Mar 8, 2013

Community: "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations"

By Nico Danilovich 

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like every time Community takes a step away from Greendale this season, things just get weird. Unfortunately, this weirdness has yet to translate into anything particularly interesting and instead it’s been mostly off-putting. This trend continued in last night’s episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”, as nearly every member of the study group got involved in storylines that were simply weak. However, buried beneath these weak storylines was a single gem of interest: Jeff.  His storyline in this episode was the single most important storyline concerning his character in the show to date. Unfortunately, without his emotionally poignant storyline this week, the only thing this episode would have had going for it would be a number of funny one-liners and not much else.

Before we examine what made Jeff’s storyline so powerful, let’s talk about why the rest of the group’s storylines were so weak. It began when Shirley invited the group to her house for Thanksgiving, secretly hoping that they would offer her support in the face of Andre’s less-than-friendly relatives. Abed, Annie, Troy and Pierce took her up on this offer and showed up at her house for the holiday. However, they quickly came to regret this decision. In fact, it happened a little too quickly, as we were only given one example of what made Shirley’s Thanksgiving so unpleasant. Unfortunately, the example (an old man farting and walking away) was hardly sufficient enough evidence for this idea to take hold of the audience. The rest of the evidence proving that the holiday-get-together was an uncomfortable experience was simply explained to us by the group as they sought refuge in Shirley’s garage. This “tell-don’t-show” method prevented the audience from sympathizing with the characters’ predicament and robbed the storyline of most of its drama. After informing us of the situation they had landed in, the group proceeded to stay within Shirley’s garage for the remainder of their storyline. This isolation forced us to focus not on the conflict of the situation, but rather, Abed’s pop culture make-believe playtime.

And that was where the real problem came in. Abed soon realized that he, along with Annie, Pierce and Troy, were trapped by obligation within Shirley’s house. This led him to assume the role of a Morgan Freeman-type narrator of his very own version of The Shawshank Redemption. While it did provide a few good laughs, the episode did nothing insightful or inspired to parody the film. It was sort of just one huge nod to the film wherein Abed observed, through voice-over, the similarities between his situation and The Shawshank Redemption. I don’t know why the writers thought that setting up a situation similar to The Shawshank Redemption and then having a character realize those similarities in his head would be engaging, because it wasn’t; It was a simple set up with an underwhelming reward. So, unless you’ve always wanted to see Community do The Shawshank Redemption, there wasn’t very much at all for us to care about in this storyline.

Meanwhile, Britta decided to try to help out Jeff with his decision to meet his father for the first time. Without his permission, she snuck into his dad’s house and waited for Jeff. To be fair to the writers, she did serve an important purpose by providing Jeff with someone to talk to when he had second thoughts about meeting his father. Ultimately, she was able to convince him to go through with his decision and also allowed Jeff to believably express his insecurities. However, this conversation took place entirely over the phone and could have just as easily occurred if Britta had been at Shirley’s. Furthermore, after her pivotal conversation with Jeff, Britta played no important role whatsoever, sticking around with Jeff only to make awkward jokes and interact with Jeff’s half brother, Willy Junior.

Jeff’s half brother, unlike the tough-skinned, independent Jeff, was a pathetically dependent and petty man-child. The contrast between the two was played up for the purpose of creating a rift between Jeff and his father, and undoubtedly it served its purpose well. Unfortunately, Willy Junior was portrayed as a caricature and was played off of Britta too often for jokes that almost always fell flat. In the end, the presence of Willy Junior prompted Jeff to return to his father’s house and tell him off. However, this could have just as easily been accomplished if Jeff were alone or talking to Britta again, something which would have made a lot more sense and sustained a strong emotional believability. All in all, Britta and Willy Junior served important functions in terms of plot, but ended up sullying Jeff’s storyline slightly with poor humor and weak storylines of their own.

In spite of the general sense of weak storytelling in this episode, Jeff’s struggle to deal with the issues brought on by meeting his father for the first time was an initially engaging storyline that ended up being quite powerful. Jeff has been building up to meeting his father for the entirety of the series and, because of this, both his apprehension about and desire to meet his father hit a strong chord of emotional believability. At first, Jeff seemed to develop a sort of dethatched respect for his father, with whom he seemed to have much in common. Eventually, however, Jeff’s father tried to make the argument that he had done something right by remaining absent in Jeff’s life because it made Jeff strong, independent and stable. This infuriated Jeff and culminated in probably the best Jeff Winger speech ever delivered. Jeff’s admission that he constantly types out texts meant for no one because he’s too afraid to look his friends in the eyes for too long, lest they figure out how hurt and broken he really is inside, was one of the saddest things to have ever come out of Jeff’s mouth. Even more heartbreaking was Jeff’s admission that, as a child, he cut himself with glass to make it seem like he got an operation in the hopes of gaining care and attention from his classmates. But the absolutely most devastating admission made by Jeff was that he still keeps a shoebox of the cards signed by those classmates under his bed till this very day. Such a strong storyline definitely carried the episode on its back and ensured that this episode will not be forgotten, even if a lot of it was subpar. Hopefully in the future, the writers will continue to forge engaging storylines like Jeff’s and less flat storylines like Abed’s simplistic homage to The Shawshank Redemption.

A few episodes ago, Abed remarked, “I remember when this show was about a community college.” As time goes on, I’m starting to share that exact same sentiment. Three out of the five episodes we’ve seen so far this season have been mediocre and those three episodes all took place largely outside of Greendale. Because of this, I’m very much coming to believe that the further away the writers take us away from Greendale, the further away they’re taking us from what makes Community so great. It is true that Jeff’s storyline this episode, which took place almost entirely away from Greendale, was probably one of the strongest of this season so far. However, I’m willing to bet that that is only due in part to strong execution and very much due to the fact that the emotional groundwork for this episode has been laid down constantly over the past three seasons. I understand that this is Community’s final season and they want to go all out, but I wish they would stop taking field trips and spend more quality time in Greendale, the home of the study group and the home of the show. Until that decision is made, Community may, sadly, continue to simply be a mediocre version of the awesome show we know it can be.

Grade: C

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