Against all odds, Community delivers an all-time classic [Recap season 5, episode 4]

“Cooperative Polygraphy” attempts to wrangle an incredible amount of different goals that it wants to accomplish in the span of 20 minutes. It’s an episode that deals with the death of a major character, beginning the arc that will see off a second character, comments on both actors leaving the show behind the scenes, loops in references to those actors’ relationships with creator Dan Harmon, and once again attempts to air all grievances between a group of longtime friends prone to secrecy and frustration.

Plus, all of it takes place in the study room, without deliberately calling attention to the bottle episode dynamics like “Cooperative Calligraphy” back in season two. Like “Calligraphy,” this is a big milestone episode in terms study group social progress. That overt and meta-commentary on bottle episodes was one of the first to employ this dynamic—all the characters bouncing off each other when confined to the study room— and “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and “Remedial Chaos Theory” expanded the possibilities for that type of Community episode.

After Shirley’s sudden announcement last week, the group returns to the study room days later in full Laser Lotus garb to decompress after the shock of Pierce’s funeral. Chevy Chase made his unexpected cameo in the seaon premiere, but Community doesn’t sweep his absence under the rug. This episode directly engages with what Pierce’s permanent absence means to these characters and how they make sense of their world without him. Walton Goggins (Boyd Crowder on Justified) appears as Mr. Stone, a man hired by Pierce to conduct a formal inquest—a group polygraph test—in order to make sure no one in the group had something to do with his death. And then there’s the carrot dangling: to be eligible for Pierce’s bequeathments (including his fortune from Hawthorne Wipes), they must first pass a polygraph test. It’s deliberately manipulative, but the group will go ahead anyway. (The polygraph attendant gets some hilarious sniping commets when she editorializes along with revealing lies throughout the episode.)

Goggins is the best guest star of the season so far, because once he slips into questions by reading off of a script, it’s as though Pierce is back in the room antagonizing everyone. Pierce was an old codger, but he had the experience and compounded, lifelong sadness. He lashed out at everyone, got angry when he wasn’t included, but also genuinely cared about the others deep down. But in order to get to that moral center, first the group has to work down through sniping questions that reveal how much Pierce knew about each of them. Jeff collects trophies of sexual conquests; Abed is tracking everyone with a hidden locater device; Troy didn’t invent his secret handshake with Abed; Shirely put “Meat-Fu” in her sandwiches instead of tofu; Britta was high at the christening of Shirley’s youngest son; Annie once put amphetamines in the study group’s coffee in order to pass a final. That’s just a sample of the many, many truths to come out during the questions, but what’s so striking is that Goggins-as-Pierce merely sets the ball rolling with one of the scripted questions, then sits back to watch the chaos as friends tear each other apart over Netflix accounts, catfishing, and handicapped parking.

These characters bicker with each other constantly, and struggle to fully trust and accept each other warts and all. The best part of this second “Cooperative” episode is the rhythm of the dialogue, so snappy and seamless that the frustration and comedic shock builds naturally until everyone forgets that Mr. Stone is there, or that Pierce is gone. Is Pierce trying to tell them that he can come between them and mess things up from beyond the grave? Or is he acting as the ornery voice of reason one final time, showing them to forget petty insecurities and encouraging everyone to accept flaws as a part of life.

It all culminates in what might be the single greatest extended comedic sequence in the show’s history, at least from a dialogue level. Though not a monologue like the string of unrelated Winger speeches from “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” Walton Goggins speaks with very few interruptions as he reads out Pierce’s final statements, giving personalized bequeathments to each member of the study group, as well as a nitrogen-cooled cylinder of his sperm. It’s one of the funniest moments I can think of in the history of the show, and the whole time it was happening I couldn’t stop thinking how perfect it was for the character, and that it’s way better than Chase deserves after all the grief he caused on set when arguing with Harmon or making it uncomfortable for other cast members.

Some of the items are tame representations of friendship—the iPod Nano to Britta doesn’t have much significance. But more important are the final words that Pierce writes to each person, complimenting Britta’s passion, Shirley’s business acumen, Annie’s intelligence and so on. The show even makes one final brilliant reference to how famously Harmon and Chase didn’t get along, by having the last interaction between Stone and Abed (often times the surrogate for Harmon’s difficult and abrasive ways of approaching the world) boil down to misunderstanding. And each time the polygraph assistants drop in a cylinder of sperm, with horrible smoke emitting from it, the laughter builds and builds. But the time Goggins says “I leave you the obligatory sperm,” to Troy, I was in stitches, barely able to keep up with what was going on.

And then it takes an elegant turn into giving Troy an option to sail around the world in Pierce’s boat (the Childish Tycoon, in case the other allusions to his music career in real life weren’t obvious enough), which puts a somber button on what to that point has been one of the funniest episodes of television related to death I’ve ever seen. Troy has the opportunity to sail around the world and inherit Pierce’s fortune, and after everybody has dropped their secrets, he’s able to say that he’ll go for the money—another joke that ties into his music career in a tongue-in-cheek way—and  leave the show. The whole “heart of a hero” speech is ridiculous at face value, but Goggins does his best to sell it, and the study group is so shocked that the moment plays as a good cliffhanger.

There are some weak points in the episode. The idea that the group has a bunch of built up secrets and latent anger after spending what was supposed to be time apart between the fourth and fifth seasons seems suspicious. And for whatever reason, I’m just not buying into the Winger speeches this season, so Jeff’s final galvanizing moment didn’t really carry me through. But that final sequence, and the sheer number of hilarious lines traded around over the course of the episode had me in awe. This is something nobody predicted when Community got renewed and Dan Harmon was rehired.

Harmon has talked at great length on his podcast Harmontown about being nervous to go back to the show he created, but simultaneously viewing it as the ultimate challenge. Four episodes in, not only does Community feel like the show as envisioned by Harmon again, imbued with an unmistakably controlled voice, but after a year away Harmon has reinvigorated his writing staff to the point where they’ve churned out a couple very good episodes, a great messy one, and now this half-hour, which should be able to stand with the rest of the upper echelon episodes of Harmon’s first three seasons.


Extra Credit

My favorite Pierce episodes: “A Fistful Of Painballs,” “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” and “Aerodynamics Of Gender.”

Jonathan Banks is contracted to appear in 11 of the 13 episodes this season, so this is one of the two he won’t be in at least briefly.

“That’s easy for you to say…and for us to say.”

“When you were a child, did you ever kill a squirrel with a slingshot and were surprised that you felt nothing, and wondered if you capable of doing it to a human?”

“Is that why my review of The Grey is constantly changing?”
“Yes. Stop giving it four stars.”
“I like Liam Neeson!”
“Then send him a message about the roles he chooses.”

“You told me a hawk stole them! You exploited me, and made me believe in a slightly more magical world!"

“You’re Olympic pole-vaulting hopeful Brent Underjaw?”

“I have this idea for a movie. It’s about a guy who oversees polygraph tests. And the biggest obstacle is how good looking he is.”