"Damn you, Vicki!"
The highlight of this year's Paleyfest Q&A (which rather annoyingly skirted around controversy - the moderator tried to ask them about Chevy leaving and it just led to more jokes rather than set the record straight) was when they brought out the "stars" of tonight's "Intro To Felt Surrogacy" - impressive human Muppet-style puppets of all of the show's characters, created by the same guys who worked on "Smile Time" from Angel. But they didn't say much about the episode itself, leading it a bit more shrouded in mystery than some of the others in this shortened season, where it seems like we know most of an episode before it airs. However, thanks to The Voice's Adam Levine writing one of the three songs we hear tonight, NBC actually had some decent promotion for a change, and the puppets and their usage started to become more clear. But would this be like the Pulp Fiction episode, where they fixated on something that wasn't really a big deal?
Luckily, no. While not a complete dedication to the idea like the Claymation episode in Season 2 (which this recalled more than once, including another Lost joke), the puppets are in just about every scene, either controlled by off camera professionals, or seen in the hands of our cast, minus Chevy as this was one of the episodes that was shot after he left the show. Luckily, the puppet angle makes his absence less noticeable - the actor was apparently coerced into recording his dialogue (including some singing!) for the puppet scenes, and his absence from the live action portions* is explained away as part of the plot. We know something bad has happened; the group is uncomfortable around each other because of something that occurred over the weekend (the entire cold open is them wordlessly glancing at each other in awkward silence), so it's explained that Pierce was so disturbed he couldn't even join them for their study session. It's flimsy, and honestly doesn't make much sense when we get the answers, but at least it's better than the usual TV show "Oh (absent actor who is off shooting a movie or something) said he was sick and thus can't join us for this week's adventure" excuse.
So why puppets? Realizing that they can't just talk about their issue as themselves, Dean comes to the rescue with crude sock versions that he has already made for his own reasons (nice bit of business on Gillian Jacobs' part - as a "therapist," she automatically knows what's up and begins distributing the puppets to the others, who are just confused), using puppet therapy to get them to open up. But being Community, rather than just have seven actors sitting around a table with their hands up a puppet's ass, for the most part it switches to a traditional puppet adventure, where the toys are much more elaborate, the people controlling them aren't seen and everyone reacts to them as if they're normal. And, of course, they break out into a few (surprisingly long, and catchy) songs, which further demonstrates the need for a complete soundtrack release for this show a la "Songs In The Key Of Springfield."
It doesn't take long to get to the point - the "thing" that happened was that they encountered a mountain man/former Greendale student (Jason Alexander, an old pro at this as he appeared with the actual Muppets on Muppets Tonight) who gave them hallucinogenic berries, which caused them to confess their deepest, darkest secrets to one another. And now they're uncomfortable because each member doesn't like what the others know about them - but the odd thing is that Shirley's is the first we discover and her secret is also the most upsetting. It almost seems like it should be an escalating thing, where Shirley feels awful and then feels better when the others spill their guts because hers isn't so bad in comparison, but I can't see how any of them would be disgusted or even really disappointed in most of the others' flaws. Britta has never voted! Troy accidentally started a large fire! Pierce didn't actually bang Eartha Kitt on an airplane! The only others that measure up are Annie (she let Cornwallis - in the first mention of his existence since his first/only appearance - rub her feet in exchange for the answers on a History test) and Jeff (who once promised the son of a girl he was seeing that he'd go to his baseball game, and blew them off), but even those don't quite compare to Shirley's reveal that she forget her kids in a grocery store OVERNIGHT because she was following someone she thought was Andre (with another woman). I mean, yeah, that's pretty gross of Annie, but she once went so crazy on pills during high school studying that she crashed through a window, and that's one of the first things they learned about her - I doubt this would really faze them much even as a standalone reveal (if anything it seems like they'd be pissed she didn't share the knowledge with them). And Jeff's a jerk who fears becoming like his dad - we/they know this. It's a great moment for Shirley (it's the best material Yvette Nicole Brown has had all season), but I feel they could have put a little more effort into the others if the goal was to make her feel better. I half expected her to be like "No, mine is still worse."
(That said, I love that Abed didn't offer one because he doesn't know to hide anything in the first place.)
Otherwise, I found this to be a really solid episode, making that three real winners in a row - it's a shame that the delay cost us any additional episodes should NBC have decided to order them (admittedly, if the ratings were identical to what they've been, probably not). They've found their groove and gotten more comfortable with both the characters and the episode plots, finding success with both high concept half hours like this, and "traditional" ones like last week's. I was really worried that this episode would be guilty of trying too hard, but apart from the funny but overly-meta joke about Duncan never being around (I prefer to think he's been there and they just haven't had an excuse to interact with him much - though I guess if he had been there, he would have led the therapy session instead of the Dean), there wasn't much pandering to the fanbase, and when they did pander, they were subtle about it. The girl who puts them in the hot air balloon might be just some random actress to a casual fan, but those in the know will recognize her as Sara Bareilles, the singer behind "Gravity", which was the song choice for the first 'shipper video ever made (or the first Dan Harmon saw, at any rate). Also, on a second view I realized that when Dean brings a tour group into the study room and quickly describes everyone, it ties into the secrets that are revealed later (Shirley - "mom", Britta - "activist", Abed - "Abed"), which is the sort of second viewing reward that this season has largely lacked.
It's also pretty funny; Garrett's quick cameo is amazing, and I like that Jeff is impressed that a Greendale graduate has become a transient mountain man - he had assumed worse for its alumni. And Donald Glover deserves some sort of special Emmy for his acting with his puppet - more than any of the others, he seems to have the best ability to treat the felt on his hand as a separate character during the live-action scenes. I also loved his idea of what being a free man was (the full text of which was the runner-up for the pull quote at the top), as well as his reaction to Britta and Jeff's back-and-forth dissing of the others' lovemaking skills. I didn't quite get Dean's Pinocchio costume, but he gave it his all (as always), and I like that he's getting increasingly comfortable with displaying his affection for Jeff (watch him when Joel McHale starts singing the third song).
In short - if they can pull off puppets, they should be able to deliver on these final four episodes (which, apart from a body-swapping one written by Jim Rash himself, don't sound to be all that high concept). It's a shame it'll probably be the FINAL final four episodes, given the ever-shrinking ratings, but who knows? NBC seems to be trying to push it lately (next week's will take advantage of their Zeebox technology, usually reserved for The Voice and such), so perhaps the ratings, low as they are, are still good enough to keep it on for another 13 episodes in the 2013-14 season and sweeten their syndication deal rather than try another new show (the total loss of Up All Night is another help). And these puppets probably weren't cheap - it'd be great to see them get some more use out of them.
*A bummer for any SNL fan who has seen the sketch where Chevy (poorly) subbed for the missing Muppets. Couldn't find a video, but here's a transcript.
"Damn you, Vicki!"