TV Review: COMMUNITY 5.04 “Cooperative Polygraphy”

Greendale says goodbye to an old frenemy.

"At least with a bris there's an element of suspense!"

Whenever I'm asked to name my favorite episode of Community, I usually answer "Cooperative Calligraphy", AKA the one where Annie is missing a pen. Since the show is at its best when it has the entire group bouncing off of each other, and since that tends to happen mainly at the study table, devoting an entire episode to that one wonderful set is usually a recipe for gold (I'm also quite fond of "Competitive Ecology" from S3, which was mostly set around the table, though that one tends to be a bit polarizing). So the fact that the (intentionally?) similarly titled "Cooperative Polygraphy" is set entirely in the study room (and seemingly in real time) definitely cushioned the blow of the episode's plot: the aftermath of Pierce's funeral.

As I've said numerous times, Chevy Chase was/is my childhood hero, and was a huge reason that I started watching Community in the first place. That it gave him something funny to do for the first time in over a decade (would be more like 20 years if not for his bit part in Dirty Work) made me fall in love with the show right off the bat, and it didn't take long for me to realize that I'd enjoy it even without him. But obviously I never thought it'd actually come to that. Alas, as we all know now, Chase's much publicized issues with the show (mostly the long hours, but also the writers' insistence on making his character increasingly racist*) eventually led to him being dismissed from it near the end of the previous season. And since Dan Harmon had to jump through hoops** to get the studio to agree to shoot his quick holo-cameo in this season's premiere (on a different set, without the other actors present), it's pretty likely that Pierce is not faking his death. Since it'd be too much of a hassle to get him to shoot any more cameos, it's a good way of keeping us from getting our hopes up for more appearances, plus it gave Harmon and his writing staff an opportunity to present the others with a situation they hadn't really dealt with before: death (though it's interesting that the only other two deaths on the show were Pierce's parents, one of whom was never even seen).

And yes, the show explains how he died, though you'll have to wait until the tag to find out how (and no, it doesn't make any real sense, but it's hilarious all the same). It's the day of Pierce's funeral, and the group has gathered around the study table to mourn the loss of their friend when they are interrupted by Mr. Stone (Walton Goggins), a lawyer for the Hawthorne estate who demands that the group submit to a polygraph to ensure none of them were directly responsible for Pierce's death. Failure to comply automatically waives their right to any "bequeathments" he may have left them, and so they play along, much to their chagrin when they discover that even in death, Pierce had a way of turning the group against each other. Secrets are revealed (including another creepy one about Abed, as was the case with "Calligraphy"), arguments are had, and eventually Jeff has an epiphany that results in them agreeing to one final round of questioning, at which point you might want to keep a hanky nearby.

OK I'm exaggerating a bit on that last part. Pierce's ultimate goodbyes to each of his friends isn't exactly "For your consideration" material, and the reveal of each characters' "inheritance" is spiked with a running gag that I wouldn't dare spoil here, keeping it from being too sad. But hearing Pierce's true feelings about each of the others (particularly Britta and Shirley) was quite touching, and it is his gift to Troy that sets up the character's eventual departure (next week's episode, by the way - and you WILL cry at that one). It's shockingly moving, especially when the others all rush to keep Troy from agreeing to the terms (Jeff suggests a legal maneuver, Annie pleads with Abed to stop him, etc), and almost makes me wish that they HAD roped Chevy in to say the words himself (everything Stone says was written by Pierce), like in Ghost when you see Swayze doing the stuff Whoopi's character is actually doing. The cause of death may be somewhat embarrassing, but otherwise it's one of the finest sendoffs for a major character that I've seen on a sitcom in quite a while.

That this poignant moment comes at the tail end of what is, for my money, the funniest episode of the year thus far (and, goes without saying, funnier than last year too, making it, get the blurb police ready: "the funniest episode in years!") is just icing on the cake. I've complained before that Britta seems to be getting the short end of the stick this season (her "owl" line being the only real highlight), but they're finally getting her right again - in addition to the line at the top, she's got 2-3 other laugh out loud moments, plus (again) one of the sweeter moments during the "bequeathing". Troy also has his fair share of great moments ("That's easy for you to say!"), and the running gag of the lie detector technician announcing whether or not they are lying never gets old - if anything it gets even funnier as the episode goes ("We all KNOW it's a lie, you judgmental bitch!"). And while Goggins has to play the straight man throughout the episode (though I chuckled that he mispronounces "Abed" the same way Pierce does), he gets to cut loose in the hilarious tag, which in turn is the best of the season. And Chang once again gets an A+ laugh, further helping us forget how useless the character has been in the past two seasons.

It's remarkable to me at how well they've picked up where Harmon left off. Every season has a lot of writer turnover, so there's usually some adjusting and more than a couple of "pod people" moments where the characters seem out of place. But there's been almost none of that this season, and that's with an almost entirely new staff (if my memory serves, only four of them are veterans - two of which are Harmon and Chris McKenna, who also was MIA last season). Indeed, this episode is attributed to a newcomer (Alex Rubens, formerly of Key & Peele), which bodes well for the rest of the season - if the new guys can get it this "right" and they're 4-4 to start the season off, then there's almost nothing to worry about for the nine to come - even with Glover's imminent exit. But even if they're all awful, the season would be elevated by this episode alone - "Cooperative Polygraphy" will be one of the ones Community fans quote for a long time.

*Often unmentioned in the press, since it's the truth and thus not as interesting, is that Chevy's use of the "n-word" on set was out of frustration about the OTHER racist shit he had to say, in the "'Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" episode which was also one of S4's low points. It was, more or less, "What's next, having to say "n----r?". Still not acceptable, but it's ironic that he was vilified during an act of actually OPPOSING the racist elements in the show.

**To further knock the press, it's funny how none of the sites who ran with "Chevy had Dan fired!" type stories bothered to admit to making that up to make more attractive headlines. Seems to me if Dan hated Chevy so much he wouldn't bother with the hassle of having him come back during his own first episode back. Likewise, if Chevy hated HIM so much, he certainly wouldn't have agreed to do him the favor and come back to the show he supposedly quit.