…That was…good. Like really good. Call it lowered expectations or becoming a little punch-drunk from the near-weekly beatings I receive from the non-Dan Harmon episodes, but I really enjoyed this episode of Community. And I am saying that without an asterix or quid pro quo. It is not a case of doing a serviceable job of evoking Season 1 here or aping the mockumentary style of Season 2 there. Nope, this was just, plain and simple, a good episode of Community. Nine episodes in and it actually felt like the old gang. Period.
When the show begins, the whole study group seems down and they cannot explain why. Leave it to the Dean to psychoanalyze them with his puppet therapy. Dressed as Dean-ochio (yes, it comes with a costume), their bald leader bravely gives each member of our favorite Greendale club a puppet that looks suspiciously like a Muppet. He just happened to have them on standby for just such an occasion! Sure Dean, we’ll give you the mulligan this time and ignore that whip in Puppet Jeff’s Hand.
It turns out that a few days prior to this finger cosplay, the study group was bored with their lives at the campus. As Jeff says, they have had the same conversation a hundred times. As a reviewer, I was ready to scribble down a snarky remark about this encapsulating the limited frustration of the new showrunners. But before my cynicism could even set in, they won over my inner 5-year-old with (how else?) a song. The musical episode of a TV sitcom is nothing new in a post-Joss Whedon world. Community even did one in Season 3 in the most viscous deconstruction of the Glee formula in existence. However, there was nothing mean-spirited about this trip into Sesame Street and Muppet style sing-along. Via flashback, our puppet heroes sing about “Going on an adventure to the sky” by riding in a hot air balloon. The strangest thing about the showtune was that it did not feel forced. It is clearly a parody or send-up of greatly loved children’s entertainment that originated on PBS, yet it is done with enough earnest sincerity to never feel corny or half-hearted. It feels, dare I say it, like Community.
Their hot air balloon adventure is also aided in its cutting of the strings from Season 4 blandness by a few friendly faces. The first is Sara Bareillis as a melodically serenading balloon guide who captures the wide-eyed supportiveness of any of the Muppets’ fleshy companions from the past. But she is one-upped by an amazing cameo from George Costanza… er Jason Alexander! Yep, the stage and screen showman appears to sing a song to our Greendale Puppets (Gruppets?) who have landed in the woods after crashing their hot air balloon. With a fun voice and the kind of unaware charm of early Kramer, he reveals that he too was once a Greendale student who has given up life in civilization for the wooded wilds of California. A transient mountainman as the face of Greendale Alum? As Jeff might say, it could be worse.
Anyway, his song is so catchy, the Gruppets do not even hesitate to literally eat the berries out of his hand. Hallucinatory berries.
The berry meal is trippy enough that none of them remember much of anything that happened next, save that Britta got handsy with Annie by the campfire (curse you writers for putting it in the Puppet episode!). Puppet kidding aside, the campfire part of the adventure is such a blur that they all forgot the deep dark secrets they blurted on the mountain. Thus, the shame that has kept them all quiet in the following days (hence the puppet therapy) has been over nothing. Aye, it’s so silly that they have to tell each other the truth to make themselves feel better (Shirley left her kids overnight in a grocery store; Jeff ran off on a girl when he found out she had a kid; Britta never voted; Annie let a creep rub her feet to cheat on a test; Troy started some bad forest fire in 2003). It is all wrapped up nice and neat. Well other than Pierce, who was last seen in puppet form admitting he lied about banging Eartha Kitt in that airplane bathroom…
It was a very Greendale episode. For those who worried that the puppets would be unexplained, the Dean’s therapy ended up making as much sense as the Cult of Glee Club or Abed’s wacky Christmas fantasies. It was self-aware, mocking and sickeningly sentimental. In short it was everything that makes for a solid episode of Community. Right down to the moose greeting Troy. A puppet moose.
I do not know if this is a positive sign for the rest of Season 4 or not, but I personally would be more than happy to see the Gruppets return before the show starts devouring itself again.