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"?