"Cooperative Calligraphy" is my favorite episode of Community in the series' run so far. I get that not everyone's going to be that excited about it. I get that some people are going to slot it behind "Modern Warfare" or "Debate 109" or what-have-you, but if this episode doesn't immediately land somewhere in your list of favorites from the show, then I figure we watch the show for immensely different reasons. "Calligraphy" has just about everything I love about Community in rapid succession, and after complaining about how few big group scenes there have been this season, this is an episode that's devoted entirely to one, big group scene. And yet there's very little that Community does well that it doesn't do here, from pop culture references to character-based gags to weird sexual tension to jokes about monkeys (scattered all over in the episode, if you're looking). "Cooperative Calligraphy" shows that that long stretch of big, budget-busting theme episodes that opened the season was just the series getting warmed up.
Let's deal, first and foremost, with what "Cooperative Calligraphy" is. It's a bottle show, one of those TV writing terms that's passed from obscure to fairly well-known in just the last few years, thanks to the rise of Internet TV criticism, where this kind of minutiae is discussed endlessly. Briefly, a bottle show is an episode that strands all of the cast (or most of the players) in one location for one reason or another, then has them bounce off of each other for the run of the episode. (If you want a more thorough discussion of the various types of bottle episodes and the ways that shows figure out to strand all of their characters in one location, read our recent Inventory on the subject here.)
Now, I love bottle shows. I think they're one of the very best episode types in TV, even if the reasons for the characters getting stuck together are often contrived (as they are here). A bottle show usually can't rely on a big guest star or flashy effects or elaborate sight gags. A bottle show almost always has to draw its storyline from the characters themselves and the long-simmering conflicts between them. The best bottle shows are the ones that simultaneously call attention to their limitations and dismiss them as no big deal. Indeed, a good bottle show makes the fact that what we're seeing is essentially a one-act play starring some of our favorite TV actors seem like a virtue, rather than a hindrance. They must be murderously difficult to write for TV writers, but when they're executed well, there's just nothing else quite like them. "Epidemiology" was fun because it was fun to see these familiar characters in a completely new context; "Cooperative Calligraphy" is so great because it takes the characters, puts them in the context we're most familiar with them, then pushes past the usual jokes and surface-level tensions to go even deeper. Obviously, I gave the episodes the same grade, so I don't think you're nuts if you prefer the former to the latter, but "Calligraphy" is very much right in my wheelhouse.
Here's how Dan Harmon and the Community writers (credit for the script goes to Megan Ganz, whom I should mention is a former Onion writer, yet is also someone I've never, ever met, though I've seen her do stand-up) strand their cast: Annie's lost her pen. Recently, she's lost a bunch of pens. And she's getting sick and tired of having her nice things taken by someone in the group. So she demands that no one leave the room until they give her back her pen, which prevents everyone from going on to their various pursuits for the afternoon, which include attending a puppy parade (in the case of Troy and Abed) and going on a date with some hot girl (in the case of Jeff, obviously). If you were looking for something more dramatic, something more tension-ridden, you weren't going to get it. That was it. The entirety of the episode revolves around whether Annie's pen is found and who took it.
I think the episode does a couple of smart things right off the bat. For one thing, it turns everything into a sort of drawing room mystery, with Annie as the chief detective (though she's quickly joined by Britta), pushing everyone so they might accidentally slip up and reveal they took the pen. For another, it quickly establishes that this very small thing stands in for a lot of larger things, as the very best episodes of shows like Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond did. The pen is a nice pen, sure, but it's also emblematic of how close these people are and the trust they place in each other. If the pen doesn't get returned to Annie, then that tiny bit of doubt will be placed in her mind, a bit of doubt that will eventually grow large enough to make her unable to embrace her ad hoc family as she has. Finally, the episode allows the story of the pen to evolve. Yes, we're still wondering if that pen is going to show up and just who has it, but we're also learning that Shirley may be pregnant, that Abed really WAS keeping track of the girls' menstrual cycles, and that Pierce's broken legs aren't going away any time soon. The pen, then, is just a plot device, in the very best sense of that term. It's the thing that gets the ball rolling, the thing that sets the characters at odds with each other.
What's always distinguished Community is that the characters aren't just joke machines. They're funny people, sure, and they all seem to find each other funny (always a good sign in a sitcom), but they're not just there to spout jokes. When the jokes aren't working, then the show can fall back on character stuff and be just as good. But when the jokes are working, as they were in "Calligraphy," then the character stuff makes them that much better. The viewers who dislike the sentimental moments on this show are probably not going to like the ending terribly well, since it trades heavily on the idea that the group decides to engage in an act of collective insanity to preserve their ties. But look at how funny and genuinely sweet that scene is, with Abed tossing in commentary, Troy going off on a lengthy story about a ghost, and Jeff trying to hold the group together. Almost none of this would work without it being grounded in rounded, interesting characters like the ones on the show. Imagine a comedy with less distinctive characters trying to do something like this. It would almost certainly fail.
