Episode 208: Cooperative Calligraphy

 

 ‚Äčsll03

Episode 2.08 – Cooperative Calligraphy

Do you believe in ghosts? 

Actually, allow me to rephrase: could you believe in ghosts? Funny how much of a difference that makes. 

This is the ultimate question Cooperative Calligraphy poses. It’s a simple question, really. It’s direct. It’s unassuming. Heck, it’s downright silly. But of course, like most things Community, it is so much more than what it seems. This is a sneaky question – a clever question. This is a question in disguise. This question is not actually after your opinion on the existence of poltergeists, apparitions and ectoplasm. This is a question that when answered reveals much more about you emotionally than it does spiritually. This is a question about love. 

But let’s hold that thought for a moment and just quickly remind ourselves how all of this started: Annie’s pen is missing… again. She has been bringing supplies to study sessions and they keep suspiciously disappearing. She’s tired of it. She wants whomever the culprit is to just fess up and return everything. Unfortunately for her, the group isn’t exactly motivated to take such an issue very seriously. After all, Jeff has a ‘catch to date’, Britta has her grandmother’s hands to photograph, Shirley has children to take care of, and everyone else has a Puppy Parade to attend. Besides, it’s just a pen. Naturally, Annie reacts to their indifference with complete composure and eventually persuades them all to reconsider. Thus, the famous bottle episode begins.

Finding the pen is the initial driving force of the plot. The quest may start out as a one-woman endeavour, but it quickly grows into a full-on search party as the situation escalates. One by one, every single member of the study group comes under scrutiny. Perhaps Shirley accidentally put the pen in her comedically huge bag? Or maybe Abed hid it to make life a little more like TV? Pierce is senile on a good day and he’s been using random objects to scratch his legs a lot as of late, so he is a definite possibility. Then again, Troy is most likely to be the thief, statistically speaking. Jeff also made it fairly obvious he took it as a joke and misjudged the severity of the outcome. On the other hand, Britta is Britta, so that automatically puts her as the front-runner (she’s the worst). And wouldn’t it be such a twist if it were Annie herself who had it the entire time but was too embarrassed to say? This constant back-and-forth whodunit element is basically fantastic. The pacing is incredible, the possible ‘motives’ are entirely within character and the jokes fly at a mile a minute. I was utterly convinced that each one of them had taken the pen at one point or another, only to be disproven moments later. It was truly a treat to watch. 

Ironically enough, the more innocent everyone appears, the higher the stakes get. The investigation causes tempers to boil over, accusations to be made and secrets to be spilled.

It comes to light that Shirley has rekindled her relationship with Andre and as a result may be pregnant. This revelation has obvious long-term repercussions throughout the season (mostly to do with Chang and the paternity of the child) but what I enjoyed was the way it incited confrontation between Shirley and Britta. It fascinates me when these two butt heads because they are similar in so many ways and opposites in only a few fundamental ones, but this makes them completely different people. Shirley always strives to be a nice person because she believes that is something a good, devout Christian should do. At the same time, she tends to severely judge others for their perceived misconduct while holding herself to a higher standard. This is very expertly depicted by both her sweet claim that she would never steal and rather blunt surprise at learning Abed was not the offender. Oppositely, Britta rallies against the institution of religion but is still driven by the need to do the right thing by an invisible power: the power of expectation. Furthermore, she has also judged others for their political inaction, naivety, or lack of Upper East Side frequenting. Her initial outrage at rifling through Abed’s bag is touching, but note how quickly she changes her tune after Jeff explains who put gum in her hair. Basically, Shirley and Britta are both moral snobs who constantly call each other out on it, so seeing them argue about proper sexual conduct is always entertaining. 

And speaking of sexual conduct: Jeff and Britta were totally doing it. Spoiler alert! Hee. Moving on.

