Community: “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality”
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Community: “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality”

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Community

"Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality"

Season 5, Episode 7
A

Community

"Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality"

Season 5, Episode 7

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I’ve mentioned ad infinitum that one of the things that’s always drawn me to Community is how it’s a bunch of different kinds of shows. But the more I think about it, I’m even more drawn to the way the series has a bunch of different tones. That’s not unprecedented for a sitcom to do, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world for the format. Yet Community slips pretty easily between outright silliness and bittersweet optimism (along with everything in between), depending on the week. “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality” slides all the way over to the “bittersweet” side of the scale and makes camp there, but that’s fine with me. Bittersweet optimism is my most favorite of tones, and always has been. That Community can still pull it off (on a somewhat regular basis, no less) is a good sign for its creative renewal.

My friend Alan Sepinwall has been comparing this episode to “Mixology Certification,” the long-hallowed episode from season two that was a kind of bittersweet beacon amid the first half of that season, when the show was probably at its creative high point. It was an episode sandwiched a bunch of dizzying highs that dared to show what the characters might look like at a very slight low, and it suggested an emotional richness that I don’t know if the show has approached since. (As much as I like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” it definitely just goes ahead and tells you everything it’s thinking; “Mixology” is a little more muted in that regard.) I get what Alan’s going for. “Bondage” is one of the first episodes to not only recall that episode tonally but also structurally, breaking down into a bunch of smaller stories where the characters pair off for little vignettes. (Well, almost everybody does this. Shirley and Annie just leave the story at the top of the first act and seem happy to do so.)

Yet I can’t help but think this comparison doesn’t do just a bit of a disservice to “Bondage,” which comes close in its finest moments to “Mixology’s” blend of big laughs and poignancy, but also seems to have a lot of other things on its mind. The series has been slightly shifting its focus this season from being a sitcom about students at a community college—the classes everybody takes feel much less important this season, for instance—to being more of a workplace sitcom about teachers at a community college. Therefore, this is the episode where everybody goes out for post-work bonding somewhere. But because the show still features a bunch of regular old students, that story gets a bit mixed into one about romantic longing, the burdens of friendship, and ghosts.

By far the best stuff here involves Jeff, Duncan, and Britta. You probably already figured I was going to say that, but it’s true! Community gains some other gear when it places either Britta or Abed in positions where they’re driving storylines (or being driven by them, as we’ll see with Abed in a bit), and it also gets lots out of stories where Britta fears that everything she’s done in her life has been worthless and, as a consequence, made her worthless. Community doesn’t do a lot with the ages of the characters, because it makes it harder to turn the show into a pansexual free-for-all (this may not be the reason), but there have always been subtle hints in Britta’s character about her fears of aging without doing anything to improve the world somehow. She’s in her late 20s in the pilot, which means that she’s crested 30 now, most likely, and your early 30s are a time for freaking the fuck out about how not everything in your life is exactly how you would like it (he said, not from experience or anything). It’s also a time for seeing what people you knew in your teens or early 20s are doing, then holding your life up in comparison to theirs and finding it wanting. Britta gets stuck in both traps tonight, when she meets a bunch of her old activist friends, only to find that they’ve gotten into the real estate game. They all joke about how her friends sold out, but when push comes to shove, they’re able to give actual money to the causes they care about now. And what has Britta done lately?

What she doesn’t know is that the only reason anybody is here at this fundraiser (for starving children with cleft palates) is because Duncan wants to sleep with her, and as British Jason Biggs, he thinks his time has come. But when he announces that he’s going, as an attempt to get on her good side, everybody else, save Abed and Hickey, decides to come, too, up to and including Chang. They finally guilt Jeff into going as well, which leaves our hero reluctantly playing wingman to Duncan, who’s overthinking everything. What’s interesting here is that Duncan is counting on Britta being sad to win her heart, at least for the night, but when Britta is made happy by everyone in the room singing her praises, she becomes even more attractive to both men. The guy who’ll sleep with anything with low enough self esteem is an old sitcom stereotype, one that the series has turned to several times with Jeff himself. But when Duncan finally drives Britta home after her spirit is crushed, he opts not to go up to her place but, rather, to tell her that what she most needs to be is alone, the better to grapple with the existential crisis she finds herself in. It’s a sweet moment, but it’s also one that underlines the show’s ultimate belief that one of the best things you can be in this life is happy with who you are. (I have a feeling if I said that on the show, I would be undercut with a half-ironic, “Awww!”)

