TV Recap: Community, “Cooperative Polygraphy” (5.4)

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16/1/2014, 8:00 pm (EST), NBC

“Cooperative Polygraphy” is an episode that harkens back to one of season two’s classic installments, “Cooperative Calligraphy.” Like that, it is a bottle episode constrained to the study room (excepting the tag in each), wherein the study group is forced to examine their relationships and contend with the darker sides of their personality, but survives by deciding to forge themselves together, even if it means doing something improbable or downright silly. Several things have changed since that prior episode aired, and it is appropriate for the show to revisit it considering the biggest change to the dynamic: the death of Pierce Hawthorne.

The episode takes place during what becomes basically the reading of Pierce’s will. Before he divides up his property, he requires that the study group undergo polygraph tests to ensure none of them murdered him. Though Pierce would completely think that of his best friends in the world, the test quickly reveals itself to be vintage Hawthorne, a labyrinth of emotional manipulation aimed at setting the entire group against each other. And the minotaur is none other than Walton Goggins, whose deadpan delivery here works wonders amidst all the over-the-top infighting he dispassionately instigates.

It is also apt that this episode calls back to “Cooperative Calligraphy” because it is one of the show’s best outings since the brilliant mid-season two stretch that featured that episode (with perhaps only all-time great “Remedial Chaos Theory” surpassing it). “Cooperative Polygraphy” mixes laughs and pathos brilliantly, mixes pop culture references with detailed character work, and anchors an absurdly high concept within the journey of one character. It also pulls the uncanny trick of revealing who the episode is all about late in the game. It seems, at first, to be about Pierce, the role he played in the group, and what will be lost without his presence. But actually, it is a story about Troy, the person he is, the person he has grown to be over the course of this series, and the person he might yet become if his potential is not stifled.

It’s no secret that Donald Glover is leaving Community after next week’s episode. That problem has been hanging over the proceedings since the announcement was made. Here, though, Dan Harmon has come up with pretty much the perfect way to send Troy off: Pierce offers Troy $14.3 million dollars on the condition that he sail around the world to prove himself as a man. He sees in Troy the heart of a hero, but also the potential to waste that away like he did. So, like his father before him, he commands that Troy go on a quest to complete his maturation so that he might return a wealthy man. It works as a conclusion to Troy’s arc, but also leaves open the possibility that Troy could return should Glover so choose, and should the show be renewed. It also, in some ways, mirrors Donald Glover’s own crisis of conscience that has been made somewhat public in the last few months, sending the character and the actor off to find himself.

But before that, every member of the group must reveal transgressions of various severities, from Troy and Abed stealing Jeff’s Netflix (and changing his rating of The Grey, which I am actually with Jeff on) to Abed placing tracking devices on every member of the group so he always knows where they are. A lot of these revelations are fairly awful (Jeff kept a pair of Britta’s panties, Annie dosed the group with a low-dose methamphetamine so they could study more, Troy and Abed go through Jeff’s stuff when he’s not around, even using his shower), and all of them are very funny. But they get at something deeper as well. Like the best episodes of Community, there’s more at work here than initially meets the eye.

“Cooperative Polygraphy” is in some way about the reasons we lie to each other. Sometimes its to save ourselves from embarrassment. Sometimes its to get away with things we know we shouldn’t do. But often, we lie to avoid hurting someone else, to keep the peace or to keep them in our lives. Lies of all stripes are revealed over the course of the episode, but the ones that stick out the most are the ones that wound. Those are the buttons Pierce always knew how to push. Those are the scars that may never heal, because they get at something about the characters’ deepest fears and insecurities. These people have done bad things to each other over the years, and they have lied about it. But they’ve also grown better, even as they often think they haven’t. The speech Jeff gives at the end of the episode seems on the surface to be darker and more cynical than usual—we all suck, so it’s ok—but really, it isn’t. Jeff’s inspiring speeches earlier in the show’s run were usually tinged with our knowledge that Jeff was a master at emotional manipulation, a genius at feigning epiphanies to get out of a scrap. The speech he gives here, though, feels genuine and honest. He basically comes out and says that every member of the group is a monster, that they are all awful people, and that in some ways, their time together hasn’t made them better. But what it has done is teach them to accept their flaws and imperfections, to learn to cope to try to improve, and to accept that sometimes trying will have to be enough.

Throughout most of the episode, I experienced an emotional disconnect I found troubling. It seemed that the show was sending off Pierce Hawthorne by letting him give into his worst impulses one last time, by showing us that he did not change at the end of the day. But then those final five minutes came, and melted me into a puddle. They were everything I was looking for from this episode, an emotional catharsis that showed us how much Pierce had changed, and how much this group, and some of us in the audience (myself included) will miss Pierce. The last round of questioning reveals how much Pierce loved and cared about each member of the study group, and how much he hoped they would embrace their better nature and become their better selves. That it was all written completely in Pierce’s vaguely racist, homophobic, and juvenile voice was wonderful, and that each gift included a vial of Pierce’s frozen sperm was, well, perfect.

Pierce tells everyone he loves them and hopes for them to do better, and in a way he wins a warped version of his ultimate victory. Throughout the series, Pierce has often been seen as a catalyst for breaking the group apart, setting them against each other to splinter them, to show them how much easier it is to push people away than to cling together. And in the end, he does push Troy away, and in a sense does splinter the group, But instead of doing so through anger or hatred or pain, he does so with well wishes and a fervent hope that it will be for the best. It’s a perfect ending because it is emotionally touching, funny, and feels organic to the character of Pierce Hawthorne as he evolved over the show’s first four seasons.

This is an episode about the way we push each other away and the way we cling to each other, about the way we lie to hurt but also to protect. It’s an episode about how we hope to be better but fear we will remain the same. It is an episode about how sometimes the best solution is the one that scares us the most. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is a beautiful piece of television, hopeful and cynical, funny and heartwarming, in near equal measures. It’s evidence that Community is back in top form, able to juggle silly comedy and nuanced character work, and able to remind us once again that we can all try harder, we can all think more about others, we can all be better.

The Roundup

  • -“Troy and Abed are in mourning!”
  • -“I’ve only seen two Police Academy movies. The last two…”
  • -“If I wanted the government in my uterus, I’d fill it with oil and Hispanic voters.”
  • -“Ah, did you hear that Abed? We’ve been washing paper plates and making our own toothpaste, but don’t you worry, when we have robot bodies on the moon, we can share a free jacket.”
  • -“You did drugs in my church?” “No, I did drugs in the parking lot of your church.”
  • -“Is one of those trophies a pair of Ms. Perry’s panties?” “You lied to me! You told me a hawk stole those! You exploited me, and made me believe in a slightly more magical world!”
  • -“Silence wench!”
  • -“You’re Olympic pole-vaulting hopeful Brent Underjaw?”
  • -“We’re not necessarily going to go to hell. I mean what is hell?”
  • -“I’ve never been to Legoland. I just wanted you guys to think I was cool.”
  • -This episode ended with Walton Goggins yelling “Shots!” That means, regardless of its other qualities, it is a masterpiece.
[notification type=star]90/100 ~ AMAZING. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is a beautiful piece of television, hopeful and cynical, funny and heartwarming, in near equal measures.[/notification]
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About Author

Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “practicing law" in Los Angeles, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to serving as TV Editor and Senior Staff Film Critic for Next Projection, Jordan is a contributor to various outlets, including his own personal site, Review To Be Named (where he still writes sometimes, promise). Check out more of his work at Reviewtobenamed.com, follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.

  • Masaman

    Great review of a great episode. If the rest of the season maintains this quality, it’ll all but wash away the memory of season 4.