Pierce’s incredibly defined descent into the role of Season 2’s antagonist is also built upon throughout the episode. We learn he is abusing the painkillers prescribed to him after the trampoline accident. This sets the stage for his imminent overdose and manipulation story lines in Early 21st Century Romanticism and Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, respectively. At this point, Pierce’s mother has sadly passed away – something he has dealt with by, well, not dealing with it. He is also already beginning to feel belittled/neglected by the group, which was made apparent by his consorting with the Hipsters and fury at not being included by Jeff and Troy. At the time, cutting open Pierce’s casts seemed like just another crazy-yet-logical step in the search for the pen. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder if Abed’s words were meant to be foreshadowing in some way: “I’m afraid we’ve gone too far. This is how super villains are created.”

If the pen is the match that lit the fuse in this explosive situation, Annie is the person who struck it. There are undoubtedly plenty of individuals out there who understand Annie's point of view in this episode: it is disrespectful to pilfer other people's things and then lie about it. However, there are also undoubtedly a lot of individuals out there who think she may have taken her vendetta a little too far. This was never an issue for me as I always chalked it up to her high-strung, slightly neurotic and immature nature. After the airing of Celebrity Pharmacology, it occurred to me that Annie was also struggling financially. She has enough trouble making rent, paying tuition and feeding herself as it is, but now her things are being taken, too? Her outburst is still over-the-top (hilariously so) but a little more understandable in light of those circumstances. Regardless, she is probably the only person who has any actual interest in locating the pen. Her recruitment of others is really only successful because they're all friends. These people would not have chosen to stay cooped up all night for a person they could care less about. They paused initially out of exasperation and stayed out of loyalty. Granted, the incentive to expose the perpetrator is also fueled by everyone’s humiliation at being accused and subsequent thirst for justice, but it soon goes far beyond that. It becomes a question of whether someone in their midst is capable of being this mean. 

Being stuck in a room full of these emotions is terrifying to Abed. Even though hisMenstrual Cycle Cheer-Up Guide was undeniably awesome, it’s sad to think about what it means: he is acutely aware he does not always fit in. Despite the fact that he is arguably the most intuitive and observant member of the group, he still finds it difficult to properly relate or respond to them in certain scenarios. This disconnect can be seen when Abed beseeches Jeff to wrap things up with a Winger Speech and end the turmoil; he knows what the solution is (a Winger Speech does in fact do the trick) but may fail to understand why. It’s a little heartbreaking. That being said, in a lot of ways, I have missed this version of Abed. I miss watching him try to bond with people through ill-advised but well-intended methods: quoting The Breakfast Club, donning Don Draper (I know, I know, but I’m a sucker for bad jokes), creating a chicken finger mafia, becoming Rowboat Cop, keeping secret period journals, reenacting My Dinner With Andre, and the like. Knowing what I do now about his fear of being alone, these actions not only make much more sense but also seem very in tune with the kind of approach I would expect him to take. Abed searching for common ground in reality through fiction is always genuinely moving. Seeing him commit to the cause – even if he doesn't fully recognize why he should – was wonderful.

Sadly, everyone's efforts were all for naught. Now there is a stalemate. The pen seems lost forever and with it the group’s sense of trust. It is a grim-looking scene: seven Greendale Community College students sit despondently on the floor in the middle of the library. Tables are over-turned, chairs are knocked down, carpets are pulled up and bags are emptied. Binders, books, papers, pencils, markers and yes, pens, are haphazardly strewn about. There is a palpable sense of dread. Nobody knows what to do. What will this mean? What will this change? Will things ever be the same? Then Jeff has an epiphany. He has a way out: a ghost took the pen. 

