“Cooperative Calligraphy” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, November 11, 2010
This is my favorite episode of Community. That’s right, motherfuckers — my favorite episode of Community is the bottle episode. Singe your brows on that take. i should just mic-drop here and let the comments roll in, but i feel everyone’s entitled to an explanation in this case.
So: favorite Community episode. On the one hand, this is a completely arbitrary distinction. There are at least a dozen other episodes i love just as much as this one. Also, i find the whole idea of having a singular “favorite episode” to be sort of similar to having “favorite children”. Comparing individual episodes like that, especially for a show that went so far out of its way to break format as often as possible, just doesn’t make any kind of rational sense. i’ll grant that there may be episodes funnier than this one1, or more impressive, certainly there are some that are more iconic. Some might be more tightly structured, others might be built around stronger concepts.
But this one remains my favorite episode of Community for one simple reason: character. Rich, gooey, delicious character that you can just bathe in for days — that’s the kind of stuff that i live for. Every reaction, however hysterical, feels natural. Every escalation, however absurd, feels almost inevitable. Every development in this episode, from the inciting incident to its resolution, springs from a place of pure character. There’s not a single line you could take from one character here and give to another, without sacrificing some of its impact. Writer Megan Ganz knows these characters inside and out, and the actors inhabit them so thoroughly that for 22 minutes they cease to exist anywhere except in this exact space.
And here’s an episode that truly illustrates the importance of that space — Group Study Room F. A character in its own right, one might say. This inner sanctum where so many of the show’s best scenes take place, where the group’s journey began, where you are almost guaranteed a good scene just by setting everyone down and letting things play out. The episode never leaves this location for a moment2, which is par for the course for bottle episodes, but on a show as ambitious as Community it serves as incontrovertible proof of the fact that the foundations of its comedy are absolutely rock solid. No matter how crazy things get, they can always keep it grounded in its setting and ensemble. The study room itself even goes through its own arc, starting out normal and growing more symbolically sinister over time as characters turn on each other and find their attempts to leave thwarted, until it’s completely trashed and deserted except for the presence of a creepy little monkey.
Bottle episodes are by their nature claustrophobia-inducing, but “Cooperative Calligraphy” approaches its setting the way a live theater production would, incorporating various props and exploiting the audience’s familiarity with its spatial geography. We’ve grown so used to seeing the cast just sitting around in their normal configurations during these kinds of scenes that it becomes jarring to see them wandering around, switching places, and interacting with parts of the room that have only ever sat in the background, unremarked upon. The effect is confrontational, continually pushing the characters and their situations beyond any zone of comfort and uncovering new insights in the process. Director Joe Russo defty balances this disruption of time and place with a smattering of the kind of no-going-back story beats that exemplify the elite tier of Community’s concept episodes.
A common complaint about bottle episodes is that they can feel like filler, since they are inherently limited in how much they can advance the overarching story3. But despite being such a character-driven piece, this episode hardly skimps on the serialized plot intrigue, from Shirley’s pregnancy and Pierce’s pill addiction to confirmation that Abed has been tracking the women’s menstrual cycles4. This is how you build from the innocuous setup of Annie’s missing pen to every member of the study group stripped to their underwear, their trust in each other strained to its breaking point, as they languish in a room strewn with debris, the Dean’s puppy parade announcements underlining their frustration.
And then you have the brilliance of the resolution, which could come across as too pat or convenient if not executed 100% perfectly. But of course, since this episode refuses to put forth even a single false step, it winds up being the only possible way this story could satisfyingly resolve. What impresses me the most is that it manages to make Annie the flashpoint of the group’s conflict without casting her as the villain of this story, the way she was in “English As A Second Language”. The stakes are clearly drawn, and the reality that “it’s a pen” is impossible to reconcile with the equally true fact that “it’s a principle”. So the group does something they can only do together, which is agree to continue thinking the best of each other despite now having every reason in the world not to5.
