Friday, January 17, 2014

5x04 "Cooperative Polygraphy" (The Lying Game)

"Cooperative Polygraphy"
Original Airdate: January 16, 2014

My friends and I sat around on Tuesday night and discussed our lives, and then the conversation turned more personal. They’re a close group of friends so we had an intense heart-to-heart about how much we lie to ourselves and others on a daily basis. As the room grew silent, we began to ponder exactly when the last time we lied was and what that lie was about. Moreover, we began debating what constituted a lie – if we chose a major to appease our parents and were now stuck in a job we never really were passionate about to begin with, did that constitute a lie? What we found was this: more often than not, our lies are white lies or lies of omission. We lie to our bosses, feigning excitement or interest or else pretending that we can handle ONE more project when really we’re five minutes away from a nervous breakdown. Our lies of omission come in the form of half-true text messages. We tell our friends that we have “plans,” when those plans really include take-out food, sweatpants, and Netflix. And it seems that we can’t quite avoid telling these tiny, little lies. It makes us human and it makes the study group in Community’s latest bottle episode “Cooperative Polygraphy” human, too.

The study group has been together for five years now, which would make you think that they probably know every annoying tick, every dirty secret, and nearly everything about each other. But when I think about my own friendships, even those that I have had for eleven years, I realize that I don’t know everything about the people I’m closest to. There are still secrets that people keep buried because of shame or guilt or laziness and though those often bubble to the surface after years of friendship, sometimes they merely simmer. Unless, of course, you’re in the episode “Cooperative Polygraphy.” With Pierce’s recent passing, the study group has been instructed that they each are being investigated for the potential murder of Pierce Hawthorne. Pierce wasn’t murdered, of course, but that doesn’t stop him from hiring Mr. Stone to hook each member of the group up to a polygraph. If the study group members pass the test, they are bequeathed a part of Pierce’s million dollar estate.

(Understandably, the study group decides to go through with the test.)

What ensues, of course, is not only chaotic but also painful, like every good bottle episode. When I reviewed “Cooperative Calligraphy,” this is what I said regarding bottle episodes like Community’s and Friends’:

What is beneficial and integral in bottle episodes is the escalation of emotions between characters. When characters such as the study group or the friends from Central Perk are unconfined, they are a lot less likely to confront each other about things that they have personally buried. See, the benefit of life is that we are usually free to walk away from people who irritate us and to escape situations where we just barely are able to control our tongues. But bottle episodes are not the case. These episodes force characters into a room or an apartment. The confined space and the emotional stability of the characters seem to crumble (as seen by the dissolving of the study group in Community and the escalation of Ross’ anger and the Joey/Chandler fight in Friends). 
So is the point of a bottle episode then merely to watch characters slowly turn into Lord of the Flies? To watch as a group of people dissolves slowly into chaos and madness until they blow up at each other? No, though tension is an important part of the bottle episode format, it’s not necessarily the point of it. What the study group learns and what our friends from Friends learn is pretty simple – they need each other, regardless of if they’re searching for a purple pen or trying to get ready for an important event.

The point of a bottle episode is to escalate tension, but behind that tension is a purpose: to, as I said above, expose the most vulnerable, agitated, weak sides of their character and yet ensure that they still learn from and love each other. The study group reveals a LOT to one another in the episode, whether begrudgingly or accidentally and it pushes them apart for a while before Jeff tries (feebly) to tie the threads of purpose together. But before we understand exactly why it is important for the study group to air their dirty laundry and WHY Pierce wanted them to do so before he hit them with an emotional, forceful blow, let’s discuss the plot of the episode, shall we?

Briefly though before we dive into the plot, let me just say how impressed I was by Alex Ruben’s episode. Bottle episodes, as I noted in my “Cooperative Calligraphy” review, are what I would imagine to be the most strenuous, difficult kinds of episodes to write. There are one-two-punch jokes, walls of emotion, and rapid dialogue. When you confine characters who are used to roaming Greendale’s halls and beyond to the study room table for twenty minutes, you need to – as a writer – understand what makes each character tick. And every single element in this episode just WORKED for me because when you truly understand each of your characters, as a writer, the other elements (the comedy and the emotion) shine through. And what I really loved about the episode is this: Alex wrote dialogue for someone who is no longer on the show and made it sound both heartfelt and believable. It wasn’t trite or overwrought with sentiment and clichés – the final words Pierce Hawthorne delivered to his beloved study group sounded exactly like him. So thank you, Alex, for writing a fitting send-off to the character, while also allowing us to explore the issues of the other study group members (and laughing and crying a lot in the process).

