Spoilers for Community through “Virtual Systems Analysis”
Patterning characters after popular perceptions of Asperger’s syndrome has become an easy way for television writers to show that a character is quirky and super-smart (see Bones, Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, and Sherlock on the BBC programme). Very rarely however do these characters experience any of the downsides of being on the autism spectrum. They don’t have to deal with discrimination. Failing to fill the expectations of a neurotypical world is met with canned laughter rather than abuse, loss of autonomy, or murder.
Abed from Community, however, portrays being ambiguously “on the spectrum” (to use his own words) beyond comedy. Okay, I know what you’re thinking (I really can; it’s my Disability Superpower), “Why are you so pleased about a disability being a source of tragedy? Isn’t this the kind of thing we want to move away from?” And to you, hypothetical reader-people, I say, yes, kinda sorta. I obviously don’t want stories where disability is OMG the worst thing ever and limits characters from ever doing anything. But I also don’t want stories where disability is just a source of comedy. Let’s be real: having an impairment and being disabled can really suck sometimes, but other times it’s really fucking funny. I want stories that acknowledge that. Community does.
(Community also acknowledges that autistic people of color exist. Characters with quirky-smart-Asperger’s are almost uniformly white. So, not only are those portrayals ignoring the discrimination faced by people with ASD, but they’re feeding into this stereotype of ASD as something that only happens to white people. Which is deeply, deeply frelled in a world where autistic people of color are killed for being autistic people of color.)
I wanna take a microt right now before we get into the nitty-gritty to address something important. Talking about autism spectrum disorders on a disability blog is messy. Some autistics don’t consider themselves disabled; others do. I’m not on the autism spectrum, so it’s not my place to take sides in this debate. I’m gonna talk about Abed’s experience of ableism as a character with an ASD who also has unspecified (and likely undiscovered) mental impairment. Not all of Abed’s Abed-ness can be contained under the label of autism–that’s what makes him Abed the Undiagnosable.
For those who don’t watch Community (which, going off of the show’s rating, should be the vast majority of you), the show is a sitcom about a study group at a community college in Colorado. That’s a deceptively simplistic description of a show that constantly switches genres and plays with television conventions. In one episode, tainted taco meat turns everyone at the school Halloween dance into zombies. In another, two women compete in a literal beauty contest for a man’s affection. TV Guide once said, “the characters in Community are real people who are slowly coming to the realization that they are trapped inside a TV sitcom.” Abed has known from the start, because he uses film and television as a way of understanding the world. In his own way, Abed has a better grip on reality than anyone else. So much so that he can predict the future. But it’s not just Abed’s precognition that makes Community suitable for a blog about sci-fi/fantasy. Many of Community’s forays into different genres stray into the realm of sff. One such episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” explores six alternative timelines based on which member of the study group got the pizza from the delivery boy. That episode was recently nominated for a Hugo Award. There’s your sci-fi bona fides.
Community’s most recent episode, “Virtual Systems Analysis,” ventures into science fiction territory, patterning itself after the classic holodeck episodes from ST: TNG. Except Abed doesn’t have a holodeck; he and his best friend Tory built a “Dreamatorium” in their apartment–an empty room dedicated to playing pretend. The Dreamatorium is powered by a complex engine hidden in a closet. To lower-brain forms like you and I, the engine just looks like toilet paper rolls taped together, but Abed assures us thats just a perception filter. In “Virtual Systems Analysis,” Abed and his study group find themselves with an extra day to study for a biology exam after their professor gets the flu. “Guys, we don’t have cram last minute anymore. Last minute got moved to tomorrow,” Britta exclaims. The group decides to go on a three-hour lunch break. Annie, seeing the sparks between Troy and Britta, sets the two up on a lunch date and takes Troy’s place in the Dreamatorium with Abed.
Abed and Annie’s first attempt at playing Inspector Spacetime (a parody of Doctor Who) doesn’t go well. Annie isn’t committing to her role as Constable Geneva, lapsing into Dick van Dyke-style Cockney. Abed has no patience with Annie and is angry with her for setting up Britta and Troy, fearing that it will upset the dynamics of their study group-cum-community-cum-family. Let’s take a beat here to reflect on Abed’s reasons for being so concerned about Troy and Britta dating:
Abed is afraid of losing Troy to Britta–either as a friend or something more.
