Two weeks after igniting what had to have been the most productive and civil comment war in modern Internet history, we are back from a nasty 24-hour case of Octopus Loss to tackle a very special, very different episode of Community. After front-loading the season with a number of divisive meta-stunts (well, divisive in the sense that they divided Vulture’s opinion from literally everyone else’s), Dan Harmon & Co. finally pump the brakes with “Cooperative Calligraphy” and tackle the serious question: Do wiener dogs begin that way? Or are they born normal and get wiener?
Er, sorry — the other serious question: Namely, is Community’s elaborately constructed joke machine capable of pulling of a more traditional sitcom-y half-hour, one devoid of chicken mafias, paintball wars, or infectious zombie pathogens? The answer, happily, is yes. Thanks to the very clever, possibly purple, and definitely not missing pen of writer Megan Ganz, “Cooperative Calligraphy” was fantastic, a wholly human and constantly creative delight that accomplished a ton without ever leaving the study room. (False metaphor alert! Ganz probably doesn’t actually use a pen. Most likely an iBook like the rest of the godless, health-insurance-challenged coastal elite.) Of course, it was still Community: We’d barely made it to the first commercial break before Abed (correctly) announced that this was a “bottle episode,” insidery TV talk for a budget-saving script that only requires a single set (think: Seinfeld in the Chinese restaurant or I Dream of Jeannie in the, uh, bottle). As predictable as Abed’s meta-awareness was, it was trumped by our even more predictable distaste for it. But you know what? That’s on us. It’s Abed’s role on the show to be aware of his role on the show, and while that may never be our cup of tea there were so many other deliciously flavored cups of tea on offer this week that it’s hard to stay cranky for long. (Bad extended metaphor alert!)
The setup: Annie’s purple pen has gone missing and it’s not the first time. After unleashing a ferociously Muppet-y scream, she convinces the gang that they aren’t going anywhere until her pen is returned: not to sexy dates with women named Gwynnifer (Jeff), not to photograph their grandma’s hands (Britta), and certainly not to attend the puppy parade occurring on the quad (which is terrible because, as Troy knows, you never arrive late to a puppy parade — especially not when, as the Dean points out via loudspeaker, with every lost moment the puppies “grow older and less deserving of our attention”). For our money (note: We’re not offering any money), the greatest pleasures of Community have always derived from the sharply drawn characters and Ganz took full advantage of them here in the individual reactions to the lost pen. Britta — always funniest when acting indignant — protests that searching everyone’s bag is a “quick invasion of civil liberties,” eliciting groans (just last week, we learn, “she used the Freedom of Information Act to request photocopies” of Annie’s notes), but soon her condom-filled handbag is upended onto the table. “Welcome to the machine!” she screams, shaking an extra turquoise thong.
Things devolve from there. Abed’s bag reveals that he’s been charting the women’s, ahem, cycles of the moon and providing Kleenex and chocolate at appropriate intervals. Troy carries a cushion in his bag (of course) and just generally kills it as usual (“sometimes I think I lost something really important to me and it turns out I already ate it”). Pierce’s cut-open casts reveal that he’s been using tongs and Slim Jims to scratch his itching legs. Jeff doesn’t carry a bag lest the strap deprive the world of even a “portion” of his chest, while Shirley’s contains a black-woman pregnancy test (“You Know, Girl!”) and thus moves the (meh) Chang plot forward an inch or two. Soon there are gendered strip searches and cameo appearances by Jeff’s colorful “organic soy-cotton” briefs and Troy’s Pecs. Ultimately, there is understanding, but it’s funny understanding: Jeff soliloquizes that it’s easier to believe something impossible than accept the notion that one of their friends isn’t trustworthy. Meaning? They should have listened to Troy all along and blamed it on ghosts, a story kind of like Paranormal Activity but more “boring and fancy.”
In a nice touch, the gang leave the (torn up) room closer than ever, but we viewers get to discover the real culprit. Honestly, we should have guessed it all along, as it’s the character responsible for so much of the action on Community — the highs, the lows, and the increased ratings: Annie’s Boobs. The pet monkey, that is. What were you thinking? Get your mind out of our mind, pervs!
Course-corrective episodes like “Cooperative Calligraphy” prove what so many commenters have been saying all along: Community is strong enough at its core to support episodes where the characters, say, gnaw on each others’ arms. (Extra credit metaphor in 3, 2, 1 … ) Sometimes it’s good to know that, before he started splattering, Jackson Pollock could draw an apple. This was Community proving it could draw an apple. And draw it well.