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Sunday, 12 of July of 2020

Community – “Cooperative Calligraphy”

I hate bottle episodes.”

I love bottle episodes. I think they’re great, occasionally risky episodes that tell us about what a show is about. They force a show to boil itself down to its bare essentials, showcasing very specific dynamics and how those dynamics keep the show moving.

Yes, the reasons bottle episodes tend to happen make little to no sense (as they do here), but I very often don’t care because I love excuses to spend time with characters in these very intense ways.

Needless to say, I think this is one of Community‘s best episodes so far.

To explain bottle episodes to the uninitiated, here’s Aaron Sorkin talking about “17 People”, one of the single greatest bottle episodes ever, and probably my favorite episode of The West Wing:

NBC gives us a lot of money to do the show. The problem is is cost us quite a lot of money to do the show, so Warner Bros. comes up with the rest in deficit financing. They lose a significant amount of money every time we make an episode in that we’ll make enough episodes (about 100) to sell the show into syndication […] But until (and if) that happens, they lose a lot of money per episode.

When we stay on budget.

Which we’ve never done.


So the word came down from Warner Bors. that some budget overruns had to be made up, and that for the next episode I write we should use no guest cast, no new sets, no extras, and no film.

In other words, I got to write  a play.

The West Wing Scriptbook, page 238.

If you take Sorkin’s words, replace ‘Warner Bros.’ with ‘Sony’, you pretty much have what happened here with “Cooperative Calligraphy.” Episodes like “Epidemiology” and “Basic Rocket Science” are more expensive than your normal episode, given all the set work and time that’s necessary to do them. To compensate for this, and many many shows do this, you have to do episodes that cost next to nothing to make up the difference. Often characters will get locked in a freezer or a closet or some such nonsense. See, now you’re thinking of some.

Last time, I complained that Community was slighting my favorite aspect of the show, which was the study room interactions, in favor of meta and reference humor. You can imagine my thrill at having an entire episode that does just this. What I love about the study table confrontations is that they lay bare the characters (literally in this episode!), lay bare their insecurities, their personalities, and issues that were occurring in that particular episode.

So with “Cooperative Calligraphy” we get to watch this group that has no business being together any longer, that doesn’t make any sense sticking together — Jeff is often horrible to these people, Abed can’t relate to any one, Pierce is insensitive and pathetic, Shirley is judgmental, Annie is manipulative, and Troy is…well…a bit weird — and yet here they are. They’re connected to each other so much that they’re hesitant to invade each other’s privacy, indulge Annie’s tantrum about the pen.

And then it just spirals out of control from there, as each of their individual traits just comes to the forefront. It’s exciting to watch this happen, as everyone just gives it their all: Abed sees nothing wrong with his super-observant behavior picking up on the women’s menstrual cycles; Shirley’s frustration at being the only Christian and heavy-set woman; Britta’s self-righteous crusading. But other things work, too, including Troy’s oh-so-wonderfully subtle realization that Shirley is potentially pregnant with Chang’s baby. CHANG’S. BABY.

After episodes of homages and meta and references, it was nice to get back to this kind of character-centric episode. As great as Community is at the rest of that, because it is brilliant in a way that I think no other show is, I love this Community more. I love these characters, even pathetic Pierce, and I love watching their interactions as characters and not pieces in an homage. Despite Abed’s assertion that bottle episodes don’t work, the very often do when they’re done well, and  “Cooperative Calligraphy” is done very well.  It reminds me why Community is one of the best shows on television.


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