‘Community’ – ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’: The pen is mightier than the study group?

Senior Television Writer
11.11.10 131 Comments


A review of tonight’s terrific “Community” coming up just as soon as I lick a puppy…

It’s about time.

Look: I’m a pop culture omnivore. I relate to Abed more than almost any fictional character ever. I’m roughly the same age as Dan Harmon, love the same movies, get most of the references he drops, etc. I absolutely, 100 percent love the way “Community” both celebrates the last 30 years of popular culture and uses it to comment on the lives of the members of the study group.

But there comes a point where the referencing becomes a drug, where a show disappears down a rabbit hole where it’s doing nothing but commenting on other shows and movies, where it essentially becomes a live-action “Family Guy.” (Or like “30 Rock” last season.) I’m not saying “Community” got to that place this fall. I liked a lot about the “Apollo 13” episode, and I loved the zombie episode. I enjoyed the use of the “Robocop” HUD displays last week to convey how Abed sees the world, etc.

But it wasn’t until I watched “Cooperative Calligraphy” that I quite realized how much I missed the flip side of “Community” – the part of the show that’s about how these seven people relate to each other, rather than them re-enacting moments from my favorite movies while Abed comments on them. And I’m glad we got back to that kind of humor.

“Cooperative Calligraphy” had one running meta-joke(*) with Abed discussing his dislike of bottle episodes (episodes shot on either a single set, or only on pre-existing sets, or in any other way that makes them incredibly cheap to make up for expenses spent elsewhere, like on zombie hordes), and a couple of other stray lines from him (“Winger speech to bring it home”). Mostly, though, it was using the device Abed complained about in order to focus on the core cast and concept – to address many of the lingering issues the group as a whole has with each member, and also to demonstrate how much these people have come to mean to each other in only a year.

(*) And speaking of which, some comments in recent reviews suggest that not everyone understands the difference between meta humor and reference humor. Meta is when a character within a story is commenting on the story itself, often as if they’re aware they’re a fictional character. Most meta humor is also reference humor, but all reference humor is not meta humor. The vast majority of the zombie episode was not meta. The cat gag was slightly meta (though it was more the show commenting on the jumping cat trope rather than the characters doing it), and Abed saying he wanted Troy to be the first black guy to make it to the end was definitely meta, but the rest of the episode was just a zombie attack on Greendale. You can complain about one kind of humor, or the other, or both, but just make sure you know which one you’re complaining about.

The missing pen itself was unimportant, except as a MacGuffin(**), a device to cause conflict. And, boy, did it, leading to an episode where everyone’s conflicts and hang-ups were laid as bare as their skin during the scene where everyone got into their undies.(***)

(**) And it’s a mark of the episode’s attempt to pull back on the meta and tell character stories that Abed wasn’t also commenting on the MacGuffin-like quality of the pen.

(***) After the oil wrestling episode, some people suggested the show was going out of its way to fetishize Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs, so it was actually something of a relief that we only got to see the guys come out from behind the table. (I’m also sure that was a disappointment to some, but also a delight to others. Hooray for different rules of attraction!)

The study group exists as a cosmic accident. Jeff needed a line to get Britta alone, Britta told Abed, these other four people happened to come along, and here we are. And even now, on paper it doesn’t make sense that they’d still be together. They fulfilled their Spanish requirement, Pierce offends everyone, Jeff has scorched the earth at different times with Britta and Annie (and vice versa), Shirley feels alone as the group’s only Christian, etc., etc. But they are a group now. This connection matters to them – not just to the pathetic and lonely Pierce, but to Jeff – and so of course they would indulge Annie’s concern about her missing pens (albeit reluctantly at first), and of course they would get too much into each other’s business, and of course they would all get upset when they had passed the point where anyone who had stolen the pen without returning it would be a total inconsiderate bastard who didn’t belong there. Because if one of them doesn’t belong – even Pierce – then do any of them? And what are they without each other?

And what I thought was so great about the episode was just how funny it was, even as it was exposing different character’s vulnerabilities (Abed’s difficulty understanding other people’s emotions) or flaws (Britta’s self-righteousness, Shirley’s hypocrisy). There were a lot of really great small dramatic moments (I thought Yvette Nicole Brown and Gillian Jacobs were terrific as Shirley and Britta argued about Christian morals, and Joel McHale sold the hell out of the ghost speech), but there were also a lot of terrific jokes wedged in with all the pain and anxiety, many of them references not to other shows, but to this one. Britta’s “1984” rant somehow brought us back to Troy’s obesssion with “butt stuff,” while Troy had a priceless silent response to realizing that Shirley might be pregnant with Chang’s baby. Abed’s charting of the women’s cycles was from the “Robocop” display last week (which means, based on some of the other HUD tidbits, we should be getting a Troy’s birthday episode next week, and a visit from Abed’s mom around Christmas). Shirley’s ongoing resentment of the two skinny white chicks played out with her calling them “anorexic Jezebels.” And, of course, the pen itself turned out to be stolen not by a ghost, but by something that might as well be: Annie’s Boobs, the monkey Troy bought back in season one’s “Goodfellas” parody.

The more I’ve thought about this one since I watched it yesterday, the more satisfying I’ve found it. I don’t ever ever ever want the show to abandon the pop culture stuff. But an episode like this shows that it’s not crutch, without which the show couldn’t stand, but just one of many tools the writers have available.

Nor, for that matter, would I want them doing a show like this each week. What made “Cooperative Calligraphy” work is that we had a year-plus to build up to it, and also that it was such a departure from what the show usually does. If the show starts locking the gang in the study room every few weeks, then you’ll start hearing complaints similar to those of fans who want the show to stop trying to recreate the magic of the paintball episode.

The flavor of “Community” you like best may not be exactly the same as mine, or the other readers, but I’d like to think that most of you were satisfied with tonight – that, in fact, the only person who will automatically hate it is Dan Harmon’s Twitter nemesis Gwynnifer, whose name was used as the hook-up Jeff abandoned in order to do the bottle episode.

What did everybody else think?

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