The episode opens with the study group members returning from Pierce’s funeral, all wearing robes and hats because let’s remember that Pierce was in a cult. While they discuss the aspects of the Laser Lotus cult and its merits and quirks, Chang enters, mocking the group and their attendance of Pierce’s funeral. The study group and Jeff, specifically, are offended by Chang’s peppy, antagonistic attitude and insist that they’re all upset about their friend’s death. Chang, I think, is made to be the mouthpiece for a lot of the fandom in this moment. I know a great chunk of individuals who despised Pierce as a character and who even believed that the series would be better off without him. And what “Cooperative Polygraphy” demonstrated is that no matter how far gone, to the study group, Pierce was still a FRIEND. And they don’t claim to miss him or be upset about his death because there’s a gnawing sense of guilt or belief that they should feel that way. They actually DO. And though Pierce is gone in this episode, he’s not forgotten, and his presence is as palpable as it ever was when he was present.

It is then that Mr. Stone enters, an attorney for the Hawthorne estate, informing the study group that Pierce’s will has stated that even if his death appeared to be under normal circumstances, an investigation requiring submission to a polygraph test should be administered to the study group (and Chang, but we don’t really know why). So the group answers some introductory questions, written by Pierce in his typical insensitivity (insinuating Britta is a lesbian and Jeff is gay, etc.), while the polygraph testers read the results aloud. And here’s the intriguing part about the initial polygraph questions: they’re not meant to incite any issues among the group, and yet they DO. Furthermore, Shirley mumbles to herself “he [Pierce] is doing it again.” So DID Pierce actually mean to turn the group against one another with his simple preliminary round of questions? I think so. And here’s why: I think that after five years with the group and twelve years at a school where everyone treated him poorly and dismissed him and where he closed himself off to love and happiness, Pierce recognized how significant it was that Jeff, Britta, Annie, Shirley, Troy, and Abed found each other. He knew that the only thing, over the years, that kept bringing them together was their constant push and pull: they would fight and make up, the wounds seemingly vanishing to create a bond even thicker than before. Each time the study group fought, the end result was them becoming more intimate as friends and as family.

And what, interestingly enough, did the group always bond over? Their belief that Pierce was always out to get them and that somehow he was the one most desirous to inflict pain and psychological games on them. Jeff acknowledges that they dismissed and fought with and were annoyed by Pierce when he was alive, and he’s right – the group kicked the elderly study group member out of their presence on multiple occasions. So perhaps Pierce knew that the one way the group would bond, the one way for them to grieve and deal with the reality of his death and their own lives was to be the villain one final time.

(I just gave myself a lot of Pierce-related feelings right there and they’ll resurface near this blog-review’s end, I promise.)

Slowly but surely, secrets begin to tumble out: Troy and Abed have formed a zombie escape plan that doesn’t include rescuing the other group members; the pair utilizes Jeff’s Netflix account; and Annie overcharges Troy and Abed for rent. The “calibration round,” is complete and the group is baffled, thinking that this had been part of the inquest. They decide that Pierce’s psychological torment, his desire for them to unearth their deepest lies and feelings and resentments is not worth fulfilling a dead man’s last wish… until they are told that Pierce’s estate would be divided amongst them, should they comply. It is then that the group decides to put potential monetary wealth above the potential pain and suffering and broken relationships. (Which I think says a lot about the study group, and I’m attempting to determine if it is good or bad. On one hand, the group could care naught about each others’ feelings and desire the estate OR they could believe that they can withstand, together, anything Pierce attempts to do to tear them apart.)

So the gloves come off when Mr. Stone reveals to Britta that Shirley has not been using real tofu in her sandwiches and that Britta has been eating them unknowingly. The blonde then snaps at Shirley and insists that the mother of three has never respected anything that Britta has held dear. It’s a fair assessment, really, but the argument escalates when Mr. Stone then reveals that Britta was high on the day of Benjamin’s baptism. I’m always intrigued by the Shirley/Britta dynamic because they began the series as such close comrades, until it was revealed in “Comparative Religion” that Britta was an atheist. Ever since then, the two women have butted heads on more fundamental levels than Annie and Britta ever did. While the latter pair may have bickered and argued and fought, Shirley and Britta’s issues have never seemed to be resolved. In #AnniesMove (also known as “Studies in Modern Movement”), it seemed that both women had reached a sort of agreement – though their lifestyles were vastly different, they needed to bond and respect one another. And perhaps that’s what needles me most about this dynamic: they have never come to a place where there is true and genuine respect. They haven’t dealt with all of their issues. (And actually, maybe this is a commentary on how I feel about the series as a whole in their failure to completely resolve Jeff/Annie, Annie/Britta, Shirley/Britta, etc. stories and issues. But I’ll save that for another time.)

