If you have not seen this episode yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, don’t continue reading.
After Pierce’s funeral, an employee of his arrives and tells the group that Pierce’s last wish was for the study group to undergo a lie detector test to prove if any of them murdered him. As the test escalates, the group reveals more and more about themselves and end up at each other’s throats. They realize that they’re no better off without Pierce and no better with him, but Pierce’s final words in his will dispense kind remarks, respect and bequeathments to everyone. In particular, Troy gets Pierce’s remaining shares of Hawthorne Wipes–$14.3 million–but only if he sales around on his ship, the Childish Tycoon. Troy takes him up on the offer.
On any list of the best Community episodes of all time, three will no doubt be on it: “Cooperative Calligraphy”, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, and “Remedial Chaos Theory”. No matter who’s making the list, these will be on it–maybe not in the same order or all right at the top, but they’ll be there. They’re all cited as the smartest, funniest and most representative episodes of the show, even though they were some of the cheapest to produce and barely leave the one room or set they take place in. They are all episodes driven by the characters talking to each other under different circumstances. They’re mundane things–looking for a pen, playing D&D, and just generally hanging out (though played out through different timelines.) But these episodes are far less boring than even the most dense of episodes, and throw out rapid-fire jokes and quotable comments at insane speeds.
More importantly, they succeed best in providing ample insight into the characters as human beings. “Cooperative Calligraphy” exposed everyone quite literally and brought them together as a family, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” showed both Jeff and Pierce at their individual best and worst, and “Remedial Chaos Theory” put a spotlight on everyone’s individual issues (Jeff and Annie’s connection, Pierce’s anger at Troy, Shirley’s Baking, etc.) These are defining episodes not just because they’re hysterical–and they absolutely are–but because they sell these characters as actual people rather than sitcom stereotypes and joke machines.
And if it’s not obvious, every last bit of this applies to “Cooperative Polygraphy”, which even bares a similar name to its bottle show predecessor in season 2. It’s the characters talking, with barely any physical or sight gags. It’s people being people, yelling and laughing and crying together. It’s both entertaining and enlightening, and is exactly the kind of Community episode that hooked people in during its golden age in season 2. There’s been a lot of talk about a “return to form” for the show with Dan Harmon’s comeback, but it’s this week that truly feels like the show as it once was in its glory days.
The major crux season 4’s delightful “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” is reused, where the characters reveal secrets about themselves, but it’s done in a much more Community-esque way. While that fun puppet episode threw out some dark secrets just to prove that they’re all still okay and in it together, “Cooperative Polygraphy” presents the secrets as ones that harm everyone around them. The group can be absolutely awful to each other, and it’s important to be able to admit that in a relationship as close as these people have become. And to be honest, these are all a lot more entertaining than the ones in the former, with secrets ranging from mundane (using Jeff’s Netflix account, Troy stealing the handshake from YouTube) to downright frightening (Abed having GPS trackers on everyone…including Pierce’s body.) Things escalate while showcasing some great character moments, like Abed’s never-before-seen rage about messing with his brain, or Britta’s declaration that “You told me a hawk stole them!” and how it led her to believe in a slightly more magical world. It’s a roller coaster of an episode, but nothing makes any character seem particularly worse than another at any given time. If anything, like Jeff says, they’re all equally bad and flawed. It’s just a matter of, as usual, accepting the flaws and striving to be better in the future.
With Pierce’s death thrown in as a shocker last week, this episode is tasked with justifying that risky reveal, and it absolutely does. This might be the best Pierce-centric episode of the show, even without Chevy Chase appearing. Pierce threatens to break the group apart in the most manipulative ways, but instead ends up revealing himself as the glue that keeps them all together and hopeful of their own abilities to become good people. It hearkens heavily back to the season 2 staple, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, even tying up the loose end with Annie and the tiara. That episode featured Pierce exposing secrets to test the group’s stability and loyalty, and its final lesson is that they’ll still forgive Pierce because he’s grown to be part of their family. This episode plays the same beats with Pierce’s machinations threatening to tear the group apart, but he did truly craft this as his absolute, final test. If/when they passed, he’d deliver some of the best, most earnest bits of wisdom and insight he ever has. It’s still packed with insults and complete misjudgements about the group, but we know post-mortem that he did, honestly, love and respect them as his peers, even if he didn’t always understand or even particularly like them. Pierce regaining his bits of wisdom from season 1 was one of the best things season 4 did, so it’s wonderful that both his final appearance and final bow exude that quality.
