Friday, August 3, 2012

2x08 "Cooperative Calligraphy" (The Bottle-est of Episodes)

"Cooperative Calligraphy"
Original Airdate: November 11, 2010
Troy and Abed, as detectives, scour the campus to question potential suspects. They begin with Pierce, who quickly points them to Todd. And this episode marks the return of our favorite scapegoat. It's easy for the study group to blame all of their problems on an outsider - someone with whom they have no connection. And I have a theory, so bear with me, that up until "Cooperative Calligraphy" (oh look! Another Megan Ganz episode!), the group might have been apt to pinpoint each other as culprits (not just in this yam scenario, mind you). But when Jeff makes the comment to Abed about not being able to trust anyone within the group again if they step outside of the study room without finding Annie's pen, it seems to be a hinge -- from that moment forth, they begin to function as a "group" rather than a set of individuals who study together. In "Early 21st Century Romanticism," it's the entire study group that he texts to declare his love... together.  – “Basic Lupine Urology” review
I started last week by discussing Friends (arguably one of the greatest sitcoms of my time), so it seems only appropriate that I would do similarly this week. This episode – “Cooperative Calligraphy” – is known as a “bottle episode.” And, since part of my job title includes the word “researcher,” I decided that I would investigate the history of bottle episodes. Many of you were probably like me, and went into the episode not really understanding what the term “bottle episode” means. According to my best estimates from the wonderful worldwide web (and please, feel free to enlighten me if the Internet lied to me about this), the term originated from the cast and crew of Star Trek. A number of episodes were created and confined to one location or used already existing sets rather than building new ones to save money. The crew referred to these episodes as “ships in a bottle.” And thus, the bottle episode was formed. So what does this have to do with “The One Where No One’s Ready” (which is Friends’ first bottle episode)? Surprisingly, a lot. 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. And the quote above that I opened the article with? Keep that in mind, because I’ll be returning to this point toward the end of the review. Also, I think that Megan Ganz deserves all possible awards for creating this episode. Writing episodes for television are (I imagine, because I’ve never actually taken a screenwriting class) pretty taxing. But bottle episodes are even more so because they are dialogue-heavy. This episode literally was punch after punch of the wit, satire, and jokes that make the show what it is. And it was her first episode, to boot. So brava, Megan!

By this point, you all already know that "Cooperative Calligraphy" is a bottle episode. But in case you can't quite remember what the episode was about, here's a bit of a recap: In the second season, the group is taking Anthropology together, and Professor Duncan has assigned the class the task of building a paper-mache diorama of the evolution of man. The group is beginning to put their finishing touches on the project before everyone respectively heads out to various events (Jeff, having a "catch to date" and the rest of the group heading to the Greendale Puppy Parade). The Dean swings by the study room holding an adorable Golden Labrador puppy and informs the group that the parade will be starting shortly. The group is about to head out the door when Annie stops them. Her purple pen is missing. The group is really quite unsure of how to proceed, so they apologize and insist that they're sorry and will be more careful. Someone probably accidentally took the pen. Now, Annie is the first person who dissolves into… let’s use the term “chaos.” And it’s not necessarily even chaos, because the room doesn’t become chaotic until much later on. Bottle episodes place characters and emotions under a magnifying glass and thus, the characters in question exaggerate their already detrimental qualities. Annie’s paranoia and perfectionism, as well as her desire for control are amplified in the study room, as are Jeff’s sarcasm, Abed’s lack of emotion and meta-ness, Troy’s absurdity, Pierce’s offensiveness, Britta’s coldness, and Shirley’s judgmental nature. All of these things are evident character traits of each of the Greendale Seven. And the audience is fully aware that our favorite characters possess them. And it usually doesn’t faze us, as viewers. And it usually doesn’t faze them as characters… until they are all locked in a room with one another for an extended length of time. Hence: chaos and dissension.

