Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Community Practices "Felt Surrogacy"

Article first published as Community Practices "Felt Surrogacy" on TheTVKing.

NBC's Community does a puppet-themed musical episode with this week's "Intro to Felt Surrogacy." The study group returns from an adventure oddly, regarding each other with awkward silence. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) decides that the best way to help them work through their issues is to give them puppet versions of themselves, whom they can speak through to reveal uncomfortable things. It works.

Community has done many outlandish episodes before, such as working with claymation or 8-bit animation. The puppet premise seems a logical way for them to continue that trend. As such, the idea of this installment is within the tone and tradition of the series.

I really like that they have two puppet versions of each character - one that is realistic for the Dean to have made, and the others are the ones we see in the flashback story, which look much more professionally done. Having the good puppet Chang (Ken Jeong) wearing and interacting with the crappy puppet Chang is a genius touch.

While "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" is not a parody of anything in particular, I do feel it has a strong kinship to Jim Henson's Muppets. The hot air balloon could be a reference to one of those films, the puppet cast interacts with humans, and the songs have a similar tone. Considering that among the themes of Community is accepting others for who they are, even when they are weird, and supporting one another, added to the fact that Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) has always spoken in a Miss Piggy-esue manner, this seems a fitting tribute to that creation. Even if they look more like the puppets from Angel's puppet episode, and the Dean's costume references another famous puppet, Pinocchio.

There is a lot to like about "Intro to Felt Surrogacy." The songs are fun, and the entire cast have pleasant singing voices. The story is solid. Jason Alexander and Sara Bareilles are perfect in their guest spots. We get wonderful references to other Community plot points, such as Pierce's (Chevy Chase) hatred of Vicki (Danielle Kaplowitz), and the unfortunate long-standing absence of Professor Duncan (John Oliver), who has been mentioned, but not seen since season two. And Troy's (Donald Glover) line about "If Jeff said we had to live out here..." is hilarious.

There is also wonderful character development. Once more, we find out another layer about Jeff's (Joel McHale) father issues, when he talks about breaking up with the perfect girl because of her kid, after allowing the child to get attached to him. He also makes sure that the entire gang supports one of their own who is suffering. Shirley's stress as a mother is explored, Troy has a surprisingly dark past, and Annie (Alison Brie) has allowed a creepy professor access to her feet when her grade in his class slipped. These are important and interesting sides to the characters, well worked into the story.

Abed (Danny Pudi) seems even more broken. He references Lost and Ferris Bueller just fine, but doesn't have a secret to reveal? And why he is totally uncaring when Shirley is upset, thus throwing off the dynamic of the group, which Abed once considered sacred? It doesn't make sense. When will Abed get fixed? Or is his character forever ruined?

A bit that might almost be missed is that the Dean has actually come to the group to make his own confession, something about not being traditional. He doesn't get the chance because, not officially being a member of their group, they blow him off. At this point, it's not fair, and it's heartbreaking to see how hurt he is. It's no wonder he turns to puppet versions of the group, as lonely as he is. I really hope Jeff, at least, comes around to helping him out soon.

A theme explored in "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" is the want to escape Greendale. The group blames their college for their problems, and are happy to see the guy in the woods. This could be foreshadowing to their likely coming graduation in a few episodes (I assume, since this is season four), happy to leave the school behind, or it could be an attempt to preemptively cut themselves off from a thing that they love and are going to miss. It's hard to tell exactly what their feelings on the subject are, but their relationship to the institution is sort of a mixed bag, though I think it will end up being looked at with fondness when their days are done.

Which is not to say that the episode isn't funny. The method by which they get around to revealing secrets, drugged by a hobo in the woods (Alexander), is amusing and makes sense. Troy and Abed come up with a Bingo game based on common catchphrases of the characters, to everyone's frustration. Britta's (Gillian Jacobs) secret involves not being an actual activist like she says she is, and Jeff has to deftly sidestep to spare her feelings. Pierce's (Chevy Chase) woods confession is yet another of his frequent humble brags. All of these things get laughs.

Yet, despite all of the wonderful things I've just mentioned (Abed's breakdown aside), there is still something a little off. Community's fourth season has not lived up to the first three, and the spirit of the show is just a bit hollow now. This should be memorable as one of the best episodes of Community, but it only will be considered so for the season, not the series. That's disappointing.

I think "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" also contains Pierce's send-off. Many have wondered about how the character will be written off the series, as the actor quit around the time this episode was being filmed. It seems pretty clear that Pierce has just been left in the woods, and we likely won't see him again. It's a little sad, and a bit of a shame, as there had been some better ideas circulated that could have been done. But I guess it works.

It's just a bit strange how, in the behind-the-scenes stuff that served as the episode's ending tag, it looks like every effort is made to include Chevy Chase, even when he's glaring absent from several parts. At times, it seems unclear if he's there, such as when the top of a bald head peeks out from a group shot when the rest of the cast is shown prominently posing with their puppets, or when a Pierce line reading doesn't really sound like Chevy's voice. I wonder why his leaving isn't really committed to? Is this out of respect for the screen legend, or are they trying to ineptly hide a falling out that was very public news?

Community, assumedly now sans Pierce, airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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