Next up is Jeff, who tries to intervene in the Shirley/Britta fiasco, but ends up in the hot seat himself once Mr. Stone reveals that Jeff keeps trophies of his sexual conquests. All of the women are rightfully disgusted, but no one more so than Britta who learns that Jeff still has a pair of her underwear. As Jeff claims, he has a box of forgotten items that women leave behind that are “won in battle” and everyone is rightfully disgusted by that comment. What I find interesting about the way Pierce pinpoints everyone’s emotional pressure points (forgive me, I just watched Sherlock recently) is that… Pierce manages to pinpoint EVERYONE’S emotional pressure points. He knows them. But he not only knows what makes them tick, but also knows what qualities the rest of the group members would be most horrified by. Think about each secret: each is exemplary of the worst quality in these individuals (Shirley’s deception to look good in the eyes of everyone else; Britta’s rebellion; Jeff’s ego and sexuality; Annie’s drive and compulsion for perfection; Abed’s need for control; Troy’s naïveté.) With each secret and subsequent lie, the study group members locate those little kernels of character they thought were lost in their first year of Greendale. They thought, as Annie and Jeff say later, that they became BETTER people. But the truth that Pierce knows is that these are the SAME people who entered Greendale and no amount of sugarcoating or lies can pretend otherwise. (The “but” to that statement comes in a little bit, so don't worry.)

The next few secrets and lies begin to roll out in succession: Troy didn’t make up his handshake with Abed; he found it on a video. Abed has planted tracking devices on every individual in the study group. The revelation that Annie laced the group’s coffee with Adderall (she says amphetamine, but for all intents and purposes it’s the same thing) to keep them awake to study for their Anthropology final during their sophomore year is a LOT sadder than any other confession that’s made and also the only thing in this episode to rub me the wrong way (if I had to give a grade, I would give the episode an A- and the minus would ONLY be due to this tiny but significant issue). Annie's lie means that she had or still has access to Adderall and yet doesn’t feel that it’s a big deal; and, essentially, the episode tells us as the audience that this isn't a big deal either.

But... this is a woman who literally entered rehab FOR her addiction to the drug and yet had it readily available and used it to keep her friends peppy and awake during a cram session. I think this bothers me more than it was intended to, but it’s something that’s kind of taken lightly on the series. Annie’s drug addiction is mentioned a few times directly and then with moments like this, I’m often disappointed in the show (sorry Alex and Harmon) for taking her addiction so lightly and treating it as something so careless that COULD be developed but isn’t. And apparently Annie wasn’t doing too well her second year at Greendale because she felt the need to have access to the drug again. Was it because of the strain that Jeff put on her after “Anthropology 101” in regards to their non-relationship? Or living in that crappy apartment? Or constantly fighting with Britta? Or the revelation that Jeff and Britta had been sleeping together the entire year while she shared moments with him, too? Regardless of the reason that she had the Adderall in her possession, it will always pain me that this show takes Annie’s REAL drug issue and condenses it into a brushed off joke. She deserves more than that as a character and I know that Community isn’t a drama, but still, I had hoped for more than that.

Anyway, Abed is the most upset about Annie lacing the coffee because while his tracking of the group members doesn’t directly affect them (they didn’t even KNOW about it), Annie messed with his brain chemistry and that is something she shouldn’t have done, given the fact that it is quite delicate to begin with. But the betrayals don't stop there – as it turns out, Abed has been "Catfishing" Annie by creating a fake Facebook boyfriend for her. And he did it because when Annie had a boyfriend, she was happy and made pancakes all the time. (That’s another thing: HAS ANNIE BEEN DATING? WHY DON’T WE KNOW ABOUT THIS?) Annie is utterly outraged and rightly so: she bore her soul to her “boyfriend” and Abed manipulated her for his own personal gain. How, she defends, is that better than her lacing the group’s coffee to keep them awake? In fact, Annie goes a step further in her outrage: she asks if Abed even cares about them at all as friends and human beings. It’s something that we’re always inclined to ask, really. We wonder if Abed cares about his friends when he manipulates them or if he merely cares about his own well-being and the balance of order too much to care about the individual participants.

