Being excluded is the worst.
Community spent last week finding a place for all of its cast members in the new landscape of the show, notably pairing Abed with new series old-guy Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) as a filmmaking team for the ages, but it left out Annie and Shirley. They were fine with it then, but this week, after Shirley discovers she’s been kept in the dark about dinner plans, she takes it personally.
It throws a wrench into the group dynamic that is exacerbated by a rare season five appearance from Dean. The resulting discord sees Community in comfortable territory as it takes laser focus on modern forms of cliquing, has fun digging at Internet meritocracies like Reddit, and imagines Greendale as a Huxley-ian meme-eugenic dystopia populated with highly upvoted comedian guest stars.
“App Development and Condiments” begins with Dean Pelton interrupting a Committee to Save Greendale meeting, just as they decide to tackle the task of adding grass to the soccer field. He is accompanied by the bright developers at JammyPOW (guests Brian Posehn and Steve Agee), the company behind a new rate-everything smartphone app called MeowMeowBeenz.
Greendale will be the beta test for what will begin as one of Dean’s slightly more sane and reasonable schemes, but quickly turn out to be the pilot deployment that mid-1900’s speculative fiction authors were trying so desperately to warn us about.
Buzz sees this thing for what it is immediately, having fought in a war for the freedom that should never be used to arbitrarily rate things as a society, but this vote doesn’t count (“You don’t get to pick and choose the parts you fight for”). Society demands its MeowMeowBeenz and unregistered votes don’t count. The title sequence rolls.
The episode starts off innocently enough like a regular A-B-C plot episode with a nifty visual gimmick (every time someone’s MeowMeowBeenz rating goes down a cat-face graphic pops up next to them Sherlock-style and moves up or down with appropriate little app-cat sounds). MeowMeowBeenz has become popular because groupthink loves technology and five-star rating systems, but students and teachers have started to rate people, and we know where that leads.
Chang commits to affecting a limp because he’s notices that people with limps have better ratings and Buzz sits in his office trying to sympathy-hack the system with a birthday hat he will wear for the next week of testing. Jeff, surprised that his old salt of an office mate has bought in to new technology, immediately calls shenanigans, but Buzz has seen too many horrors in his long and tragic life to not join a negative social paradigm that he can’t kill.
After calling out Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg as the next Fidel Castro, Jonathan Banks nails the improper stressing of his baby-boomer prophecy:
“MeowMeowBeenz is gonna make East Berlin look like Woodstock.”
And does it ever. “App Development and Condiments” plays out like a 22 minute parable about the mistakes the Internet already has us making, in the form of a morality play adapted from Brave New World. It works too.
By starting out mild, with easy demonstrations of how the app works in the testing ground of the school cafeteria, Community proves that it is the most deft comedy on television when it comes to introducing an incredibly high-concept for a sitcom and selling it with absolutely no questions trailing behind like a desperate line of “Twos.”
A conversation at a lunch table quickly establishes the rules of this week’s game of human chess. Britta has an issue with MeowMeowBeenz because people with ratings of five have heavier weight to their votes. Wiping the titular condiment (mustard) off of her face, Britta stands of the table to appeal to the masses, but is punished for being alive and downvoted to a One.
Shirley’s passive aggression, her emotional extortion and her baked good bribery make her the queen of this new meritocracy. Her supreme mastery of MeowMeowBeenz is put to the test when perennial background character Vicky accidentally voted her as a Four when she enters the lunchroom. Controlling the world with her touch screen, Shirley destroys Vicky, minimizing her social importance to one lonely cat face.
Jeff gets righteous when he sees this display (or maybe it’s guilt he feels, or jealousy) and signs up for the beta while Annie theorizes as to whether Britta should keep mustard on her face in order to be listened to (and therefore receive a higher rating).
On day two of the beta test, Jeff finds popularity among bro-dudes Trey, Mulch, Dave Herpie, Clutch, Dirt Mouth, Rope Tinkle, Catwoman and Steve, boosting his rating with douche-slogans like “Haul it, ball it, never call it. Girls are objects!”
Shirley has her eyes on the upwardly mobile Jeff, who has become the human equivalent of click-bait, and the conflict makes it to the next step by the time we’re back from commercial.
It might have been enough to leave it at this level of conflict in season three, but nowadays I’m not sure it would. I’m getting the sense that Community is less comfortable than it used to be when not exploding a premise into a cartoonish hyperbolic metaphor. Thankfully, it’s been knocking these Greendale-goes-crazy episodes out of the park this season, and though “Condiments” doesn’t pack the emotional resonance of “Geothermal Escapism” it still delivers on laughs and relevant satire, refusing to compromise on the material to appease those who might downvote it.
Six days pass by the time we return for act two, and things have gone full-on Year of Our Ford with Shirley, Abed, Buzz, Annie and guest star Mitch Hurwitz as the coolest kid in school (with an aversion to education), Koogler, rounding out the ranks of the Alpha class. Dressed in pure white, they rule the school with their wrist mounted smartphones.
Outside of their council of purity and control, Britta is living live as a lowly, apple-eating Number Two and is confronted by none other than Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (awesome guest appearance, great job!), living the decadent but dumb lives of Fours.
She is rescued by Jeff, only recently promoted to the same rank as Tim and Eric. He escapes with only a little teasing (called a “new beenz” sold with classic Heidecker commitment to the absurd), and Winger and Perry plan for full scale revolution during the talent show.
After being introduced to the concept of the outlands by a one-beenz devil-sticks performance, Jeff takes stage to ostensibly give a classic Winger speech, but throws a curve ball and kills with a stand up routine based on the apple eating habits of Twos. He betrays Britta and ascends to the ruling class.
Being excluded continues to be the worst.
Act three stands to show us the inverse. While the Inaugural Fancy Future Dance (with music provided by Tim and Eric) acts as a platform for Jeff and Shirley to lobby against each other, Britta finds strength in numbers (all of them Twos).
The Fives exile Shirley and Jeff in the name of niceness just as Britta’s condiment inspired “review-lution” explodes through the door, and as the pair of now-Ones wander the outlands and bond over being control freaks, Britta is holding new-order trials with mustard smeared on her face so that people will listen to her as she beheads them of their merit.
When time comes for the audience to choose another Five to face sentencing from the Mother of Ones, Jeff nominates the app that started this whole terrible thing. The MeowMeowBeenz beta is over and the system of oppression is enjoying a five-star rating outside the world it controls.
Greendale is too absorbed in their living Internet. They don’t understand. How do you down-vote the meritocracy itself?
You don’t invert it.
You delete it.
Jeff demonstrates and everyone follows suit, going home because it’s Saturday and there is no reason to actually be in school.
On Monday Dean wipes this embarrassment from the memory of our favourite community college, and Jeff makes amends with Shirley by inviting her to enjoy a dinner of take-out food with him at the Table Mk II. All is well, and the madness has subsided. Friends are friends and Star-Burns is going to be wearing his revolution bandoleers for the next two days that he rented them for.
I am tempted to give this episode a B +, simply because it doesn’t have the heart that’s been so abundant throughout season five, but I know I will regret it. “App Development and Condiments” had enough smarts to make up for it.
In the immortal words of a face-painted Tim Heidecker who once loved a Two himself, “Numbers change.”
This week I’m deleting my expensive, cliquey grading app.
Being included is awesome.