TV Review: COMMUNITY 4.05 “Cooperative Escapism In Familial Relations”

Brian really liked this character driven episode, but that might be due to the PRISON BREAK references.

"I hope we get to do Die Hard."

As soon as I tweeted that "Cooperative Escapism In Familial Relations" was the best episode of the season so far, someone of course came back with "I thought it was really horrible." Granted we only have five to choose from, but you gotta love the "one man's trash is another man's treasure" thing this show has going on, almost since the beginning. Polarizing reactions are nothing new; I see people wearing shirts and recreating the game itself from last season's video game episode, one that I'd probably skip over if watching the DVDs, and yet one of my favorites from S3 (the Todd episode) was met with a lot of disdain. And there are folks who claim S2 ruined what was great about the show, when most (including myself) think it was the series' best. So who the hell knows how the rest of you will feel about last night's episode, but I found it to be the most successful in terms of the emotional beats, and funny enough to compete with the others.

Right off the bat I had a feeling it'd be a winner, as it began with a good ol' fashioned study room scene! Last week's had scenes in the room, but none had the Greendale Seven just sitting around talking about their upcoming plans, the sort of scene that I wish could go on forever when everyone's on their A-game (also: Dean's costume was that of a man, which was a relief as they've gone to the cross-dressing well a bit too much lately). The topic: Thanksgiving, which is about to occur because this episode was originally supposed to air in November. Everyone is planning to do their own thing and not really looking forward to it, prompting Shirley to invite them over as she hosts for her in-laws (Andre himself, aka Malcolm-Jamal Warner, is said to be at work prepping for Black Friday, hence his unfortunate absence). The only one who declines is Jeff, who is... drum roll... meeting with his dad.

Yes, it has finally happened. It's been a long time coming - his long absent father has been a recurring issue on the show since season 2 (I can't recall it being a major point in S1 - anyone correct me?), and while I don't think anyone had ever suggested James Brolin back when it was first brought up (where Bill Murray was a dream choice), he proves to be a fine and inspired pick for William Winger (who has a son - Jeff's half brother Willy - played by Adam Devine). Luckily for Jeff (and the show's "shippers"), Britta has seen fit to invite herself along, something Jeff of course resists and then gradually (well, as gradually as a plotline can be when it has about 9 minutes of screentime to play out) realizes was necessary, once his tough exterior breaks down and he is driven to confront his father about what sort of pain his absence has caused, in a scene that doesn't even attempt a joke (thankfully). Joel McHale does some terrific work here as he finally opens up about how broken he is (and a reveal of who he's been texting!), and his last scene with Britta seems to be kicking off a potential relationship for the two that I'm actually excited about. I don't particularly care much for pairing up the characters on a TV show just to see how it works, but after all these years and a couple of random hookups, I've seen enough of the two of them together to see the potential (dramatically and comically) of having a real relationship. It's worth noting that Troy and Britta don't interact as a couple this week and I didn't even notice until my second viewing - I suspect that relationship won't last with or without Jeff's participation.

This stuff doesn't have a lot of laughs (though the few attempts are pretty solid - Britta's continued confusion over what the Oedipal complex is will never not make me laugh out loud, and I liked Devine comparing himself to Jeff as "DeVito to his Schwarzenegger"), leaving the B-story characters to handle the comedy. Soon after Abed, Troy, Annie and Pierce arrive at Shirley's, they realize that her in-laws are crazy and Shirley is a bit like a prison warden with how she runs things, prompting them to hide in her garage and make excuses for why they're out there every time she checks on them. It can be a little far-fetched at times (how long are they out there?) and we sadly never actually get to see the dinner scene they're supposedly fleeing from, so you have to just go along for the ride. But it's an enjoyable one, thanks to Abed's narration once he realizes it's not too far from the Shawshank Redemption parody he's always wanted to do. Full disclosure - there's eventually a Prison Break reference and Annie reveals that her gynecologist is named Dr. Collins, so episode writers Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane were an Armageddon joke away from seemingly penning the episode specifically for me (they even gave Chevy something to do, letting him stay with the others for the bulk of the episode, and provided him with more than one funny line!), but after so many episodes where they were either split up (or fighting off the school), it's great to see them just sort of hanging out and having fun together. And if they can somehow find a way to make a joke out of one of Shawshank's most upsetting moments (Red telling us "I wish I could tell you Andy fought the good fight..."), even better.

The two plots combine in a wonderful way, as they all go to the study room to find that Jeff has set up a Thanksgiving dinner on the table, explaining that he wanted to have a dinner with his real family, reminding us that they all chose each other. With the narration and a montage closing us out, it sort of felt like the My Dinner With Andre episode's ending, which is one of my favorite scenes in the show's history (also the Pulp Fiction parody giving way to Andre is a touch similar to Abed realizing that they were doing Prison Break instead of Shawshank). Again, it can feel a bit rushed, but unlike Jeff's out of nowhere "New Jeff" turns in previous episodes this season, it feels truly earned, and I hope it actually continues for the rest of the season, unlike others where he has a big epiphany but then goes back to being standoffish the following week.

So it might not mean much since I've been more or less okay with all of the episodes so far (none of them have been particularly great, but the bar was set lower in past seasons with a few stinkers; and honestly in retrospect I'd take any of them over the show's pilot), but I think this is the high point. None of it felt like they were trying too hard to remind us that it was the same ol' show, something that has been a minor issue in the other four episodes (I only counted two winky references - Dean's costume and Shirley's "He Is Risen" apron; I'll let Pierce's horrible sign for the sandwich shop slide because I like the idea that Shirley kept it), and the dramatic beats really worked great. Plus, it's a good sign that the new showrunners aren't afraid to reduce the number of jokes in order to let the character work shine through, not to mention ground the show in something closer to reality than we've seen yet this year. We learned that there's a puppet episode coming soon, and another that apparently involves body swapping - we need solid, character driven episodes like this to balance out that sort of stuff and keep on caring.