That’s it. That is the moment Cooperative Calligraphy asks the audience if they can believe in ghosts. That is the moment it implores you to overlook the little things (like, say, your perception of reality) to have faith in these characters. That is the moment when you decide if they love each other enough for this ludicrous proposition to make even remote amounts of sense. That is the moment where you choose to buy into the entire premise of Community: these rag-tag, quirky misfits somehow belong together and are a family no matter what. As far as the group is concerned, their response to this all-important question is a resounding ‘yes’. They unanimously opt to place the blame for the missing pen on a mysterious specter. Jeff happily defers to Troy for specifics about what kind of unfinished pen-related business is at play and it’s a nice moment which acts as a fitting prelude to Troy’s impending arc of maturity and growing up. And just like that, the dread is gone. You can see the calm wash over the room as everyone exchanges looks; they all understand the silent agreement that has been made. When they are finally able to exit through those library doors (all together, of course) the look of sincere sentiment on their faces is nothing but deserved. 

So, what is your answer to the question? Personally? I don’t believe in ghosts: never have, never will. But for this show? I totally could.

Favourite Quotes:

Look out, drive-by Deaning!

I wanna lick it!

Accidents don’t just happen over and over and over again, okay? This isn’t budget daycare. 

Maybe nobody took the pen. Sometimes I think I’ve lost something really important to me and it turns out I already ate it. 

Oh it all starts with a quick looksee in someone’s bag and then it’s a brisk peek-a-rooni at our phone records and then before you can say ‘1984’ the Thought Police are forcey-worcing you to bend and spread!

Do they find thoughts in our butts? I KNEW I should’ve read that book!

Welcome to the MACHINE!

With every passing moment, these puppies grow older and less deserving of our attention. 

It’s not a pen: it’s a principle!

Side effects: verbal dysphasia and octopus loss. I don’t see anything on this squirrel about memory, Troy. 

I’m not hiding my own pen, you paranoid weirdo… everybody stay within each other’s eye lines please, one of you is a monster. 

I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head. 

Shirley: Mother Hen? I’m pretty sure we about the same age.
Britta: Sure, unless time is linear.
Shirley: I’ll make your ass linear.
Britta: That doesn’t make any sense.
Shirley: I’ll make your ass sense.

I can explain. Oh, I thought you’d keep yelling over me. Okay, I can explain. 

I guess it’s true what they say about the sync-up.

Annie: Well, well, well, Harvey Keitel.
Troy: Well what do you know, Henry David Thoreau.
Britta: My oh my, Mike Ty…son.

Annie: You wanna go there?
Britta: Uh-huh!
Annie: I’ll go there!
Britta: Okay!
Annie: I was born there!
Britta: Really?
Annie: There’s a placard there commemorating me!
*Annie begins to unbutton her sweater*
Troy: What’s going on and how can I help?

Be careful – it’s the last pair we have. Also, don’t cut his legs. 

Let him finish!

Dean Pelton: What the hell did you people do in there?
Abed: Something you and your puppies could only dream of, you non-miraculous son of a bitch.

Stray Observations:

  • The term ‘bottle episode’ was coined on the original Star Trek series. The crew would use the phrase to describe episodes that never left the bridge. 
  • A few hints are scattered throughout the episode alluding to who the real pen thief is: 
    1. Right after Annie’s Boobs steals the pen, Dean Pelton exclaims, “I expect all of you to lend a paw!”
    2. Check out the multiple mentions of monkeys in the last line of notes on thewhiteboard
    3. Troy mentions Abed released his pet monkey.
  • This episode marks the second Beetlejuice mention.
  • Pierce’s wheelchair isn’t breath-controlled after all?! How many lies have I been living?!
  • For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here is Annie’s Boobs caught red-handed.
  • There is an advertisement on the whiteboard for Student Government, but according to Intro to Political Science, there has never been a Study Body President at Greendale. Conspiracy?
  • Apparently NUCLEAR BOMBS! are still a concern at Greendale – look at the yellow flyer on the wall to the left of Britta.
  • How awesome was the music in the last scene? I loved the way it started off spooky to give the false impression that an actual ghost really was the culprit and then abruptly stops as soon as Annie’s Boobs hops out of the vent. 
  • Other interesting items Annie’s Boobs stole: a Troy and Abed in the Morning! mug, a set of keys, a Fossil watch, a small Dalmatian figurine, Pierce’s earnoculars, a bracelet with the Scrabble letters W.W. on it, Troy’s Student ID Card, a Human Being doll, the hat Britta wanted to put on a frog in The Science of Illusion, a coin purse, approximately six of Annie’s pens, a banana peel, a crumpled up piece of Spanish homework, a valentine with Troy’s name on it, and we all know monkey took my spoon.

