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Bottle Episode: An Advance Review of Community's Exquisite "Cooperative Calligraphy"

It's said that in a murder investigation, there are no secrets. The lives of everyone, from the victim to those around them, are laid bare under the harsh light of scrutiny. If you're concealing something, it will come out.

The same holds true for a different sort of investigation, this time surrounding a missing purple pen belonging to Annie (Alison Brie) on this week's genius episode of Community ("Cooperative Calligraphy"). While the episode is ostensibly about the quest to track down this errant stylus, it's the bonds of the study group that come tumbling down when the finger of suspicion is pointed at each of them.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the very best bottle episode ever produced.

For those of you who don't know, "bottle episode" is a technical term for an episode of television that's produced in one single location. It cuts down on the bottom line (something studios like quite a lot) as there aren't additional sets, location shots, or typically dayplayer actors either. And it helps balance the budget against an expensive episode (like, say, "Epidemiology") by being relatively inexpensive to produce. On other shows, this might be the episode where the characters get trapped in an elevator or an earthquake/tornado/Justin Bieber concert leaves them unable to leave the basement.

In the case of Community, it's where a seemingly mundane occurrence--the disappearance of Annie's gel-grip purple pen--ripples outwards to rupture the group's collective spirit amid a hot-tempered investigation. Would one of these people knowingly steal from one another? If it was an accident, would the culprit come forward? And why is one pen of such monumental importance?

Which is where "Cooperative Calligraphy" truly shines as the missing pen becomes emblematic of something far greater. As in the best type of bottle episode--and, yes, full use of that terminology is used, unsurprisingly, by Abed (Danny Pudi)--the MacGuffin of the plot isn't what's truly important here. In this case, the lockdown in the study room, an attempt by lead investigator Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) to get to the bottom of the issue, is a device that elevates the circumstances for the group. And when you put an object under such intense pressure, it often explodes dramatically, as it does here.

Look for everything to be swept bare, from the secrets harbored by several players to the characters themselves here as the investigation intensifies. Eccentricities, from Abed's, um, truly inspired behavioral chart of the women, to the larger-than-life handbag carried by Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) are placed under the microscope. The straw-enabled wheelchair (don't ask) used by Pierce (Chevy Chase)--following last week's trampoline accident--is used for comedic effect, while the holier-than-thou attitude of Britta (Gillian Jacobs) becomes a rallying cry for civil liberties in the face of a fascist state.

By the end of the episode, several uncomfortable truths will have been dragged into the light (no, I'm not revealing just what those might be), friends will turn on one another, bonds will be restored, and time will be given to an exploration of matters most mundane and miraculous. In fact, it's the resolution of the central mystery--brought about by a stray comment made by Troy (Donald Glover)--that unites those two polar opposites in dramatic and hysterical fashion.

"Cooperative Calligraphy" is about more than just what these characters have in their bags (though I do find that to be pretty damn interesting) or where that pen went. It's about how any collective can be derailed by suspicion and how it often takes something seemingly tiny and insignificant to magnify the issues of a group.

In a season overflowing with genre-busting hilarity, it's a reminder that Community can find the comedy in both the high-concept and the seemingly quotidian. In the hands of this inventive and imaginative series' talented cast and crew, zombie attacks and "space" travel can sit side by side with an entire episode about a missing pen. Heart and humor can co-exist quite nicely, thank you very much, as can pain and a puppy parade.

All of which goes to prove that this bottle (episode) is far from empty.

Community airs Thursday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Bella Spruce said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bella Spruce said…
Zombies and space simulators and pens, oh my! Community is absolutely the perfect blend of the absurd and the mundane. It's weird. It's goofy. It's hilarious. And I love it!
Anonymous said…
Just read the "you might like" article on NBC's disastrous season linked on this page and was HORRIFIED to learn that the Big Bang theory is crushing Community!! BBT is pretty funny for a cheesy comedy but Community is the funniest thing to hit television since 30 Rock. I haven't been able to get through an episode without physical pain from laughing so hard. Who doesn't relate to this show?
Anonymous said…
As an "actual" geek, BBT is insultingly insipid. "Community" and "30 Rock" are about the ONLY funny SitComs on TV right now.

But, the 2008 "Doctor Who" episode "Midnight" is the best bottle episode ever produced. Seriously. (Tolja I was an "actual" geek ...)

"Community" will have a tough time topping it. But I'm sure gunna watch!
Unknown said…
I love both Dr Who and Community, but I'd have to say the best bottle show ever done would have to be the Breaking Bad season 3 episode, "Fly". One of the best hours of TV I've ever seen, directed by Rian Johnson, who directed the excellent movie "Brick".
K said…
I dunno if I would consider "Midnight" a bottle episode, since there was a little bit set at the spa location, or whatever it was supposed to be, in space. But that was a really damn good episode!!

Yay for more bottle episodes! Nothing but pure comedy.
Anonymous said…
@ wildsoda

But that's a 44 minute drama, can't compare the two, Community barely hits the 21 minute mark!

So excited for this episode.
Matt Wilstein said…
Great episode, loved that this gave the cast a chance to all take their clothes off:
Mr.Omniscient said…
The best episode of Community so far. And for those who had seen the episode already, I'd suggest that you rewind your TIVO to the part where the principal pops in the door holding a puppy inviting them to watch the parade. The culprit actually made an appearance while committing the crime! Open your eyes people and you'll see. :-)

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