“Cooperative Polygraphy” is an episode that seems to be in constant conversation with season two’s “Cooperative Calligraphy,” one of the series’ unquestioned high watermarks. Like that episode, it takes place entirely within the study room, outside of the tag, and like that episode, it uses trapping all of the characters in that setting to really examine the dynamics between them. (Also, the episode titles rhyme.) Unlike that episode, though, it doesn’t really call attention to what it’s doing. “Cooperative Calligraphy” spent a large amount of time establishing itself as a bottle episode and insisting on pointing out to us the cleverness of what it was up to. (I’m not offering this up as a complaint; that remains one of my favorite episodes of the series.) “Cooperative Polygraphy” is almost entirely about watching the characters bounce off of each other and about examining who they are without Pierce there—or maybe with Pierce there, since Walton Goggins makes an able replacement for the character’s last hurrah.
There are plenty of other episodes that are nodded to and referenced here. Setting the last scene in a bar evokes “Mixology Certification,” for instance, as does the fact that the story turns out to be Troy’s, and any story that makes such liberal use of the group sitting around the study room table will ultimately remind one of many other scenes and storylines in the show’s history that were made so much funnier by boiling down to a bunch of people sitting around a table and trading jokes. But the episode I’m most reminded of after “Cooperative Calligraphy” is one that perhaps won’t immediately leap to mind from this episode but, nevertheless, was on my mind after watching this one: the puppet episode.
The most obvious reason for the puppet episode not coming to mind after watching this one is that the show’s central production team changed between that episode and this, with Dan Harmon returning and regaining control of his baby. I say this not to rag on the puppet episode—which I quite like—either. The simple joys and pleasures of that one were a welcome respite from a troubled season. But there’s a definite feeling here of Harmon having seen the last act of that episode, where the characters confessed their darkest secrets to each other in the hopes of rediscovering the closeness and trust they had once shared, and saying, “It can be done better!” (Another link between the two episodes: An absent Pierce is vitally important to both storylines.)
And done better it is. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is easily the best episode of the show since the third season and maybe even since that magical stretch around the midpoint of season two. It’s an episode that contains ample amounts of both the laughs and the deeply felt emotional core that make this show work so well at its best. It’s an episode built entirely around the idea of who these people were when they first came together and how much they’ve changed since they found each other, and it’s an episode where the conclusion pushes into territory that’s unexpectedly bracing and moving. It’s an episode that returns to one of the show’s oldest, most durable plots—Pierce sows seeds of discord within the group—both laying it to rest and finding just enough new fruit in it to provide even more stories to come. And, finally, it begins the story that will lead to the show’s next major shift in the status quo, the story development that hangs most heavily over the season as something it will have to overcome to keep things rolling along.
The episode’s central conceit is just goofy enough to work in that very Community way. Pierce’s death means that he wants to make sure—from beyond the grave!—that none of the study group members murdered him before dispersing his estate among them. As such, the executor of his will—Goggins—shows up to hook everybody up to lie detectors. But he’s not just there to ask them if they killed Pierce (because, of course, none of them did; Pierce died masturbating, as we always knew he would). Pierce has given him an elaborate questionnaire that touches on all of the things the group members have kept from each other, all of the secrets they thought they had hidden away perfectly, only to find that Pierce knew about all of them all along (as we always knew he would). The secrets run the gamut from the rather mundane—Troy and Abed are leeching Jeff’s Netflix account and changing his rating for The Grey—to the much, much worse—Annie once dosed everybody with a little something something to help them study harder for a test.
But that’s also one of the points of the episode: We keep something a secret because we know that someone we love, fear, or respect will be upset by it. To you, what Annie did might not seem like as big of a deal, while Troy and Abed’s Netflix use is theft. Or you might think that Jeff keeping a pair of Britta’s panties is the worst offense of all. Or even Abed taking a shower at Jeff’s place (allowing him to see the way the mirror reads “You’re special” when it’s fogged up). Transgressions don’t have to be huge to be meaningful. If you violate someone’s trust or do something they don’t like, you can hurt them horribly, no matter how miniscule the offense. As Pierce slowly unravels the bonds between the group members using his information, it becomes clear just how well he understands this fact of life.
It’s here that “Polygraphy” both builds upon and improves the puppet episode. The “big secrets” there felt weird and unconvincing, drawn directly from one of the kids’ movies the episode was meant to ape. (In general, the problem with season four’s concept episodes was that they never pushed as deeply into dark, unsettling emotional territory as well as the first three seasons’ concept episodes did.) There, too, they ranged from the really mundane to the really egregious, but the episode crucially treated them all as having roughly the same weight to all of the characters, as if their mere utterance were enough to heal the group entirely.
“Polygraphy” grasps that the speaking of these secrets holds just as much potential to do harm as good, no matter how much the characters tell themselves they’re going to remain friends no matter what. It gives the episode genuine dramatic stakes in a way that the show sometimes lacks, and it also lets the show build off of its four years of history in a way that isn’t constantly tossing in callbacks and throwaway gags pointing to the series’ past. The truth doesn’t always set you free in a situation like this; sometimes, it summons up all of the past hurts and slights that have come between you and someone else, and it drops them directly on your head, crushing you. “Polygraphy” also gets that there are things these characters wouldn’t see as big deals that other characters would see as terrible, terrible things, very different from the puppet episode’s attempts to give everything the same emotional weight.