The same themes apply to the episode’s other story, which features Abed and Hickey together in a room for roughly half the episode. The thing I liked about “Mixology Certification” was the way that it resembled a well-constructed one-act play, and the same applies to this storyline in particular, with two characters stuck together in a room—one by choice and the other because he’s handcuffed to a filing cabinet—and trying to reach some sort of détente. The storyline kicks off with Abed looking longingly over to where Troy would have normally sat, because he doesn’t have anybody to go to the new Kickpuncher movie with him now that his best friend has gone. All of this results in Abed, in Kickpuncher costume, stomping into Hickey’s office late at night, then ruining a bunch of his comics of Jim the Duck by spraying them with foam. (In an episode where I otherwise bought just about everybody’s actions, Abed spraying his foam like that didn’t quite work for me. I get that the huge eruption was a malfunction, but it still seems like he might have aimed even a slight spray somewhere other than the desk. Abed might not always be completely aware of others’ potential emotions, but he would surely do that.)

Abed being handcuffed to the filing cabinet results in a nice dynamic, because the show is generally full of characters who care enough about Abed to indulge him, even when they’re tiring of what he’s up to. Hickey’s under no obligation to do so, because he barely knows the kid, and his cartoons are important to him. What seems like the ultimate heart-to-heart is full of lines where the characters just blatantly say what they’re feeling and thinking, which can rub me the wrong way, but it ends up being a set-up, because when Hickey refuses to let Abed go, so he still suffers some consequences for his action by missing the movie, Abed erupts and calls Hickey’s comics hackwork. The ultimate rapprochement comes when the two realize they’re both frustrated creators, unable to put the personal into their work. Yet there’s possibility in both of them collaborating on Abed’s script for a renegade cop movie, about a character actually named Police Justice. Like the Britta storyline, this doesn’t end with some seismic epiphany but, rather, a couple of characters who are able to see each other more clearly. The series is often at its best when it does that.

Lots of people talk about this show in relation to Dan Harmon’s story circle, to the idea of a protagonist going through a particular journey that varies wildly up on the surface but tends to follow a series of basic steps down at its core. And as this episode ended, I was impressed with the way that it had guided so many of the characters (save Shirley and Annie, again) through that circle, to the last two steps, which I have always found weirdly moving in their wording: “They [the character] return to their familiar situation, having changed.” By the end of “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality,” many of these people have gone on that journey into the unfamiliar, only to realize ways they can be better people and better friends. For as much as Community gets written off as a cold show by some of its detractors, I wonder if they’re just missing episodes like this one, which suggest it to be one of the shows on television that most wears its heart on its sleeve.

Stray observations:

  • The Chang storyline gets relegated here, because even though it was hilarious (and the best Chang story in ages), it was also pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things. Though it did allow the episode to riff on the endings of both The Sixth Sense and The Shining. And did increase my awareness of ghosts.
  • There was some very skillful direction in this episode, particularly in that scene between Hickey and Abed, which is handled all in one shot, with Hickey in closeup and Abed in the background, then shifts focus (literally) between the two of them. Unfortunately, my screener doesn’t have writing or directing credits, so I can’t tell you who directed it! Which means you know more than me. Spooky.
  • Another nice directing moment: Abed strides down the Greendale hallway in Kickpuncher getup, but the framing makes him look incredibly lonely, since Troy isn’t there with him. It’s a good way of using the audience’s subconscious memory of the two of them together against us.
  • Annie is fine with her and Shirley leaving the story so early. They’ve been getting a lot of focus lately, after all. “Speak for yourself,” Shirley mutters.
  • It’s too bad that neither John Oliver or Jonathan Banks will likely be regulars on the show if there’s a sixth season, since both have other commitments. They’ve really been great additions to the show this year.
  • Britta’s old activist friend is named Michael, but it’s pronounced “Mike-hale.”
  • Jim the Duck’s catchphrase: “What the hell?!”

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