That was pretty fun.
Although I've been feeling a little more positive lately about Community's rocky fourth season, the show has certainly struggled to find a balance between paying respect to history and moving onto something new. I'd honestly be fine watching a version of the show that continued to play out like the last few episodes for another season or two, but I'm happy to say that "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" made it seem like the current creative regime is neither beholden by what came before nor playing things too safe. As of late, Community has hit a few wonderful emotional beats and rediscovered a long-gone warmth while still struggling in the humor department. And that's why "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" was the best effort of the season to date: It finally melded those sentimental moments with funny jokes.
To be honest, I'd been dreading this episode ever since I first heard about it. The few times that Community's fourth season has tried to pull off high-concept episodes or even smaller sequences (like in the animated bit from the season premiere), the results have been strained at best, and that approach simply begs for unfair comparisons to the Harmon era. On top of that, the idea of an entire episode dedicated to the study group becoming puppets just seemed especially precious, and an unnecessary representation of the show's desperation.
Yet, like the show's best high-concept homages, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" somehow managed to make the use of puppets feel logical and purposeful. The Dean would absolutely have puppet versions of the study group (and would certainly give Puppet Jeff a whip), and the gang appeared to be in such a miserable state that I believed they would be willing to try something that was, on the surface, so silly. Was it a little ridiculous? Of course. But was it any more ridiculous than Abed believing that the world had turned Claymation, or that Chang would successfully capture the Dean and carry out a insurrection assisted by brat kids? Not really.
"Intro to Felt Surrogacy" fully committed to the generic boundaries of The Muppets or other kid-oriented shows, complete with whimsical dialogue, numerous songs, and a simple lesson about friendship. Back when Community was doing these kinds of episodes on the reg, the show never "just" did a documentary episode or a paintball episode; it embraced the plot or genre's conventions and found a way to still tell a story about Greendale and/or the study group. Unlike the documentary episode earlier in this season, this one made great use of the gimmick framework and told an effective (if basic) tale about how much the group members care about each another. And from a production standpoint, the puppet conceit allowed the episode to do things that the show can no longer afford (sequences on location in the woods), or that would play differently in live-action form (Britta and Annie enjoying one another's company, putting seven people in a hot air balloon). Ultimately, a concept that seemed really problematic and worrisome ended up working quite well on every level.
Still, despite the presence of two different puppets for each member of the study group, the most impressive thing about this episode was that it was actually funny. For whatever reason, the current writing staff has failed to produce the kind of jokes the show used to deliver, even in its worst episodes. (Which I guess reveals how much Harmon punched up the jokes as well as crafted the impressive plots—either that, or it reveals how the terrible work environment he created resulted in funny lines.) I don't like listing all the bits I found funny, but I laughed out loud at the puppet whip, Britta and Jeff's jabs about each other's sexual habits, the line about Professor Duncan's absence, and basically everything Donald Glover did while he had the puppet on his hand. None of those moments were all-timers, but it's nice to see that the show can tell jokes that aren't just name-focused puns (though those continued, and they seriously need to stop).
In addition to humor that clicked, the emotional beats felt comparable to what most of this season has been doing with the characters, and that's totally fine by me. I know there are a lot of fans out there who want the show to be more emotionally complex and "darker," and I understand that. My favorite episode of Community will always be "Mixology Certification," and that's one of the more depressing efforts of the Harmon era. But with that said, at some point I grew tired of the show's reliance on big group blow-outs to reinforce (and, eventually, to comment on) how much these characters feel attached to one another, despite their dysfunction. You know what I kind of enjoy? Characters who legitimately like and care for one another, and who aren't afraid to admit it. This version of the show might be softer and less interesting, but at times, especially tonight, that makes me a little happier.
Though "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" was absolutely a season—and series—highlight, I'm now more curious than ever to see what it means for the rest of Community's fourth season. This was the last episode filmed, but I don't believe it was the last one written, which means there could be a few more compelling episodes ahead of us to close out Season 4. Or, maybe this was just a one-off apex. But even if it was, I'm certainly happy we were able to see it.
– The songs were so good! The show offered a few original songs earlier in the season as well, so amid all the turmoil, Community has at least done that well in 2013.
– No Pierce in the study room because of Chevy Chase's departure from the show. This episode basically suggested that Pierce is lost out in the woods or totally traumatized from what happened out there, which is going to make for weird times when he returns next week, probably like nothing happened.
– I hope Jason Alexander got paid well for his appearance. He was fine.
– The group's secrets were pretty tame, and other than Jeff's, a little too in-line with their Season 1 selves for my liking. Really, Annie?
– Ken Jeong's work with the puppet was totally random, but effective.
What'd you think of "Intro to Felt Surrogacy?"