Community "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations" Review: The Shawshank Redemption Song

By Cory Barker

Mar 08, 2013

Community S04E05: "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”

Long-anticipated moments rarely work out as well as we hope they will. In real life and with our favorite television shows, we build up possible futures in our minds, only to be disappointed by what friends, family, or TV showrunners give us in the end. But conversely, holding onto the past and assuming that the future will turn out poorly isn’t a particularly healthy way to live either.

This episode of Community faced those conflicting expectations on multiple levels. For the audience, Jeff finally reuniting with his father was one of, if not the most important character-focused moment the show had left; it’s something we’d been waiting to see for years. And with the mixed reaction to this season’s first four episodes, I have to imagine that Community diehards weren’t expecting much good to come from the Winger family reunion in “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.” For Jeff, years and years of pessimism and pain had grown into curiosity, but he wasn’t really expecting a tear-streaked, life-changing reconnection with his father.

Although Jeff’s Thanksgiving dinner with his dad went about exactly as he'd expected it would, I’m happy to report that this episode’s treatment of that event worked very well, resulting in clear, effective, and measured storytelling capped off by one of Joel McHale’s best performances in the show’s run. This season of Community has struggled to get anywhere near the show’s previous comedic highs, often settling for easy, familiar, and broad jokes. However, when episodes have taken a turn toward the more serious and personal like this one did, we've seen glimpses of the Community that we know and love. Sometimes, pessimism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

What I loved so much about this story is the way that it reflected how much Jeff still has to do. We’ve seen our fair share of New Jeff already this season, a man who finally acknowledges and appreciates his affection for the group of misfits who choose to put up with his challenging persona. We know he cares about the group and we know he’s willing to tell them that he does. But that’s not enough. Jeff is substantially damaged and much of that comes from the abandonment issues he suffers because of his father. He might be more comfortable around the group and willing to express real sentiment to them, but he’s not completely comfortable because he’s always afraid they’ll figure out he’s a fraud.

All of that bubbled up to the surface in this episode, even after Jeff first tried to ignore his father altogether and then tricked himself into appreciating the traits they share (mostly being a half-assed con man). But once William (played with the proper amount of charisma and selfishness by James Brolin) tried to take credit for Jeff’s “success” by claiming that running out was what made Jeff the tough, self-sufficient man he is today, it was all over. Unsurprisingly, Jeff initially ran away from confrontation and feeling, because that’s what he always does—or used to do. Eventually, though (at least partially inspired by Britta’s ever-more-effective head-shrinking), Jeff returned to confront his father and reveal the truth that we at home have known for a while: Jeff is a mess. He’s not self-sufficient, he’s the exact opposite.

Jeff's speech to his father was one of my favorite scenes in Community’s history. Say whatever you want about the show’s successes or failures this year, but McHale (and to a lesser extent, Brolin) and the episode’s writers Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane made the important moments count. The detail about Jeff always texting no one and the story about faking the appendicitis were pretty darn perfect, as was the earlier moment where William tried to manipulate his son with a Winger Speech (I guess we now know where those come from). Jeff confronting his father, after more than three decades, will at least help him keep progressing as New Jeff. Does that mean he’s immediately better or some kind of brand-new man? Of course not, but he’s no longer beholden by those long-standing feelings and grudges. He can be a mess with the people who accept him for the mess that he is.

But alas, while Jeff’s troubled reunion with his father worked wonders dramatically, the rest of the episode presented us with Community's new normal of uneven comedy bits and tremendously rushed storytelling. Adam Devine tried his best as Jeff’s half-brother, but there wasn’t much to the character other than yelling (which is becoming too prevalent on the show this season) and reinforcing how terrible of a father William Sr. was. Britta trying to convince Willy Jr. to describe his feelings using dinner rolls worked fine, though the episode probably took the bit a step too far.

