12
Apr
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 9
Intro to Felt Surrogacy
Jordan
Maybe I've been conditioned to think too much when it comes to Community. After three seasons where thematic depth and character complexity were the show's stock in trade, its possible that I come to the show with expectations that are entirely out of whack with what its now trying to accomplish. There's a chance my expectations have simply never adjusted in the way many fans of the show seem to have shifted their own, and that I enjoy this new formulation less as a result. For some of you, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" may have been a fun, care-free episode of Community a delightful, puppet-based romp through our cast's friendships. But for me, a nagging question kept me from ever engaging with the episode: Namely, what the fuck does the show think its doing right now?

We've talked a lot this season about my suspicion that the new showrunners simply don't get the show they took over, or at least, that their conception of it is so different from what it used to be that it has ceased to be Community at all in the way we used to use that title. The show has used its "genre" episodes in entirely different ways all season, and it has yet to touch on a use of the format that comes anywhere near the heights of the show's former glory. When the show Community used to be did a high-concept episode, it worked not simply as a reference to a genre or a specific piece of pop culture, it worked on a thematic level that rooted all of the meta-textual zaniness in real world character interactions and ongoing themes of the show. "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" are not just a Goodfellas and Rankin-Bass parody, respectively, they are stories about Abed's struggle to connect with others, and about the social isolation of pop culture obsession and of Christmas. "Modern Warfare" is a series of action movie gags, sure, but its also about the sexual chaos of Jeff and Britta's tension, and about the way each of them grew over the show's first season. "Epidemiology 206" isn't just "the zombie episode," its about Troy's evolution from insecure jock to the group's hero and moral center. And perhaps the show's most high concept episode of all time, "Remedial Chaos Theory," isn't simply an episode that plays with narrative structure and uses alternate timelines, its also fundamentally about the role each person plays in the study group, for better and for worse. There were missteps in this format even in the Harmon-era ("Basic Rocket Science" is supposed to be a story about Annie's loyalty to Greendale being tested, for example, but its mostly just an Apollo 13 gag machine), but the aim behind even the failed high-concept episodes was to take something generally relatable, like a pop culture trope or narrative cliche, and use it to illustrate something hyper-specific about these characters and their own journeys. In doing so, the "meta" episodes this show tried to pull off usually told us something about the characters and the themes of Community, but they also clarified the reasons some of these genres propagate in our culture, and the universality of many of their ideas.

All of this is prelude to a very basic question I suspect no one involved in this episode ever really asked: why are our characters puppets this week? The answer to that question can't just be "we haven't done a puppet episode yet" or "the genre of puppet-based entertainment is ripe for a satirical take," or at least, it can't be those things if we are still watching Community. The show feigns in the direction of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" with a throw away joke about puppet therapy being the new hip psychology trend and a way to break through barriers and get people to open up, but that isn't really what this episode is about. "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" is about the characters opening up only insofar as the characters actually open up during its runtime. What this episode is really about is its gimmick: turning the cast into puppets and taking them on a magical journey, complete with songs, dances, and cameos from Jason Alexander and Sara Bareilles. As some sort of Muppet-homage, this all kind of works (and you would be hard-pressed to find a bigger Muppet fan than myself), but as an episode of Community, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" is my greatest nightmare--a parody episode with an empty core, a lifeless, mindless gag machine without any real thematic depth or character consciousness.

If this episode worked for you, I suspect it worked for one of two reasons, both of which are perfectly valid but neither of which I completely agree with. Either you liked the episode because you liked the puppet gag and aren't particularly concerned with the show having a lot of thematic depth. I can see that, and in fact, I imagine the average fan of Community likes the high-concept episodes because of their pop culture references. This is not a problem, this just means we look for different things when the show goes to this well. Alternatively, you may have liked the episode because you think it did have the thematic underpinnings I've been mourning for the last several paragraphs. Maybe you bought into the trauma of the gang's experience in the woods, and the story's "these people care about each other enough to open up" button made your heart swell. If it worked for you thematically, it worked for you, and I am not here to tell you it shouldn't have. I am here to explain why it didn't work for me, though, and here's a big part of that: this new version of Community is increasingly a show that strives for the illusion of depth more than actual depth. If you think I am being hard on it, consider the major thematic beat that each episode this season has hit on. Again and again, the show has gone to the well of "Gee, these people actually care about each other!" I don't think this is an invalid message for the show, and in fact its arguable this is the message of the show, even in the Harmon era, but it does feel pat to me, especially in its execution during season four. We have spent three years with these people, and they have spent three years admitting to each other again and again that they care about one another in spite of their flaws. This is a sitcom, and that means its greatest themes are going to be repeated early and often. But what the show had gotten very good at in the Harmon era that this new iteration lacks is at using that repetitiveness as its own theme, as a comment on the uncertain and fleeting nature of change. Under the new regime, the show seems content to largely hit the reset button each week, and let the gang learn again and again that they like each other. It's like season four of Community has become a giant, unintended, high-concept tribute to Groundhog Day.

Just last week I was talking about all of the things "Herstory of Dance" did well, and the various ways it convinced me not to give up hope. Seeing the preview for this episode, I commented then that "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" might dash all of those hopes, and maybe that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe the episode really is that far off-mark. I suspect I will hear from some of you (either in the comments, on Twitter, or in my everyday life) about the fact that I am too hard on the new version of the show, or that I am in some sense tone-deaf to the things it is doing well. I welcome this conversation. I would love nothing more than to be convinced that Community still has things to offer me, and can once again be the show I loved so deeply, or at least a show I can unabashedly enjoy for its own distinct pleasures. But until I hear the argument, color me skeptical that this show will ever give me what I need from it.

I entered season four optimistically, with the hope that the show would be, if not what I once loved, then at least its own creature, a completely new take on the material that would win me over. And make no mistake, I would love that to be the case. I don't dislike season four of Community because it isn't like Dan Harmon's version of the show. That I could live with, and that I've been preparing myself for since last May. No, I dislike this season of television because it refuses to admit it isn't the same show, because it tries, and fails, to ape its predecessor and thus weekly rubs in my face how much I have lost. I don't see this season as an act of creative failure so much as an act of artistic cowardice. Port and Guarascio could have made their own Community, and they could have made something worth watching. Instead, they have clung to a faulty conception of what the show is and what it means, and in the process have made a lifeless, empty husk of a thing I once loved. Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, and if so, Dan Harmon should be deeply honored by what the show has been this season. But a bad impression, however earnestly its adopted, doesn't improve its quality simply for trying. Slipping on the mask of depth and making the motions they think Harmon would serves only to puff up the show's creator, and to point out how little actual creation is going into its current iteration.

Grade: C

Notes:

-"Excuse me, let me just grab that thing that is definitely not a whip..."

-I like how excited the tour is to meet Magnitude. And that he is part of the tour. Really, I like all things Magnitude. I recognize this is yet another example of the show coasting on its former glories, but, you know, "Pop pop."

-"I had a dream it would end this way." Callback!

-"Damn you, Vicki!"

-"I did see Blue Man Group! I just didn't get it! Why can't they talk? They have so much in common!"
Tags: Community
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