“Why did you make, have and bring these? Don’t answer!”
So, this is the puppet episode. It’s very weird. Not in a cool-Community way so much as it’s just really, really weird on every level. But it’s not completely terrible. It’s no ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,’ but it’s no ‘Advanced Introduction to Finality’ either (that indignity is yet to come).
Puppet episodes are a strange beast. Whether or not they work tends to depend partly on how good a reason the show-runners come up with for people to be puppets, but partly on simply how well the comedy works (regardless of genre, a puppet episode is, almost by definition, a comedy episode). Angel’s ‘Smile Time,’ for example, makes no sense whatsoever, even in a fantasy context, but it gets away with it because it’s just so darn funny (and because the Angel puppet looks so great).
The justification for the puppets here is that the group are using puppet therapy to overcome a traumatic shared experience. I thought this worked reasonably well. We’ve seen the group use similar distancing tools before, like playing along with Abed’s delusions in the aforementioned stop-motion animated episode, and I can understand why they might try this here. I also find it completely plausible that the Dean has puppets of everyone lying around at home (though the tiny little whip the Jeff-puppet was holding was probably Too Much Information).
For me, the parts that didn’t work so well were the singing. I know I sound like a broken record comparing this to ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ all the time, but that was a similar episode that really worked so I’m going to keep doing it anyway. In the earlier episode, the point was that Abed, the pop-culture obsessive, was imagining his life as a Christmas animation, so of course he imagined it complete with songs.
Here, though, the entire group is re-enacting something using puppets. Showing us just the puppets sitting around the table sort of makes sense, but when they all break into song – why are they doing that? The only reason for the singing is to homage puppet shows (probably the Muppets in particular) but homaging puppet shows isn’t what they’re trying to do – they’re supposed to be expressing themselves and re-enacting real experiences through the puppets. There were places where the singing worked in the story’s favour – the sharing of secrets can be done more quickly through song, and the balloon lady’s ‘OK, from now on no more singing in the balloon’ was pretty funny – but overall, the singing didn’t fit into the plot or tone of the episode.
Tone in general is another thing this episode had problems with. The cold open just shows everyone staring uncomfortably at each other which… isn’t funny. This is a sitcom, right?! Most of the secrets are both in character and dark enough to be someone’s biggest secret, with the exceptions of Pierce’s, which is just a joke, and Shirley’s, which makes no logical sense (her kids have mobiles and most grocery stores close overnight, it shouldn’t be possible to leave them there all night. OK, there are some 24-hour stores, but still). But in places they’re so dark, the comedy suffers. I wasn’t wild about Deanocchio either, which sort of broke the mood set by the Dean’s genuine desire to help, though I suppose it wasn’t out of character.
In the end, this episode falls prey to all the same problems that have plagued all of season four and some of season three – it’s just trying that bit too hard. The character work isn’t bad, but it’s lost among all the crazy costumes and songs and the sheer effort the show is making to do a crazy puppet episode. And like I said at the top, there’s something very off, in a strange and undefinable way, about the feeling of the whole episode. Maybe it’s the semi-presence of Chevy Chase, maybe it’s the actually quite uncomfortable secret-sharing, maybe it’s just the smell of desperation, but despite some decent ideas, there’s just something not quite right about the whole thing.
Bits ‘n’ pieces
- Every time someone complains at Abed for making a pop culture reference, I wince. Stop showing us how painfully self-aware you are, show, and just stop making all these references! That ‘joke’ stopped being funny in season one.
- With their track record, why did this lot even think getting into a hot air balloon was a good idea?!
- I know we have an agreement never to speak of It, but I did quite like the It puppet yelling ‘he’s not what he seems!’
- Berries? Shouldn’t those be mushrooms? Or do you have to be on HBO to reference magic mushrooms?
- I’m not gonna think about the sexy Jeff puppet at the end. Where’s the brain bleach?
Dean: This awkward silence has been going on for days. Granted, Jeffrey looks amazing when he broods, but this has got to stop!
Abed: I don’t need a puppet to express myself, I say whatever I want.
Troy: If we fly to heaven, please don’t tell my Grandpa about me and Britta!
Troy: Has anyone else noticed Professor Duncan hasn’t been around in a long time?
Jeff: So this is how Greendale graduates end up, as transient mountain men. It’s not as bad as I thought.
Could have been worse, but that’s hardly high praise. Two out of four hallucinogenic berries.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.