Honestly, i can’t even believe an episode this great exists. i know that technically there was a story-breaking session, somebody wrote a script, the actors rehearsed their parts, they shot a bunch of takes of each scene, then edited the best of them together and added music and sound effects. Obviously, all of that had to have happened. But watching it unfold, how effortlessly it plays out, how every line is the funniest and most appropros version of itself, each emotional beat being both fully earned and delightfully unexpected, feels more like watching the world’s most spectacular magic trick than something as ordinary as “a half-hour episode of television”. And although many episodes come close, none of them inspire the same sense of awe and wonder whenever i watch them. And maybe the most unbelievable part of all of this? The next three episodes are almost just as good.
⁃ End tag: Highlights from the Puppy Parade, including an Autumn Colors float, a fancy Top And Tails decoration, and one that feels a little preachy
⁃ Since this is a group episode, it naturally gives every cast member a chance to shine, but what i’m most struck by is how well uses Jeff’s leadership role. Each turning point of the story following Annie’s epic scream is driven by him, from lockdown to strip search and the group’s eventual reconcilation. They even give him another chance to defer to Troy, showcasing his growth in becoming more willing to cede the spotlight when the moment calls for it
⁃ Much has been made of the fact that even though everyone takes their clothes off, the camera focuses more on the men’s bodies than the women’s. i don’t know if this means they are more “objectified” per se, but it is refreshing that they manage to avoid making this feel too gratuitous
⁃ Along with the pile of purple pens, the monkey’s stash of stolen items in the vents contains all kinds of Greendale ephemera fron previous episodes, including a Human Being doll, a “WWBJD” bracelet, and a Troy And Abed In The Morning mug. i would’ve been fine if they never returned to the vents again, but it is nice for the characters to get closure in “Paradigms Of Human Memory”6
⁃ What’s your favorite Community episode? Now’s as good a time as any to pick one. Not sure if i remembered to mention it, but this one’s mine. Sorry for making the Quotes section so long, but i swear i did my best to narrow them down
BRITTA: i still think that man is going to evolve into woman, not a dragon monster with three legs
TROY: i am in. i wanna see if those wiener dogs are born that way, or if they start off normal and then get wiener
ANNIE: Not “accidentally”. Accidents don’t just happen over and over and over again, okay? This isn’t budget daycare
TROY: Sometimes i think i lost something really important to me, and it turns out i already ate it
PIERCE: Hey, meatball. Did you steal Annie’s pen to make life more like Benny Hill, or whatever you do?
BRITTA: Oh, it all starts with a quick look-see into someone’s bag. And then it’s a brisk peek-a-roonie at our phone records, and before you can say 1984, the Thought Police are forcey-worcing you to bend and spread!
TROY: Do they find thoughts in our butts? i knew i should’ve read that book!
BRITTA: Yeah, gross. Welcome to the gross business of martial law. Welcome to what used to be individuality seized and disintegrated by cowardly groupthink. Welcome, my friends, welcome to the machine!
DEAN (over PA): Better come quick. With every passing moment, these puppies grow older, and less deserving of our attention
TROY: Uh, have you ever gone to a puppy parade halfway through, Britta? (scoffs) It is pointless
SHIRLEY: i’ll make your ass linear
SHIRLEY: i’ll make your ass sense
PIERCE: Side effects: verbal dysphagia… and octopus loss. i don’t see anything on this squirrel about memory, Troy
JEFF (on the phone): Gwynnifer? Yeah, it’s me. i can’t make it. Well, tell your disappointment to suck it. i’m doing a bottle episode!
BRITTA: Oh, i’ll field that. Because if nobody else has this pen, it means at some point you realized you had it, and were too embarrassed to say, and we get to kill you
ABED: Okay, if i could just take some time to share a few words of sarcasm with whoever it is that took this pen: i wanna say thank you for doing this to me. For a while i thought i’d have to suffer through a Puppy Parade, but i much prefer being entombed alive in a masoleum of feelings i can neither understand nor reciprocate. So whoever you are, can i get you anything? Ice cream, best friend medal, anything? Mm-mm? Okay, sarcasm over. You’re last up, Shirley. Dump your comedically huge bag and end this
PIERCE: People like you are the reason we took so long to get into Vietnam!
BRITTA: This Gwynnifer must be real special. Don’t you usually wear the stripey turquoise Beetlejuice numbers?
TROY: It smells like a Waffle House sink!
JEFF: If we have to choose between turning on each other, or pinning it on some spectre with unfinished pen-related business — i’m sorry, but my money’s on ghosts