Review: COMMUNITY S4E09, Intro To Felt Surrogacy (Or, Playing With Puppets Can Be Bittersweet)

U.S. Editor; Los Angeles, California (@benumstead)
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Review: COMMUNITY S4E09, Intro To Felt Surrogacy (Or, Playing With Puppets Can Be Bittersweet)
It's nice that I don't have to make any lame jokes about the use of puppets in this episode as the title so cleverly got that out of the way for me. So thank you, Community writers. You do your job well.

As it is, last night's episode was indeed very nice, but just how nice it was is going to depend on your tolerance for towing very dangerously to the line of sentimentally saccharine, plus the use of puppets somewhere in the vein of the Muppets and Avenue Q. Overall Intro To Felt Surrogacy played it more bittersweet like one of Kermit's banjo ballads, once again reinforcing just how tight the study group is... even after a balloon ride gone awry and a psychotropic berry trip in the woods.

The episode starts with what must be one of the shortest pre-titles sequences ever for the show, the study group sans Pierce, barely unable to sit with each other. Cartoonish, awkward glances are made and we cut to the titles. Uh. Oh. This is serious stuff. The Dean comes in to save the day with puppet therapy, each giving the group a hand puppet sewn in their likeness as to which they can act out what's been troubling them in safe, surrogate fashion. Per usual, Jim Rash's entrance is great and I love how his sexual obsession with Jeff is pretty much now  front and center in all of its absurd little fashions. I also have no idea why he was wearing a Pinocchio outfit, but hey, I liked it. So, with their puppets on hand (literally, *ahem*) the group begins to recount the events of last Friday. And with that we're whisked to a flashback sequence where the cast has been turned into Muppet-style puppets who sing through their experiences. Feeling like they're stuck in a rut, the the study group decides (through song of course) to take a ride in a hot air balloon. Take off goes terribly wrong (mainly because they're so preoccupied with singing enthusiastically as to not know their balloon guide is not with them) and they crash land in the woods where a transient mountain man played by Jason Alexander sings to them about being free. He then hand feeds them those psychotropic berries I mentioned and the group gets loopy.

Getting comfy at a campfire the group then share their darkest secrets with each other. Back in the world of flesh ie the study room, Shirley recounts hers and the rest of the group doesn't even remember it. Realizing that the berries made them terrible listeners who didn't even remember the others' secrets, Shirley is left to wallow in her own embarrassment before Jeff, in typical Jeff fashion, urges the rest of the group to share their own so as they can come together again. This is, of course through singing, and while none of the secrets are particularly earth shattering, they all address the darker sides of each member of the group, whether it be someone unwilling to commit to something, getting caught up in lies or jealously or just negative storytelling. The episode ends with a heartwarming tone, perhaps more sweet than usual because of all the felt going around, but it also doesn't pretend to mask or fix each person's sadness and regret. If anything the study group doesn't forgives and forget but forgives and embraces and moves on. Ah, well maybe that's the same thing.

As you can probably tell by my somewhat lackluster recount, I could have lived without the "Community does puppets!" episode as my fondness for the medium only goes as far as my days watching Sesame Street. Although I would have loved being in a room with someone who was blindly flipping through TV channels only to land on a bunch of singing puppets having no idea what it was. Then again who actually watches TV nowadays? Besides viewers of CBS.

Now considering all that it doesn't mean I was disappointed with Intro To Felt Surrogacy. When it was announced I had low expectations for this one, so my enjoyment was only going to go so far anyway. For what it's worth, the episode worked. It did what it needed to do and that's fine. Like the study group I say "Okay, let's move on."   

Random Thoughts And Observations:

- So this was obviously one of the two episodes that were shot last in the season's production order as Chevy Chase was absent during the non-puppet scenes. If you don't recall, Chase quit the show with two episodes to go, but luckily (or perhaps out of safety) they shot the finale out of order, so he will be in that.