Commentary Notes:

  • This is Dan Harmon’s favourite installment from Season 2. He explained that if one episode had to represent the show, he would want it to be Cooperative Calligraphy because it has a “timelessness to it”. It’s my favourite, too!
  • Harmon wanted Annie’s pen to be a better device that forces the study group to all stay in the room than hokey reasons old 80’s episodes used (i.e. the door is locked, there’s a snow storm, etc. etc.). He felt it provided a more emotional lock. 
  • Joe Russo mentioned that he intentionally made the camera work more erratic as the episode progressed to mirror the state of the study group. 
  • The episode was shot chronologically – a rarity for the show – and in only 4 days.
  • The contents of Britta and Shirley’s purses were discussed at length by the female writers to make sure they reflected the characters properly. Specifically, Karey Dornetto served as inspiration for Britta’s used Q-Tips and wayward pair of panties. 
  • The reaction the study group has when Pierce’s casts come off was not in the script. The waffle house line and everybody's strong aversion to the smell was all improvised. 
  • Megan Ganz had to personally ask Joel McHale (the day after she had met him, no less) what kind of underwear he would be wearing during shooting in order to make the joke about his cotton-soy blend more authentic.
  • Chris McKenna came up with the name for Shirley’s pregnancy test. 
  • Harmon mentions how he thought this episode did a fantastic job of showing Shirley’s often thinly veiled rage. At the time this commentary was being recorded, the writers were preparing for season 3 and he wanted to address more of Shirley’s past and what her volatility stemmed from. 
  • There was a lot of concern Joel’s butt crack would show during the scene where he starts tearing the study room apart (which was also improvised, by the way). I am personally of the opinion that they should be encouraging these kinds of accidents to happen, but I may be biased. It is too early to tell.
  • ‘Gwennifer’ is in fact Jeff’s code name for Britta. The writers decided the two had started hooking up around the time of Basic Rocket Science and began intentionally leaving clues from that point on. ‘Gwennifer’ is also the name of Harmon’s Twitter foe who used to frequently bash him online for not including enough diversity in the study group. 
  • Harmon was initially concerned that having Annie’s Boobs steal the pen would be too much of an inside joke and not accessible for new viewers. However, Joe Russo helped him realize that at the end of the day, it was still a random monkey stealing a pen, which is pretty hilarious in of itself.

 

 

Discussion:

  • Good review.

    That's really all I have to contribute.

  • sll03

    The Stray Observations seem to be disappearing every time I try to post them. DISQUS, you are a cruel mistress. 

  • Affrosponge88

    No, I am a cruel mistress… 

  • Wow, Cooperative Calligraphy was not in my top 5 favorite episodes for Season 2, but after this, I might need to change that.

  • sll03

    I'm glad to hear it! Cooperative Calligraphy is my favourite episode, so I consider it my personal mission to slowly convert everyone. 

    Come to the Bottle Episode Side – we have purple pens with gel grips.
    *strums fingers together menacingly* 
    (it's really hard to type that way)

  • Come to the Bottle Episode Side – we have purple pens with gel grips.
    *strums fingers together menacingly*

    It's much more convincing if you imagine Alison Brie saying that.

  • thedirte Wait, you're not Alison Brie?

  • HectorTheWellEndowed

    Great review. I kind of want to skip forward in my run for the Great Ranking of 2012 and watch this now. I will totally get more emotional when the ghost bit after your little dissection of it. Damn you and your words!

  • Ya, me too. I was feeling a little emotional just reading the review to be honest; just how it made me look at that scene.

