I still remember where I was when I heard Dan Harmon had been fired from his own damn show following season three: At a table on the patio of a bowling alley with two friends from college, watching my college crush at the next table over while also trying to avoid eye contact with the retiring professors for whom we were all gathered at the aforementioned bowling alley. One of my friends came back from the bar with drinks, the setting sun turning her curls gold, sat down and said, “You were at work all day, so you probably didn’t hear about Dan.” Confused, I looked to where another of our former classmates, named Dan, stood, and looked back at my friend, blinking like a tiny puppy. My friend explained she meant Harmon, and the three of us spent the next 20 minutes wondering how it could even be possible.
Then we had the Oct. 19 Debacle, and, finally, season four premiered in February. And, sure, it wasn’t the same Community we’d all fallen in love with: The rhythms were different, the focus wasn’t as sharp, and not all the jokes landed properly. I didn’t love season four, but I love the cast, in character and out, and I was simply happy to have them back on my screen. I only missed one episode, last April, when Yvette Nicole Brown came to my city and was part of a panel discussion at the public library. (Yes, I got to meet her. Yes, she is as charming and lovely and gorgeous in person as she is on screen. And, yes, this is the only time I will ever consciously name-drop.)
Now, I don’t know how many of you watch the show because you love it, warts and all, and how many watch because they believe Harmon can do no wrong. I think tough love – that is, looking critically at things you value and expecting more from them – isn’t something you do only when you’re unhappy with that thing you value; it’s something you do all the time, even when you’re happy with the thing. After this week’s episode, it’s time for some tough love, so if you’re looking for rainbows and glitter, go ahead and skip this post. I won’t take it personally.
This post contains spoilers for episode 5.04 of Community, “Cooperative Polygraphy.”
The fourth episode of Community‘s fifth season picks up sometime shortly after “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics,” with the study group returning from Pierce’s funeral and shucking the sky blue robes and beehive hats of the Church of Neo Reformed Buddhism. Chang enters and asks if Pierce’s funeral was fun, but the Study Group tell him they’ll all miss Pierce. Chang calls shenanigans, recalling all the times they complained about Pierce and even tried to evict the older man from the Study Group.
Up to this point, the episode is funny, if a little slow, joke-wise. And, after rewatching earlier today, I like to think the episode could have handled the inevitable fall-out of Pierce’s death in a variety of ways: A visit from Gilbert sparks questions about Pierce’s will, or even his legitimacy as one of the Hawthorne Wipes heirs; or perhaps the remaining members of the Greendale Seven would have returned to Pierce’s home. Maybe even a group project that would have highlighted the role Pierce played in the group dynamics. Instead, we watch as Pierce posthumously throws one more wrench into the works, engaging a professional to administer a group polygraph, ostensibly to determine if anyone in the Study Group (or Chang) murdered him.
As a concept, the group polygraph is a slightly less clever premise for a bottle episode than the search for Annie’s purple pen in season two’s “Cooperative Calligraphy,” but it’s not as far-fetched as some shows. (For instance, this week’s Person of Interest took place in the course of one plane ride and was as thrilling as ever, but the story has been done in the last several years by shows as varied as Human Target to Covert Affairs. It wasn’t bad, but it felt a little flat, as far as bottle eps go.) And, unlike season four’s “Paranormal Parentage,” this bottle episode was rather elegant in the way it drew parallels with “Cooperative Calligraphy.” Jeff and Britta’s abortive romance in season two; Annie’s need drive to succeed at all costs; Abed’s inability to understand appropriate boundaries;
Shirley’s desire to be seen as selfless and peaceable; Chang’s peculiar relationship with the Greendale campus; and Britta’s government-related paranoia are all referenced.
Like the previous three episodes this season, the tone of life being darker is prevalent, as the group’s revelations are harsh and uncomfortable, even though the study group’s delivery was spot on for much of the action. In particular, Shirley had a couple particularly good lines, which is nice to see as hers is a character written into a box more often than not.
