Well, that was excellent. Like really, really excellent, the kind of excellence that can only be measured by comparing it to other really, really excellent episodes of Community. The “best since…” game is a tricky one to play, and I’m about as skilled at it as Annie is at falling for someone real on Facebook, but “Cooperative Polygraphy” lived up to the critical hype: it may have been the show’s best episode since “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
Unlike “Remedial,” though, “Polygraphy” takes place entirely inside the study room, minus the tag. The gang has returned from Pierce’s funeral, wearing goofy ceremonial outfits. Other lesser shows, or maybe even season four of Community, would keep the cast in the costumes for the entire time, a visual gag that gets less and less funny the longer it’s on screen. The same is true of Chang: he’s best in small doses. Thankfully, both come and go quickly: the blue hats disappear without notice and Chang gets in a few great lines then goes away, probably to masturbate.
The whole episode zips by like this. No scene goes on for too long, and each cast member gets their chance to shine, including the sad truth behind Abed and Troy’s handshake and Shirley and Annie’s anti-Semitic argument. And hey, Boyd Crowder! Walton Goggins is excellent as Mr. Stone, a deadpan, no-nonsense guy who doesn’t come alive until the end, when everyone else is focused on death and loss. Speaking of: it’s a cruel joke that Pierce’s best episode in forever comes after he goes to the Great Wipes Factory in the Sky. He’s isn’t treated as a hero-in-death or a villain-in-life; he’s the same ol’ Pierce, a racist kook who plays twisted mind games, but usually means well.
That’s where the true greatness of “Cooperative Polygraphy” lies. Beneath all the suppressed secrets that Pierce makes his friends reveal is genuine affection, undercut with just the right amount of humor. Annie doesn’t overcharge Troy and Abed because she wants more money; she does it for their own good. And sure, Britta smoked pot in the parking lot of Shirley’s church, but at least she was there. Even in death, Pierce is there, too, figuratively if not literally, especially in Troy’s life. He gives him something to accomplish…and millions of dollars. That helps.
Community can get away with a plot-lite episode like “Cooperative Polygraphy,” which shares its DNA with “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” because of how much time the writers have spent fleshing out the characters. So it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the loss of two of them. But I’m not worried: in Dan Harmon we trust. Also, semen.