  • Yeah!!! It's here. Great job. Some details I particularly liked were your breakdown on Shirley's and Britta's similarities (and their consequent head-butting) and your reading of Abed's comment about supervillains. How has that never occurred to me? That prescient kid. (Also, speaking of prescience: "What does she mean, 'usually'?")

    I think your central framing of this episode illustrates the thing (ok, ONE of the things) that makes me love this show much, simply that this one loveable ragtag group of misfits, among all the other loveable ragtag group of misfits portrayed in fiction, have a demonstrated bond such that they can validate their continued existence on the collective belief of a lie about ghosts. Truly a thing of beauty. Another instance of this show allowing me to fling myself wholeheartedly into the canyon of goofy. But it's not simply that it's quirky, it's because the show did the legwork of establishing this group's history and their dynamics — much of which was displayed so nicely in this episode, like the tension between Shirley and Britta, again — that make me love it so.

    Also, in answer to your question, I believe in ectoplasm. Definitely. I've even considered donating mine, because if you do it like three or four times a month, I understand you can make a nice bit of spare chang when you — oh wait, that's something different n/m

  • sll03

    I couldn't agree with you more. If the show hadn't done such a fantastic job of developing these characters both as individuals and an entity, the entire 'ghost resolution' would have seemed lame and trite instead of satisfying and poignant. As for Abed, he really is a Middle Eastern Magic 8 Ball! 

    (Side Note: That ectoplasm bit made me chuckle. Well played.)

  • I do not believe in ghosts. They are not supported by sllcience!
     
    I'll read this mammoth review once I'm done with my project today.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    This was a beautiful review.

  • sll03 You gave Dave a boner. Although, it wasn't because of the review.

  • DavetheDouchebag

     *turns red for sll*

  • sll03

    I would be lying if I said this didn't make me laugh out loud. I'm growing concerned that you guys are to me what Rob Lowe was to James Spader in the 1990 film Bad Influence.

    What I'm saying is, you guys rock. 

  • sll03 , I'm pretty sure you flubbed that quote. 
     
    Now finish throwing your science bottles off the roof already. 

  • Fantasllic work, sll! Your review is certainly lives up to the greatness of the episode.

  • If I had to pick one episode that sums up everything I love about Community, it would be this one. I didn't realize that until this most recent rewatch, but now it seems as Ann as the nose on plain's face. It has in jokes, call backs, call forwards, it picks a theme and sticks to it while meta-ly calling attention to the fact that it is sticking to a theme, and it combines the heart of Jeff and Abed's conversation over chicken fingers with the hilarity of NUCLEAR BOMBS!

    Most importantly is the fact that the way the group cares about each other driving all of the action. Everybody has something they'd rather be doing, but they care enough about Annie to stick it out and look for her pen, despite the meaninglessness and inanity of what is going on. The whole episode comes down to this sweetness and kindness that has developed between the group members. That, combined with everything else that this episode absolutely nails, makes it the best representation of why Community is special. 

  • sll03

    In my commentary notes (which I sadly was unable to post – damn you DISQUS!) I mentioned how Dan Harmon said this is the episode he would want to represent the show. He explained it has a certain timelessness to it: it isn't too rife with pop culture or in-jokes, it doesn't use a very elaborate concept, and the plot is fairly self-contained. In spite of all that, the entire thing is still just so blatantly Community-esque in the way it relays what a sanctuary Greendale is for these people and how much they have all come to care for each other. 

    And on the subject of NUCLEAR BOMBS, check out the bright yellow flyer to the left of Britta. The art department is incredible.

  • Why couldn't you post your commentary notes?

    And that flyer is hilarious/awesome. Thanks for point it out. I never noticed it before.

  • sll03

    I think it's because I intimidate DISQUS sexually.

  • Good review, Steph! I never made the connection with the "This is how super-villains are created" line before. You put the ep in the context of Abed and Annie's character arcs well, too.

