At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Community's fourth season has suffered from a high concept problem... namely that every single attempt at a high concept episode has fallen flatter than Chevy Chase's post-Community career prospects. Sadly, "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" a.k.a. "The Puppet Episode" didn't prove to be an exception to this rule.
Like the rest of the dwindling fanbase still sticking with this show, I was curious to see the Greendale group Muppetized and the puppets themselves didn't disappoint. But once the initial pleasure of watching the felt versions of the characters chattering (and singing) amongst themselves wore off, it became all too clear that the writers hadn't really thought the premise through beyond the initial "Hey, you know what would be cool? Puppets!" pitch. Episodes like Season 2's Christmas Claymation extravaganza or Season 3's 8-bit NES recreation successfully devised a deeper metaphor on which to hang the high concept medium switch. "Felt Surrogacy" tried to do that as well, but in a largely superficial way that made the whole outing seem forced and artificial.
Obviously, you can't talk about puppet episodes of cult shows without referencing "Smile Time" -- the brilliant Season 5 episode of Angel where the titular vampire was zapped into felt form by an energy blast backstage at a demented children's television show. In this case, there's no supernatural reason for the Community gang's transformation; instead, the all-puppet sequences are an extrapolation of a "puppet therapy" session (where people use hand puppets to express their feelings) instigated by the Dean to get to the bottom of why the study group has been so dour and glum of late. Turns out, they recently enjoyed a wild trip in a hot air balloon, followed by a druggy night out in the woods during which they may have spilled the beans about some of their deepest, darkest secrets -- secrets which now make it difficult for them to meet each other's eyes.
But when we finally learn what those secrets are, though, you can't help but wonder what the big deal was. Apart from Shirley's genuinely troublesome admission that she abandoned her kids at a grocery store to pursue the man she thought was her hubby Andre as he supposedly squired another woman around town, the other revelations seemed awfully banal. And maybe that was intended to be part of the joke, but if so, it's a disappointing punchline to a protracted set-up. And what's strange about the episode is how few laughs there really were, particularly after last week's outing where zingers were flying and landing with pleasing regularity. Here, the writers seemed to put all their energy into coming up with lyrics for the episode's three puppet numbers, which, admittedly, were very cute and very much in the spirit of the various Muppet movies. But boy, were the inter-song sequences comedy dead zones, from the awkwardly staged hot air balloon scene to the Easy Rider-esque scene of the study group sitting around a campfire while tripping balls. Interestingly, "Felt Surrogacy" was the final Season 4 episode to be shot due to the production demands of the puppetry. So filming-wise they didn't save the best for last, but maybe we'll get luckier with the actual season (series?) finale. In the meantime, here's a round-up of each character's funniest line as well as who we think their ideal Muppet match (primarily from The Muppet Show; I'm choosing to bypass Sesame Street) would be.
Muppet Match: Miss Piggy, because they're both comically vain with absurdly inflated egos.
Funniest Line: "The level to which we respect you as a political activist has definitely not changed."
Muppet Match: Animal, because they've both got hair-trigger tempers and shout a lot.
Funniest Line: "I have four berries, but I'm saving them for Laser Floyd."
Muppet Match: Scooter, because they're both unfailingly loyal and endearingly dorky.
Funniest Line: "I did see Blue Man Group, I just didn't get it! Why can't they talk? They have so much in common!"
Muppet Match: Kermit, because they're both eternal optimists, endlessly enthusiastic and place great faith in the power of friendship.
Funniest Line: "So nobody else heard my terrible secret about how I... trail off... from time to time?"
Muppet Match: Gonzo, because they're both iconoclasts who never totally fit in and have chickens for best friends. (A literal chicken in Gonzo's case and an emotional chicken for Abed.)
Funniest Line: "Time loops!"
Muppet Match: Sam the Eagle, because they're both strident conservatives, although one gets the sense that Sam might be a social liberal while Shirley would be fiscally progressive.
Funniest Line: "Dean, what happened is between us and Jesus. And Jesus don't snitch."
Muppet Match: Statler and Waldorf, because all three of them are old, eccentric dudes who heckle what they don't understand.
Funniest Line: "I never slept with the great Eartha Kitt. We dry humped inside of her tour bus."
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