And then the episode throws another curve ball–well, maybe not a curve ball per se, since pretty much everyone knows of Donald Glover’s impending exit. It’s easy to forget that, for a short time, Pierce and Troy had a unique bond, with Troy living in Pierce’s mansion after the end of season 1 all the way until a few episodes into season 3. As such, Troy was, in a way, the surrogate son that Jeff rejected becoming; while Jeff worked hard to make sure he never turned into Pierce, Troy’s naivete left him open to Pierce’s sage wisdom the few times it came out. Troy sailing around the world is still an appropriately weird development, but fits in well considering his long progression to “being a man” has involved a pillow/blanket fort war, a cult-like A/C repair school, and a body-swap. Troy’s character arc has always been a bit heavy-handed, and it’s not any less here with Pierce’s “heart of a hero” comment. But it has been surprisingly effective as one of the core threads of the series, particularly given his modest beginnings as a typical jock character. Troy became one of the more aimless characters outside of his need to be a man, with most of his stories reliant on his relationships with Abed or Britta. “Repilot” brought this aimlessness to light, as Jeff noted Troy’s loss of identity over the last few years. And while that doesn’t look positively on his character’s progression in the superficial sense, it perfectly sets the stage for him to go off on his own crazy, weird adventure. It wasn’t exactly expected, but it’s a strangely perfect way to send off a character who never quite came into his own as an individual.
Ultimately, what brings this entire episode to its high point is how well the laughs are interlaced with the serious bits. This could have easily been a schmaltzy episode (which it definitely would have been last season.) But its humor is dark without feeling offensive or mean-spirited, and even the sappiest moments are undercut with a punchline. As the story escalates, it’s constantly punctuated by the inspired polygrah reader’s commentary throughout. Troy’s revelatory moment, for example, has the brilliant “millions of dollars” line, made only better by Glover’s stellar delivery. Nothing is taken too seriously, really, and yet the first moment we hear Pierce’s will speak kind words of Britta still strikes a emotional chord. We already love these characters, and this episode depends on that, because even the most heartwarming parts still have Pierce’s semen overlaying them. It’s a fantastic improvement on season 4’s sappiness and lack of laughs, and it’s mostly because it trusts us to understand how meaningful it is to the characters while laying on the jokes.
That’s what makes Community such a perfect little show when it succeeds: that it can be both impossibly funny, impossibly dark and impossibly heartwarming at the same time, without any of it feeling false. It’s rare for it to hit the mark so perfectly, but when it does, we get an episode like “Cooperative Polygraphy”. As the characters say, the group is no better without Pierce, nor are they no better than him, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t decent enough to deserve happiness. It’s an appropriately dark message for a dark season, but it’s strangely encouraging. We’re left with the obligatory sperm that ultimately led to Pierce’s death, it’s sperm which also represents the wide open future we have ahead of us. Yeah, this is Community at its best.
Odds & Ends
- At first I wanted to criticize how the writers missed the mark by doling out such uneven bequeathments to everyone (excluding Troy, which made sense.) But it also makes sense that he’d respect Britta, Annie and Shirley in such different, yet sentimentally equal ways. He probably never liked Abed–they never bonded in any episode, either–but he’s said his peace with Jeff countless times over, so it’s fair that he didn’t have anything he felt the need to say other than calling him gay.
- Guest star Walter Goggins has a mostly thankless role this week, but he’s perfectly cast and nails his humorous side in the tag.
- Ken Jeong doesn’t have much to do this week either, but the use of Chang thus far this season has been very well dispersed. He’s been much funnier than usual in these small doses.
- There is so much good continuity in this episode that the internet is steadily unraveling. In addition to the aforementioned references, we also have Pierce bestowing an iPod Nano on Britta, confirming this prediction from season 1’s “The Art of Discourse”; Troy eating a ghost like he said he wanted to do in season 2’s “The Psychology of Letting Go”; and, this might be a stretch, but Troy’s newfound riches is reminiscent of one of the funniest gags from season 3’s “Remedial Chaos Theory”.
- It’s also fitting that this episode ends in a bar, when Troy’s first big “becoming a man” episode, “Mixology Certification”, took place predominately in a bar.
- I’m glad season 4 did away with the Troy/Britta romance now, because having to shoehorn that element into Troy’s departure would be a layer-too-much. This plays out perfectly.
- It’s on the nose, but Childish Tycoon? Wonderful.
- “Troy and Abed are in mooooourning.”
- “If there is a blurble, the lord keeps it hidden for a reason.”
- Actually, there are tons of good quotes in this episode. Just…watch it again.