I’ve had some discussions with Community fans who have been a little disappointed by the first batch of S2 episodes because there’s been a lot of “theme” episodes and little Greendale-heavy, smaller-scale episodes. If those people didn’t love “Cooperative Calligraphy” I don’t know what the heck to tell them.
Dan Harmon said in an interview or two that he was going to come out swinging with the first 6-7 episodes with large-scale episodes that attempted all sorts of things that normal broadcast comedies would not, but then scale things back moving forward to more character-heavy Greendale shenanigans. “Cooperative Calligraphy” is the obvious beginning of the second act of the season Harmon mentioned, and it’s also one of the best episodes in the series’ history.
In a lot of ways, those larger episodes set the table for this episode, as issues that came up there or even further back to last season’s big episodes finally manifested themselves while the whole study group finds themselves in the study room for an extended period of time in hopes of finding Annie’s stupid pen. Of course this episode includes a running gag of meta humor with Abed commenting on his hatred of bottle episodes (which, this of course, was), but for the most part, the episode uses the bottle episode context as a way to bring up all the personal issues between these people bubbling underneath the surface. Similarly, things get hilariously out of hand in the way bottle episodes tend to do — angry stripping, Jeff destroying most of the room — but like all of Community‘s best efforts, the episode and the characters sell these actions in such a way that it seems completely believable that they would happen.
Thus, “Calligraphy” is often as dramatic and poignant as it is funny, which is not to say it isn’t funny, because it’s hilarious. But there are a number of moments here where the characters are expressing fairly deep-seeded frustrations with other people in the group and it’s kind of uncomfortable in a very personal sort of way. And I think a lot of that stems from the fact that everyone in the group knows one another so well that it feels like we’re watching a big, tight-knit family implode instead just a somewhat-connected group of individuals riff on one another. The ladies are legitimately upset that Abed has been tracking their menstrual cycles, but he’s doing it because he needs some way to connect with them and avoiding hurting their feelings on certain days is a good way to do that. Shirley and Britta are both angry about the other’s moral compass, but also recognize they’re kind of hypocritical for being so.
Things continue to accelerate and get worse, but it make sense. Like all the series’ great episodes, there’s a logic to why things get so out of control. As Jeff notes, if they let someone go from the study room without finding the pen, it suggests they can’t really trust one another ever again. And even though they’ve trapped themselves in the room and exercised some personal demons with one another, they still care about each other more than they probably even realize, so trust is a paramount trait they all have to find in the others.
It’s a surprisingly poignant and realistic moment, one that’s surrounded by a number of great gags: the return of Troy’s fascination with “butt stuff,” Britta’s 1984 rant, Abed’s “Winger speech bring it home” and Jeff’s ghost story realization. And of course, anytime we get more Annie’s Boobs, the better.
“Cooperative Calligraphy” is both the culmination of the last 15 episodes and the catalyst for a number of surely-awesome plots and episodes to come. It’s a reminder that Community can be just as hilarious when telling intensely personal and small-scale stories as it is when riffing on pop culture’s biggest genres and formats. And that’s why it is television’s best comedy.