… Or am I the only one who wonders that?

Annie and Abed’s fight sparks more outrage and confessions, each study group member pinpointing lies on everyone else (“Jeff made me apply for handicap parking so he can get a better spot!” “Britta invited Garrett to Annie’s birthday party!” “Troy won’t sit on a toilet seat after Jeff!” “When we’re alone, Shirley refers to you guys as ‘THOSE PEOPLE.’” “When Annie’s feels like a female tooch, she calls Jeff her uncle!” “Shirley thinks we’re all going to hell!”) And when Jeff breaks up the arguing by insisting that they stop letting Pierce tear them apart, Mr. Stone hits them with a weight of truth: Pierce hasn’t asked anyone a question in a long time; they were doing this to themselves.

The reality that the study group doesn’t need Pierce to dissolve into madness and chaos and fighting is perhaps one of the most significant aspects about this episode. It proves to the group and to us all that it was not Pierce who caused issues, not really. It was the baggage – the secrets and the lies and the half-truths – of each member that caused the cracks in the armor. He didn’t have to do a single thing to facilitate that dissention. Jeff then decidedly (and excitedly) notes that Pierce was no worse than they were and that they are no better than he is so that must mean – logically – that no one is really all that bad after all. In fact, Pierce’s polygraph test should encourage the study group to confess their lies and their secrets because it means that they can be unafraid of their faults. Jeff claims that Pierce was unafraid of his and perhaps that was the lesson they needed to learn. It’s true, of course, that Pierce was unafraid of his faults. His speech to Jeff about failure in “Beginner Pottery” is my favorite of the entire series. Pierce didn’t have to lie to the group. In fact, he was always upfront with them. Brash and insensitive, perhaps, yes… but wasn’t Pierce nearly always honest? He laid his soul bare for the group and that’s something pretty cool and beautiful and what I’ll miss about Pierce. He lived his entire life just struggling to find happiness and I think the study group and Greendale are what truly taught him to just accept himself – flaws and all – and LIVE. And live he did.

So the group decidedly enters the final round of Pierce’s questions, but not before admitting a bunch of things they have kept secret from each other. As they enter the final round, this is what happens: Pierce uses his final words to tell everyone what they most need to hear. The study group has spent the entire episode admitting the truth and dispelling lies, and now it’s PIERCE’S turn to speak truth into them. He could have easily cackled at the dissention he knew would inevitably occur. He could have mocked t he group for being so weak. He could have even pinpointed MORE weaknesses. But what he tells each person is what they most needed to hear, so let’s break down his final words to each person (while I break down in tears):

Britta: “Britta Perry… Do you know that you hate yourself more than you should and that your passion inspired me? To Miss Perry, I leave my iPod nano, filled with music to take life less seriously by.”

Shirley: “Shirley… Did you know that you are not only a credit to your race and gender, but also to our species? And that I was intimidated by your strength of character and business acumen? To Ms.  Bennett, I leave my spacious timeshare in Florida where she can take what’s-his-name and however many children she has now.”

Annie: “Annie Edison… Did you know that you were always my favorite? I leave you this tiara, which you once refused to accept. It’s the same tiara I used to wear when my mother would verbally assault me for not being a little girl.”

Jeff: “Jeff Winger… Did you know that you’re gay? Agree to disagree. To you I leave this bottle of fine scotch so that you’re less tempted to drink this cylinder of even finer sperm.”

Abed: “Abed Nadir… Did you know that you were insane and that nothing you ever said made any sense to me?”

Troy: “Troy Barnes… Did you know that you possess the greatest gift that life can give: the heart of a hero? And that it’s up to you not to waste it like I did? … In addition, I am prepared to leave Troy Barnes my remaining shares in the Hawthorne Wipes company, currently valued at 14.3 million dollars. On one condition: you must first sail my boat, the Childish Tycoon, by yourself, around the entire world. When I was 23, my father asked me to do the same thing to earn my adulthood in his fortune. … I’d like to give you a chance to do what I never did: become your own man.”

