"You know what would be funny? If the entire gang was puppets. Puppets who sing."
That seems to be all the deliberation that went into the construction of Thursday night's Community episode, the latest in the series' long string of high-concept turns, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy." If you han't already solidified your disappointment over the post-Dan Harmon era of this once mighty comedy show, this ep is bound to do it. A perfect example of everything that was lost in the transition from Harmon to replacement showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio, "Felt Surrogacy" is surface value schlock, trope abuse over trope desconstruction, and a perfect misunderstanding of everything that Community was crafted to represent, at its finest.
Less than 30 seconds after the opening credits, Dean Pelton enters a tight-lipped study room to institute a means of overcoming the mysterious awkwardness that has suddenly overtaken the group: puppet therapy! It's as abrupt and meaningless as that; unlike the animation format that swept the septet in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," there is no meaty subtext to the utilization of the odd medium. The dean's desire to play with a box of puppets is a strikingly thinly veil for the writers' desire to play with a box of puppets.
And so, a felt flashback to the gang's apparently traumatizing recent adventure through the Colorado woods unfurls. And all the while, as they sing (yes, they sing) and recount the bad memories that led them to a state of mutual discomfort, we're left to wonder, "Why, exactly, did they need to use puppets for this?"
They really didn't. Nothing seems accomplished by the medium, nothing is really said about it. It's just, quite clearly, an idea the staff thought might be funny and visually stimulating.
We're not here to claim that all of the high-concept episodes during Harmon's reign were entirely spot on — a handful missed the mark, "Regional Holiday Music" and "Digital Estate Planning" among them. But these are the outliers, the head-scratchers, the eps that made us wonder, "What did the network insist on shoving in/cutting out to produce what was probably, initially, a great take on musicals/video games/et al?" Season 4 has been filled to the brim with this breed of disappointment. Just as "Cooperative Calligraphy" is the epitome of everything that exemplified Community's golden era, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" is the epitome of everything that exemplies Community's dark age.
And it's not just the puppet medium to which the episode does no service, it's the characters. The gang blurts out (through song!) humiliating or shameful secrets while camping — thus resulting in the aforementioned embarrassment — that are moreover dismissed moments after they are mentioned. Some are jokes: Britta admitting she has never voted, Pierce fessing up to never having slept with Eartha Kitt. But a few are sincere: Shirley telling the gang that she was so enrapt by her mistrust of Andre that she accidentally left her kids at a supermarket while trying to tail a man who looked like Andre when she caught him with another woman. Jeff opened up about dating a woman with a young son, to whom he promised his attendance of a little league baseball game, only to ditch the pair and never call either one of them again. Both of these things are deep elements of the respective characters' haunting backstories. And both are handled flimsily at best.
All this, on top of the redundant theme of the gang having to learn, unlearn, and then relearn how much they love and need Greendale (this seems to happen every week now, doesn't it?), should convert all those still hanging on. If you do in fact maintain an adoration for Community, I applaud you. Any value you can find is flying way over the rest of our heads, so please do share your assessments in the comment section to cheer the lot of us up. Until then, we wade in our sorrow over a fallen great. Maybe we can use puppets to talk about our feelings on this one.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter