2022 marks the tenth anniversary of Community Season 3, Episode 16, “Virtual Systems Analysis” aired on NBC. Season 3 of Community took an even more meta and experimental turn with the introduction of six different timelines, an entire episode rendered in 8-bit, and the introduction of the Dreamatorium. The Dreamatorium is a separate room in Troy and Abed’s apartment that acts as a blank slate for their imaginations. He was briefly introduced in Season 3 Episode 7, “Studies in Modern Movement”, when Annie moved into the apartment and discovered him. “Virtual Systems Analysis” brings the Dreamatorium to the fore, creating the series’ most underrated episode.
“Virtual Systems Analysis” often doesn’t make the top 30 when Community fans and critics rank the best episodes of the series. It tends to get swept under the rug – maybe because it’s so stylistically different from everything else (including Christmas episodes and multiple music video shows, or even the Super Bowl business meeting) or maybe -be because the majority of the episode only focuses on two characters. “Virtual Systems Analysis” is an exceptional 21 minutes of television, and it deserves more respect on its anniversary.
The episode begins with the study group finding out that their biology class has been canceled for the day and they now have three free hours. Abed wants to play with Troy in the Dreamatorium, but Annie intervenes. There is a potential romance between Troy and Britta, so Annie – still prying and desperate to separate Britta and Jeff – sets up Troy and Britta on a date for lunch. This leaves Annie and Abed alone, with Annie saying she will take Troy’s place in the Dreamatorium. Troy warns Annie that the Dreamatorium leaves Abed vulnerable and fragile (as he represents the inside of his mind), but Annie dismisses Troy’s concerns.
Annie and Abed begin performing in the Dreamatorium, acting out a scene from Troy and Abed’s favorite show Space-Time Inspector, but Abed interrupts the simulation early. Annie immediately calls him, realizing that Abed is mad at her for arranging a date with Troy and Britta. Annie thinks Abed is afraid of losing his best friend in a relationship, but Abed tells her he’s angry that she “altered the fabric of the group”. Annie and Abed then proceed to butt heads.
Abed shows Annie the Dreamatorium’s “engine” (constructed from paper towel rolls) and Annie plays with the engine so Abed’s thoughts are now filtered through a box labeled “Other People”. Abed lets out a high-pitched moan and then – in a twist no one could predict – he turns into Jeff. Across the Dreamatorium, Abed then begins to transform into several characters, including Shirley, Britta, Troy, Pierce, and “a half-accurate Chang”. All of this is going on in Abed’s mind; Annie says at one point that she pretends to see the places Abed is creating. However, the audience sees Abed transform into these characters and the locations shift.
Abed eventually confronts Annie for calling him difficult and says everyone takes care of him. He then “disappears”, transforming into other characters, and she has to search for him in the Dreamatorium, eventually finding him in a school locker. This is where the emotional heart of “virtual systems analysis” lies.. Annie asks Abed if that’s where he thinks they’re going to put it, and he replies that the locker is metaphorical: “It’s a place where people like me get put when everyone finally has some. fed up with us.” Although Abed is never formally diagnosed with autism, there are mentions and references made throughout the series. In this scene, he tells Annie that he is afraid of being left behind when everyone else in the study group grows and gradually advances, and he remains the same.
Annie replies “Your simulations are nothing but anxieties. You’re afraid of not fitting in, you’re afraid of being alone. Good news: you share this with all of us. So you’ll never be alone, and you will always fit in.” This episode uses the Dreamatorium’s unique design to reflect Abed’s deepest fears. Talking about them together, Abed and Annie are both able to grow and understand each other, with Annie becoming Abed’s new Troy in Season 6. “Virtual Systems Analysis” still impacts on Community fans, even a decade after it originally aired, and goes some way to explaining why the series is one of the best comedies to stream on Netflix.
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