Troy, after a moment, accepts the conditions of the fortune and everyone is rightfully stunned. The young man then explains that he believes Pierce saw something in him that even he couldn’t see for himself, and that’s true for each of the other characters as well. Pierce saw how special Annie was and how amazing Britta was and how important Shirley was. And it truthfully made me sob because he knows that these individuals don’t know that about themselves. They don’t believe they’re anything special or unique, but PIERCE did. He always believed they were more than they thought they were.

And Pierce’s final wish for Troy – his final question, truly – was this: “What are you going to do now?” It’s his final question to all of the group members, really, and it’s something so beautifully poignant that you can’t help but be taken aback by it. Now that he’s spoken these words from beyond the grave and now that he’s told them each that they’re valuable, how are they going to proceed? How do you move forward once you’ve shoveled through the lies and the secrets? Do you take that newfound knowledge of yourself and continue to lie to yourself and the people around you?

We all love to feel validated and accepted and cared about. We love hearing that we’re worthy or that we’re worth SOMETHING. And what Pierce did in his final act of love was tell the study group members who they really were. They weren’t those messed up, broken, lie and secret-ridden individuals. They didn’t have to be those people anymore because those weren’t who they ever were to begin with. Pierce asks questions, but those questions are TRUTHS. He asks if Annie and Shirley and Troy and Britta know who they really are. And if they didn’t know that about themselves, well, now they DO. So the follow-up and his final question as I mentioned above is this: “What are you going to do NOW?”

Troy’s answer is what Pierce had hoped for: he’s going to push away everything he’s thought about himself until that moment – every thought of his insignificance, every comparison to Jeff, every belief that he isn’t going to amount to anything – and he’s going to latch onto the truth within that final question. He’s going to forge his life around that notion and that belief and he cannot be the same, now that he’s aware of the fact that someone else believed in him. Troy’s decision to cling to Pierce’s question is so significant because it alters his trajectory, much to the speechlessness of the rest of the group. So here’s the final question. Are you ready? This is the most important question any of the characters on Community will ever be asked and it’s the most important one we will ever ask ourselves:

“Do you know who you are?”

So… do you?

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • I quite loved Walton Goggins’ character!
  • BRITTA FINALLY GOT HER IPOD NANO IN 2014. Though I never watch “The Art of Discourse” because I loathe it so much (those teenagers, man), I was thrilled to see this callback come to fruition.
  • “Troy and Abed are in mourning.”
  • I loved Jeff/Joel leaning back on the legs of his chair throughout the first few scenes.
  • “It’s a Doomsday plan, not a picnic plan.”
  • This is all that you need to know about my emotional well-being during the scene where Pierce asks his final questions.
  • I got really emotional during Annie’s moment because I have called that tiara thing and her being Pierce’s true favorite for YEARS.
  • “Answer the question, Adrien Grody!”
  • “YOU TOLD ME A HAWK STOLE THEM. You exploited me AND made me believe in a slightly more magical world!”
  • I really love how they’re setting up Troy’s departure, even though it doesn’t make me less sad to see him go.
Okay friends, it’s the end of the line next week for Troy Barnes. We say goodbye to Donald Glover in what I hear is going to be an episode of epic proportions, the likes of which we haven’t even seen yet. Until then! :)


  1. Excellent review as I agree about the Annie drugging her friends part just seemed unnecessary. I feel like the show and Dan does not mention this as much as they should. I mean we never hear anything about Annie's parents. (I know we hear nothing about Troy's either but they have had him mention his dad a few times compared to maybe one mention of Annie's parents being divorced.) Sorry about that got off on a mini-rant.

    Just wanted to say another fine review and love your last few paragraphs where it's now time for Troy's arc to move on to a new challenge as will the rest of the group.

    PS loved the IPod nano callback

  2. Another great, detailed, review, but I have two issues. First, one of my favorite parts of this episode is the question to Abed about the squirrel. When the table reacts to Abed's answer, I keep thinking about Remedial's commentary where they discussed the idea that Abed is darker to the writers than they have put on screen. Here they have a nice place where the answer, that Abed's childhood does not fit the trope of a sociopath, allows everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. I thought that was important, although the rest of the epsiodes could prove that idea wrong.

    I get the feeling the Annie drug issue is a veiled shot at last year's puppet episode where Annie's character admitted to cheating on a history test, and whoring herself out to the professor in a foot massage. It didn't work. It felt, no pun intended, awkward, and it really seemed completely out of character. Here the writers are dealing with a similar situation, and they do a better job of it, although it is still an issue for the character.