Community: “Cooperative Polygraphy”

"Respect for the dead is only a thing because the dead usually don’t do any more damage.”

One of these days I’ll be able to avoid making a direct comparison of Dan Harmon’s Community to the Port/Guarascio season (a topic I’m already tiring of) but it’s not going to be today, because last night’s Communityhit upon and dramatically improved upon a theme referenced in one of last season’s most divisive episodes. In the episode “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”, better known as “the puppet episode”, from Season Four, the group became isolated from each other due to “disturbing” revelations made during an accidental mushroom trip. Only one of these, Shirley’s accidental abandoning of her children, carried any real weight, but it seemed so completely out of character that it was hard to attach any long-term importance to it.

It’s easy to imagine Harmon watching that episode and fuming that his characters would be given deep, dark secrets that were so inconsequential. You think it’s a big deal that Jeff Winger ditched a sweet little boy, mirroring his father? That’s nothing—my Jeff Winger keeps trophies of his sexual conquests, a revelation so icky that it prompts this priceless reaction from Annie:

These are my characters, Harmon seems to be saying, and they are emotionally and morally fragile in ways you couldn’t possibly understand. The episode’s reason for existence seems to be that sort of creative one-upsmanship, but the revelations come about in an organic way.

At the end of the last episode it was revealed that Pierce Hawthorne has died, and this episode begins with the group gathering in the study room, carrying Pierce’s “life vapor” in an energon pod, in accordance with his cultish Laser Lotus belief system. Soon they are joined by a lawyer, played with steely reserve (at least until the energetic end tag) by Justified’s Walter Goggins, who has been tasked to handle the division of Pierce’s estate. According to Pierce’s instructions, the group will only be eligible for a stake of his $14 million fortune if they submit to a polygraph test. The reason given by the lawyer is that Pierce is sure that one of the study group must have been behind his death, but really—as the group realizes right away—it’s just a way to Pierce to continue his Machiavellian games from beyond the grave.

Pierce’s questions zero in on the personalities of each member of the group, highlighting character flaws that none of them would face on their own: Shirley is a grinning, cheery ball of passive-aggression, Troy and Abed isolate themselves from the rest of the group through fantastical games that mask genuine callousness, Abed himself is so withdrawn that the group finds it plausible that he may be contemplating murder, and Annie is so sure that she’s right thats she’ll stoop to theft if she thinks it’s best for whoever she’s stealing from. It’s a dick move from Pierce, but it also reveals just how intimately he understands each member of the group (and therefore, how genuinely hurt he was by their continual rejection).

In round two of the questions shit gets real—here Pierce reveals that Jeff has kept a pair of Britta’s panties (having successfully convinced her that a hawk stole them), Annie once doped the study group to get an “A”, Abed has implanted tracking devices on each member of the group, and that Shirley has been lying to Britta (and all of her other customers) about the meat content of her vegetarian sandwich, the Helen of Soy. These secrets, along with the triumphant, explosive confession from Chang that has masturbated not in the study room, but “EVERYWHERE”, shame the group, along with the realization that they are only putting themselves through this for a shot at Pierce’s money. Jeff realizes that the only way to heal as a group—as well as pay tribute to Pierce, who they had always acted superior to, is to come clean with unforced confessions.

One of the reasons that Harmon’s Community has always been so good at making us care about these characters is that important character moments like these are measured out with an equal dose of comedy. Interlacing comedy and pathos is what sets Community apart. The more heavy-handed approach, the one that “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” took, stops an episode in its tracks to deliver a “moment”. It reads false, and certainly even Harmon’s Community has been guilty of it in the past, but the very best episodes (and “Cooperative Polygraphy” is one of the very best episodes of Community) have risen above that mawkish impulse.

So by the time we get to Pierce’s last round of questions, meant to show the group just how much they all meant to him, the emotion is earned. Whatever Pierce’s other failings, he loved these people, in part because they were all that he had in the world. Because this moment is paired with Stone passing out containers of Pierce’s frozen sperm, meant to allow the ladies of the group a chance to raise an army of geniuses (should Britta ever abandon her lesbian lifestyle), the episode doesn’t devolve into sentimentality—and the writers get to slip a joke about drinking sperm into the 8 o’clock family hour.

The last person to receive their bequest is Troy, who gets not only a vial of sperm, but a chance at the entirety of Pierce’s fortune if he completes a year-long solo trip around the world on Pierce’s boat, the Childish Tycoon (an obvious reference to Glover’s rap career as Childish Gambino). Pierce, after all, was roommates with Troy the first few seasons, and initially the character that Harmon thought would play best off Troy (until Pudi and Glover’s chemistry became impossible to ignore). That intimacy has allowed Pierce to see in Troy the heart of a hero, something that Troy might not even be aware that he possesses. Troy accepts the offer, saying that Pierce has offered him something he’s always hoped for—millions of dollars (and whatever those other things he said were). It’s a sweet moment that (again) works because of the comedy that undercuts it, but it’s also a phenomenally meta sweet gesture from Harmon, praising Glover for his bravery as he steps away from the comfortable world of the show to make his own path. Harmon, through Pierce, is paying tribute to his talented, restless star.

“Cooperative Polygraphy” contains so many jokes and references to past episodes that it’s impossible to catch them all on a first watch, which means you need to watch it again. And you should—as many times as possible.