‘Community’ Season 4, Episode 9 Recap: The Darkest Timeline Update

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After creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dismissed from his role as showrunner at the end of Season 3, Community‘s loyal fans feared its departure would plunge the show into what Abed Nadir would surely call “the darkest timeline.” But despite our concerns, we hold out hope that the new showrunners and their stable of writers are able to make the best of this worst possible role of the dice. This week’s episode, “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” finds the study group using “puppet therapy” to work through the unfortunate after-effects of an off-campus outing.

This week’s show, which we’ve been anticipating for weeks as “the puppet episode,” is a bit of an oddity—and not just because it’s mostly enacted by puppets. After several weeks of flailing, last week’s episode was the season’s best to date, which meant that its follow-up would either have to live up to its high quality, or pale badly in comparison. What’s peculiar about “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” is how it does neither. It doesn’t have the tight pace, seamless construction, or barrage of big laughs we were treated to last week—truth be told, this viewer only laughed out loud three or four times.

But damnit, those puppets. It’s awfully hard to kick too hard against an episode with adorable, singing puppets.

And this is the genius of a gimmick episode: you can use the novelty factor to overcome problems in other areas. Jason Alexander’s presence, for example, was welcome but ultimately a piffle; he appears so briefly that you wonder why they bothered. Chang also appears to have been an afterthought—we’re just treading water, at this point, with a character that needs some forward movement. And though the cast is filled with lovely singing voices, I’m still not quite sure why there were songs at all, except that maybe anything with Muppet-type characters has to have some musical numbers?

These holes are easy to poke at, and in a conventional, live-action episode, they’d matter. But those puppets go a long way, forgiveness-wise. The designs are ingenious (Puppet Jeff’s eyebrows are perfect), the puppetry skillful, and their adventures in the woods are charming. The episode may not be great, but it’s likable—which means that this time, the unearned emotional beats that have sunk lesser episodes work anyway, because of all the goodwill you get when you wave felt puppets around and have them sing. It may not be honorable, but it’s a fact, so there you have it.

And, for what it’s worth, the central narrative premise—of secrets told and now regretted—is a pretty juicy one, even if writer Gene Hong doesn’t quite milk it for all it’s worth. Hong is another of this season’s new writers, his résumé dominated by the likes of Friends with Benefits (the short-lived TV show one) and the much-reviled Jonah Hill cartoon Allen Gregory. But there’s all kinds of factors to offset the shakiness of this week’s script: the charming puppets, the all-out performances (an element that hasn’t gotten proper credit in this space), the gentleness of the conclusion. And whether they fit or not, there are some pretty witty lyrics in those songs; this viewer particularly appreciated the couplet that rhymed “adventure” with “denture.”

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • I remain irritated that they’re doing so little with the Troy/Britta thing, but “If we fly to heaven, please don’t tell my grandpa about me and Britta!” is a great line.
  • “Treatin’ me like Judas, judgin’ me like Judy.”
  • Annie’s darkest secret: “How I… trail off… from time to time…”
  • Great side-of-the-frame gag: the way the Dean Pelton puppet eases in to hold the Jeff puppet as they fade to a flashback.

LOWLIGHTS:

  • I see what they’re doing with that pre-credit scene. It doesn’t work.
  • Neither do the end credits—put behind-the-scenes and outtakes stuff online and on DVDs. The little montage we got is mirthless and (sorry, forgive me for what I’m about to say, and maybe read it in the Comic Book Guy voice) shatters the fourth wall in a manner antithetical to the program.