Something that would normally not unsettle Annie so much suddenly begins to – she is constantly taken advantage of by the study group for her notes, her pens, and everything else regarding academia. As we saw in the first season’s “Introduction to Statistics,” Annie has a difficult time being assertive. However, this is an episode where she really begins to insist that others respect her and listen to her. And it is something that would seem to be very important to Annie – when she becomes obsessed with an idea, she doesn’t easily let it go. So, as the rest of the study group prepares to leave the room, Annie screams and the entire group freezes in fear. They scour the immediate area around the table for any sign of the pen (but it's nowhere in sight) and argues that people just don't accidentally take pens over and over again. Let's take a moment to notice something right off the bat -- the group hasn't even been in the same room looking for the pen for more than a few minutes and already every character has their trait (mentioned in the paragraph above) that seems to drive another character in the group crazy. Initially, Troy’s absurdity irritates Annie, and Annie's obsession with the pen frustrates the group. Abed’s lack of emotion and meta-ness annoy Jeff. Shirley becomes agitated and offended by Britta’s coldness and rudeness, and everyone finds Pierce offensive. When Jeff says that "it's just a pen," Annie retorts with: "It's not a pen! It's a principle." And we’ll return to the fact that Annie was right (and Jeff realizes it, unconsciously) at the end of the episode. The pen in the study room isn’t just a pen – it’s a symbol for something that the group could very well destroy one another over (and nearly do). If something as trivial as a pen could do this in their “sacred” place (because arguably the study room is the one place that the entire group feels safest and most comfortable), what hope does the group have outside of the study room?

Britta, already annoyed with having to take time away from a class assignment in order to look for Annie's pen, decides that she's going to leave the room. Annie makes a snide "hmph" noise, at which Britta turns around, visibly more upset. And now let’s delve into the Britta/Annie of it all. One of the things that I will constantly lament is that Britta and Annie’s friendship was destroyed in the second season because of Jeff. Now, in hindsight, the audience knows that Jeff and Britta were already back to secretly sleeping together in this episode. But episodes like this highlight the damage that had been done post-“Anthropology 101.” Annie and Britta’s first form of defense is to… well, be defensive. The difference is in the way that the women approach this. Annie chooses to be accusing, but in the sweetest way she possibly can. Britta’s walls immediately come up because, let’s face it, she doesn’t really trust women to begin with. Perhaps she’s so afraid of being stabbed in the back (or has been stabbed in the back so many times) that the way she chooses to combat this is by wounding others with her words before they get a chance to hurt her. That’s not to say that Britta is heartless or Annie is innocent – the latter picks the fight and the former feels remorse later on. Both women are flawed, and both are on edge… when placed together, it’s like setting a tissue next to an open flame. Additionally, there’s a lack of trust that currently exists between Britta and Annie. Neither of the women truly trusts the other because of what happened the year before.

And so Britta angrily empties her dumped her bag onto the table and the rest of the group notes that she does not have the pen (though she does seem to be carrying a lot of condoms. And a used Q-tip). The Dean's voice crackles over the PA system and informs everyone that the Puppy Parade will be starting. The group (sans Annie and Britta) attempt to leave, but the latter cannot stand double standards – she knows that if she has to be examined and searched, it’s unfair that the rest of the group escape that punishment. And so she attacks the others as well. Now let’s briefly discuss Shirley’s exaggerated qualities in the episode – judgment. This one will throw a pretty powerful punch when it comes to Britta later on, but Shirley’s Achilles heel has always been her tendency to judge other people. She passes (sweet, sugary-voiced) judgment on Britta and her life choices as she and the others attempt to leave the room, and the blonde retaliates in self-defense. It’s easy for Shirley to consider herself to be better than others (“Oh, everyone here knows that I don’t steal”) and pinpoint other people (like Abed, for instance) that are “more likely” to be worse off than she is. And while Britta does correct her on this hypocrisy later on, it’s in the least-gentle and worst way possible. But it’s interesting that Annie, because of this, will easily forgive Shirley and not Britta. (Which is why I still hold fast to the theory that a lot of the underlying issues between the two stem from their experiences with Jeff the year prior). However, Annie’s also very quick to remind Shirley that she is still on the “list.”

