Bring back the puppets! (It bears repeating)This episode is like the polar opposite of the previous one. Rather than go way out there with a wacky adventure where our friends at Greendale do all kinds of nutty junk like turn into puppets, get into a hot air balloon, and trip on hallucinogenic berries, this is a grounded episode all taking place in Jeff’s apartment. But, actually, “grounded” is a misnomer because Season 4 continues to fail completely at making these characters feel like real people at all.Because of the continued ridiculousness of NBC’s shunting of the season, this is the Christmas episode. However, it’s not really a big deal as this is the least Christmas-y a Christmas episode of Community has ever been. This really was a series in love with Christmas and, even though the Glee and Claymation episodes were far from my favorites, they at least went all out with the Christmas spirit. Here, Christmas is just some background thing that barely gets referenced except at the beginning and ending.Anyway, it’s a bottle episode and, like that much better episode, it’s based on a completely absurd premise. Of course, the original bottle episode worked pretty hard to make the obvious silliness of the plot (no one can leave the study room until Annie gets her missing pen back) seem plausible. This time, it’s that they’ve discovered they’re failing an important group paper (huh?) for History so Annie’s invited the professor, Professor Cornwallis (hey, Malcolm McDowell’s in this season, remember?), to the Christmas party they’re having at Jeff’s house to try and convince him to give them a better grade.From the start, everything feels forced and silly and hugely sitcommy. Everyone shows up at Jeff’s place with some nutty entrance line, Jeff for some reason loudly insults Cornwallis even though he’s standing mere feet away, and then things get really stupid when Chang/Kevin ties the professor to a chair and the rest of the group just goes along with it. The whole situation makes the study group seem genuinely insane (and not in the fun way). And, yeah, they’ve been kind of insane in the past, but there’s a way to build to this kind of behavior gradually. Here, they’re just complete nutzos ready, almost out of nowhere, to forcibly restrain a man against his will just for a grade.The premise is unbelievable and some of the characterization isn’t even consistent as Jeff reveals he was the one who screwed everyone else over as he blew off his section (huh?) of the paper so he could see a Tom Waits show. Jeff is a slacker, fine, but the season premiere also established him as now being driven and really intent on wanting to graduate with this History class specifically providing the credit integral to that so… huh? This was also a hugely unfunny episode. I chuckled (or really more just uttered a short grunt) maybe three times, the best line coming (once again) from Britta when she explains how Cornwallis has been calling her “Broken Barbie” all year. Additionally, just as a by the way, Chevy Chase isn’t in this episode and his voice was only in the last one. Both had lines serving as explanations to casually dismiss his absence, though I have to assume they’ll need to address this more resolutely before season’s end.There’s a moment in the middle of “Intro to Knots” where Professor Cornwallis is trying to pit the group against one another by uncovering past dramas and secrets between them and, very briefly, I could see how this episode could’ve or was meant to work as a bottle episode. However, it would’ve required the writing to be sharper (a lot sharper) and for the script to have stuck to these matters of character rather than degenerating into “the group is crazy and ties people up and weeeee who cares?!”. But then I realized that, though the catalyst was different, this was the exact concept of the previous bottle episode, so maybe it’s a premise not even worth exploring. At one point Troy even makes a reference to the old bottle episode, inadvertently further showcasing the sharp contrast in quality between one of the best episodes the show’s ever done and this wreck of a Christmas thing.I argued last week that the only way Season 4 gets away with the insane plots its peddling is if it goes even more cartoonish (or puppetish), which is why the last episode almost kind of worked. But when they put the characters all in one room and have the entire narrative take place through dialogue, banking entirely on the strengths of the acting (still great) and the writing (nope), things fall apart. The show is just too cartoonish and the plots too forced and preposterous to now put these characters in a situation where we must believe in them as real human beings.The bottle episode and the Dungeons & Dragons episodes both took place almost wholly in one setting and were some of the most incredible pieces of work the show had ever produced. Being able to scale things back from the zaniness that could at times dominate the series and make everything feel simple and human again used to be one of Community’s strengths; With “Intro to Knots,” the one-setting approach felt doomed on arrival.
How sad is that?