Community: Season 4, Episode 5
Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations
Once again, Community tried to do a "classic" episode, a parody with thematic resonance. And once again, it fell completely, almost painfully flat. Abed's narration throughout the episode was cringe-inducingly painful, and the show's attempt to do a Shawshank Redepmption parody was completely misconceived, and too tentative to even connect (the show seemed to nudge toward a joke, then dive back in the other direction, making some meta joke about how terrible the story they were telling was). Judged on a laugh quotient, "Cooperative Escapism" was largely a failure, but connected occasionally. But the episode was clearly aiming to have a more profound emotional effect, and on that score, it was an utter catastrophe.

This was the episode that finally introduced us to Jeff's father. That makes it, from a wider continuity perspective, one of the most important in the show's history, and a vital development in Jeff's story. And it felt more like the way Jeff would write a story about him meeting his father than the way it would actually play out. The writers are smart enough to know Jeff's father is a flawed guy, but they aren't willing to make the tough choices to make that connect. Watching his dad (played, by the way, by James Brolin, in what I would call a nice piece of casting) fake a heart attack during an emotional moment felt like the writers copping out more than the character copping out. Nothing about what we'd seen so far made that feel realistic or lived in; William seemed like the type of guy who knew he had problems, and wasn't willing to fix them. That felt like a good tack for the character, and then the show undercut it for a joke, and one that wasn't particularly funny.

If the episode did something right, it handled the Britta/Jeff pairing commendably. One thing the new team seems to understand is that Britta and Jeff will always have some weird, imperfect chemistry, even if they aren't currently involved with one another. I don't want them back together (please, please don't do that, new team), but I do like that the show acknowledges they have a special bond, and that they know each other well enough to acknowledge that, even if they drive each other crazy.

But between that good character pairing, the show tried to force things like Willy Jr., a character that completely fails to connect comedically or emotionally, and the idea that Britta would show up at Jeff's father's house and he would just let her be there. Everything we know about William says he wouldn't just allow Britta into his life, but this episode isn't concerned with that so much as with giving Gillian Jacobs something to do. As always, Jacobs makes the most of what she's given (everything she does with the role-playing rolls is great), but it still feels like an actress trying to save weak material rather than a solid script being executed.

Meanwhile, the subplot at Shirley's house just fails to connect on a comedic or emotional level. It's possible for the show to tell a story about Shirley feeling alienated from her family and leaning on the study group instead (and in fact, I think it has done this before, in more subtle ways), but this certainly isn't it. This is a subplot that can't decide whether its about Shirley or Abed, whether its an emotional story about the line between the family we are born into and the family we choose or a story about a prison-break parody set around Thanksgiving. If its the former, making the conflict around Shirley's in-laws seems like a mistake; if its the latter, the whole thing feels so forced it never connects comedically, and in fact took me out of the parts of the episode that might otherwise have worked better.

Again, the show uses Abed as a crutch for both plot mechanisms and jokes, and again it just doesn't work. From a plot perspective, the idea of Thanksgiving as a prison isn't a bad one, but the execution just doesn't connect. We don't see enough of the Thanksgiving to sympathize with the characters being trapped, and the episode rushes too quickly to the parody to allow any of the jokes to connect as anything more than "I see what you did there." Abed's narration makes all of these issues strikingly clear: the jokes don't land, and the emotions seem totally forced.

"Cooperative Escapism" is an attempt by the new show to do a big, strong, emotional episode, and it just didn't connect with me emotionally. Jeff's father felt pretty phoned in, from a character perspective, and the stuff on Shirley's end wasn't developed enough to land. As for comedy, Willy Jr. was a travesty, and the Shawshank stuff was forced and clunky. This is another subpar episode; it isn't as disappointing as some of what we've seen so far, but it is trying to do more, and failing to connect. It isn't all that funny, which I could accept, but in addition, the emotional material just doesn't work like it should. What disappoints me most is that the show played one of the biggest cards its kept up its sleeve, and instead of being a legendary episode, what it came up with was flawed and forgettable. In other words, "Cooperative Escapism" is par for the course for the new version of Community, a show I feel increasingly alienated from. I'm trying to give it a chance, but what I'm seeing is a shadow of the show's former glory, and is subpar even on its own merits. If this is what Community looks like going forward, I don't imagine I'll be around next season, if it even makes it that long. And I am beginning to hope it doesn't.

Grade: C


-"The only one who is going to get messy and emotional is Troy when he realizes there are yams under those marshmallows." "I KNEW it was too good to be true."

-"I feel like I'm in jail. And you know what happens to guys like me in jail. They get really into push ups, and I am fine with my upper body strength!"

-"Show me on the dinner roll where you're hurt!"

-"Shirley! We were just..." "About to..." "Eat garbage dip! Why did I have to go third?"

-"I drew a map of your house on my stomach." "I know what my house looks like." "That's what I said!"
Tags: Community
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