    I love this episode, for how it took the characters as we'd known them for 33 episodes and escalated all the tensions between them. We see how close to snapping Jeff is at Annie and at the whole group. It's made viscerally clear in Jeff's genuinely frightning temper tantrum. We see how strong the vitriol between Britta and Shirley is. Essentially we're at the point where they no longer feel the need to be rational, to contest a point that they can defend as being worth arguing. The group has entered each others' lives to the degree that they each embody the others' anxieties and frustrations.

    I guess I like that there's a limit, too. That they will stop before really getting at each others' throats, that at the end they still care about each other (Notice how things have gotten worse since "Anthropology 101," but not as bad as they'll get by "Paradigms of Human Memory" when they may still appreciate Jeff's speech but they no longer have faith in what he says).

    The dynamics between the characters are based on earlier episodes, too (although Abed gives and recieves more frustration than he's gotten in the past). When Jeff, Annie and Brita all threaten to strip to prove a point, it momentarily pulls their semi-romantic-triangle back into play, but exposes it for how primal and unhealthy it really is. There's a need for the 3 of them especially, but really for all 7, that is more desperate and fueled by dissatisfaction with their lives at this point than about finding and maintaining the long term bonds they could provide for one another. "Calligraphy" is the episode where, having found each other by accident at an uncertain point in their lives, the study group most spectacularly and most specifically turns that uncertainty onto each other.

  •  For an episode that is basically about a pen-stealing monkey who lives in a vent, it manages to develop a really unsettling, Huis Clos vibe. Yay for Sartrean sitcoms!

    Also, am I the only one who finds Annie's Boobs lording over that pile of S1 and 2 flotsam somewhat freaky?

  • sll03

    You are not alone! I'm getting some serious 'my preciouuuuussss' vibes from this

  • sll03

    There's a need for the 3 of them especially, but really for all 7, that is more desperate and fueled by dissatisfaction with their lives at this point than about finding and maintaining the long term bonds they could provide for one another. "Calligraphy" is the episode where, having found each other by accident at an uncertain point in their lives, the study group most spectacularly and most specifically turns that uncertainty onto each other.

    Ugene, you are always so reliable for providing brain wrinklage. This was very, very eloquently said.

  • SpongyandBruised

    That was so great. The episode isn't too shabby either.

  • Awesome review! I don't have anything informative to add but that was great. I'll keep your review in mind when I re-watch the episode. It's going to be so tough picking between this one and Mixology Certification as my number one.

  • Good call on Annie's financial struggle after her estrangement from her parents. I wouldn't have picked up on that.

  • Fantastic review (especially that second last paragraph) for a fantastic episode. Conspiracy Theories is my favourite, but this one comes super close. 

  •  Great review! I'm late to the party again, so I'll be brief.

    This is a very funny episode, but like Eric notes below, it carries in it a strong undercurrent of rage and even spite (that Shirley/ Britta scream match feels incredibly raw, and YNB sells the hell out of her lines). It just goes to show what an exceptionally diverse streak of episode Community has produced in S2, from Epidemiology through AUC and just how fantastically adept and assured the show was at handling so many different tones and rhythms.

    Your analysis of Abed was spot on and very enlightening. I'm just going to add than I liked the Jeff/ Troy dynamic very much here, with Jeff deferring reluctantly to Troy's dumb, but oddly fitting solution. Along with Pierce's arc, their subtle rivalry was my favorite S2 arc.

    I just love to see Joel tear up that room. The guy does rage really well.

  • sll03  Finally read your review! I said I would after I was done…. You need to come talk with "us" soon!  
    I liked the review. I never knew there were so many hints about the monkey doing it. That's great. Also, it's a good point about Annie being broke and people stealing her stuff would set her off. It's completely within her character to freak out like that too. 
     
    And this twitter gal complained about the diversity? Not only is there racial diversity with two black people in the main cast, someone half-Arab, and a Jewish character, but many of the side characters are ethnic (Pop Pop, professor Kane), and there's diversity socioeconomically, religiously, and by age.