Apr 15, 2013

Community: "Intro to Felt Surrogacy"

By Nico Danilovich

When it comes to last week’s “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: it was a weird episode.  Unfortunately, unlike “Digital Estate Planning” or “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, this episode ultimately failed to explore its markedly different medium in an effective way while also telling an engaging story. Lacking a proper setup, high stakes or the necessary thematic elements to connect the special medium to the plot, the story was simply a mess. The episode was slightly saved, however, by great moments of humor sprinkled throughout and a compelling climax. The synthesis of all these elements resulted in an episode that will be remembered for both its uniqueness and general mediocrity.

From the very beginning, you could tell this was going to be an off episode; the cold opening was about thirty seconds of the study group sitting at the table, avoiding each other’s glances and staying completely silent. First of all, BORING. The writers couldn’t at least have had the Dean or Chang enter at the very end to give us just one punch line? More problematic is the question of why a group of friends who are so embarrassed to be around one another made the decision to be in each other’s company when they don’t need to be. If they’re really so embarrassed to be around one another, why aren’t they going about their regular activities at Greendale and doing everything in their power to avoid one another? Now that would be an interesting cold opening. Furthermore, each character only thought their own secret was revealed. For some characters, such as Troy, who admitted to starting a fire that destroyed fifty acres of land, the idea that the whole group would feel awkward makes sense. But as for others, such as Britta, who only admitted to never voting, it makes zero sense that the whole group would be unwilling to even look at each other. Why would Britta not realize this and say something?

The biggest problem with the cold opening, however, wasn’t the fact that it was boring or unrealistic, but that it robbed the entire story of any stakes whatsoever. Since the members of the study group were all still willing to meet daily to sit around the table and sit in awkward silence, we knew that the study group wasn’t in any real trouble. Awkward silence isn’t exactly a major problem for a large friend group. Especially in a season where happy endings are so prevalent, we had no worries whatsoever that the study group was in any trouble of breaking up.

The story continued to be riddled with problems from there. Why was everyone (aside from Jeff) suddenly so willing to go along with the Dean’s ridiculous plan as soon as he set the puppets down on the table? I thought they didn’t want to talk about what happened?! It’s enough to make one think this is all just a lazy setup for a puppet episode. Which would be more acceptable if the puppet medium had actually added to the thematic storyline in any way. The closest thing to this was Jeff’s line about how Greendale was “pulling [their] strings,” which came off more as a lame pun than anything of significance. Without proper setup or thematic elements, the actual meat of the story—the study group is bored of Greendale, they end up going on a runaway hot air balloon adventure, crash in the forest and get drugged by a wild mountain man—simply wasn’t engaging.

I know it seems like I’m being nit-picky, but it’s not without purpose. This episode failed to execute the rest of its story successfully because it began on such shaky ground. In “Digital Estate Planning,” there was a proper setup that made the plot believable and gave it high stakes. Furthermore, the videogame world reflected the spirit of competition between Pierce and his half brother. The game also provided them a computerized version of their father and thus the opportunity to deal with his legacy. In “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the gang had convincing and compelling reason for entering another “world” because Abed had a believable breakdown. Furthermore, his Christmassy world reflected his inner desires and insecurities concerning the holiday season. Without the proper setups and thematic elements sprinkled throughout, the special worlds and storylines of these episodes would have seemed out of place. And that’s exactly what happened in “Intro to Felt Surrogacy.”

The episode wasn’t a total failure, however. As much I felt disconnected from the tone and gimmick of the story, I have to admit the “Now This Is Adventure” song was awfully catchy and fun. There were also some great one-liners sprinkled throughout: Britta’s stab at Jeff’s sexual habits, Chang revealing through a puppet that he wasn’t who he seemed to be and the Dean freaking out at Gary for bothering him about a simple fire. The best joke of the episode, however, was the self-aware “Study Group Bingo” that Troy and Abed had invented. All of these were enough to keep me laughing regularly enough to enjoy the episode at least on some level.

The climax of the episode was ultimately the best part of the story. It managed to escape the problems of the story’s insufficient setup because the problem was truly created in the moment; Shirley revealed her deep dark secret to the group, just before they all realized that no one had heard each other’s secret on the actual trip. In effect, no one had actually shared his or her own secret… except for Shirley. The group was then faced with a choice: they could either leave Shirley feeling horrible or each share their own secret to level the playing field. Jeff, ever-increasingly a team player these days, convinced the group to do the right thing. They all aired out their dirty laundry and reassured one another that they were still good people despite these embarrassing secrets. It was a compelling predicament that not every friend group could overcome and this made their final decision that much more endearing.

I understand that for many viewers the setup of this episode may not have mattered at all and this was simply a fun episode that hilariously featured the study group as puppets. This is obviously a valid opinion. However, Community has shown us before that it can explore markedly different mediums while still writing great stories and I think it’s a real shame that they failed to do so this time around. With only 4 episodes left in the series (wow, that came quick) this is probably the last time the show will try anything as unique as this, making the mediocrity of the episode that much more disappointing. But hey, at least they tried! And they do deserve some props for that. In some ways, things can only go up from here. Hopefully, as the series begins winding down to a close, the true heart and spirit of Community will shine through and deliver the proper mix of humor, emotion and insanity that its fans deserve.

Grade: C

Nico Danilovich is a television enthusiast and amateur filmmaker. His work can be seen at www.youtube.com/thelazyneighbors

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