Community Review: “Cooperative Escapism in Family Relations” (Season 4, Episode 5)

Remember how I said in last week’s review that there wasn’t enough forward plot development in this season of Community? Well, this week’s very belated Thanksgiving episode was certainly a doozy, at least plot-development-wise, as Jeff meets his long-estranged father.

But first, let’s backtrack for a bit: Jeff’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his father has been a running thread for the past two seasons. And in the Halloween episode, we saw that he had his father’s contact information in a pair of boxing gloves and looked ready to contact him after the whole Pierce’s-not-so-haunted-mansion-fiasco. So this episode (finally?) provides the payoff for all of that build-up. And, as expected, it’s gratifying, if a little bit heavy-handed.

We begin in the study room, where the study group discusses their plans for the Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone is terribly unexcited for their various family functions, so Shirley invites them over for her family dinner, sans André. Jeff has other plans, however, and the rest of the group soon finds out (courtesy of Dean Pelton, who is still reading Jeff’s emails) that he is having dinner with his father and his half-brother. Britta beams triumphantly, and celebrates – with the help of a boombox – her successful therapizing with Jeff. Hah.

So while the rest of the group joins Shirley’s Thanksgiving dinner, Jeff heads off to meet his father. He almost flees instead, except Britta has already invited herself over to William Winger’s in an effort to get Jeff to confront his long-standing daddy issues. The meeting itself is surprisingly un-awkward, as Jeff and William catch each other up on their parallel lives. Half-brother Willy Jr. provides a stark contrast to Jeff, as he musters a raging inferiority complex and is, as William Sr. says, “softer than wet cheese.”

But things soon start to turn ugly when William comments that abandoning Jeff was the only right thing he ever did, considering how well Jeff turned out compared to Willy Jr. These words, unsurprisingly, set off both Jeff and Willy Jr., the latter of whom decides to run away from home so he could be more like Jeff. That gives Jeff the opportunity to bring Willy Jr. back and finally tell his dad all the effects his abandonment has had on the broken person Jeff is today.

Meanwhile, Troy, Abed, Annie, and Pierce are downright miserable at Shirley’s, as they retreat into the garage to avoid Shirley’s overbearing extended family. In a tribute to Shawshank Redemption, Abed (in voiceover) tells us that the four are gonna carry out a prison break, and they do start to undertake various shenanigans to do just that. Except then they learn that Shirley is not their warden but a fellow prisoner, since she invited them over as a buffer for her discomfort with André’s family, so everyone stays, miserable but together.

Overall, this was a good episode. I liked that Jeff’s newly established relationship with Willy Jr. (who, naturally, loves him now) parallels in so many ways Pierce’s relationship with Gilbert. Both pairs of half-brothers have crappy father figures, who influence their sons primarily through absence and neglect. So Jeff’s speech to his dad was really, really satisfying, in the sense that it both provided closure to this particular storyline and implied what Pierce/Gilbert never really got to say to their father.

That being said, I also felt the episode was a little bit too cheesy; there was almost nothing in the Jeff storyline that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. Once again, I don’t expect Community to always take me by surprise, but it’s the little subversions of certain reinforced clichés that make this show what it is (was?). As great and slightly heartbreaking as Jeff’s big dad speech was, it was also a little too straightforward, a little too forthcoming; or maybe it was just odd for me to see Jeff so vulnerable, since his outward persona is so well-constructed most of the time. Also, was I the only one taken aback by the fact that he wasn’t actually texting anyone all those times? Just goes to show the extent of his brokenness, I suppose.

The big group Thanksgiving dinner in the study room at the end was a little bit over-the-top, too: on the one hand, it brought back every member of the group to their real family, so to speak; but on the other hand, it was too un-Jeff-like of a gesture and so explicitly designed to be a heartwarming moment that it actually left me feeling kind of cold. Not to mention the fact that it was all kind of rushed – I felt that they were trying to pack so much into this episode that they had very little time to wrap it, so Jeff’s surprise dinner seemed as though it was shoehorned in as a quick and easy resolution.

In contrast, I actually wanted to see more of the B-plot at Shirley’s, and think that the writers were trying to cover too much ground with the whole Shawshank/Prison Break spoof that they neglected to tell their story properly. We were repeatedly told that Troy, Abed, Annie, and Pierce were having a bad time, but we didn’t get to see why; all we really saw was them re-convening in the garage to avoid whatever they wanted to avoid. The lack of scenes that took place in Shirley’s house could have been a budget issue (and I suspect it was), but still, the B-plot seemed like a case of sloppy writing – the kind that I’m used to not expecting from this show.

We’re five episodes into season 4 now, and while I’ve enjoyed most of the episodes so far, I’m also not crazy about any of them. In comparison, some of my favourite episodes from each of the past seasons have aired by this point (if you’re curious: season 1’s “Social Psychology”; season 2’s “Accounting for Lawyers”; and season 3’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” – still arguably the best episode ever). It ain’t over til the fat lady sings, as they say, but this show can – and has – done better than these past few weeks. So yeah, I guess I’m still waiting for season 4 to redeem itself, but it’s really running out of time now to answer its detractors (and…well…me).

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