‘Community’ Season 5 Episode 4 Recap: “Cooperative Polygraphy”

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Those lucky enough to get screeners for last night’s Community had been hyping it in a big, albeit spoiler-free, way for weeks before it aired. So going into “Cooperative Polygraphy,” I was expecting something big: yet another paintball free-for-all, maybe, or one of the hyper-specific parodies that’s become one of the show’s specialties. But this episode is the perfect counterpoint to last week’s showy take on the David Fincher crime flick. Where “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” completely altered the look of the show to fit another filmmaker’s aesthetic, “Cooperative Polygraphy” strips Community down to its bare minimum, leaving a group dynamic that’s unmistakably the brainchild of Dan Harmon. Despite taking place entirely in the study room, “Cooperative Polygraphy” never feels claustrophobic. The tangled relationships between these characters and their near-infinite comic potential are all Community needs to land its funniest, most effective installment yet of Harmon 2.0.

The premise of the episode even manages to redeem the weakest element of “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics”: the sudden news of Pierce’s death, an important piece of information Jason Bailey noted felt air-dropped into an otherwise intact script. Here, we see that though it may not have been as well-integrated into the plot as it could have, Pierce’s passing serves as a setup for a Westing Game-style investigation into the death of a very rich man, with the potential for proven non-murderers to cash out their share of Pierce’s estate. (I’m not actually sure The Westing Game is the most relevant reference here, but it’s the one that immediately came to mind. Blame elementary school book reports.) The inquest is conducted by guest star Walton Goggins using a lie detector and predictably un-PC questions written by Pierce himself.

Within minutes, it becomes obvious that the “inquest” is basically a series of embarrassing revelations about how each member of the group has screwed someone, or many someones, over. Shirley’s been serving Britta “meat-fu” instead of tofu to save money. Britta showed up high to Shirley’s kid’s baptism. Troy got his and Abed’s special handshake from a YouTube video. Abed’s installed GPS trackers on everybody to keep tabs on them at all times. Jeff sees through it, but shuts up as soon as it’s revealed he has a stockpile of hookup trophies—including a pair of Britta’s panties, destroying her vision of “a slightly more magical world” where hawks make off with lingerie. And just like that, Pierce has initiated study group meltdown from beyond the grave as his lava lamp spirit receptacle thingie bubbles on.

But as always, a Jeff Winger Monologue™ saves the day, this time with the dubiously logical thesis statement, “If we’re no better than Pierce, and Pierce is no worse than us, then no one’s really that bad.” As much as a trope (and an uneven one at that) the Jeff speech is on Community, this one feels earned. It’s partly because the speech itself has a message that keeps it from becoming too treacly and self-serious, and partly because the litany of confessions that follows is so spot-on. Annie’s sincerity when she cops to inventing an “ethnically specific vehicle” instead of admitting she dented Jeff’s car is heartwarming, but it’s still in the name of scrabbling for a dead misogynist/racist/everything-ist’s money.

Speaking of, Pierce’s millions end up being a satisfying solution to the Donald Glover Conundrum. Though he, along with every other member of the group, gets a canister of “obligatory sperm,” Troy Barnes ends up with an inheritance way better than Britta’s iPod or Jeff’s Scotch: $14.3 million in company stocks. The one condition is that Troy sail around the world first, which he surprises everyone by agreeing to with minimal resistance.

We’ve still got one episode left to say goodbye, but this is the beginning of the end of Troy’s arc. Which makes “Cooperative Polygraphy” even more impressive: it’s a double farewell episode that says goodbye to Pierce and Troy by distilling the essence of the original Greendale study group into a single episode before it dissipates forever. Chevy Chase is definitely gone for good, and Glover likely is as well. In their place is at least one new member, in the form of Jonathan Banks’s cranky criminology professor. But Chase and Glover were irreplaceable parts of a messy tangle of dysfunctional personalities that somehow survives as a friend group despite their gaping flaws. That chemistry’s now forever altered, although if there’s anything “Cooperative Polygraphy” proves, it’s that Dan Harmon has the chops to make an updated ensemble work.