Community, the little-watched, much-loved sitcom-that-could returned for its fifth season this year with its creator, Dan Harmon, at the helm. Harmon, who was fired in between seasons 3 and 4, has been brought back to correct the numerous mistakes that were made during last season, which was referred to as the “gas-leak year” during this season’s first episode, “Repilot”. There was a ton of curiosity surrounding this season, specifically about whether it would live up to the high standards Harmon set for himself during his first three years on the show. I’m happy to report that so far, four episodes in, the show has been as good as it ever was, and that Harmon very clearly knows what he’s doing.
Pierce Hawthorne has always been considered the most toxic element of the study group in Community. He ridiculed another student suffering from extremely low self-esteem during a game of Dungeons & Dragons, he constantly faked heart attacks for attention, and has nearly broken the group up multiple times using his mind games. That toxicity translates to real life, where Chevy Chase, the actor who plays Pierce, grew increasingly irritated at the show and its creator, Dan Harmon, until he finally decided to permanently leave the show. After Harmon’s return as showrunner of Community, fans and critics speculated how the main character would be written out of the show, because as volatile as he was, Pierce was a part of the Greendale Seven, and it would be a disservice to the viewers to have one member unceremoniously disappear without a second thought.
I, along with every other viewer, had my own ideas about how Pierce would be written out, but never did I think that the show would give the character’s departure as much weight as they did. This week’s episode, “Cooperative Polygraphy”, follows the aftermath of the revelation that Pierce has passed away, though this being Community, it was about so much more than just that. In true Pierce form, he stipulated in his will that in the event of his death, the members of his study group should be questioned, to find out which of them murdered him. Attorney Mr. Stone (Walton Goggins, aka Boyd Crowder on Justified) comes in with a polygraph test, as well as questions for each character that were very clearly created by Pierce. Since this show is primarily a comedy, it’s immediately obvious that nobody from the group actually murdered Pierce, but that this is just one last chance for Pierce to do what he was best at: subtly driving a wedge between his friends by forcing them to confront certain truths that they would rather not share with anyone else.
The episode itself drew from many previous, adored episodes, most of all season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy”, which shares much more with this episode than a a similar title. Both episodes are shot in the bottle-episode format (meaning they remain in one place the whole episode), which allows the characters to bounce off each other while not having a plot that needs to be focused on. The episode also has many connections to the second season’s documentary-style episode, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, where Pierce gives the group “bequeathments” in the event of his death. In that episode, the gifts he gives are meant to unnerve each character by seeming like something nice, although actually bringing out each individual’s deepest insecurities. In “Cooperative Polygraphy”, Pierce gives the group “bequeathments” post-death in the form of objects that remind of each his friends of their potential and show his true affection for the group.
Everything I’ve mentioned are things I expect any great Community episode to have. It used what we knew about the characters to make fantastic one-liners while giving us more information about them. What I didn’t expect was how seriously the show took Pierce’s death (other than the actual cause of his death — dying of dehydration after filling six canisters of sperm), and how much it ended up affecting me. The character is easy to hate after all the terrible things he’s done, and I never thought I would be sad about his departure. However, the last third of the episode really showed how much Pierce cared about the people he spent most of his time with, and how all of his tormenting came from a place of misguided love. The sentimental end to the episode may seem out-of-character, but every time Pierce did something horrible to the group, it was always because he felt excluded. He made fun of Neil during Dungeons & Dragons because he felt left out that the group didn’t invite him, he faked heart attacks because the group would ignore him, and he would play mind games to try and teach them that they needed him. He may have gone about it completely wrong, but all Pierce ever wanted was to be considered a friend by those six other people that he studied Spanish with, and his final words to them really showed the rest of the characters how much he cared.
The episode, though it focused on the death of Pierce, was used to give Troy a proper exit after Donald Glover decided to only appear in the first five episodes of the season. Pierce and Troy have always had a pretty strong connection, especially after they lived together, and having their departures connect was a great idea. Troy always wanted to be viewed as an adult by the group, though throughout the show he has become more and more childlike. Though it’s funny for him to be simpleminded, and his friendship with Abed makes for some of the best moments of the show, it makes sense that Troy would want to grow up a bit when given the opportunity by the oldest member of the group. Troy can become an adult in the most Troy-way possible — sailing around the world — where he doesn’t have to lose a piece of himself to do it, as he would have had to by going to the air conditioning repair school. Although I’m happy that the show was able to find the best way possible to give him a proper sendoff, I’m dreading next week’s episode as we’ll have to say goodbye to a beloved character.