No one from the group leaves the study room, each subtly examining one another. When Troy gets accused of taking the pen, suddenly things begin to slowly slide downhill. It all rolls into an avalanche, though, once Jeff orders a lockdown in a few moments. When Annie insists that Jeff “deal with” the situation, he argues that there is nothing to deal with. And yet, he still agrees to give a half-hearted Winger speech just so that everyone can leave. He argues that, even if someone viciously and with great malice of forethought (one of my favorite sarcastic!Jeff lines) stole Annie's pen, they will all forgive them if they come forward. So, Jeff reasons, there's no logical reason why the pen thief shouldn't admit to their crime, right? (P.S. No one even half-heartedly agrees to his half-hearted speech.) Jeff notes that he'll count to three and if the pen thief doesn't come forward, they have to accept the fact that no one took the pen. When Jeff gets to two, Pierce raises his hand and quips: “Is it just me or has it become really obvious that Jeff took the pen?”

And then Jeff orders a lockdown.

Someone may correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is really the second time in the season we have seen the group actually fight (the first being "Anthropology 101.") It’s the second time though (besides “English as a Second Language”) where Jeff has actually been mad at Annie. After the strain of “Anthropology 101,” I think it’s important to recognize that this episode isn’t just an isolated incident with a group of friends. Sure, being a “bottle episode,” it naturally shakes the pressure and tension. Think of it like an actual bottle. Now, imagine that each study group member has approximately a few cups of soda’s worth of tension and hostility that they've been holding onto. When you factor in the confined location, it’s like shaking that bottle until it reaches a point in which it bursts. Jeff has been appointed "checker" of the bags, with Annie standing over him like an airport security guard. When they empty Troy's bag, they find only a pillow -- presumably for him to nap in all of his classes. Jeff insists that Troy has become his new hero and then, edge in his voice, tells Annie that there's no purple pen in the bag. I think that it’s kind of cheeky of Annie to talk to Jeff like she’s his wife (“Why do you keep taking that tone with me?”) Britta chimes in that there's a chance Annie found the pen half-way through the debacle and was too embarrassed to say so. And then,  Britta reasons, they all get to kill her. Remember what I said about Britta, earlier? As the episode wears on, she becomes less and less compassionate and more and more clipped and venomous. She, when placed in a defensive situation, shoots to kill with her words. BUT here is something that is noteworthy – Britta’s defense of Abed when the group insists that they all search his stuff as well. The blonde had taken to Abed a lot in the first season, attempting to protect him and shield him from the rest of the world. She wanted people to understand him and like him, to not consider him an outcast, and she went to lengths to do that. This isn’t lost on her in the second season, though Britta and Abed’s relationship doesn’t seem to be as close, since he is usually with Troy. Still, Britta reminds everyone that Abed is their “innocent” (a term that I disagree with, and can be explained in my “Virtual Systems Analysis” review). And yet… she very quickly remembers how Abed had been corrupted the year before and could very easily be again. And it’s not that she remembers how HE acted, but what he did to HER (Britta is much like Jeff in that she becomes extensively involved in situations when they revolve around her), so she agrees that his stuff needs to be searched.

When the group searches Abed's things, they find a notebook with all three of the women's names written in there and charts. It doesn't take long for Britta to discover that the filmmaker has been charting their cycles. His initial reasoning was to try and discover if there was a pattern in him saying or doing the wrong thing in regards to the three women. He noticed, of course, that they were more frequently frustrated with him than the other men in the group were. And Abed’s desire to control people and situations isn’t as evident in this episode as it is in others (see: the episode I reviewed and discussed last week), it still is significant to note that the reason Abed continued to chart and graph the girls’ cycles is because it “began to yield really positive results for everyone.” Abed is interested in maintaining the status quo (hence his distaste for bottle episodes). Suddenly, Britta, Shirley, and Annie all find themselves distrusting Abed, their "innocent." Since Jeff and Pierce don't carry bags, Shirley is the last one to be searched.

