“Intro To Felt Surrogacy” is the first episode of Community this season I’d recommend without qualifications, without saying, “Well, it’s good if you like the characters, but it’s just not the same,” without feeling like the show had misplaced many of the things that made it the show I loved somewhere along the way. Make no mistake: Even with the puppets involved, this is a fairly different show from the one that existed the first three seasons, but it’s also a show I wouldn’t mind watching from week to week, one I might even eventually get lost in. The series has been brightened and made more peppy, but that also sort of is a function of the genre the episode takes place in. When Bob Greenblatt was asked what he thought of season four of the show at TCA and said he thought it was the same show with a little more heart, I suspect he was talking about episodes like this one, that dangerously toe the line of being overly saccharine, but never step over it.
Also, the songs are great.
To be honest, I was rather dreading this episode when I first heard about it. It sounded like the sort of thing that would come up in a meeting among people who were trying to make a show that was like the first three seasons of Community without really understanding what made that show tick. Crazy gimmicks! Format shifts! A slightly too-cute sensibility that curdles around the edges! What made “Felt Surrogacy” surprising to me was its sincerity. It was really dedicated to the idea that these people had experienced something out in the woods that they could only express via puppet. And at the same time, it was dedicated to the tropes of its new chosen format, to making an episode that was a weird homage to The Muppet Show and assorted other afternoon kids’ shows of the past.
This means the episode isn’t especially funny. Oh, sure, there are places where the gags made me smile—the balloon guide saying, “From now on, no more singing on the balloon” was great—but by and large, this is not one of the show’s funniest half-hours. What makes that okay is that it’s not really intended to be. At its core is a shared, fairly dark experience the group had, and more broadly speaking, the jokes are those that would be more appropriate for the aforementioned kids’ programs. The humor on The Muppet Show is funny to me, but it’s definitely broad, broad humor. “Felt Surrogacy” goes in for the same, rather than trying to force in a bunch of pop culture gags that wouldn’t fit or something similar. It commits wholly to the genre it finds itself in, a mark of a good Community genre-shifting episode. (“Modern Warfare” is very funny, but the biggest joke at the time was its audaciousness. It was hard to believe a sitcom was doing this and was succeeding at being a rough spin on an action movie.)
In keeping with that sincerity and simplicity, then, the story itself is a very trimmed down, easy-to-follow tale of some friends who go on a balloon adventure and end up stranded in the woods with Jason Alexander, who gives them some psychotropic berries. (Alexander was hyped as a fairly large part of the episode, but in keeping with the Muppets, he pops up for a cameo, then heads off to parts unknown. Some part of me hopes that when Pierce leaves the show, he moves off into the wilderness to learn more from this mysterious mountain man.) Under the influence of the berries, all of the characters reveal their deepest, darkest secrets, and that causes them to be suspicious and sad when they next see each other in the study room, which loops us around to the beginning of the episode and one of my favorite cut-to-credits the show’s ever done.
The Dean just “happens” to have felt versions of all of the study group members, so he brings them to the study room to help everybody talk through the trauma of what happened up in the woods, which is where things transition to the puppet stuff. (In a nice touch, the Dean’s puppets are a little raggedy—if surprisingly professional and the sorts of things that could get him a job at many a Midwestern children’s church—while the puppets in the storyline are more Muppet-esque.) The episode very quickly lays out whether you’re going to go with it or not, as almost the first thing that happens in puppet world is that everybody sings the song about going on a balloon adventure. This is either going to strike you as twee as fuck, or it’s going to make you happy. It made me happy, and it put me in a good mood going forward throughout the episode.