I've seen plenty of critics try to hurl charges of forced sentimentality against this show. (To be fair, there are fewer of them this season, but maybe they're not watching anymore.) And of all of the criticisms leveled against Community, this is the one that strikes me as the most insane. Forced sentimentality is something that is especially cynical; it thinks that what you really want to see is a bunch of sweetness after some gigantic, crass stuff. It's sort of the difference between Shrek and Shrek 2, if you will. But good sentimentality, the stuff that makes you actually feel a little gooey inside, the stuff that Capra and Spielberg at their best traffic in, that only works when the people behind these projects, to some degree, buy their own bullshit, believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that what they're peddling is really true. And Community has that rare talent to turn on a dime and remind us that, at the end of the day, these people really care for each other, and, better, the show really does deeply believe that they care for each other, that taking care of your friends (even if you have to lie to yourself) is sometimes better than pursuing your own ends.
The thing about loving a TV show, about going around the bend and really coming to feel strongly about it, is that it's like nothing else in the arts. The relationship you build with a particular show has time to grow and change, to get stronger or weaker, to feel like falling in love very quickly or like having your heart stomped on over and over again. What makes Community a show I love is that it doesn't forget that it needs to do episodes like "Cooperative Calligraphy," episodes where the plot is more of an excuse for the characters to hang out and toss jokes at each other or where the ultimate resolution (a monkey did it!) is almost incidental to the true point of the episode, which is about how the family you choose is sometimes more important than the one you were born into. Community needs these episodes to recharge the batteries, to make the world safe for zombie attacks and action movie parodies. But what makes this show different is that those episodes don't feel any less inspired than the big, "event" episodes. The show is just as engaged in telling us how Annie comes to realize the pen doesn't really matter as it is in telling us how Troy stops the zombie outbreak. And as long as that's true, then this is going to be one of the best shows on TV.
- So who did you think did it before you found out Annie's Boobs did? On a second viewing, the episode is constantly pointing toward the monkey being the culprit in some of the set dressing, but that's easy to miss the first time through. I was pretty convinced that Annie was going to find it behind her ear there at the end, but I was also certain they'd find the pen under Pierce's casts as well.
- A question: Does Abed directly calling attention to the fact that this is a bottle show tweak any of you the wrong way? It did at first for me, but as the show turned it into a thing and eventually brought Jeff into it, I came around. But I know some of you don't like the "Hey, this is a TV show!" stuff.
- The puppy parade going on in everyone's imaginations was another fairly classic bottle show trope: Everybody's stuck in a place they'd rather not be, kept from the thing they'd rather see.
- The screener I watched was pretty tiny, so I was basically unable to pick up any other details in Abed's notebook or in Annie's Boobs' lair. Did you guys catch anything interesting there?
- A nice inversion of a standard TV device: The show seems like it's going to put everyone in their underwear, but then spends far more time objectifying the guys than the girls. Who knew Chevy Chase was such a looker?
- Everybody had at least a few great laughs in this episode, but it was a particularly good episode for some of the characters who don't often get the big punchlines. I'm thinking of Britta, Shirley, and Pierce, in particular.
- And even though it was obviously a bottle show and designed to save money, I'm sure it didn't work out in the end. That puppy parade must have cost MILLIONS. The kitten alone was probably a cool $500K.
- "I still think that man is going to evolve into woman, not a dragon monster with three legs."
- "Accidents don't just happen over and over and over, OK? This isn't budget day care."
- "Sometimes, I think I lost something really important to me, and it turns out, I already ate it."
- "Did you take Annie's pen to make life more like Benny Hill?"
- "Do they find thoughts in our butts? I knew I should have read that book!"
- "With every passing moment, these puppies grow older and less deserving of our attention."
- "I'll make your ass linear. … I'll make your ass sense."
- "Side effects: Verbal dysphasia … and octopus loss."
- "Gweniffer, yeah, it's me. I can't make it. Well, tell your disappointment to suck it. I'm doing a bottle episode!"
- "Pierce, you don't have a bag?" "Giraffe."
- "Guess it's true what they say about the sync-up."
- "My oh my, Mike Ty … son."
- "People like you are the reason we took so long to get into Vietnam!"
- "Are they seriously marketing pregnancy tests to black women?"
- "I'm around Jeff's age! I have a uterus!"
- "What's going on and how can I help?"
- "It smells like a Waffle House sink!"
- "It's getting a little chilly outside, so the animal wranglers have asked that every student pick up a puppy and hold it, so they stay warm while the volunteers hand out tiny, puppy-sized hats."
- "OK. I've been saying that for hours."
- "So I see it a lot like the movie Paranormal Activity, only more boring and fancy."
- "Something you and your puppies could only dream of, you non-miraculous son of a bitch."
- "It used to be about the puppies, not the politics."