What a thoroughly satisfying and deeply funny episode “Cooperative Polygraphy” was. The similarities to season two’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” were abundant and no doubt intentional, titles aside. Structurally, the two episodes are very similar: Both are “bottle episodes” that take place only in the study room, and they both feature inciting incidents that force each member of the group to come to grips with their insecurities and underlying resentments toward one another while ultimately reinforcing the ties that bind them all. But where “Calligraphy” was more cartoonish and self-aware (not that that’s a problem; it ranks among my favorite all-time episodes), “Polygraphy” clearly has more somber origins. That’s not to say it isn’t self-aware; it knows it’s a bottle episode, but it just doesn’t need to put that fine a point on it.
(Before I dive further into this week’s excellent episode I just want it on the record that I had an idea for a fake tofu product made out of meat about five years ago, and never did anything with it, and because of that I have to say that I think calling it “Meat-fu” is one of the very few missteps of the episode, when “Faux-fu” is clearly the superior option.)
Boy, did that episode move. By the time the group’s bickering had reached a boil for the first time, and Mr. Stone tells everyone that he’s only just finished calibrating, I knew we were in for something special.
What I enjoyed about this episode was how it conveyed Pierce’s essence without Chevy Chase ever being onscreen (for obvious reasons). Walton Goggins’s awesome deadpan (and his Pierce-perfect pronunciation of Abed, among other things) had a lot to do with that, but the group’s exasperated reactions to the scenario — and each other’s unbeknownst improprieties — really sold it. But what really got me was Pierce’s ruse; in asking these pointed questions about specific misdeeds or quirks (Annie’s drugging everyone to study harder; Jeff’s sexual trophies; Shirley’s “Meat-fu,” etc.), he’s doing exactly what he did in life: deflecting negative attention on to someone else by revealing something told to him in confidence. And I actually believe these characters would have told him those things, because he did show enough sweetness from time to time to reveal a soft center. But what we learn is that nobody in the group is really above the same type of deflection (as Annie and Shirley wrap up after the arguing has reached a fever pitch for the second time), especially when being called out for doing something they ultimately thought was the right thing, such as Annie socking away money for Troy and Abed’s jacket fund (a hilarious bit).
It’s actually rather shocking when Jeff tries to calm the bickering by blaming Pierce’s questions, and Mr. Stone tells him it’s been quite a while since one was asked. I actually lost track of how many accusations and deflections were flying around the study room table. It was dizzying. Abed puts it perfectly: “He kind of nailed it, didn’t he?”
Sure thing, and you could easily say the same thing about Harmon & Co. for this episode. The dialogue and pacing crackled, and everybody turned in nuanced and smart performances that really sold the material, which was rather dense, not to mention mercurial. The surprise and relief on Britta’s face at Pierce’s last question were so well-earned, not just because mere moments before her face was a rictus of anticipated soul-bearing agony. Pierce put everyone through the ringer from beyond the grave — er, Energon Pod? — and somehow managed to not only come off as the good guy, but help everyone remember why they’re friends in the first place and look past each other’s transgressions. Also, sperm.
It certainly was not the send-off I was expecting, and I say good on Harmon & Co. for respecting a complicated and not necessarily well-loved character enough to send him out on a high note. And of course, next week we’re going to have another departure, and this one is most likely going to be a bit harder to bounce back from. It’s been known for quite a while that Donald Glover’s departure from the show is imminent, but episodes like “Polygraphy” do nothing to soften that blow, because he does ridiculously endearing (“I can’t look at you right now.” “Then you should know I’m crying.”) like no one else. When Troy sets sail, it’s going to leave a hole in the Communiverse, but I will say I’m interested to see where it takes Abed, emotionally (if that’s a thing) and mentally, as well as its effect on the rest of the clan. With episodes like “Polygraphy,” it’s easy to get excited about the future and not worry too much about one cast member’s departure, because this episode proved that Harmon is still willing to introduce real emotional stakes, and I applaud that he and the writers aren’t resorting to retreading well-worn territory for a familiar yuck, but instead writing bold and emotional fare that makes the laughs all the funnier … and well-deserved.
Some other highlights:
* Walton Goggins did a phenomenal job playing straight man for the whole episode, especially during the canisters of sperm gag. I love that the gang found a way to all go out for drinks with the guy after the events of the episode. What did that conversation sound like?
* I find it very fitting that Troy has only seen the last two Police Academy movies. I’m assuming Pierce’s boat has been retrofitted with a DVD player, so he’ll get to the first five eventually.
* “He’s telling the truth.” “I’ve been instructed to point out that that means you’re gay.” That’s just Pierce all over, isn’t it?
* The collective sigh of relief when the lab tech affirms that Abed has answered truthfully about not killing a squirrel was amazing.
* Butts Carlton.
* Apparently, Jeff lied to Britta in the past about a pair of her underpants being stolen by a hawk. Not only is the fact that she initially bought it very funny, but so is her reaction to finding out the truth: “You exploited me … and made me believe in a slightly more magical world!”
* Oh, Abed: “You guys are changing your faces. Are you mad at me or hungry?”