- Community has used Troy and Abed’s “weird little relationship” to explore the intense homosocial bonds between male best friends on TV. Think Chandler and Joey, Kirk and Spock (and Bones), and Hawkeye and Trapper/BJ. Of any two people on the show, Abed and Troy have the closest relationship. And they’re not paranoid about people seeing them as gay. They hold hands in public, share a bedroom (with bunkbeds!), and even end last season’s Valentine’s Day episode in each other’s arms, wondering if they’d ever find their soulmates. There is a homoerotic element to their relationship as well. They film a sex scene for their Kickpuncher fanfilm (interestingly, Troy wanted Britta to play Abed’s role, but Abed claims she was unavailable), and while Abed is pretending to be Troy in the Dreamatorium, he says, “I like butt stuff,” under the influence of truth serum. Community establishes in the first season that “there’s nothing stopping any one of us from looking at any of the others as a sexual prospect.”
- No matter how much HoYay there exists between Troy and Abed, the core of their relationship (as with the other members of the study group) is friendship. Troy’s friendship and understanding is incredibly important to Abed as an autistic person with “mental issues.” Two episodes prior to “Virtual Systems Analysis,” Troy and Abed have a a major falling out that–this being Community and them being Troy and Abed–places them on opposite sides of a campus-wide pillow fight framed in a Ken Burns-style Civil War documentary. After Abed sends an email to his troops revealing all of Troy’s weaknesses, Troy sends this text to Abed: “Hey dick, read your dumb email. Really enjoyed it. Guess what? You may have been my best friend, but we both know I was your first friend. And what I know but you don’t know, because you have mental issues, is that you’re never going to have another friend. Because [all caps] NOBODY ELSE WILL EVER HAVE MY PATIENCE WITH YOU.” Shit just got real.
- Troy is important to Abed for companionship and also guidance. In the episode before the beginning of the pillow fight that would tear Greendale Community College apart, Abed and Troy come to hesitant agreement: Abed will let Troy tell him what to do sometimes, so Abed doesn’t do things like racking up thousands of dollars of debt renting celebrity impersonators to reenact scenes from his favorite movies. The show indicates Abed doesn’t know how to pay parking tickets and has difficulty tying his shoes, telling time on analog clocks, and settling his bill at restaurants. Troy most likely helps him with those things or they stumble through them together. Losing Troy could impede Abed’s ability to live independently from his father and the medico-legal bureaucracy that administers to people with mental disabilities (e.g., case workers, mental institutions, half-way houses).
Abed is afraid that Troy and Britta getting together would break up the study group–his family of choice.
- Abed has massive issues with his family. His father is stern and overprotective, and his mother has left Abed to be with her new family. She actually sends him a Christmas card to that effect. And Abed’s Muslim. Ouch. The aforementioned Christmas card sends Abed into an emotional tailspin wherein he believes that everyone has been turned into stop-motion characters, like Snow Miser and his brother Heat Miser. After a lot of angst and a rousing musical number, Abed realizes that his meaning of Christmas has changed; “it used mean being with my mom, now it means being with you guys,” the study group. Annie, Britta, Jeff, Pierce, Shirley, and Troy have taken the place of Abed’s mom–at least for the holidays. Merry happy, everyone.
- Abed has experienced the dissolution of one family already. In an early episode of the season one, Abed makes a pseudo-documentary about himself and his parents by manipulating Britta and Jeff into unwittingly reenacting his parents’ divorce. In the documentary, Abed’s “weirdness” ends his parents’ marriage. At age four, his parents turn to medical testing to find out why Abed is, in his father’s words, “not normal” and “weird.” Abed’s mom cannot take the stress of having an “abnormal” child who doesn’t give and receive affection in a normative fashion. “What is wrong with you?” Britta-as-Abed’s-mom exclaims at the the end of her rope. “All I wanna do is take care of you! Why will you not answer me?” Britta/Abed’s mom storms out the room and Jeff-as-Abed’s-dad says, “I think you are weird, Abed. And I think the wrong person just left.” Abed’s real dad (played by the principal from Glee) is weeping openly by the time he is done watching the film and says, “I never said I blamed you for her leaving.” Abed responds, “You never had to say it.” Wow. In a culture where disability and neurodivergence are seen as problems to be solved, a child’s seeming refusal to be “cured” can upset parents and cause undue stress on their relationship. Not to mention what it does to the kid: If you don’t get better, mommy and daddy are going to get a divorce. Understandably, Abed does not want to see another family to fall to pieces.
