Inside ‘Community’s Meta Knockout of a Bottle Episode
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.
“I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.”
Dan Harmon’s seemingly immortal sitcom, Community, is without a doubt the most meta comedy on television (and now the internet). They’ve subverted and indulged in classic tropes like clip shows, Claymation, and musicals, while also perfectly lampooning unexpected pop culture totems like My Dinner With Andre, Hearts of Darkness, and GI Joe. The show has played around with structural insanity so frequently that the term “concept episodes” has been worked into the show’s vernacular. They’ve become as fundamental to the series as The X-Files’ “mythology episodes” were to that show. The long-standing tradition of a bottle episode was an obvious choice for the show to turn to eventually.
Written by Megan Ganz, in what was not only her first script for the series, but her first piece of sitcom writing. It’s easy to see how she would go on to become arguably Community’s strongest writer behind Harmon before ultimately leaving the show. What’s so impressive about “Cooperative Calligraphy” is that it’s a bottle episode about bottle episodes. Which is particularly exciting for a show that is already so preoccupied with the dissection of how sitcoms work and getting deep into their DNA.
All of this beautifully kicks off with the simplest of catalysts with Annie’s purple pen going missing. No one is able to leave the study room until they find the pen, and in what could have been the lowest of stakes situation ends up continually escalating into utter chaos. The mundane study room becomes a destroyed battlefield before our eyes. That’s basically all you need to know, as a missing pen tears this group of people apart and turns into a character examination of who they all are, together and by themselves. We see the culmination of floating plots from the first half of the season, like pregnancies or painkiller addictions, coming to light, as this bottle episode acts as a pressure cooker for character tensions to unwind. It’s amazing that already in the show’s second season it was capable of this degree of depth and history in its characters. The episode functions very much like a love letter to the characters and continuity, as it’s all forced to stew. It also doesn’t hurt that everyone absolutely kills the hell out of it in this episode, with the performances being some of the cast’s best. Alison Brie’s Annie’s “Hmm!” is inspired monosyllabic work.
Beyond the relationships and the performances, why all of this works so well is the show exploring its reluctance, and then inevitable committal and acceptance of doing a bottle episode. This works through the self-aware Abed, who very early on notices the direction that things are heading, and declares that they’ve entered one and that all hope is lost until the “bottle” resolves itself. Naturally the group opposes Abed and says that he’s being ridiculous, but as matters intensify the most amazing turn is when everyone is embracing the conventions of the format by the end as a means of working out their damage. Joel McHale does an incredible job in this episode, but Jeff Winger yelling into his phone to cancel his date with Gwynifer is just unreal in the best way: “Tell your disappointment to suck it. I’m doing a bottle episode!”
Community’s deep knowledge of bottle episodes provides much of this entry’s strength, but the other pivotal move is where they choose to set all of this. The show traps everyone in their iconic study room — their Central Perk, Monk’s Café, Cheers bar — that connects and grounds them all. The study room has become such a symbol to the show, even becoming a character itself so to speak, so to have an episode that’s set entirely there is significant and should be as character and development heavy as this one is. This isn’t just some random “bottle” that they’re trapped in. It’s their most important location and cipher for who they are and how they came together. It’s their womb, where they feel the most safe. It’s no coincidence that the study table has been explicitly conveyed as 2001’s monolith before; it’s their tool to better themselves.
And once everyone moves through the other side of this, they are better. Blame has been cast aside and who took the pen is no longer important (and very brilliantly, you can even see the pen disappear in the first place if you’re eagle-eyed enough). “Cooperative Calligraphy” isn’t just one of the most accomplished episodes of Community, it’s one of the better, reflexive examples of how to do a bottle episode right and the certain responsibilities that accompany such a thing.