Again, this bit from the episode demonstrates Shirley’s escalating judgment as she passes it on both Abed and Britta within the course of a breath (she refuses to empty her bag and when Jeff asks what she thought would happen when they got to "the Christian woman," she responds: "The Christian woman thought you'd find it on the Muslim" and then also turns around and refers to Britta merely as "atheist"). And it’s not that Shirley is an inherently bad character, nor is Jeff or Britta or Annie or Pierce or Troy or Abed. These characters all have certain traits – little devices and mechanisms or quirks or habits – that make up part of their fiber as human beings. And, unfortunately, these little things can be used for both good and evil and all characters use them as defense mechanisms in this episode to keep other characters at bay. Shirley gets fooled into handing her bag over thanks to a ruse by Pierce, and the group discovers what the woman had attempted to hide -- a pregnancy test. When Shirley reveals that she rekindled her relationship with her ex-husband over Labor Day, Britta goes for the jugular.

Britta’s distaste for judgmental people and her desire to protect herself through bitterness and coldness drives her to snap at Shirley – Shirley, a person who Britta is arguably the closest to. And it’s painful to listen to, because Britta has hit the point of no return. Remember what I said earlier? When her defenses are piled up and she feels threatened or backed into a corner, Britta doesn’t shoot to maim – she aims to kill with her words. Even Jeff cringes in the background and this exchange seems to drive him to action, because moments later, he begins flipping tables and carts over, looking for the pen. Ironically, Jeff is usually propelled by things affecting HIM and him alone. But listening to the group bicker and fight didn’t cut it. It took listening to them HURT each other to cause him to take action. While it's important to remember that Annie is driven, it's also equally as important to remember that Annie has limits. One of Annie’s biggest character traits is her devotion to academia. And suddenly, quite suddenly, when Jeff destroys school property, her priorities shift. A pen is nothing in the grand scope of things, compared with the potential for a spot on her record or a bad mark. Maybe she never truly believed that the pen was representative of a principle (or maybe she did), but whatever the case, Annie has always proven that she would do just about anything in the name of school. And so she, in exasperation, tells everyone that it "is just a pen." And then, quite suddenly, the entire room halts. There’s a cycle that seems to occur in the episode of everything being seemingly normal and then sent into a slow descent and a tailspin. And just as it appears that the group has reached a plateau, they are sent into yet another tailspin.

Jeff growls at Annie and gets pretty much up in her face about the fact that she had been claiming "it was a principle" all along. He asks why she's suddenly changed her tune which, to Annie, sounds a lot like she's being accused of finding the pen and hiding it. Britta agrees and continues to accost Annie as well, until the woman begins to unbutton her cardigan in anger, proving that she doesn't have the pen. Jeff follows suit, as do Britta and Pierce, until Abed halts them. The entire group will flip the tables, be divided by gender, and then search one another in their underwear to prove that the pen is not being hidden. When the group does this, they find that -- still -- no one has the pen. There's absolutely nowhere else the pen could... oh. And then the men remember that Pierce is in his wheelchair with casts on his legs and could very easily be hiding the pen in one of them. 