Elsewhere, I didn’t really know what to make of Annie, Pierce, Troy, and Abed’s attempts to avoid Shirley’s in-laws at Thanksgiving dinner. The story jumped into the Shawshank riff really, really quickly, without totally establishing any of the parameters; it skipped right to the jail-break. There were some successful moments littered throughout the story, most notably Pierce trying to fake a broken hip, only to sell out the group once he discovered that Shirley’s family thought his physical comedy was funny (“This is my midnight at the Apollo!”). Abed drawing the map of Shirley’s house on his chest was good, too. But overall the plotline felt rushed and underdeveloped. We never saw enough of Shirley’s in-laws to feel the threat they posed to the group (though I’m guessing that’s a result of budgetary restrictions more than anything else) and even the conclusion, despite its good intentions, didn’t pack much of a punch. I enjoyed Abed’s voiceover quite a bit, even if it was very, very reminiscent of what he provided in “Contemporary American Poultry.”

Nevertheless, this episode got the important stuff right. Much like “Paranormal Parentage,” it developed some nicely moving beats for a character facing an important moment. And by the time “Cooperative Escapism” made it to that final scene where Jeff concocted a secondary Thanksgiving feast for, using his words, “the family we chose,” I couldn’t help but think the show actually earned that moment.


– The teaser sequence in the study room felt on-point with the show’s typical rhythms in that space. I kind of love how resigned Jeff is to the fact that the Dean has completely invaded his life, from reading his emails and listening through the walls to seemingly stealing his old Halloween costumes. 

– Nice touch by having William Sr. attempt to fake a heart attack, a.k.a. Pull a Hawthorne. The show likes to give Pierce and Jeff that weird desperate-father/unwilling-son dynamic, so it was only fitting for Jeff’s real dad to try the same nonsense that Pierce does all the time.

– Do you think Jeff actually sends all those texts to no one? Does he have a burner phone in a drawer somewhere that’s full of messages that just say “UGH, Pierce?”

What did you think of "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations"?

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  • dan42889 Mar 12, 2013

    I'll keep it short.. another terrible episode to a once great show.

  • saxgod98 Mar 11, 2013

    So I think it's time to say this. Sadly Community is WORSE off without Dan Harmon. DAMN YOU NBC!!!! It's not as off the wall funny with those side jokes. Those were specially time hilarious edits and now those types of edits seemed forced or copied instead of brilliantly placed when Harmon was in charge. I'm sorry everyone but I tried giving the new guys a chance.

  • borgsblueyes Mar 11, 2013

    I really enjoy coming to to read a review of an episode and to get people's opinions on it. Even more so on some shows because no one else I know is watching it, so I can't talk to my friends about it. I enjoyed the review, but the comments I will have to leave out in future, the mob mentally of negativity here is starting to lessen my enjoyment of the show. No shows are flawless, I appreciate different points of view, but most of the comments on Community are just moaning or who can lament the old episodes the most. If it's so awful without Harmon, here's an idea, stop watching it.

  • al2sf Mar 10, 2013

    Actually the first time since the beginning of the season that I felt a little bit of the old Community coming back...

  • KelseyJones2 Mar 10, 2013

    I actually felt like this was the first episode this season that made me feel like Community was really back. I hope future episodes are able to do what this episode did; it was funny, thoughtful, emotional, and packed with references and jokes that make Community that great show that it is :)

  • an0m1a Mar 09, 2013

    For once, I have to get this out of my system - and I apologize in advance if I may offend somebody or hurt her/his feelings by not necessarily agreeing with them. Here's the thing: Community did not change all that much, what did indeed change is people's perception of it. And Shawshank Redemption is not exactly a treatise on morals or the concept of freedom, it's the product of an industry that specializes itself on the cheapest of ways to evoke shallow reactions from its target audience which they mistake for actual emotions - and it does so in BOTH novella and motion picture form. I'm sorry, but if Stephen King's body of work is your idea of literary talent, then it's quite ridiculous to bash sitcom writers for not being witty enough. Was the whole Shawshank/Prison Break parody storyline rushed? It definitely was. Did it leave something to be desired? Of course it did. Was it a borderline blasphemous mockery of a valuable piece of culture? Hell no - and five episodes ago, it would have been celebrated by the exact same people for its ridiculousness and the bravado it must have taken for the show's creators to express their admiration and their iconoclastic tendencies at the same time. Here's an idea: if you think the show sucks without Harmon, by all means ignore it. Go out of your way to watch something else. Just don't come here and take your frustrations out on each and every episode for the sake of being so intellectual and critical that you echo the opinion of every other hater while expressing admiration for Danielle Steel-level writing skills. And here's how I lead by example: I'm hating on the haters in this post, so I guess I should take my own advice and ignore them for the rest of the series' run. That's what I shall do then, so I promise that this is the first and last time I ever spoke out about these matters - feel free to hate on this post, I'm happy to say that I will ignore it.

