I know I’m a little late here, but I wanted to watch this episode twice, because when my opinion clashes so strongly with critical consensus, I like to make sure my initial impressions weren’t objectively wrong. As much as I might like to report that I’m now on board with the multitudes declaring “Cooperative Calligraphy” the best Community episode ever, I maintain that the episode, while clever, is not nearly that good.
My opinion of Calligraphy was improved slightly by a second viewing, and even more so by a re-watch of last season’s “Contemporary American Poultry”, which is referenced throughout the episode, most directly in the revelation of the culprit. I enjoyed being able to spot the moment Annie’s pen was stolen on the re-watch, thanks to the internet pointing it out to me. I didn’t mind Abed constantly referring to the “bottle episode” concept, even though it seemed a little too inside baseball for me. More irksome was the reference (in the form of the name of Jeff’s cancelled date “Gwynnifer”) to creator Dan Harmon’s ongoing Twitter-feuds. (Gwynnifer is a troll who constantly berates Community’s “all-white” audience, and Harmon is a surprisingly confrontational tweeter. Just this past weekend he severely criticized Modern Family for “spoon-feeding plot points to the camera.”)
There were some laughs, definitely, and I appreciated the focus on character after so much time spent doing bigger-budget reference-heavy episodes theoretically designed to capture a bigger audience, presumably those who had encountered the show through hearing about last season’s brilliant paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”.
Well, last night I ripped through the last six episodes of Community: Season One and since that includes both “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare” I feel comfortable arguing that those two episodes work much better than “Cooperative Calligraphy.” I think the reason for this is that they were surrounded by better episodes. Last season Community was stronger week-to-week than it has been so far this season, and every episode developed characters and enriched their relationships. The mob-movie references in “Poultry” actually served as an avenue for insights into Abed’s character. Even “Modern Warfare” was really a contrivance to get the Britta-Jeff sexual tension out into the open and resolved.
Compare that to this season’s “Basic Rocket Science” and “Epidemiology”. In the former the only character note we got was Annie’s supposed sabotage in order to transfer, which was an inherently unbelievable plot and was so half-assed it was impossible to take it seriously. The show got a lot of buzz for its zombie themed Halloween episode, but only Troy and Abed were really given anything to do.
It’s still relatively early in the season, and it’s certainly possible that “Cooperative Calligraphy” is just a signal to regular viewers that the show is done casting a wide net looking to evade cancellation and is ready to get back to what it does well. I hope so, because right now I’m missing so much of what I really like about the show. I miss the classroom, the community-college specific problems, and I miss Britta, who hasn’t had a hell of a lot to do so far.