Okay, remember the statement I made earlier? This is extremely significant in light of this episode. Every episode up until this moment has showcased the study group in some way, shape, or form. And each episode, we have gotten to know the individual characters that make up the group. We see how much they have come to rely on one another, trust one another and function as… well, a group. However, “Cooperative Calligraphy” is the hinge on which this idea swings on – the idea that the group will always defend one another as an entity. In “Competitive Ecology,” the group sticks together against Todd, as they do in “Basic Lupine Urology.” Like I mentioned before, Jeff professes his love to the group in a text message. People know them as “that study group.” And it all begins with this episode. Because the truth is, up until now, they had been ready to blame each group member for everything. They nearly tore each other apart in “Cooperative Calligraphy” (both physically and emotionally) in order to accomplish this. But Jeff makes a valid point to Abed – if they cannot find out who the pen thief is, they’ll walk out the door and never be able to trust an individual member within the group again. So they opt for group unity – an unconscious decision to always defend the group first and foremost. But slowly, the group begins to realize that they need to forgive one another for their mistakes if they’re ever going to make it past this point in their relationship.

So with this in mind, they tie Pierce down (I think it’s hilarious that the group ties down Pierce’s arms with duct tape to his chair) and remove his casts. They find Slim Jims and pens (and salad tongs), but no purple pen. And then, quite defeated, the group slumps to the floor, convinced that they'll never find the pen thief. Once the group is re-dressed, the spiral of apologies occurs (well, perhaps not from Pierce). But I think it’s really a definition of Britta that she apologizes to Annie for all the chaos and trouble they caused – she doesn’t have to, but it helps us to remember that she was just being defensive throughout the episode and it’s not indicative of her character as a whole to be as cold and ruthless as she was. Annie admits that it could be anyone who took the pen, and Jeff says that -- for all they know, it was her. Annie wishes that was the case -- that she could find the pen behind her ear and call it a day, rather than believe anyone in the group is thoughtful and inconsiderate. After all they had been through already, Shirley admits, it seems impossible that one of the group members doesn't belong. Jeff agrees -- it is actually less than impossible. Something completely impossible is actually more likely. When he suggests that a ghost must have taken the pen because that makes more sense than someone from the group being mean and conniving, Pierce asks why a ghost would need a pen. I think it’s very endearing that Jeff turns the reins over to Troy in order to explain the story. It’s quite character growth, considering he could have just easily made up another speech to save the group. But instead, he let Troy have his own moment and that’s sweet. (Plus, he was too busy sharing a schmoopy smile with Annie… what? It’s true!)

And then, the group leaves the room... completely intact. But it's significant to recognize that they left a mess in their wake. The bottle episode has bound them together as one, but -- much like "Competitive Ecology" and "Basic Lupine Urology" -- that bond often comes at the cost of something (or someone) else outside of the group.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- “I still think that man is going to evolve into woman, not a dragon monster with three legs.”
- I think it’s still the cleverest thing that you can actually see Annie’s Boobs steal the purple pen in the background.
- “Accidents don’t just happen over and over and over again, okay? This isn’t budget daycare.”
- “Here, have my pen.” “That’s my pen.”
- “With each passing moment, these puppies grow older and less deserving of our attention.”
- “I don’t like this.” “Yeah? Well, tell it to the pen you might have.”
- The rhyming thing that the group does ("What do you know, Henry David Thoreau?") is my favorite running gag. 
- It sounded like it took Joel a few takes to get the lines when he "snaps" and begins turning over tables and tearing up carpet because he barely has a voice when he starts yelling.
- “Ugh! It smells like a Waffle House sink!”
- “Here we go. Winger speech to take us home.”

Next week we jump straight to the next episode -- "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" which easily cracks my top 5 favorite episodes of all-time. So hop over to Twitter on Thursday night at 8PM EST with the hashtags #blanketfort or #biodioramarama and join me there! Until then, folks! :)

1 comment:

  1. This is a BEAST of a review. Well done!

    I like your theory/analysis that the bottle concept/situation is what made Britta so vicious in this episode. Cause man...I didn't realize how BRUTAL she was in this episode till we rewatched it last night. I'm so glad that they have course corrected Annie and Britta's relationship now. I like when they bicker as sisters...not this outright DISDAIN for each other that was in this episode.