“Polygraphy” is also wildly, wildly funny, tossing out a great joke seemingly every other second, even when it’s in the midst of its more emotional climax. There’s so much great material here, and so little of it is driven by the sorts of pop culture gags that the show has become best known for in the popular imagination. Indeed, almost all of these gags are driven by the characters and the relationships between them as they’ve been built up over the course of the series. But the jokes are about more than just “Britta is the worst” or “Jeff has self esteem issues.” They’re, instead, about the differences between the characters as they were originally presented to us and the people they’ve become, about the gaps between who they could be and who they actually are.
I’ve been getting into a fair amount of Twitter discussions lately about whether Community is worthwhile as a character-based sitcom, or if its primary function is simply to have some great jokes and make fun of movies and TV shows. Are the characters three-dimensional, or do they simply exist to be joke machines? Now, obviously, if you’re already pretty well dug in on the latter part of that argument, then nothing I say here is going to convince you, but I think “Cooperative Polygraphy” is the best evidence yet that the writers of the show at least intend for us to take these people seriously as fictional human beings with hopes and dreams that can be just as easily snuffed as anyone else’s. There’s a core of deep, real sadness running through “Polygraphy,” underneath all of the jokes, and it’s a sadness that’s directed both at the death of a beloved friend and at the fact that none of them has quite matched up to the best possible versions of themselves. And it’s that sadness that drives the surprisingly beautiful third act.
I don’t know if there’s a way to read Pierce’s final bequeathals without taking it as a deeply earnest statement from the show’s writers on their own beliefs and hopes for the characters. A phrase like “heart of a hero” applied to anyone could be laughable, but something about the gravity of the situation, Walton Goggins’ delivery, and Donald Glover’s reaction underscores the moment, making it play. And Pierce’s pep talks for the other characters are similarly insightful and trenchant. Back in season three, there was a lot of discussion of which character was meant to be the “voice” of Dan Harmon, the one that expressed his thoughts on the show and what was happening, and most of that discussion centered on either cynical Jeff or narrative-obsessed Abed. But that ignores that all of the characters have served as Harmon (or at least writers’ room) mouthpieces for the run of the show, and it also obscures the way that the series has often used Pierce not just as a catalyst but as a voice of skewed reason.
By this I don’t mean that Pierce was ever “reasonable.” I mean that he was someone who had had a life filled with disappointments and regrets, and he wanted to make sure the others in the group didn’t as well, in his own warped way. The show tends to put the most direct emotional responses in Pierce’s mouth, because he tends to be the one who can give them the most weight. (They have the most distance to travel, after all.) As such, it’s when Pierce tells these characters all that they are and could still be that I think we get a sense of where Harmon’s voice is in this season. He still cares, in his way, for these people. He still wants them to come to some sort of goodness or some sort of happy ending. And he’s still prodding them from just off to the side, sometimes through the voice of one of the departed.
Unfortunately, to become all that you can sometimes means that you need to leave, and when “Cooperative Polygraphy” reaches its final moments, it’s turned the corner to be not just about Pierce’s leavetaking but about Troy’s, about the fact that to be the man he could become, he’s going to have to leave Greendale and embark on a new voyage. The details of this are appropriately sitcom ridiculous—he has to sail around the world to gain $14.3 million worth of stock options—but the emotional effect his decision to do so has on the group is perfectly devastating. The truth is that this group has always imagined itself an ad hoc family, in the best sitcom tradition, but families don’t simply have everything go perfectly all of the time. They grow brittle and break apart. Even when they’re in a state of relative stability and connection, there’s always something lurking to threaten that tension. For a long time, that threat was Pierce, but he’s gone now. Still, in the end, he’s able to split off one part of the group for parts unknown, to pull apart the family, not through hatred or fear, but through love.
So, no, I don’t think Community is a show just about jokes or about movie parodies. If you disagree, fine, but the characters on this show have developed meaningful relationships and personalities over the years, and in episodes like this one, the writers are able to examine them with such deftness and acuity that I’m often left amazed. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is a very funny episode of television, yes, but it also has a lot to say about this specific group of people and how they’ve come together and how they will inevitably break apart. And if you think that doesn’t count as character development, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
- Goggins, by the way, is very good in what could be a largely thankless role. I’m glad he got to cut loose in the tag. I hope that when Justified ends next year, he gets work in some sort of comedy. I think he could be very winning in a romcom.
- Just tell us what was funny, VanDerWerff, God: There’s so, so much in this episode, but my favorite joke was probably that Troy got he and Abed’s secret handshake from a YouTube account apparently dedicated to providing best friends with handshakes.
- Jeff told Britta that a hawk stole her panties. I will never not love watching these two bounce off of each other.
- I was never a huge fan of the Laser Lotus running gag, but it may have been worth it just for Donald Glover’s “Somebody get a balloon!” at the end of the teaser.
- Pierce wants to know if Abed has ever “9-11’ed anyone.” When the answer to that is no, then he wants to know if he ever killed a small animal as a child.
- I’m amused by how pointless the ultimate bequeathals are, outside of Troy’s. (Britta, for instance, gets an iPod Nano. Super sweet.) The real thing the characters will hang onto are the words Pierce left for them. At least I hope they don’t hang on to the sperm.
- Oh, look, I can still write super-long Community reviews. I’m sure we’re all relieved to see that. See you next week!