What’s also important is that it signifies that the show’s new production team has finally felt comfortable enough with its own voice that it can start producing its own episodes of the show that feel recognizably like Community, but also different from what came before. All I’ve ever asked is that everybody involved in this show not try to make Dan Harmon’s Community, because that would be an impossible task. What I’ve hoped for—from the moment Harmon was fired—was that Moses Port and David Guarascio, along with their solid writing staff, would simply make the Community they wanted to make, without worrying about expectations of what Community was supposed to be or look like. At the time, I imagined that would involve doing fewer “tribute” episodes, because those were so bound up in what Harmon’s vision of the show was. Paradoxically, the new team seems to have firmly found its voice on a tribute episode.
I guess if I had to pin down what that voice was—and what made it distinct from the show of old—I would say it’s something roughly similar to, “These people really do care about each other (aw!).” Now, granted, that was present in Harmon’s Community as well, almost to a fault, but it seems to have been given greater emphasis and more focus here. It is less subtly handled, and while that's not my personal preference for how the show should be, I can see a version of the show that works that way, and I think it's on display here. There were episodes of old Community where whatever heart the episode had was buried so deeply that you really had to go excavating to find it. And, yes, that was fun for a lot of us, but it also wasn’t exactly conducive to a mass-audience TV show. I don’t know if “Felt Surrogacy” suggests that this version of the show will become a huge hit, either—it is, after all, about puppets, and no show this low-rated in its fourth season is suddenly going to see people discovering it out of nowhere—but it’s definitely an episode that made me realize what this new team was hoping to go for. It was a bright, happy half-hour of TV, and while that might start to give me sugar shock week after week, for a one-time treat, it was a lot of fun. Not every episode can be dessert, but when it’s executed this well, you almost wish they were.
- Thanks to Pilot for filling in last week! I didn’t like the episode as much as she did, but I liked it quite a bit. And how about that Brie Larson, huh? She’s really going places.
- The big secrets: Jeff once dated a girl who was perfect for him, but she had a kid, and he bailed on that kid. Shirley once accidentally left her boys behind in the grocery store (overnight, even!). Britta has never voted, except for The Voice. Troy set something (I couldn’t make this out) on fire and damaged the campus because he was trying to set an ant hill on fire. Pierce has never actually had sex with Eartha Kitt. Annie let Cornwallis give her a foot rub for the answers to a history test. Abed didn’t have a secret, because he’s an open book.
- Even if Abed’s an open book, I liked when he picked up the puppet, put it on his hand, and said, “My father’s withholding,” then seemed briefly amazed by the puppet’s ability to unlock his deepest feelings.
- I liked the tag—one more song was a nice way to close out the episode—but I’m fairly sick of “Daybreak” at this point. We get it, show. This was a song you once used in a semi-ironic fashion. It was the one part of the episode that felt specifically to me like fan pandering, which has been my least favorite thing about this season.
- I didn’t remember everybody’s singing voices being this good from the musical episode. In particular, Gillian Jacobs seems to have a better voice than I gave her credit for there. (Granted, she barely sings in that episode, and part of the joke is that she’s bad at it, so maybe she just didn’t get the opportunity in that episode.)
- I would gladly watch a television show where Jason Alexander was forced to interact with puppets every week. That seems like it would be a lot of fun.
- One more solid laugh for me: The transition from the song to the drug trip was pretty terrific.
- Alan Sepinwall informs me that part of Chevy Chase’s deal to leave the show was that he record all of his dialogue for this episode. I was under the impression that the production team filled in his dialogue with bits he’d already recorded, then stuff taken from earlier episodes, but I guess that’s not the case. And, obviously, when he was singing, that was freshly recorded.
- Speaking of Chase leaving the show, it might be weird to come back next week and have him around the table like nothing has happened, when this episode heavily implies he was going to be written out by getting left in the woods (or going crazy because of what happened there).
- I really cannot praise the songs enough. They were all catchy and bouncy, and they reminded me (for obvious reasons) of one of my favorite recent musicals, Avenue Q. I also liked the actress playing the balloon guide a lot.
- Hey, didn’t they do a Christmas episode? And hasn’t it been, like, 15 weeks since the Thanksgiving episode? I demand holiday jollity in April!