Film and TV

Community: The Bottle Episode

"Cooperative Calligraphy" is destined to rank with the best episodes of Community's entire run, as well as one of the funniest half-hours of television this year. It was just that good. The jokes came even faster than expected as the gang spent the episode walled off in the library, forcing the comedy to come from a constant rubbing of occasionally conflicting personalities and ideas. Yet aside from the pure joy of seeing this ensemble work together so tightly on their own -- and it was a total joy, Mozart the way it was meant to be heard -- the episode's glorious commitment to pushing the TV envelope is what set it apart and made it a thing of beauty.

The installment was what's known as a bottle episode, in which sets are limited and the cast is kept to just the main players (or fewer) in order to save money. Yet bottle episodes can also be aesthetically and structurally pleasing, as they offer creators a chance to work with their core characters and tell great stories built on years of relationship history. Community creator Dan Harmon gets infinitely more mileage out of this concept by making its existence a part of the story itself, referenced directly by Abed and Jeff. It became a brilliant way to keep the concept fresh and poke fun at the old practice of doing such episodes while also getting to pull one off flawlessly. More importantly, by calling attention to the term, Harmon and his team continued their tradition of pulling back the curtain and getting the audience to see TV in a way they might not have before. The term "bottle episode" is one of those that's typically tossed around only by comedy and television nerds, but by working to popularize the trope, Harmon is equipping his viewers to have a greater understanding and appreciation of what's going on. That's the first step to wanting something better and loving it when you find it. God bless the man for that.

The inciting incident was a missing pen: Annie's pen disappeared during the group's study time, and she didn't want anyone to leave until they'd coughed it up, which meant the group had to miss the puppy parade in the quad. Abed's disgust and resignation at finding himself in a bottle episode was wonderful not just because of his ability to chart the parallels between his life and sitcoms but because he knew that a bottle episode would require the kind of emotional honesty he's had so much trouble mastering. He's always on the outside of the group, even when he's carrying them, and his sarcastic confession of same was moving in its way: "For a while, I thought I'd have to suffer through a puppy parade, but I much prefer being entombed alive in a mausoleum of feelings I can neither understand nor reciprocate."

The search for the missing pen led to an increasingly silly series of confrontations, from purse- and bag-searching (which sparked a diatribe on civil liberties from Britta that everyone else hilariously mocked) to a complete strip-search. The escalating revelations were nicely played, too: Shirley's pregnancy test led to her confessing that she'd recently hooked up with her skeezy ex over Labor Day, but the twist that she'd been ovulating on Halloween set up a perfect look of stunned recognition on Troy's face as he remembered the voicemail he'd gotten from Chang about hooking up with Shirley during the zombie outbreak. (That was kind of an amazing sentence to type.) I can't see Shirley having Chang's baby, but I can see a pregnancy scare leading to a revelation about their dalliance. Ditto Britta's comment about Jeff's underwear, which was meant to be a jab but whose familiarity made Abed wonder if they'd been seeing each other.

Yet as with the best bottle episodes, the point was that this group is the show's reason for being, and these characters fulfill a role in each other's lives that nothing else can. Jeff's pronouncement that a ghost really took the pen was his way of letting them re-bond and get back to their old chemistry. They all know it's a lie, but a quirky and kind one that will allow them to regain their mutual trust and love. A perfect ending to a perfect episode.

Scattered thoughts:

• This was the first episode credited to writer Megan Ganz, which makes me excited to see what she comes up with next. Amazing jokes.

• "Side effects: verbal dysphasia and octopus laws." Absolutely loved Pierce reading the label of his pain pills. I'd almost forgotten how he got hurt before remembering his run-in with the trampoline last week.

• "Tell your disappointment to suck it, I'm doing a bottle episode!" It's always fun when Jeff plays along with Abed's habit of identifying life situations by their sitcom counterparts.

• "Razzle pazazzle!"

• The "You Know, Girl!" pregnancy test aimed at black women was one of the best visual gags in ages.

• I really loved Abed's displeasure with the bottle episode format, as if he was criticizing Harmon et al. for even doing one. It's a way for the show to send up a decades-old practice while also engaging in it. Could this series have existed before now?

• I loved the callback to Annie's Boobs, not just with Troy's mentioning it but with the monkey's reappearance as the pen thief. He (she?) is apparently living in the vent system with loads of items that could alternately be viewed as NBC merchandise, show props, or in-universe personal objects. Mind: blown.

• Troy apparently only ever has a back pillow in his backpack. I echo Jeff's assessment: "Okay, you just became my hero."

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Daniel Carlson
Contact: Daniel Carlson