And Danny Pudi’s delivery “Your faces are changing” was reminiscent of some of Abed’s season one and two scenes, before his defining characteristic became the isolating behaviors that always set Abed apart from his friends.
Plus, while I’m not generally a fan of Ken Jeong’s broad comedic choices as Chang, his ‘confession’ was so daft but still serious I was surprised into laughter.
However, the Study Group’s confessions were a sliver that irritated me as the episode aired Thursday and again when I rewatched, and were part of why I wish now the episode had handled the aftermath of Pierces death differently. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t love season four, but I felt one of its redeeming elements was the attempts, however clumsy, to give the characters legitimate growth. For instance, as much as Joel McHale acted the hell out of the scene in which Jeff confronts his absentee father “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations,” using Britta as a catalyst for that confrontation never sat well with me, nor did the show’s ham-handed attempt to illustrate how little Jeff really missed given that Bill Winger’s other son was shown as a total disaster. Likewise, Abed’s epiphany that Troy would always find him, in “Conventions of Space and Time,” was unnecessary given Annie had already helped him to that conclusion in “Virtual Systems Analysis” in season three; but Britta’s confirmation of Troy’s fear that another man was trying to steal his best friend was a sweet nod to her knowing Troy well enough to respect Troy and Abed’s friendship. And for all the problems involved in “Heroic Origins,” it was nice to finally see a sliver of Annie’s backstory and to discover the rehab group she mentioned back in season one’s “English as a Second Language” was not a fabrication on her part, but a reality, further reinforcing the importance of the Study Group in her life given her abandonment by both her biological family and her fellow recovering addicts.
As the confessions came during the rounds of questioning during the polygraph, learning that Shirley still blindly put her own preferences over her friend’s (the substitution of tofu for ‘meatfu’ to save money); that Britta wouldn’t automatically guess Troy and Abed putting themselves first in case of the zombpocalypse; that Abed would overstep the boundaries of privacy and bodily autonomy by implanting trackers in all his friends; Jeff was still as hell-bent on collecting proof of his own importance (the box of sexual trophies being akin to the get well cards he collected after his faked appendectomy);
and, perhaps most troubling given her comments in “Repilot,” that Annie has had access to methamphetamines for years, but also still sees them as a legit route to success, were all troubling. The confessions felt less like seeds for future storylines and more like Harmon flipping the bird at the thought that his characters might be capable of growth and change.
Further troubling was how underused Troy was in this episode, especially given this coming week is his final episode of the season. His confessions – that he didn’t invent his and Abed’s handshake and had not been to Legoland – felt shallow and superfluous, especially as the wedge between he and Abed had already been driven into place in “Repilot.” (Frankly, the wedge has been there since the end of “Contemporary Impressionists,” and wasn’t exactly helped by the antics of “Basic Human Anatomy.”) Similarly, he wasn’t integral to the action in “Cooperative Calligraphy,” so at least it was parallel in that repsect. I hope “Geothermal Escapism” will give Troy the farewell he deserves, but my fingers aren’t quite crossed yet.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Walton Goggins excellent turn as Pierce’s hired gun, Mr. Stone. I’m familiar with him from FX’s Justified as Boyd Crowder, who is arguably my favorite character on the show, despite Timothy Olyphant’s flawless- assets. Goggins’ Boyd has incredibly messy personal ethics, but that messiness is a hell of a lot more relatable than Olyphant’s U.S. marshal, who is troubled but ultimately prone to uphold the law.
As Mr. Stone, Goggins is delightfully straight-faced, which makes his carefree exuberance in the tag worth the slog through the ugliness the Study Group trots out during the course of the first 20 minutes.
When it was announced Dan Harmon was returning for season five, it was the icing on the cake of a renewal for a fifth season and even helped soothe the hurt of that fifth season being only for 13 episodes. Rather than a 20 minute discussion, my two college friends and I exchanged a few thoughts on what might happen. I imagine that’s the difference a couple years make: We’re a little older, a little less prone to wild speculation, and a little more focused on becoming the people we’ve tried to be. I guess it’s a shame Harmon isn’t ready to let the Study Group focus on doing the same.