It's a given that some of the most ambitious episodes of NBC's Community are often the ones with the seemingly most straightforward concepts. Look at Season Two's fantastic "Cooperative Calligraphy" for a strong example of this: the gang at Greendale is locked in the study room when Annie's pen goes missing. A bottle episode is turned on its head (no pun intended) here, transforming a slight idea into a larger one as the group is beset by paranoia and fractures in front of our eyes.
The same holds true for Thursday's upcoming episode, "Remedial Chaos Theory," another bottle episode that defies the laws of logic and probability in a way. With Dan Harmon and the writing staff achieving such dizzying heights with "Cooperative Calligraphy," it seemed nearly impossible that they would be able to approach another bottle episode with the same gonzo spirit that made the original so palpably exciting and innovative. And yet that's just what they've managed to do with this week's episode, another bottle episode of ingenuity, emotion, and true insight, which I loved from start to finish.
Quick set up: Troy and Abed have a new apartment and they've invited the study group over for a housewarming party with genteel rules and a bowl of olives next to the toilet. (It's that sort of "fancy" do.) When the pizza they ordered arrives, no one wants to go down to get it, leading Jeff to come up with a solution: he'll roll a six-sided die to determine which of them will go downstairs. This is where the chaos theory of the title comes in, as Abed posits that Jeff has unwittingly created a series of alternate timelines, based on the outcome of the roll.
The genius of the installment comes from the fact that we're allowed to witness how each of these timelines plays out, sometimes similarly, sometimes with vast differences, each spinning out of the singular event of Jeff throwing that die in the air. In some, truths are dragged out into the light; in others, feelings are locked away, possibly forever, as moments fizzle, are missed, or are shunned altogether. The beauty of the episode comes from the small universalities created across the timelines, some of which are affected by the chaotic nature of the die-roll: Shirley baking pies, Jeff injuring himself, Britta wanting to sing aloud to "Roxanne," Pierce's insensitivity (and a gross Eartha Kitt story), etc.
Likewise, the episode works because of the individual characters' consistency from timeline to timeline. The dynamics between the characters may shift and buckle due to external pressures--people are in different places due to the chaotic nature of change in the timestream--but the characters themselves remain reassuringly the same: Jeff will always act like Jeff; Shirley will always be giving; Britta always flighty. The simmering attraction between Jeff and Annie is still bubbling away, because these timelines emanate not from the distant past but from the immediacy of now, from a chance roll of the dice.
I don't want to spoil too much of "Remedial Chaos Theory" because it is a breathtakingly ambitious episode comprised of separate narrative strands that twist together into an intoxicating union of character, story, and plot. (And fake goatees.) The concept may be heady, but the emotions within these timelines are painfully real, resonant, and yet not separate from the comedy. Will the gang tell Shirley why they're shunning her baked goods? Will Jeff and Annie give into their mutual attraction? What's going on between Troy and Britta? Will Pierce choose to humiliate Troy or choose to be a decent human being?
What I will say is that the episode gives us one of the series' best moments of group unity and singularity that had my face aching from smiling by the end of it. I'm definitely not going to ruin the moment here, but I'll say that it's both fitting and unexpected, a true instance of shared joy and collectiveness that harkens to the show's title and the group's relationship, not just to one another, but to the audience as well.
All in all, "Remedial Chaos Theory" is an intelligent, hysterical, and ambitious installment that proves just how much the Community writers challenge themselves to break through long-held narrative traditions to produce something innovative and electrifying. It's clear that they too took a chance on a roll of the dice, and this piece of narrative origami has paid off magnificently.
Community's "Remedial Chaos Theory" airs Thursday at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.