  • DavidJackson8 Mar 10, 2013

    Meh. I'd have found your post more insightful if you didn't generalize all us "haters" into one group and one way of thinking. I can tell you without much doubt that I'm not hating Community so far because of perception or bias or for the sake of hating, but I suppose your elitist generalization trumps all that.

    Since I'm here, I'll get one thing off of my system: based on the comments I read week to week on these Community reviews, there seems to be a difference in comments where a lot of us "haters" actually point out scenes, lines of dialogue, themes, and other reasons why we dislike or hate a particular episode, while many of the defenders of the episodes don't specify anything and just declare: 1) "Haters gon' hate"; 2) "The show is the same but Harmon's firing just makes you perceive that the show is worse"; or 3) "Haters hate because they're hipsters who think hating is cool." It's SO much easier just generalizing and attacking all of us as one group, rather than making some ACTUAL arguments about the episodes, eh?

    Many detractors: "I don't like this because of this. This didn't work for me because of that."
    Commenters like you: "Haters suck and can't think properly. The show hasn't changed."

  • DavidJackson8 Mar 10, 2013

    This comment has been removed.

  • FringeFanatic Mar 09, 2013

    "I know several snobbish reviewers who think his books are trash."

    Well, hello there! And I apologize in advance if I may offend you or hurt your feelings, but when a creator/showrunner is fired, and half of the writers and a handful of directors leave with him, it's IMPOSSIBLE for there not to be a significant difference in tone, style, direction and most importantly, WRITING!

    Ignorance, it seems, is bliss.

  • CoryBarker1 Staff Mar 09, 2013

    Let it out.

    I don't really care; Harmon or no Harmon, the B-story was rushed, period.

  • KennethJP Mar 09, 2013


  • KevinG87 Mar 09, 2013

    ...because nothing says Thanksgiving like nearly Spring...

    before his actual half brother popped up, I kept thinking "holy crap, Jeff's half brother is Richard Castle!"

  • afakirani Mar 09, 2013

    I think Community is stepping away from the formula that made the show a succes these last 3 seasons, a formula that used over-the-top, very out there comedic genius but with very little in the way of character development. The latter part is actually one of the criticisms of the show; that the characters were nothing more than pawns in a story as opposed to characters that developed throughout. Think about it. In three years we really haven't gotten to know the characters on any deep basis. For example, we know that Shirley had a drinking problem in the episode where Troy turns 21 but we don't really get to know why she became an alcoholic (save for her divorce) or how she recovered. Likewise, we know very little about troy and britta as well individually or how they became a couple. I think that the direction this season is taking is to develop these characters more deeply. I don't really know if that's in fact necessary. As a long time fan, I liked the mindlessness (and that's a compliment) of Community without too much drama and this is certainly a departure from that forumla. It remains to be seen if this season will provide both the laughs and the character development necessary to propel the show forward the whole season (and possibly for the next).

  • corytshepard Mar 09, 2013

    No character development? Seriously? You're insane. The study group is easily the most well-developed collection of characters in a comedy today, long before season 4.

  • afakirani Mar 11, 2013

    I don't think I am. I've been following the show since season 1 and love it but as far as I'm concerned, the show isn't about the characters, its about the hijinks they get themselves into. And while all the characters are well DEFINED, they haven't really developed all that much over 3 seasons. But that's just me.

  • Gilda Mar 09, 2013

    I liked the opening with the Dean in the cowboy costume (man 4th(?) episode its showed up) cant wait until they do a full episode with him invading Jeffs life.
    overal it was an ok episode, I liked Jeffs story alot more than the stuff @ shirleys. And I didn't mind his half brother and i wouldnt care if he shows up later in the season. As for Britta and Jeff at the end, Im not too sure what that was about (they seem like theyre just pairing everyone with everyone else this season).
    On an unrelated topic does anyone know whose switching places with who in the Freaky Friday episode?
    Also another episode without chang.

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