One of the most innovative and critically acclaimed episodes of any television show of the last few years is Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory.” In addition to the large and active online fan-base that the show has regardless of which episode, this one specifically garnered enough attention and analysis that it stands out amongst the rest. Ultimately, the show is a very warm-hearted character study of group dynamics, and this episode can be decoded in small moments that comment on larger aspects of society, and they can decode the overall meaning of the episode. Based on the research I did, the Community fan-base is a generally consensus built online community who worship the creator Dan Harmon so much that they take every representation on the show at face value. However, amongst the passive fans who accept the truths that the show presents as actual reality, there exist discussions in some dark corners of the internet that suggest the “darkest timeline,” a concept which had become so integral not just the rest of the show’s run but also as a popular internet phrase that became synonymous with “worst case scenario,” is not in fact the result of Jeff rolling a one and Troy leaving to get the pizza, but in fact it is when Abed leaves to get the pizza that results in the actual “darkest timeline.”
Community is about a ragtag and unconventionally formed study group at a community college that becomes closer as a friend group and more than just a study group. This episode of is about an apartment-warming party that Abed and Troy throw for the study group. All seven tenant characters are the only ones present at this dinner party and for fun they play the game of Yahtzee. As they sit in the table, they hear that the buzzer rings and realize that one of the seven have to go down to get the pizza. In order to decide who is obliged with getting the pizza, Jeff, the main character, tosses a die and the number it lands on would determine who gets the pizza. The entire episode plays out in 2-3-minute hypothetical scenarios where the die is thrown six times and each time, based on the number it rolls, a different study group member is summoned to get the pizza so we get to see each “timeline” playout in which the group interacts without a different member in each iteration. This becomes a microcosm meant to represent what would happen to the group dynamics if one of seven people were removed. It suggests two main extremes: without Troy, the group malfunctions and completely falls apart, and without Jeff, the founder and supposed leader of the group, the people in the group enjoy themselves more, relax more, and are overall happier.
(This here is a visual plan and map of how the timelines in the episode unfold, posted to Dan Harmon’s personal Tumblr account)
The dominant and hegemonic interpretation of this episode is that of the seven hypothetical timelines, the one where Troy leaves to pick up the pizza is the worst case scenario, also labeled the “darkest timeline.” In this timeline, Troy leaves to get the pizza and on his way out says “I’m gonna be fast so that I don’t miss anything” and in the minute or two of his absence, Annie accidentally trips, falls on a table that flings her purse, which has a gun in it, and shoots Pierce in the leg which cause him to drop his bottle of rum and when Britta comes out of the bathroom with a lit joint in her mouth she drops it and sets the entire ground of fire, so upon Troy’s return to the apartment, absolute chaos had ensued. This overt display is meant to suggest that Troy leaving, even for an especially short time, would cause the group to fall apart. Jeff’s absence, the canonical scenario where Abed doesn’t let Jeff roll the dice and instead gets Jeff to leave and get the pizza, creates the best and happiest timeline. Hall describes that these readings are called so because they display “a pattern of preferred readings,” a reading that people are most comfortable with and understandable of, thus making this reading the most common one (Hall, 57).
The negotiated viewing of this episode would be to consider that while Troy’s absence does yield an immediately chaotic scenario, the other timelines, if explored further, could have a worse overall result, and that while Jeff’s absence is shown as the ideal and optimal one, there are other ones that if taken farther can be even better than the canonical timeline. Take the Abed timeline for example, he returns with the pizza and oblivious to the events of the previous two minutes, happily eats his slice of pizza. Meanwhile, Jeff and Annie exchanged an awkward make-out session, Pierce gives Troy a spiteful gift after Troy thanks him for housing him leading to pitying of Pierce, and Shirley gets mad at Britta for being high and telling her she bakes too much food. These are deep emotional rifts and conflicts which may reap further negative repercussions if explored for a few months. This take is described in a post within the Community sub-reddit. Cartwright and Sturken explain that “viewers may make meanings that are not intended or anticipated by its producers, and that viewers are active agents in the production of meaning” and if you were to listen to show creator Dan Harmon’s DVD commentary of this episode, he probably would never concur with these interpretations (Cartwright & Sturken, 55). User Yazuka outlines an entire theory that Abed’s pizza reception led to the “darkest timeline.” This user says “Abed’s timeline may conclude with the ultimate breaking of the cyclical plot as the Greendale Seven finally disbands, truly the Darkest timeline for the audience” and the subtlety of the negativity of Abed’s timeline understates the more depressing ramifications where the study group is no longer together and can’t function as a unit (/u/Yazuka). As opposed to the traditional reception of this episode, Yazuka suggests even though Abed’s absence doesn’t cause any death, fire, amputation, or other serious physical repercussions, it does cause relationship strains, serious hurt feelings, and awkward tension that makes the group less receptive to each other, and it includes the ultimate darkness: a scenario where the study group no longer takes on adventures together, unlike the Troy timeline. Furthermore, the oppositional viewing is one that suggests that the canonical and continued timeline which was generally considered the best case outcome is in fact “the darkest timeline.” This show continued after this episode for three more seasons and specifically for the rest of Season three, the season this episode is in, a lot of drama ensues and relationships are tested much like in the way that the Abed timeline would and could have ended within the earlier presented negotiated viewing.
Ultimately, this episode of Community is very complex and proposes endless hypothetical scenarios. While the attitude of the show that most aligns with hegemonic values in society is presented as the best case scenario of this night, there exist counter-hegemonic, yet logical, analyses and interpretations of “Remedial Chaos Theory” that result in the group not living happily ever after together the way that precedent of sitcoms would suggest.
Cartwright, L. & Sturken, M. (2009). Viewers Make Meaning. In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.
Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding.