Community, “App Development and Condiments”
As a regular listener of Harmontown, Dan Harmon’s soapbox/talk show podcast, many of the themes of “App Development and Condiments” have been funneled into my earholes of late. These themes have also been popping up in other media, such as the Oscar-winning Spike Jonze film Her (about a man who falls in love with his OS) or the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (impossible to sum up in a single sentence but worth watching). But “App Development” doesn’t feel like a retread. Instead, it offers a glimpse into old relationships that have been given short shrift by Community and revisits some classic character traits that underline the entire series, all while being an agreeable balance of funny and totally insane.
Truthfully, the plot of the episode is both full of class-warfare cliches (think your Hunger Gameses and Elysiums) and also zooms around quite a lot. It’s… well, it’s sort of a mess. But the actual plot is infinitely less important than its impetus: the introduction of the MeowMeowBeenz app. A social media app that allows users to rate others based on their behavior on any given day, in any given situation, the internal mechanics of MeowMeowBeenz are appropriately arbitrary and prejudiced, giving the higher-rated users more control, regardless of how they earned their four or five MeowMeowBeenz. This tosses the power structure of Greendale into relative chaos: Shirley and Annie use their natural pleasantness to immediately rise to the top, though Shirley’s loudness about her niceties gives her more real power; Hickey figures out that he can game the system by just saying it’s his birthday, therefore rising in the rankings without having to do the work; Abed is content to be middle of the road, like the majority of students, though unwittingly finds himself floating to the upper tier by the sheer nature of the growing class divide; Britta brittas the whole ordeal, keeping herself a two for the whole episode; and Jeff initially rejects MeowMeowBeenz, then struggles with the concept of not just being cool, though he’s eventually admitted into the fives by way of a talent show and Van Wilder-copping Mitch Hurwitz. (Chang, as per usual, isn’t really given his own story, though he does end up with the fours and fives with dual canes, so, okay.)
Giving Shirley power is a dangerous game, one Community has flirted with playing several times before. “App Development” takes these flirtations to their extreme, giving Shirley ultimate power as she abuses her manipulative gifts in truly Jeff Winger-fashion in order to ascend to the top. As we’ve seen before, Shirley and Jeff have a complicated history, and are so similar that “normal” friendship is always just outside of their grasps. That Jeff is the only person able to coax Shirley out of her motherly bubble is telling. (That taking Shirley down matters so much to Jeff is equally telling.) Their big fight, and ultimate exile into the outerlands, is one of the episode’s proofs of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz. When society is organized based on a numeric ranking of what others think of you, the real persona is pushed down, replaced by a blander, less-jagged version, one trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Real people can be mean and unpleasant, but they also retain the ability to express themselves. The fight between Jeff and Shirley isn’t even that major—Jeff didn’t invite Shirley to a dinner with the rest of the group because he already knew she couldn’t go—but even just a few moments of them hashing out the issue results in their rankings sinking like stones. The world of MeowMeowBeenz can allow for passive-aggression, but any real emotion or expression of feelings becomes suspect and hostile and unfit for the upper tiers. Only fake personas and sterile environments allowed.
Britta gets the other major story, though hers only really takes off in the third act. Relegated to the twos and threes, Britta is lost in a sea of people with no individuality and no real drive other than to impress the fours and fives with the faint hope of possibly joining them. While Jeff and Shirley are ousted, Britta finally starts her revolution, smearing mustard on her face and convincing the twos and threes that they are still individuals, that they are legion, and that they can overthrow their oppressors. Not only does this uprising work, but Britta finally has the power she has so longed railed against. Of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Britta immediately begins enacting the Scarecrow trial scene from The Dark Knight Rises, with the fours and fives taking the place of Gotham’s elite and powerful. It’s a small victory for Britta, but it also highlights the other proof of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz: everyone is desperate to be liked and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. But a classic Winger speech breaks the whole charade down as he declares that there is one last five who must be judged, and that’s MeowMeowBeenz itself. With the sound of hundreds of deletions, normality suddenly returns to Greendale, and Britta, who only tasted power for a short while, is once again left alone. (To add insult to injury, Dean Pelton immediately urges everyone to forget the whole ordeal ever happened.)
There’s a lot of things to talk about in “App Development and Condiments,” from the bevy of guest stars (in addition to Hurwitz, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and [I believe] Jen Kirkman all appear) to the isolationism of the modern age (or the fact that the power struggle is ultimately empty, as it mainly involves the same people who already had power to begin with), but I think “App Development” works best as a character study, a brief look at just what these people will do when the slot for Top Dog is left open to whoever can manipulate their way there. In that sense, it reminds me heavily of “Contemporary American Poultry,” one of my all-time favorite episodes and one that asks similar questions about power, only this time Shirley fills the Abed role. But the episode is not malicious in its intent. Community has shown us how awful the study group can seem and be to the rest of the school, but it never actively seeks to destroy its characters, only make them better. And even the worst indulgences reveal the goodness underneath; Britta’s revolution and ultimate seat of power actually lead to the downfall of the false realtiy of MeowMeowBeenz, and even if it stings, it is the result she ultimately wanted. “App Development and Condiments” may be the zaniest episode of the season thus far, but like the best concept episodes, it’s riding on the same themes and characters that have always lifted Community to its highest peaks.