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Monkey Business: Community's Bottle Episode Shines

If you missed last night's episode of Community ("Cooperative Calligraphy"), written by Megan Ganz and directed by Joe Russo, you missed out on not just a hilarious and accomplished installment but the very best bottle episode ever to air on television.

The search for Annie's missing pen transformed the group into separate individuals, as paranoia and suspicion ripped our community asunder, accusations and frustrations rearing their ugly head as the gang shut themselves into the study room to figure out what fate befell that gel-grip purple pen.

It wasn't about the pen, of course. It was, as I said in my glowing advance review of "Cooperative Calligraphy," about the way in which something insignificant can become something monumental, how a mountain can be made of an anthill, how a pen can become the thing that divides a group. The pen, in this case, is most definitely more powerful than the sword. (And especially scissors, proven here.)

By stripping the show down to its most basic level--the study group--this episode turned the focus on the characters entirely, yet it retained that gonzo spirit that makes for the very best Community episodes, an experimental drive that's felt in the bones of every encounter. Here, it's utilized in the way that the action escalates, how Annie's simple accusation of theft threatens to derail the entire collective itself.

By making the episode about the investigation and the way in which the characters attempt to either shift the burden of blame to someone else or declare their innocence, it offered the opportunity to delve deeper into the character's inner lives, demanding that they empty their pockets and their bags and display to the world the baggage that they're carting around.

For each, just what they had inside the little world they carry around revealed elements of their characters in ways heretofore unseen. I loved that Troy carried around a pillow in his backpack rather than any supplies (something that made him Jeff's hero), that Abed's notebook revealed that he was charting the women's menstrual cycles (hence, why he kept handing Annie chocolate) for the good of the group, that Britta had six condoms and a used q-tip among her possessions... and that Shirley's bag contained physical evidence of a secret.

Shirley's "comically huge" purse has been a stable of Community since the beginning and Yvette Nicole Brown wields the bag like a combination of carry-all, security blanket, and soldier's shield. She's never away from that bag and there are few activities that require her to remove it from her shoulder or lap. But that sense of protection, of keeping her enemies at bay, was brutally ripped away from her, as were her secrets.

Shirley may be pregnant.

The reveal that she was carting around a home pregnancy test (You Know Girl!, a HPT marketed towards black women) not only picked up the dangling plotline from "Epidemiology," in which Shirley slept with Ken Jeong's Ben Chang but also paid off Abed's menstrual cycle gag as well. Cycling backwards, he knows that Shirley couldn't have conceived when she hooked up with her ex-husband (who will be played by Malcolm Jamal Warner) on Labor Day because she was ovulating on Halloween. Cue Troy, who realizes the importance of that nonsensical cell phone call from Chang during the zombie attack.

Troy knows exactly who the father of Shirley's (possible) baby is.

But it wasn't just the truth about Shirley's pregnancy scare that came out of this entire purple pen affair: in fact several truths emerged, including just what Shirley thinks about Britta and Annie deep down inside (or at least in times of stress what emerges), calling them Jezebels and the gang stripped down in more ways than one, removing their clothes to dislodge any concealed writing implements and casting off any artifice. (Hell, even Pierce's leg casts came off, revealing a collection of tongs, Slim Jims, and other impromptu scratching devices.)

But the fact remains that no one in this group would steal from the others. There are bonds of trust, which while tested, are regained by the end of the episode. Jeff is right to think that there is a miraculous explanation for what occurred rather than a mundane one. Why didn't, as Troy suggests, a ghost take Annie's pen? Why isn't that possible, given everything that the group has been through? His improvised ghost story reunites the group, giving Jeff and Annie an opportunity for a stolen smile. The pen is a principle, but it's also a bit of poetry, really.

And then there's the true culprit: Troy's former pet monkey (a.k.a. "Annie's Boobs"), freed by Abed forever ago, who is the villainous magpie here, stealing not only Annie's pens but whatever it can get its hands on: a Troy and Abed in the Morning mug, Troy's student ID, a Greendale Human Being doll, a deflated balloon. It's an explanation that's both in keeping with the gleefully absurd tone of the series and which defies the group's (and the audience's) expectations. There is an explanation in the end and it's just as miraculous and mundane as possible.

(It's worth noting that you can see a tiny monkey hand swipe the pen early on in the episode. As Dean Pelton distracts the group with his adorable puppy--and a promise of a puppy parade on the quad--you can see the paw reach up and grab the pen at the end of the table. Blink and you miss it.)

As a bottle episode, "Cooperative Calligraphy" was truly aces, an opportunity to put an enormous amount of pressure on the group and watch them crack under the strain as well as a display of the innate elasticity of Community's tone and scope. As I said in my advance review, this is the rare show that can give us puppy parades and purple pens, space adventures and zombies. But it's also a show that can give us the funny and the profound, the raucous and the tender, the snarky and the touching in equal measure. These writers, it seems, are not monkeying around.

Next week on Community ("Conspiracy Theories and Soft Defenses"), when Dean Pelton starts checking class schedules, he discovers that Jeff has listed a class that does not exist; Abed and Troy build an elaborate blanket fort.

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