As a character, Abed has good reason to fear Britta and Troy going out to lunch, but Annie, for someone who is preaching to Abed about empathy, doesn’t get where he’s coming from. In a phone call (which, this being television, Abed overhears), Annie says, “People bend over backward to cater to [Abed].” When Annie comes back into the Dreamatorium, she rewires the engine so that it runs on other people’s thoughts and feelings rather than Abed’s. Now, instead of playing Inspector Spacetime, the Dreamatorium creates the scenarios Abed perceives Annie wants–namely, a Grey’s Anatomy-esque hospital drama. In the simulation, Abed portrays every member of their study group (and a half-accurate Chang) as characters in the hospital drama. Annie meets doctors Britta Perry, Troy Barnes, and Jeff Winger, Nurse Shirley Bennet, and endearing Alzheimer’s patient Pierce Hawthorne. Annie just wants to find Abed. A chart reveals that, in this world, Abed is in the psych ward for being “control freak with no empathy. People bend over backwards to cater to him.” He was admitted by none other than hospital administrator, Annie Edison. This is how Abed believes Annie sees him. With the exception of Pierce (who is having his own mini-arc this season about dementia), everyone but Abed gets to be doctors, nurses, administrators, people with agency in this world.
Annie finds Abed by turning into him (“how cool is that?”). The moment she transforms into Abed, Chang (who’s still a security guard in the simulation) grabs Annie/Abed and throws her into a locker. Like Inspector Spacetime’s ship, the locker is bigger on the inside. The real Abed is chained to the wall. “You think this is where we’d put you?” Annie asks. “You know that’s absurd, right?” Abed explains, “It’s a metaphorical locker. It’s a place where people like me get put when everyone’s finally fed up with us… I’ve run the simulations, Annie. I don’t get married. I don’t invent a billion dollar website that helps people have sex. I don’t make it into Sundance, Slam Dance, or Dance Pants. (Troy invents Dance Pants in 2019. Don’t tell him; he needs to stumble onto it.)” Here we see Abed’s ultimate fear: everyone will move on and leave him in a mental institution. They’ll have exciting jobs and romances and he’ll be locked in the psych ward, a nameless patient who no one remembers. From age four, he’s been a problem to be solved through medical intervention, but he’s never going to get solved. He’s Abed the Undiagnosable. He’s never going to be cured, he’ll never get better, he’ll never grow up. So it’s best just to leave him in the locker, where maybe Ian Duncan will come along once in a while to study Abed and get into all the major psychology journals.
Fortunately, Annie is there to assuage Abed’s deeply seated fears. Annie, as someone who is well acquainted with the psychiatric industrial complex from her brief nervous breakdown in high school, perhaps understands what Abed is feeling better than anyone in the study group. She uses empathy (it is super-effective) to explain to Abed on his own terms that his fear of being alone is normal and the predictions he makes using the Dreamatorium are like good sci-fi–amusing but hardly accurate. Annie unshackles Abed with a quantum spanner and they return to playing Inspector Spacetime–only this time Annie commits to her role.
Towards the end of the episode, we get a lot of posturing about Annie and Abed having spent a life-changing three-hours together. Honestly, it seems like a solid five minutes are dedicated to knowing glances between Annie and Abed about their personal growth that day. Annie’s actions in the closing credit sequence show that she still has a long way to go in understanding Abed. In the tag, Annie appears on Troy and Abed’s fake morning news program, Troy and Abed in the Morning, to give home decorating advice. She gets into the silliness of the program and all is well until she reveals her surprise makeover of Troy and Abed’s bedroom/blanket fort. “I unbunked your beds. I got scrap fabric–” Abed does not respond well to this sudden and unsolicited change to his inner sanctum and begins to emit a high-pitched noise that sounds a bit like a tornado siren. Troy enters crisis control mode, assuring Abed that they can put the room back the way it was and puts the morning show on hold for technical difficulties. For her credit, Annie is legitimately sorry about hurting Abed and likely only changed their room to make them more comfortable and participate more fully in their fake morning show… but she could have given her redecorating plans more thought. If this episode is any indication, Annie will not be making that mistake again as she becomes someone Abed can depend on and more importantly fight Blorgons with.
In the pilot episode of series, Jeff Winger dismissively tells Abed, “Well, you have Asperger’s.” Three years on, Jeff’s pithy insult has evolved into an ongoing story-arc about an autistic character with mental disabilities who brings laughter to the show, but also insight into the fears many people on the autism spectrum and/or with psychiatric impairments have of institutionalization and the loss of friends and family. “Virtual Systems Analysis” has shown that Abed’s autism is not a joke or trendy television short-hand for quirkiness; it’s part of what makes him Abed, a fully-realized character.