Fans of Community are often described as a “cult.” And admittedly, discussion among Community fans can sometimes dissolve into banter composed almost entirely of inside jokes and one-liners that haven’t quite permeated the larger culture in the way that lines from, say 30 Rock or The Simpsons, have. (Unlike, say, “I want to go to there,” Annie’s boobs, Dec. 10, and “Pop pop!” will mean nothing to the many, many people who have never watched the show.)
But Community’s status as a “cult favorite” shouldn’t deter you from diving into the silly, often twisted world of the Greendale Community College study group. For, once you do, you’ll probably come away enjoying it more than you ever would have guessed. And now that it’s coming back for a (Dan Harmon-helmed) fifth season—which begins tonight—there’s no better time to give it a try. The trick is choosing where to begin: Community has a plethora of great episodes to choose from (just ignore the Harmon-less Season 4), but some are heavily self-referential. “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Paradigms of Human Memory” are brilliant, but they’re a terrible place to start.
Instead, the best place for newcomers and skeptics to begin is Season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy.” It’s essentially a “bottle episode,” one in which the main cast is confined to the study room for the duration. The premise is simple: Annie (Alison Brie) has a purple gel-grip pen that goes missing as the group ends a study session; she wants to know which of them has taken it. What seems like a simple matter of a lost writing implement devolves into a 20-minute Agatha Christie-style mystery. Grievances are aired, personal secrets are revealed, and everyone, including Annie herself, is accused of theft.
What makes “Cooperative Calligraphy” a great entry point is its balance of specificity and more inclusive humor. Community is known and loved for its pop-culture references (there’s an entire episode that pays homage to Goodfellas), but here they are sprinkled throughout, rather than serving as the storyline’s very conceit.
And aside from one reveal that refers to the past actions of Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the episode is mostly self-contained. You don’t need to have seen earlier episodes to understand that Abed (Danny Pudi) is socially awkward or that Britta (Gillian Jacobs) tends to get preachy about social causes. (When refusing to submit her bag to a pen search, she declares, “There’s no such thing as a ‘quick’ invasion of civil liberties.” The line is greeted with a collective groan.)
The zippy dialogue in “Cooperative Calligraphy” is among the show’s best, and by the time the episode has reached its bizarre peak and come back to normal (or rather, this show’s version of normal), we know a great deal about each character’s makeup and motivations. Community works especially well when the entire study group is working toward the same goal or through the same conflict. To paraphrase one of the slightly ridiculous, sometimes inspirational speeches by Jeff (Joel McHale), that’s when they all stop being a study group and become something “unstoppable”: a community.
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