Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sitcom Counterfactuals: Episodes from "The Big Bang Theory" and "Community"

The rise of counterfactual reasoning has shaped not only contemporary historical scholarship, journalism, and fiction, but also television comedy.   

Two recent episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community” show how counterfactuals can be played for laughs while shedding light on important issues of causality.  

(Warning: the following plot summaries are lengthy and will mostly appeal to the show’s fans who already know the episodes.  They are also partly  -- and shamelessly -- reprinted from Wikipedia).  My own comments, of course, are my own.

The episode of the Big Bang Theory aired a few weeks ago and was titled “The Cooper Extraction.”  It shows how the lives of the show’s main characters would have been different if they had never met Sheldon.

As the Wikipedia summary of the episode notes:

“Penny notes that Leonard would be too afraid to have asked her out, Bernadette envisions that she would not have gone out with Howard because of his strange friendship with Raj, and Leonard speculates that Penny would be living with Zack. Amy suggests that Penny would have tried to seduce Sheldon, while Howard notes that he would be caring for his mother even after she was dead, and Raj and Leonard suggest that as roommates, they would have become obese, due to Raj's cooking and Leonard's loneliness. Amy thinks she would have been sad and alone.

The actual episode is naturally full of nuances and comic touches (for a full summary see the link here), but the main point is that the absence of one character, Sheldon, leads the other characters to interact with one another differently based on their existing behavioral tendencies which, without Sheldon’s mediating influence, lead to different outcomes).  Through Sheldon’s absence on the episode, the other character realize that, while they often complain about him, there lives would be diminished had they never become friends with him.  Counterfactual reasoning, in other words, help them realize that a theoretical fantasy can actually become inverted into a counterfactual nightmare.  It confirms the truism that absence can, indeed, make the heart grow fonder.

A similar insight emerges from an older episode of "Community," entitled “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It originally aired in October of 2011 and explored seven different “what if?” scenarios that were premised on the banal question of which of the seven friends attending Troy and Abed’s housewarming party should go downstairs and pay the pizza delivery man when he arrives at their apartment.  They all agree to Jeff’s idea to roll a die to determine who has to go collect the food. 

As the Wikipedia summary of the episode then makes clear, different die rolls lead to very different outcomes (or timelines of alternate events).  

The seven timelines are as follows:

“In the first timeline, Jeff rolls a 2 and Annie (who is sitting second on his left around the table) goes to get the pizza. Troy is too distracted by finding a gun in Annie's bag to open Pierce's present [a Norwegian troll wrapped in a box]. Abed confronts Britta about the smell of marijuana in the bathroom, which offends her.
In the second timeline, Jeff rolls a 4 and Shirley has to go. She reminds the group not to let her pies burn before leaving. Troy opens Pierce's present and freaks out. When Shirley returns, she finds that nobody bothered to take out the pies from the oven; the pies come out incinerated. She berates the group and leaves.
In the third timeline, the die lands on 3 and Pierce has to go. Jeff belittles Troy, which causes him to leave the table and join Britta in the bathroom. She consoles Troy by mocking Jeff's guarded personality. Annie demonstrates her first aid skills when tending to Jeff. When Pierce returns with the pizza, everyone is happy.
In the fourth timeline, Jeff rolls a 6 and Britta has to go. Annie tends to Jeff in the bathroom since Britta isn't using it. Jeff expresses his concern for Annie; just as they are about to kiss, they are interrupted by Troy screaming. Pierce is terrorizing him with the troll, and reveals that he is upset that Troy has moved out from his mansion. Britta returns with the pizza man, Toby, and announces they are now engaged.
In the fifth timeline, Jeff rolls a 1 and Troy has to go. He leaves in a hurry, so as not to miss anything interesting, and slams the door, which causes [Abed’s Indiana Jones] diorama boulder to slip and roll onto the floor. Britta and Abed leave for the bathroom, not noticing the boulder. When Annie stands up, she trips over it and falls on the coffee table, in turn displacing Pierce's bottle of rum, which shatters on the floor. Pierce abruptly rises from the table in reaction to the fall, knocking Annie's purse to the floor. The gun inside discharges and hits Pierce in the thigh. Abed rushes to help Annie with Pierce, while Britta comes out of the bathroom and goes slack-jawed upon seeing Pierce on the floor; her lit joint drops from her mouth and ignites the spilled rum. Jeff attempts to smother the fire with his shirt, only for it to catch fire itself and get wrapped around Jeff's right arm. Britta attempts to put out the fire by dropping glasses of water onto it. Troy returns to a scene of chaos with the troll doll, having been knocked from the table during the kerfuffle, staring directly at him from amidst the flames.
In the sixth timeline, Jeff rolls a 5, meaning Abed has to go. Britta inadvertently reveals to Shirley that she smoked marijuana, much to Shirley's dismay, and the two confront each other about their respective "habits". Troy has a few kind words for Pierce, which causes Pierce to attempt to rescind the gift. In the ensuing struggle, the troll is flung out of the box. Jeff and Annie kiss at the kitchen counter, but Jeff gets turned off when Annie admits that Jeff reminds her of her father and belittles Annie for the remark and for using too much lip gloss. Abed returns to an awkward situation but acts obliviously ("I hope this is the real [timeline] because I just found a nickel in the hallway").
In the final, prime timeline, Abed stops the die from rolling, and urges the group to stay united regardless of whatever happens to them. The group then realizes that Jeff manipulated the die roll such that he would never be selected. In the end, Jeff has to get the pizza. After he leaves, the group sings and dances to "Roxanne"; Pierce decides not to give Troy his gift and throws away the troll. Abed invites Annie to move in with him and Troy.
The end tag shows the universe in which Troy got the pizza. Pierce is dead, Annie is in a mental ward due to guilt, Shirley is an alcoholic, Troy injured himself trying to destroy the flaming troll (he tried to eat it) and can only speak with the assistance of an artificial voice box, Jeff is missing an arm and Britta has a blue streak in her hair. Abed suggests that they must become "the evil study group" and kill their good versions in the prime timeline, taking control of that timeline. He proceeds to hand out black felt goatees, à la Star Trek: The Original Series’ "Mirror, Mirror". Depressed, Britta, Jeff and Shirley all depart, but Troy stays behind and the two of them decide to team up and don the goatees, singing "Evil Troy and Evil Abed," a variation on the running gag of "Troy and Abed in the Morning." Suddenly, the scene changes via the reverse of the dice roll animation used throughout the episode (the camera zooms out from the 1 timeline to the prime timeline at the center this time) to the "prime" Abed and Troy watching TV, where Abed mentions that something felt strange for a moment, then decides it was nothing.”

That’s it for the summary….As for the analysis….

Besides being intricately structured and well written, the episode reveals how counterfactual reasoning helps explain causality.  By removing characters from the apartment, the episode shows how altering variables determines the course of events. 

The Wikipedia entry actually does a good job explaining this point, noting:

 “The episode's structure depicted how the characters relate to each other in different situations. How the situation changes each time a character leaves suggests the character's role within the group. Some characters always get along easily, some of them do not, and ultimately the group dynamic requires everyone to work. When Jeff is not around, the group lets loose and has fun. Jeff cannot bring himself to do the same because he enjoys being cool and detached.  Annie wishes that everyone would be less worried about her and view her as an adult. Troy prevents chaos; when he is gone, the situation dissolves into madness.  He also wishes that Jeff would view him as an adult.  Shirley feels left out because she is the only one happily married.  She plays a maternal role, quick to anger with everyone as she simultaneously tries to guide and nurture them. However, the other group members often refuse to take responsibility and mock her judgment even though they secretly like her mini-pies. Meanwhile, Pierce is upset that Troy moved out even though he seems so happy and he constantly attempts to impress Jeff by trying to prove his own masculinity. Abed dispels tension: without him, the study group is uncomfortable with each other.”

In other words, by showing how things might have unfolded different in an alternate reality, we can better appreciate their actual reality.

These two episodes offer small scale examples of the kinds of causal connections that historians explore at the more macroscopic level in works of counterfactual and alternate history.  It is probably too much to hope that these latter works will find the same amount of small screen air time as the more interpersonal examples have recent received.  Yet, the forthcoming television series Thirteen and the Syfy miniseries The Man in the High Castle hold out hope.....

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