- As the puppets go, they looked good (anybody know who was behind them?), and the singing was about what you'd expect from a Muppet-style song. Again that means you either dug it or just gave it a pass. But how could you hate it?

- The cutaways to Donald Glover and his hand-puppet were perhaps the highlights of the episode.         

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Joe FalionApril 12, 2013 3:15 PM

It's sappy episodes like this that fuel my dislike for Community. It wasn't even the puppets or the singing, it was just a shit sappy storyline.

Ben UmsteadApril 12, 2013 3:53 PM

Well, they don't come too often, and considering that the last few episodes have been very good, I'm willing to let this one go out to pasture.

I'm curious... what fuels your like of Community since you've obviously been watching (to some extent).

bear9April 12, 2013 7:05 PM

Am I the only one who thought Jason Alexander's character might have been a riff on Dan Harmon?

Ben UmsteadApril 12, 2013 10:11 PM

Hmm, you may be on to something.

Joe FalionApril 12, 2013 10:25 PM

Well the show is without a doubt very cleverly written, even this episode. It just didn't appeal to my personal tastes. You can't always please everyone, and this time around it was a grump like myself.

Ben UmsteadApril 13, 2013 12:26 AM

It's understandable how that is, no considering the puppets. And really if this scenario didn't have puppets it'd be wack-a-doo. But the fact remains it really DIDN'T have puppets, so... I wasn't so hot on it obviously. Just like "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas", it was gonna alienate or infuriate some viewers based on how much they liked the medium or style they were paying homage to.

Christopher HollowayApril 13, 2013 3:41 PM

I think this season has really been far to focused on using sentimentality to make people "feel good" about community and the characters instead of using actual comedy, it just feels a bit cheap to me, its far easier to make a character have a sympathetic moment than it is to write funny dialogue that fits naturally into their character, but this episode was far better than I expected, esp loved deans response to garrett, laughed, plus the bit with the greendale shirt, other than that it fell a little flat to me, and they dont seem to have too much confidence in their jokes, as they feel the need to add explainers onto them, which is a shame

Ben UmsteadApril 13, 2013 11:09 PM

Explaining some of the jokes outright has been an interesting route to take. Never did it feel so on-the-nose than when Shirley mumbled her Judge Judy joke explanation in this episode.

One thing about Community and sentimentality is that in both eras of the show it has never been afraid to wear that sentiment in plain sight. Sometimes that can feel sappy, as opposed to say maudlin. what always amazed me in the Harmon era is that I rarely question the sentiment because, more often than not, it was wrapped up in some genuine heartache or hurt that had been masked by a joke or a jab, and sometimes some larger absurd plot that got us to the sentimental conclusion.

This season as I've talked about at length in these reviews has clearly done a lot of backtracking, or well... maybe that's not it. They had to reevaluate the core of the show, get familiar with it, and that meant getting pretty messy and obvious and just trying on sentimentality without as much gravitas and largely the hope that the history of the show, of these characters, and of the audience knowing them would justify it all. However, I really think that they're finding their footing now and knowing the show at the core, even if the terms may be a bit different. So what is that core? Well, it's right there, plain as day in the title. To resonate with others and hold them in compassion. It sounds corny as hell and that's why we have to disguise that kind of talk amidst episodes of paintball and Dinner with Andre inspired dinners and UN debates (crisis alert!)

Christopher HollowayApril 15, 2013 6:31 AM

seeing last weeks episode, to me jeff was acting out of character when he started hating on britta so much, and as nice as it was to see pierce calling him on it,, it just fell flat to me as making jeff artificially meaner to make pierce seem nicer by comparison just felt cheap, and I'm unble to see the story as much other than "the plot demands he be mean again, so he can "grow" as a person" the next episode"

Ben UmsteadApril 17, 2013 4:07 PM

I see what you mean. I allowed it since it didn't feel out of character to me, but certainly a way that the old Jeff would have acted more so than Jeff now. But we all can slip back into old patterns when we're feeling glum. I took it for that, considering how things had been for Jeff, though it would have been nice to get a little more of an explanation.