In the second episode of this current season of Community, Jeff stands up in the middle of a cafeteria on the brink of destruction in order to appeal to the rioting Greendale student body’s collective self pity with the phrase, “The teachers here are teachers here because they did something wrong. Same as the students.”
Episode four (titled “Cooperative Polygraphy), which begins with the study group returning from the funeral of our dearly departed Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), pits every living member of the original Greendale Seven against special guest star Walton Goggins (playing the ruthless-on-the-outside attorney Mr. Stone) and a polygraph test in order to prove that none of them did something super wrong, namely: Murder their late Baby Boomer classmate.
The six survivors and Chang all agree to submit to what Abed describes as “the pie fight of cop movies,” and we all buckle down for 22 minutes (plus commercials) of what Community does best: A bottle episode.
The polygraph test begins with a first act of calibration. With Pierce’s energon pod on the table where he would normally be sitting, his spirit descends on the room in classic Hawthorne-ian fashion. Mr. Stone begins to systematically pick away at the smaller lies that go unsaid in the group, largely embarrassments that necessarily need to go unsaid to keep everyone’s feelings unhurt and implications that they all have motivations to kill their friend.
Chang, who seems like the most openly insane and therefore least assailable in the group is asked point blank whether or not he has masturbated in the study room and calls it quits, throwing his polygraph sensor to the Study Table Mk II at which point it’s clear that the ghost of Pierce is up to the tricks he was so fond of in life.
This becomes obvious to everyone in the room once they all have some surface lies on the study table, and Mr. Stone lays down the stakes for everyone, assuring them that any suspect who fails to complete the lie-detector test will forfeit anything the crappy old millionaire left them in death.
The first act closes with everyone putting their sensors back on and agreeing with Jeff that they don’t want to do play this sick game with their dead friend, that they’re better than it, to which the polygraph technician says, “They’re all lying.”
Pierce has roped them into a classic Hawthorne emotional death maze as the first real round of questioning goes around, doled out by Stone who is now sitting in Pierce’s usual seat. Britta was high on marijuana at Shirley’s son’s baptism (“At least with a bris there’s an element of suspense.”) Jeff keeps sexual trophies of his conquests, including Britta’s underwear that he had previously told her was stolen by a hawk, Annie has once drugged them all so that they could ace an exam, causing Abed to stay awake for three days.
Troy admits to killing Pierce (“Lie.”) After which we learn that the classic friend handshake he does with Abed from a video blog called Fun for Friends.
Abed, not surprisingly, has placed geosynchronous tracking devices on all of his friends (in places that they will never find) so that in the event of their abduction they don’t have to worry about banging on the lid of a trunk to get attention. He is also Catfishing Annie under the Facebook account of Olympic pole vaulting hopeful Brent Underjaw. Shirley thinks everybody is going to Hell (“Well you are!”) and refers to the group as “those people” when it’s just her and Troy. She also has been feeding Britta a tofu substitute called “meat-fu” in order to save money at her sandwich shop.
Mr. Stone says there is a second round of questioning and, in the best timed act break I’ve seen in a while, Chang returns to admit he didn’t just masturbate in the study room, he masturbated “EVERYWHERE!”
Returning for the final round of Pierce’s trial by truth-fire, Jeff – always the foil to Pierce – figures it out. He proposes that they pull what I like to call “an 8-Mile” and put everything out on the table so that further questions can’t do any damage. Going first, Winger admits to the group that he’d rather stare at himself naked in the mirror than at any of the women he sleeps with, Troy let us know he’s never been to Legoland, a few more admissions were made and then we got to the heart of the episode.
The entire time this was happening, all I could think of was how much it felt like Pierce was really there. This polygraph scheme seemed so on-brand as Pierce’s usual trickery that, even though I was aware Chevy Chase was no longer part of the show, I kept expecting a reveal that he wasn’t actually dead. But then Mr. Stone, acting as Pierce, asked Britta if she knew that she hates herself more than she should, and that her passion inspired him, to which she heartbreakingly said “No.” (“That’s true. She didn’t know”)
The questions went around the table and everyone got their due inheritance. Britta got Pierce’s iPod Nano and some of his cryogenically frozen sperm; Shirley got his Florida timeshare and cold sperm; Annie got the tiara that she once refused to take from him and a futuristic cylinder of sperm; Jeff got scotch to prevent him from drinking all of the sperm that he also received; Abed just got sperm.
All of this was a wonderful affirmation of the beautiful characters on a show that seems too insane on paper to be worthy of. By the time the camera got around to Troy, it was clear that Community had taken the high road and given Chevy Chase – who left the sitcom in a drawn out public row with the now reinstated showrunner Dan Harmon – the send off most other shows wouldn’t. I didn’t like Pierce, I don’t really like Chevy Chase, but “Cooperative Polygraphy” masterfully proved that both he and his character played an important role on the show.
As if that sincere bygones moment wasn’t enough, Harmon let us all know exactly how he feels about the other long time cast member who will be leaving this season when Stone got around to Troy: “Did you know that you possess the greatest gift life can give? The heart of a hero. And it’s up to you not to waste it like I did.”
As I mentioned in the recap of the first three episodes of the season, Donald Glover (the actor who plays Troy) will be leaving the show this season to pursue his music career under the name of Childish Gambino. Dan Harmon takes this moment, which is already emotional and affirming, to be a father figure to Glover, using the show as a piece of printer paper to fold into a card that says “I’m proud of you and I want you to be better than I am.”
To Troy, Pierce left the mandatory sperm, but he also left his remaining shares in Hawthorne Wipes (currently worth many millions of dollars) on the condition that he sail Pierce’s yacht, the Childish Tycoon, around the entire world to become his own man.
You can really tell the quality of a sitcom by its bottle episodes. Generally made due to budget constraints, they force a show to rely solely on its base components: Dialogue and a cast. Community has always shined brightly in this area (most memorably with season 2’s “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”), but after “Cooperative Polygraphy” I am forced as a viewer to confront the fact that the base components of a show I’ve loved for five years are changing.
And that’s cool.
Cool. Cool. Cool.
Final Mark: The mandatory sperm and an A