Community - Season 4

When I heard that Community was doing a puppet episode, it did not seem like it was going to be like other theme episodes, i.e., a full-on pastiche of a particular film, or genre, or trope.  It seemed like they were just doing it for the hell of it.  In the past, I would have been disappointed by just-for-the-hell-of-it reasoning, but at this point, I am confident enough in the cast and the show’s structure that I think any wild concept on Community will at least be interesting.  But it turned out that the promotion had actually been a little secretive, and this episode was actually a full-on homage of the greatest puppet act of all time, the Muppets.  But even though “Felt Surrogacy” was just as committed as past homage episodes, it was right to think of it as different than those past iterations.  The Muppets and Community do share a similar tone: positive, but with a melancholic streak.  But seeing Community go Muppets-style, it’s striking just how different they really are.  The Muppets are so much more earnest.  Community is earnest as well, but the Muppets might be the most earnest group of entertainers ever.  The Muppets are referential, and of course Community is, too, but the Muppets’ references are more oblique, and more decorative as opposed to integral to the plot.

Just as the Community creative team committed to the Muppet style, so too were the Greendale Seven attempting to break out of their routine.  With this whole season assuming the theme of history, it has been fascinating to see the gang confront their own personal history.  The study group bingo was a clever method for demonstrating how well these people know each other and commenting on how TV shows in general have a tendency to fall into easy patterns in their later seasons.  So, in the spirit of mixing up their routine, and in the spirit of the Muppets, the gang’s balloon adventure captured several hallmarks of Muppet adventures.  There was the hyped-up celebrity appearance (Jason Alexander) that turned out to be not much more than a cameo.  There was the other celebrity appearance that we didn’t know we needed – Sara Bareilles, setting the right musical tone.  And there was the joke – where’s Professor Duncan been? – snuck into the most high-pressure of moments.  And, of course, the songs – bouncy, catchy, describing everything that’s going on with a bounding joy.  They were almost transcendent (“could we fly to heaven?”).  When too much cultural referencing threatened to sneak in – Abed noting the similarities to Lost – it was promptly shot down.

The best Community episodes are marked by risk-taking.  The Muppet homage was certainly a risk, but any homage is basically expected of Community at this point.  But there are the other classic risks beyond the homages – the big emotional revelations.  The best secrets to reveal are those that are perfectly in line with who the characters are but that still have the power to change everything.  Shirley’s lingering doubts about herself as a mother and a wife and Jeff’s regret about the one that got away tied up with his daddy issues both had this impact.  Some of the other confessions were softer, though amusing.  Troy starting the Greendale fire of 2003 was a little shocking, but he would have only been 13 or 14 and I imagine it might not have been as much his fault as he believes.  Britta only ever voting for The Voice more or less confirmed what people already think of her.  Abed has no secrets, but it was satisfying to hear him confirm that he mirrors the expressions of those around him.  [EDIT: I forgot to initially include the end of this paragraph when initially posting.]  On the subject of revelations, Britta and Jeff teasing each other about their lovemaking behavior was also chuckle-worthy, and I always appreciate it when characters are that open when talking about sex.  The reactions of Annie’s intrigue, Shirley’s disgust, and Troy’s confirmation were also worthwhile.

Risk is the best word for Annie’s confession, which was a bit problematic.  “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” is the first episode getting an A from me in which I had a significant problem with something.  It is not that I thought that past A-caliber  episodes were perfect; there may have been a few imperfections, but harping on them would have been nitpicking.  Harping on Annie’s confession about letting Professor Cornwallis rub her feet to give her answers to a test is not nitpicking.  Like a good secret, it was shocking, but unlike a good secret, it did not sound like the person who was revealing it.  There were parts of Annie to that confession, but overall it did not feel right.  She does have a history of being overwhelmed by school that did lead to desperate measures (an Adderall addiction).  And she has used her budding sexuality to her advantage before, but for cheating on a test?  Maybe if it had been set up in some way earlier in the season, it might have been more palatable.  But I always prefer when my favorite shows err on the side of ambition and risk-taking.  Making Annie go this far is a huge risk.  I am interested to see what it leads to, and I am hoping that it can be resolved in an intriguing fashion.  But because it is presently problematic, I will give this episode a conditional A, a sort of A-/A.

One last thing: the show has been struggling with a shrunken budget this season.  The opening shot of the second act right after the first commercial break of the balloon in flight made me wonder if the budget was higher for this episode.  It was the most beautiful shot of Season 4 thus far.