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Community Recap “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”

By on March 8, 2013

When I say "thera" you say "pist". Gillian Jacobs and Joel McHale in Community (Image © NBC)

If there’s one thing that Community has consistently nailed, it’s the loneliness of holidays.

There’s a desperation that comes from all of the planning and the goodwill that centers on the fear the entire event will collapse under that pressure. And if you happen to be in a family with long-festering emotional wounds, forcing all of those people into the same room for hours on end will begin to seem like an inescapable hell—or prison, as this episode tries its damnedest to portray.

Tying a prison movie parody to a holiday dinner is a great premise for an episode, and prison movies are a genre that’s ripe for a Community send-up, but there’s just not enough done with the concept here. We don’t actually see the hell that Abed, Annie, Troy, and Pierce are trying to escape, which is a critical failure. The worst we ever see of Andre’s family is a single fart joke and while that might be enough to make us want to change the channel, that alone isn’t enough for us to see why the group would be so quick to bail on Shirley, or why it would take so long for them to realize how hurtful an action that would be. Every writer knows the adage ‘show, don’t tell,’ and it’s a big mistake to have our characters tell us all of the horrible things rather than let us experience them along with them. Plus, seeing just how horrible Andre’s family was might have made us sympathize with them more, as from the beginning it’s Shirley that we see struggling—with the group in the garage.

furthermore, if you’re going to do an homage to prison break movies, you need to have the escape. At some point Abed needs to burst free from that garage, hold his arms up to the sky and laugh in the rain like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. It has to happen. Then and only then should Abed and the rest realize that leaving the party will only abandon Shirley. As it is, the only clue we have that we’re doing a prison break homage is that Abed tells us. I’m beginning to feel like this show’s Creative Writing 101 teacher, but again, that’s a giant mistake. Having Abed announce in the voice-over that he’s going to be narrating it like Morgan Freeman betrays a lack of confidence in the idea and in the viewer. If the show does the parody right, we’ll know what they’re parodying, and we’ll go along with it. Here there are just too many layers of self-conscious delivery separating us from the story. It leaves the entire story  rudderless, and feeling like an unwelcome distraction from a fairly solid Jeff story.

Jeff was always going to meet his father, and it always had to be in the fourth season, per the rigid demands of Dan Harmon’s story circle. But the particulars of who William Winger was weren’t known to us, other than he was a con man who had split on Jeff and his mother at a young age, leaving him to cobble together an idea of how a man acted. So now we finally meet William, played with rugged charm by James Brolin. At first, Jeff is calmed by William, a man’s man whose gruff demeanor mirrors Jeff’s carefully crafted facade of cool, and is alarmed by his spazzy half-brother Willy Jr., played by Adam DeVine of Workaholics.

The story makes linear and emotional sense, and it’s a nice turn once Jeff realizes that William’s half-ass parenting is responsible for turning Willy into an outward representation of the insecurity bubbling below Jeff’s own surface. Jeff’s speech to his father, blasting him for leaving and revealing the—literal—scars of his abandonment is well-written and well-played by Joel McHale. This episode is a testament to just how far McHale has come as a leading man. I don’t think season one McHale could have pulled off the hurt needed for this scene. Compare the story of his faked appendectomy scar to his “pretty girl” story to Abed in the My Dinner with Andre episode of Season Two, and the evolution is apparent. His performance helps to ground an episode that is a tonal mess.

Less successful in that regard is DeVine, who gives us no key at all to what’s going on with Willy. He goes for the early Jim Carrey school of rubbery performance, but without any of the spatial flow of the performers (Carrey, Jerry Lewis) who can actually pull that off. There’s nothing funny about him here (and I’ve seen him be funny, I know it can happen), and his presence makes the episode’s solid half shakier than it should be.

There’s also something weird about the directorial choices in this episode and this entire season. There’s one sequence here, where the action is just Britta following Jeff to the front door, that takes four shots, rather than one quick, flowing take. It sounds like a little thing, but comedy is all about rhythm, and each cut of the camera acts as a comma in a sentence—we pause automatically, our brain gives us no choice. Again, as with the nail-on-the-head pop-culture references, directorial decisions like these betray a lack of confidence. And the trick about confidence is to act like you have it even when you don’t. If the new Community believed in itself a little more, it might be easier to go along with it.

Season 4, Episode 5
“Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”: B-

One Comment

  1. Matt

    March 12, 2013 at 1:41 am

    I’m totally relying on your reviews now to decide if each episode is worth watching. I’ll be skipping this one. For parody to work the parody has to be fully committed to–which is what the old Community did right. And, as you said here, it is what the new Community is getting wrong.

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