into something elegant. I said earlier that this was still worth watching, and it is, because “App Development” was brimming with creativity and, if not laughter, then at least wonder and surprise. Dan Harmon really seems to be against direct parody this season, perhaps seeing it as a crutch the show relied on earlier, and as a result Community created a strange, unique dystopia on a tiny budget while still going through quite a few emotional notes—or at least trying to. It didn’t work, but it was still exciting to see something so strange being shown on television, and that’s almost as important to Community as anything else. Maybe on the DVD we’ll get a “Producer’s Cut” and it’ll all start making sense, but if not, what we’re left with is still a fascinating episode.