One of the first things that “Cooperative Calligraphy” confronts you with is that it’s a bottle episode, so we might as well start off by explaining what that means for the few of you who both read internet TV criticism and are unaware. In short, a bottle episode is when due to budget constraints, a show sets an entire episode in an already built location, meaning that the characters are stuck in one place. The result of this odd situation has become a genre unto itself, and although the term used to be a bit apocryphal, these days most really savvy TV fans have run into more than a few of these and know more or less what to expect. So like all genres that Community dives into, there’s a form that must be adhered to, even if the characters (in particular Abed) are fully aware that they’re re-enacting something familiar.
The contrivance keeping the episode’s characters in place is intentionally stupid: somebody took Annie’s pen and she’s not letting anyone leave the room until then, an exaggeration of importance worthy of the best episodes of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. So while the episode appears at first to be headed towards an exploration of Jeff’s date with Gwynniffer while Troy and Abed watch a puppy parade, instead things get stuck in what’s usually the show’s first scene and the cast never leaves their study room until the end. Every character is suspect including Annie, and by the time the episode’s done everyone has been thoroughly stripped naked and searched.
“Calligraphy” is a lot less showy than “Modern Warfare” or “Epidemiology” but it manages to be in that same upper tier of episodes all the same. That this is true speaks well not just for the particular episode’s writing but for the show as a whole. One of the most exciting episodes the show’s ever done consists almost entirely of its cast talking to one another—and nothing else. Rivalries and alliances develop and are dissolved while character relationships are explored. Not only that but everyone has their moment in a way that feels completely unforced.
The escalation of insanity that by the end only brings the characters closer together is typical of the show, but it’s rarely been pulled off so well. An odd aspect of this being a special kind of episode is that particularly because it’s yet another genre being tackled by the show, it also feels like one of the most natural distillments of what the show is about. Many of Community’s best episodes require knowledge of the series to make much sense of, and to a certain extent that’s true here, too, but it’s also a sort of primer on what the show’s become in the past season and a half. This is the episode I’ll be using to introduce the show to new fans in the future—it’s not fully comprehensive but it’s extremely close.
For those of us who are watching it every week, there were also some interesting nods to the past and future of the show. Pierce still being incapacitated was very gratifying and helped emphasize that despite its cartoony universe Community is still committed to having real consequences. Also returning was Annie’s Boobs (Troy’s monkey), whose disappearance finally gets addressed, though what exactly he’s doing with a stash at the end of the episode totally escapes me. Then we had some hints of where the show may be headed. Shirley may be pregnant with Chang’s baby, which is … well, it’s an interesting place for things to go to, certainly, even if that place seems fraught with disaster. There were also some cute looks between Jeff and Annie at the end of the episode which I hope may lead them back together at some point—it still irks me how quickly that was thrown apart as season two began.
Oh, and aside from all of that character and narrative nonsense, there were also plenty of amazing jokes. These went through the classic but still enjoyable everyone needs to strip bit to Pierce’s drug-induced non-sequitors. The presence of so many different personalities lead to some really interesting chains of jokes that aren’t possible when the cast is fragmented, which meant we saw riches in that area of the show as well. So “Calligraphy” moved the show’s overall narrative forward, built on characters and relationships and managed to be incredibly funny. Not bad for an episode built around budget problems.
• In matter of fact, Annie’s Boobs has his or her (does anyone know?) own twitter feed at twitter.com/AnniesB00bs.
• “If anything this chair makes me more than human.”
• “Forcy-worsing you to bend and spread.” – I sure hope the thought police are that adorable. Britta’s version of a totalitarian government is the cutesiest thing ever.
• “Have you ever gone to a puppy parade halfway through? It’s pretty much pointless.” – an amazing line, but I really can’t fathom what it’s supposed to actually mean.
• Abed’s pronouncements of it being a bottle episode were a little obnoxious, but it still felt more like he just couldn’t help it than bad writing. An irritating character trait rather than an irritating show trait.
• “Why would I take her pen, I don’t even like having my own?”
• “Side effects: verbal dysphesia and octopus loss.”
• “I still think that man is going to evolve into woman, not a dragon monster with three legs.”
• On the show, Shirley’s bag is “comedically huge,” to which my girlfriend notes I should think about how much smaller it is than hers.
• “People like you are the reason we took so long to get into Vietnam”
• Say what you will, I really loved the episode’s resolution: “What if a ghost took the pen?” “I’ve been saying that for hours.”