It was bound to happen eventually. From time to time, ‘Community’ will do a show outside the norm, like the stop-motion Christmas episode, or the 8-bit episode that dealt with Pierce’s inheritance. At their best, these episodes can give us a whole new way of seeing the show. At worst, these episodes feel like a gimmick, not properly utilizing what makes the medium so special. Unfortunately, Thursday’s episode, ‘Intro to Felt Surrogacy’, fell into the latter camp.
The episode opens with the study group stuck in an awkward, tension-filled silence. The dean decides to help by using puppet therapy, and gives everyone tailor-made puppet replicas of themselves. (Jeff’s comes complete with whip to use on the dean puppet.) The group tells a tale, recreated using Muppet-like figures standing in for the group, about trying to find harmony and togetherness. They take a hot air balloon ride that crashes in the forest. Once there, they encounter a mountain man (Jason Alexander), who feeds them hallucinogenic berries. Tripping balls, they tell each other their darkest secrets, which is what led to the awkward silence that the dean is trying to break. However, they realize that even though they all told their own secrets, none of them actually heard anyone else’s.
‘Intro to Felt Surrogacy’ is a neat idea for an episode. In fact, it’s such a good idea that it’s already been done, and better, on the series ‘Angel’, in the episode called ‘Smile Time’. While that show actively played with the idea of making a flesh-and-blood character into a puppet, this episode simply puts puppets in the place of the existing characters. The puppet scenes, complete with jovial songs, feel like a ‘Sesame Street’ parody, but to no real effect. I mean, you’ve gone to the trouble of creating Muppet versions of all your main characters, and the most you can think of to do with them is have them lay around a camp fire? It seems like all the energy went into the technical aspects, and not enough into the creative side.
This is perhaps best exemplified in the group’s encounter with Jason Alexander. Alexander is a very talented comedic actor, obviously best known for playing George on ‘Seinfeld’, but he’s utterly wasted here. And speaking of wasted, most of the episode is simply the puppets laying around, high as kites, singing about bad things they’ve done, none of which are really so terrible.
The best stuff happens in the study room, with the real actors actually interacting with each other. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when everyone realizes that no one else heard their dirty secrets. Annie’s line, “So no one heard my terrible secret about how… I… trail off sometimes?” is smartly delivered, and Alison Brie is endearingly awkward in her performance. That kind of thing simply can’t shine through with the puppets, which is why that material needs to be exciting in its own way, and it’s not.
Even the real world scenes are uneven. This would have been the perfect opportunity to make the dean a little more relatable than he’s been so far this season. Instead, he appears in a Pinocchio costume, complete with fake nose, and is simultaneously too over-the-top for the scenes he’s in, but also not outlandish enough to compete with the puppet sequences. It’s a lose-lose situation, and the writers should have been smart enough to know when to pull him back a bit.
That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments littered throughout the episode. There are, but they’re too few and far between to sell the premise, and the premise is such a doozy that it really needed to be a home run to work. Compare this to the 8-bit episode, which is among the best the show ever had, and it’s easy to see where this one falls short.