"Look at the mustard on my face, but listen to my words!”
Community’s references to movies and other television shows have become the show’s defining characteristic. Sometimes they’re just peppered over the top of a story that could have been told in several different ways, and sometimes the reference itself is the reason that the episode exists. “App Development and Condiments” is built to be a parody of dystopian tales of future societies separated by arbitrary ranking systems into an elite class and a proletariat class. There are references to 1984 and The Hunger Games, but most of the episode’s vibe cribs from the 1976 camp sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, with its vaguely Roman aesthetic. But, like Season Two’s “Basic Rocket Science”, the parodic elements are far more important than the thin story which gives the episode its framework.
In the A story, an app called MeowMeowBeenz that allows users to rank other users based on a five-star rating system, is being beta-tested at Greendale. The students of Greendale handle this with about as much restraint and dignity as you’d expect, and soon they’ve formed a new society that separates people based on their app rankings. The twos and threes are the workers, and the fives are the elite. One of those fives is Shirley, who manipulates her way to the top with cupcakes and veiled threats. This pisses off Jeff, who’s already tweaked at Shirley’s passive-aggressive manipulation of the group dynamic. He determines to work himself up to a five ranking to take down the system from the inside.
Britta, naturally, has a problem with the app and the core concept of people’s worth relying on the ratings of other people. Her calls for revolution are ignored, until she makes them with mustard on her face which, for some reason, makes her easier to listen to (Annie suggests it may distract from her unsettling intensity). So both stories, then, examine the sometimes trivial ways that our attention is grabbed, and how popularity (and power) derives from that attention. It’s a strong thematic undercurrent, even an admirable one, but there aren’t really any jokes here, so the episode is clever at best and preachy at worst.
Jeff ascends to five status (through a kind of racist standup routine), and fights with Shirley, which gets them both demoted to one status, and thrown out of society into the outlands. While this is happening, Britta has finally used her mustard-seeded gravitas to take over the school and set up her own tribunal to judge those who had done the judging. But soon Jeff appears, and says that the problem isn’t the fives or the ones, but the app itself—an all-powerful overlord who judges others while standing exempt of judgment itself.
The problem with that ending is that Jeff’s argument is explicitly untrue, as proved by Jeff’s statement just sentences before that the app has a five-star rating. So users are able to judge it, and if it’s judged harshly enough it too will be banished to the hinterlands of the App Store. `Instead of the Greendale student body simply walking away from the app, how about giving them the satisfaction of rating it with one star? And not only do they walk away from the app and their new society, they walk away from Britta in spite of the mustard on her face, resolving that story in as unsatisfying a way as it began. For an episode with this much attention to structural detail, the ending feels rushed and unfocused.
It’s a messy episode, that feels like it found its origins at the blazing end of a fat joint, with its nod to cheesy 70’s science fiction, sloppy analysis of social classes, and cameos from stoner comedy gods Tim and Eric (with standup Jen Kirkman in tow). The script is credited to the writing team of Jordan Blum and Parker Deay, formerly of American Dad, and it definitely feels more like an episode of that series than of Community. As a cartoon, American Dad is able to suspend disbelief in ways thatCommunity can’t. So when they decide they want to devote an entire episode to an alien rock-opera, they can do that (and, I should note, it’s likely to turn out to be amazing).
Community has, in the past, been careful to allow for in-world explanations of its wackiness, but there were several gags in this episode that stretched credulity for the sake of a good visual gag. When an episode is really funny you forgive it. The zombies in “Epidemiology” are a lot to accept, but the jokes and performances sell the concept. Here the lack of effective humor left me focusing on details that should have passed me by, like how Greendale can afford the giant screen that displayed Jeff’s ranking during his review, or why Hickey caved so quickly on the app when his exhausted disgust in the cold open was the episode’s funniest moment.
Of course, it’s also possible that the entire episode was written as an excuse for Dino Stamatopoulos to wear that Zardoz costume—which you know came directly out of his own closet. The thematic elements of this episode I can give a charitable four MeowMeowBeans, but its execution gets two. Tops.