Community S4E05 “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”

Community‘s misplaced Thanksgiving episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations,” marks an important turning point in the show’s mythology, as it reunites Jeff with his estranged father.

The centerpiece of the episode is Jeff meeting his estranged father for the first time in decades. It’s hard, maybe, for a show to live up to expectations it has built for four seasons, and I found myself unsure what I even wanted to see from this plotline. Jeff’s issues with his father are in many ways the foundation of his character, yet I don’t think I ever fully expected the show to get into it beyond the occasional joke. It’s heavy material for a comedy, especially one as irreverent as Community.

Nonetheless, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” opens with the study group discussing their Thanksgiving plans, and Shirley inviting everyone to her house. Her husband will be working, but she’s hosting for her in-laws, and she assures the group they’d be welcome. Jeff declines, insisting he has plans, and when it comes out that his plans are with his father, BriCommuity - Season 1tta immediately takes credit and invites herself along. She says he’ll need “support” because, as a therapist, she knows these situations can get “messy.”

Jeff refuses, insisting he’s fine, but when he gets to the door of his father’s house and sees his half-brother’s name — “Willy Jr.” — on the mailbox, he bails and calls Britta from his car, blaming her for getting him worked up. Britta admits sheepishly that she’s actually already at Papa Winger’s house, so Jeff reluctantly turns back around.

William Winger, it turns out, is a lot like Jeff in many ways. Independent and clever and determinedly unemotional, Jeff and his father lay simultaneous ground rules — no hugs, no apologies, no “Dad”s, and no mushy stuff. Skeptical and perhaps disappointed by the anticlimax, Britta turns her attention to Jeff’s half-brother Willy. Unlike Jeff, Willy was raised by his father, and he has become Jeff’s opposite in virtually every way. Overemotional, totally dependent, and vastly immature for an adult, Willy is… well, annoying, frankly. His narrative purpose is clear — to represent a different potential Jeff, one whose father was present in his life — but he comes across as ultimately irritating and unfunny, a noticeable weak point in the episode.

Still, he serves his purpose. Though things seem to go great between Jeff and his father — William even admits he’s proud of the independent, self-made man Jeff has become — things go south as Willy comes up. Maybe, William suggests, it’s good that he wasn’t in Jeff’s life — look how strong, independent, and “well-adjusted” Jeff became, compared to the son he raised! Understandably, that’s when Jeff snaps. “With all due respect, which is none, go to hell.”

It’s the most serious performance I can recall out of Joel McHale, and rightly so. It’s a great moment for Jeff, finally showing emotional honesty and admitting that his father’s absence did hurt him, rather than playing it cool. “You are emotional,” he tells Willy, “and if you pretend you’re not, you’re only letting him off the hook for being a terrible father.” Then Jeff confronts his dad with easily the darkest thing we’ve ever had a Community character admit: that once in middle school he faked an appendectomy scar with scissors in order to win sympathy from classmates and prove that people cared about him.

That’s heavy — maybe even a little too heavy. As undeniable as Jeff’s issues are, seeing him explicitly state “I am broken” is still a shock to the system. He’s come a long, long way from the Jeff Winger of the pilot — “New Jeff,” indeed. Afterwards, in the car, he thanks Britta and admits that she was right, and I wonder if this is what the cast meant when they suggested Jeff/Britta might resurface this season.

Community -- S4E5 -- Abed stomach map

“I drew a map of your house on my stomach.”

Meanwhile, in the significantly lighter b-plot, Abed, Troy, Annie, and Pierce are left doing a prison break homage as they hide out from Shirley’s awful in-laws at Thanksgiving. Infinitely lighter than the A-plot, this is the source of essentially the only comedy in this episode, and it succeeds. Abed’s narration is clever as always, full of rambling and incomplete metaphor. Just before Troy, Abed, and Annie go to desperate lengths to get out of the dinner, Shirley catches them, and they learn that the reason she invited them in the first place is because Andre’s family makes fun of her, and she thought having her friends there might create a buffer.  “I can’t believe none of us noticed Shirley was having such a hard time,” Annie observes, and suddenly Shirley’s quiet hurt recalls Jeff being “broken.” Still, though, Shirley rejects their offer of a prison break, reasoning that while family can be hard, you stick it out. Taking that to heart, Troy, Abed, and Annie resolve to stay for dinner.

In the end, the study group returns to Greendale to find Jeff has set up a Thanksgiving dinner for them as a unit; he even invites the Dean. Following on last week’s episode, we once again see the study group as a family, and Greendale as their home.Community S4E5 -- Study room dinner

“Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” is a solid episode, and a wonderful foray into the world of Thanksgiving episodes. Although its two halves often feel tonally far apart, they’re connected by the underlying theme: that sometimes “real” family is awful, and sometimes the best family is the one you choose for yourself. It’s a good, welcome message, and one that too often gets lost among platitudes about blood and water.

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