On most shows, an episode where the main characters were replaced with puppets would have marked an absurd and unequivocal death knell. Like, imagine the sound of funeral bells playing “La Cucaracha” in a minor key ringing through the countryside. But Community isn’t most shows. It’s always stood a fighting chance against its own ambition. Even so, many series-long fans in my social circle doubted that “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” would pull off the stunt successfully.
“I heard there’s going to be a puppet episode,” a buddy said to me a few weeks ago over GChat, the standard badalabip of the instant message drowned out by the scoff with which I imagined him punctuating the sentence. Staging a puppet-heavy sitcom episode is similar to performing “Don’t Stop Believing” at karaoke; it seems like a good idea until you realize that it’s going to be really hard.
With five episodes to go in its fourth season, Community has found itself in the position of a .500 NFL team come Thanksgiving. Every game is a must-win. An episode as audacious as a mini Muppet Movie couldn’t risk failure. The show’s rabid fan base (which propelled it to victory in Hulu/Rolling Stone’s “Best in Show” tournament, where it beheaded Game of Thrones in the finals) is not large enough to survive subpar episodes as the season nears its conclusion. Though, it is telling about how people watch television that Community, which is available on Hulu, surmounted Game of Thrones, an HBO Go staple, the week after edging out Netflix favorite Sherlock. Much of the show’s viewership clearly belongs to the “I don’t even own a TV” set. A puppet debacle (or Puppocalypse, if you would) might have sapped some of that lingering goodwill.
As De La Soul might put it: “Stakes was high.” Even the study group seemed to realize its predicament. The brief, tense cold open held the audience in suspense. The characters appeared to face down the same weight of expectation as the viewers. They drummed their fingers against the study room table. We watched from our couches/beds/ottomen in anticipation. The unspoken question hung in the air:
“So … is what happens next going to suck?”
Mercifully, it didn’t. I know it didn’t because I laughed at this episode alone in a hotel room, which is rare. Laughing alone always feels insane. It’s not quite as bad as being the only person laughing in a group (I’ll sometimes crack up on the subway while listening to a podcast on my headphones, and people look at me like I just asked them for blood plasma), but it’s bad. Laughter, unlike other emotions, is always better when shared. I tend to do any necessary crying by myself. It seems more considerate than burdening others with my blubbering. Horror movies are spookiest when consumed solitarily. But no one ever says: “I was watching The Hangover in my apartment with no one there, and I had to call someone because it was too hilarious.”
Laughter is also the only feeling you can decide not to have. It’s hard to reason yourself out of a major case of the creeps. Schindler’s List is always going to tug at your heartstrings unless you’re some kind of holocaust denier or enjoyer. Laughter, though, is more like lovemaking. It’s only good if you agree to it, and it’s best when there’s someone else around.
So I surprised myself by how many times I audibly laughed out loud to no one. The jokes came from all angles. Visual gags, Dean puns, and the trademark self-referentiality. Marooned in the Midwest, I found myself for the first time this season laughing over jokes and wishing to be home with my DVR. The meta-discussion about what got the study group stuck in a rut (and especially the rapid-fire brainstorm of what types of other things one might get stuck in) played joyous punch line arpeggios across whichever part of my brain that controls laughter. (I like to pretend it’s the medulla oblongata, because “oblongata” is the funniest brain part word.)
“Intro To Felt Surrogacy” gave nearly every character a chance to shine. Shirley, who often gets relegated to switching off between expressions of sympathetic concern and disapproving concern delivered some great jokes, most notably, “Jesus don’t snitch.” The episode was also mercifully light on Chang, and one of his brief appearances brought the delightful Puppet-On-Puppet gag. Pierce’s sub-Juggalo understanding of science stayed true to the character and made me chuckle, as did Troy’s bewilderment at why the Blue Man Group can’t communicate with one another. Everyone got to do what they do best.
The guest stars were fun and unobtrusive. Honestly, I didn’t recognize Sara Bareilles, whose music has appeared on the show before. But she was charming as an exceptionally lax hot air balloon operator. Adam Levine didn’t appear onscreen, but he wrote the episode’s final song, even including a shout-out to The Voice, as if America were not aware of The Voice. Then, of course, there was Jason Alexander, sporting a head full of hair that George Constanza literally would have murdered for back in the nineties. Alexander is NBC Thursday Night royalty forever and always, as far as I’m concerned, and he can appear on any show on that night on that network. It is his right. Let him deliver the news if he wants. He’s great, though I would have liked to see a little more of a maniac twinkle in his eyes as he handed out hallucinogens to the study group. Overall, solid work, guest stars!
All this would have been forgotten, though, if the puppets had been a bust. They weren’t, though. The plot justified their presence, and the writing staff wrung all the possible laughs out of the device. Dean Pelton crafted Jeff’s puppet to have six-pack abs and lift weights. Troy closed his felt avatar’s mouth when it went slack with horror. Several of the more gimmicky plot devices this season (Abed’s short-lived fraternity, for one) have felt squeezed in where they didn’t actually fit, like a 30-year-old man in his bar mitzvah suit asking: “Am I still mommy’s big boy?” The puppets worked. They added a layer to the story, and they added a layer to the humor. “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” more than any other episode this season, belongs in the Community canon.
Most of my complaints with “ItFS” were minor. The songs were serviceable but not memorable. I couldn’t hum any of them now if there were a gun to my head, which admittedly is not the ideal circumstance for musical performance anyway. Also, I wish the dean would just come out of the costume closet so everyone would stop acting weird about the fact that he’s clearly gay. Most off-putting, though, was Jeff and Troy’s uncomfortable moment of bonding over what it’s like to have sex with Britta. Isn’t she still dating Troy? Why are we supposed to be cool with their weird, Y Tu Mamá También eye contact? If forced to declare one (and I think I’ve painted myself into a corner), that brief instant would constitute my Oh Go Fuck Yourself, Community moment of the week.
Really, though, I’m loath to invoke that Josh Gondelman Community Recap trope at all. “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” was the season’s strongest episode, and because it clearly topped the four-star weeks, I’m compelled to award it a perfect five-star rating. Here’s to hoping that Community, like last season’s Baltimore Ravens squad and the New York Giants before them, is peaking at the best possible time. It was not a death knell we heard this week, but a triumphant chorus of puppets.