Community is often criticized for choosing laughs over its characters who lack soul and emotional stakes because they are said to be caricatures existing only to smirk at the audience through the camera lens. This week’s offering, “Cooperative Polygraphy”, squashes this criticism by delivering a character-centred episode of hilarity, depth and heart.
It’s an episode that couldn’t exist without the foundation built from the first three seasons (I refuse to consider season 4 in this discussion). For me the most interesting episodes of Community involve the exploration of the bonds formed by the seven member study group. The friendships formed between Jeff, Annie, Abed, Troy, Shirley, Britta and Pierce are as real as anything on television (camera winking aside) and have often moved me to tears both happy and sad. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is a look into what happens to these bonds when one (or more) of the group members are taken away. The group met at that cusp in their lives where your friends become family and the loss of a family member raises the emotional stakes to a higher place than Community has gone before. Pierce was the outsider of the study group, always looking in. He desperately wanted to be closer to the group but his meanness kept him on the periphery. Like most bullies his meanness masked vulnerability. His insults provided many moments of humour but also revealed moments of pain. In Spanish 101 when Jeff bails on their Spanish assignment the way in which Pierce shrinks into himself when Jeff leaves the room reveals an achingly lonely man in need of a friend. He plays a “type” to be sure, but what Community does so well is reveal the layers and complexities within that “type”. Everyone in the study group plays a “type”. It’s creates a dynamic that is immediately relatable but deceivingly complicated. Because Pierce was on the outside he was able to observe the group, taking stock of their deepest darkest secrets. It was a running gag that Pierce would use this information turn the group against each other. However, “Cooperative Polygraphy” reveals that Pierce was saving up some of these secrets and their revelation in tonight’s episode provides some of the shows funniest and most touching moments.
The episode opens following Pierce’s Laser Lotus Buddhist funeral and takes place entirely in the study room where these seven characters first met and have grown and changed together. It is the last time they will all be in the same space. Although Pierce is technically dead, Walton Goggins acts as Peirce’s surrogate and impressively fills the role with his deadpan delivery of Pierce’s last wishes. Pierce has gathered the group to conduct an inquest to determine whether one of the group members murdered him. On the surface it appears that this inquest (complete with a polygraph) is Pierce’s last opportunity to mess with the them. His inquiry includes asking Jeff if he’s gay, Britta if her sexual fantasies about him involve murder and Shirley if it’s true that she is a “platinum level donor with the pro-life organization prenatal patriot’s dot org?” Of course Pierce knows this revelation will enrage Britta and she responds as he’d hoped with, “If I wanted the government in my uterus I’d fill it with oil and Hispanic voters.” From here the inquest devolves into bickering as the personalities of the study group bounce around and pile up on each other just as Pierce had planned. There are many skeletons Pierce has left to reveal as he also outs Troy and Abed for using Jeff’s Netflix account, Shirley for using meat – fo in her vegetarian sandwiches and Jeff for keeping a pair of Britta’s panties.
The advantage to having Goggins stand in for Pierce is that the group lets him push forward. The “real” Pierce would have been shut down much more quickly. As the revelations continue to fly furiously back and forth the show takes an unexpectedly emotional turn. Before the last round of questions Jeff requests a moment to let the group “sit in [their] own filth” before pressing forward. This pause causes Annie to question why they haven’t yet learned to be “better people”. Jeff responds that they were led into “this mess by thinking there was such a thing as better people,” and they finally discover that they are no better than Pierce and Pierce is no better than them. Until this point Pierce has been the scapegoat for the group’s anger. He was labeled the “bad” one. The one who causes trouble. The revelation that everyone in the group has the capacity to be “a monster” is given an uncomfortable beat to sink in as the study group realizes that they have all been horrible to each other. They decide to “empty their tanks of lies” since they have sunk so low there is now chance of redeeming their friendships. When their lie tanks are empty Goggins gets the go ahead to proceed with the final round of questions. He asks Britta, “Did you know that you hate yourself more than you should and that your passion inspired me?” Her response of “no” strikes a surprisingly emotional cord as it is clear that Pierce has offered up a secret that will forever change the way Britta sees herself. Goggins dispenses similarly touching and astute “secrets” to every member of the group (and also gives them all a cylinder of his frozen semen). His last secret is for Troy. He asks, “Do you know you possess the greatest gift on earth, the heart of a hero and it is up to you not to waste it like I did?” He then offers him his shares of the Hawthorne wipes company valued at over 14 million dollars if he agrees to sail around the world to “become his own man”. (As an aside the sailing trip is a convenient way to get Troy off the show but it also provides as heart wrenching moment of goodbye between him and Abed). Pierce knew what each of his friends needed in that moment. To know that someone has been secretly observing all that is good in them is a special thing for anybody but it is an act of kindness that Pierce himself would have held especially close. The fact that he gave this gift to his friends shows his amazing capacity for growth, that none of his friends knew existed.
Setting the entire episode in the study room works on two levels. On the surface it is a classic bottle episode and a fitting send off and Pierce. However, as it does so well, Community uses a classic TV trope effectively to explore something more meaningful. The space is a reminder of where the group started both as friends; and as individuals with goals and hopes for the future. Pierce understands the fear of being at a place in your life where you haven’t lived up to your own expectations. As a character so desperate to contribute something, anything, to the group it is especially touching that his revelations give his friends value and comfort, and for the first time Pierce admits himself to the inside of the study group.