Investigating Community’s alternate timeline possibilites

Last night’s episode of Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory” was an all-timer. The reviews for the complex, complicated alternate timeline-centric episode are all super positive (including my own) and most of those folks who were worried about the series’ quality have reaffirmed their commitment. The episode was awesome, I’m glad that the fans are calming down and it’s nice to be talking about Community in a completely positive light again. But as the headline suggests, “Remedial Chaos Theory” suggests that there are some legitimately fascinating, enthralling and insane things going on with the series’ plot right now. This post is basically here so that I pitch my ridiculous theories, but I do think that Dan Harmon and his writing staff are actually capable of taking things in this direction. I, of course, know nothing. But a conversation I had with my buddy Corey Godfrey and a later multi-layered tweet session with some Twitter friends has the Lost fan in me all lathered up, ready to discuss mysteries.

OK, here’s what we know: Last night’s episode suggested multiple, alternate timelines. It “ended” with “our” timeline (Earth-Jeff as we could call it), with everyone dancing in Troy and Abed’s new apartment while Jeff looked on. The thematic suggestion, as I discussed in my review, is that Jeff’s role in the group has a somewhat negative impact on them and without him, things appear more fun. He’s also too detached to join in on their fun. And the episode officially ended in timeline where all the terrible things happened (Earth-Troy if you will), which has lots of people hoping that Evil Abed’s plan to get back to Earth-Jeff and take over somehow returns in future episodes (many are positing that the Halloween episode could tackle this).

However, there are hints that there is actually even more going on with Community and timelines. In last week’s “Competitive Ecology,” the episode that was originally supposed to air after “Remedial Chaos Theory,” two things happened that conflict with the so-called ending of “Theory” in Earth-Jeff. One, Pierce mentions to the group that he only shared his Eartha Kitt story with everyone in the group, no one else. Two, Shirley says something to Britta that suggests she knows about Britta smoking pot and also makes a reference to her lighter of some sorts. But here’s the big problem with those two, seemingly-offhand and neutral comments: They don’t line up with what happened in Earth-Jeff in “Chaos Theory.” Obviously, part of the issue is that the episodes aired out of order, but if we pretend that the episodes did air in order, there are still issues.* Why would Pierce or Shirley say what they said in “Ecology” if we’re supposed to assume what we saw in “Chaos” holds true?**

*This could very well have something to do with the season’s complexity. It’s quite possible, as Mr. Godfrey suggested to me on Twitter, that NBC felt a bit intimidated by the capacity at which Dan Harmon and his writers want to take the series down the rabbit hole this season. Theoretically, NBC could have come to Harmon and asked him to swap the episodes, thus allowing for three “normal” episodes to start the season and not scare off the four remaining non-diehards who watch the series. However, by swapping the episodes, the timeline problem, which was already intended to be a big plot point of the season (which I’ll get to in a second), is now only more confusing because of the episode order change. So now it not only doesn’t make sense that Pierce or Shirley would say those things because of what happened in Earth-Jeff, but also because even the basic nature of forward time isn’t quite right. If I were to wager a guess, I’d say that the writers will ultimately use the episode swapping as part of the alternate universe plans. But what do I know?

**I think you could probably argue that Shirley is smart enough to know that Britta smokes pot and Pierce is dumb enough to think he already told a story when he actually didn’t in Earth-Jeff, but I have to imagine that the series is much smarter than that. I just have to.

With that in mind, the first big question is what “earth” is the series actually in when we see the “primary” narrative? I’ll have to watch the episode a few more times, but most people are pointing towards Earth-Abed, so let’s just go with that for now. Though following Earth-Abed takes away that great Jeff moment at the end of the episode, it does open up the whole timeline situation to all sorts of new questions. And more interestingly, the series has already been hinting at these timeline fissures since at least episode one when they introduced Inspector Spacetime (an obvious Doctor Who riff)* and it continued into episode two when they heavily referenced Fringe (a series basically entirely about alternate timelines), made the crux of a big comic set-piece about alternate timelines. Obviously Community is a series that throws out a number of major popular culture references so riffing on Doctor Who and Fringe isn’t that unique. But when you put the two references together and then look at last night’s episode, things start to get a little tricky. Are the Spacetime and Fringe references major hints that Community‘s timeline is completely fractured, perhaps in some insane ways?

*Troy and Abed were also watching this at the end of last night’s episode.

Go with me for a second and assume that the answer to the question I posed is “Absolutely.” So then we have to ask ourselves (or maybe I just do, because I’m insane) when the timeline actually split. Did it just happen last night, or is it possible that the references to Spacetime and Fringe were more than just warning shot allusions about what was to come? As Noel Kirkpatrick pointed out on Twitter, is it possible that “Asian Annie” is actually somehow an Annie from another timeline? And is it possible that the reason the Cougar Town conundrum exists (Abed going on the set in Community, Danny Pudi actually going on Cougar Town on Cougar Town and the CT actors’ appearance in the finale last year) because one or more of those characters exist and have somehow transported into another timeline (of which we can’t quite identify yet)? Is it actually possible that the cutaway sequences from “Paradigms of Human Memory” were “visions” from the other timeline? What about Jeff’s “daydream” of the musical interlude in the premiere? And if we are going to pretend that the timeline actually did split way before we initially realized it and we’ve actually been seeing a “separate earth” for a while now, what could be the point where the split occurred? Lucky for you, I have some options, ones that make real sense:

  • If we’re relegating this all to season three, I think Jeff smashing the desk has to be the biggest possibility. We were told that desk had magical capabilities, it’s possible that Jeff destroying it fractured the timeline
  • If we want to go back further, you could make a case for something happening in late season two that allowed the Cougar Town stuff to happen. I’m not sure what it would be for sure, but this was discussed on Twitter.
  • If you want to go back even further, what about the season one finale (as suggested by Rowan Kaiser)? The series has always wanted to poke fun at the will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension and wouldn’t be the ultimate deconstruction of those stories to suggest that somehow, Jeff not choosing Britta or Slater fractured the entire timeline and everything we’ve been seeing since is different than what we should have seen? BRITTA IS JEFF’S TRUE LOVE, and the universe is broken because of it. Or maybe it’s Slater and that’s why she hasn’t been seen since. She’s not part of the season two timeline for a reason!
  • OR EVEN FURTHER, to the pilot: Maybe Duncan did give Jeff all the answers to all the tests or maybe the group didn’t buy into the first Winger speech. IT IS ALL POSSIBLE RIGHT NOW.

OK, maybe that last one isn’t so possible. But I do love the desk and season one-finale related ideas. There are probably a dozen other spots that we could identify as possible “danger zones” where the timeline split.

Look, there’s a good chance that all of this means nothing. It’s very possible that Dan Harmon used the fans’ desire to read into everything and look for clues against them and now everyone (or just me) is in a tizzy about what this could mean for the series’ narrative and how things may or may not change in upcoming episodes. Or it could all be true and I’m a genius. Either way, it’s damn awesome that we can have these sorts of conversations on Twitter and I can write posts like this and not seem like a complete idiot. This is what makes Community so amazing.

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