Even when you really enjoyed a concept the first time, it’s disappointing to see Community return to the same well. The choice is understandable, of course, but when paintball becomes rote rather than exciting, then something is lost, and it cheapens even the original experience a bit. That wasn’t quite what happened in last night’s episode, but dependent upon what you thought of the polygraphs, which as a whole annoyed me despite a handful of good jokes about them, last night was the most disappointing episode of the season so far. The idea behind the episode was lazy, and while it was pretty well-executed, when Dan Harmon’s running Community I can’t help but hope that the show’s ideas will be original, not to mention its speeches and catharses more earned. It’s a matter of what the show is capable of that makes it, at times, a letdown despite the laughter.
Backing up a bit, “Cooperative Polygraphy” was a sort of second take on “Cooperative Calligraphy,” Community’s bottle episode that—the constant references to being a bottle episode aside—was pretty much perfect. The entire cast was locked in a room for a stupid reason and as a result they learned about each other and grew closer as a group. This time, they’re locked in a room together answering polygraph questions designed by Pierce to screw with them, and they’re unable to leave or else they won’t have a chance at his inheritance.
The problem with the polygraph part of the whole thing, though, was that it forced things out into the open that would’ve been better left developing organically. The way things came out due to characters’ own decisions was what made them really matter in “Calligraphy,” and as a result all of these “truths” coming out felt like they were on training wheels. This episode of Community didn’t just lock its characters into a room together, it locked them in a room with a magically functioning polygraph machine that effectively worked as a truth-telling spell. As an unfortunate side effect of having the cards stacked so high against the cast, it also made everyone go back to easy jokes and broader versions of the characters.
With “Calligraphy” it felt like everyone went through a journey together, but here it felt as if they went through…well, a staged event of some kind. Even though there was real money on the table, the stakes felt much lower, perhaps because we’ve done this before and perhaps because nothing revelatory was announced by any of the characters. There were more weird quirks that came out, sure, and I’m certain we’ll be getting references to them for the rest of the season, but nothing that deepened our understanding of the Greendale study group. The beats, up until the conclusion, were rote, and while it was certainly better-executed than a season four version, it’s not difficult to imagine this same set-up without Harmon around.
The saving grace that kept the episode from mediocrity was its conclusion. Troy leaving the group is a big deal, regardless of the fact that this has been a known aspect of the show for quite a long time now. Troy was written into a tight spot at the end of season three. He decided not to follow his skills as an air conditioner repairman, but after that he wasn’t left with much of an identity. He was Abed’s wingman, but almost everything that could be said about him could also be said of his best friend, plus many more traits. As Community became Abed-centric during the fourth season, Troy became the show’s most cartoonish character.
In these few episodes of the fifth season, though, it’s seemed as if Troy has recognized this. He’s gone along with his friends because he doesn’t know what else to do, but it’s clear he’s unhappy. It’s great to see him jump at the chance of changing that, even when it means leaving his best friend behind. This is a big change, and not a fake one that won’t have any effect on things at the beginning of the next episode, as has been true for many of Community’s big changes. With that ending also came new ideas, jokes and sentiments. The repetition of the previous nearly 20 minutes were put in even starker contrast from this jolt of forward momentum, but it also brought “Polygraphy” above average level. I’ll be sad to have a Troy-free Community, but I look forward to episodes of the show that deal with his departure because then, at least, they shouldn’t be like anything we’ve already seen before.