As an episode of a comedy programme, “Cooperative Escapism In Familial Relations”—and good God, we’re only calling it “Escapism” from now on—was basically fine. I laughed a few times. I smiled more. Things ended well. Even Pierce was mostly a consistent character I didn’t want to kill. Etc. In fact, on the comedy side of things, “Escapism” did something that made me feel a touch more hopeful about this series’ future as a comedy show. If we’re grading on the ridiculously lax Todd VanDerWerff scale of “how much did this make Todd laugh, taking into account that he doesn’t laugh at anything, because he’s basically a robot,” then this is probably a B or so. Not bad. Could be better.
But man, this episode wasn’t aiming for the comedy. It was aiming for something more dramatic than that. Like many sitcom Thanksgiving episodes, it wanted to be about some fairly serious topics—in this case how the holiday forces people to spend time with family members they don’t really feel comfortable around, to go along with Jeff finally meeting his dad—and on that scale, it was mostly a success. There was stuff that didn’t work, and there was stuff that felt forced or rushed, and the ending felt a little too much like a half-naked drunken man bleating at you to remember how much you looooooved these characters. But this was primarily an episode about nailing the dramatic moments, and when the show needed to make those moments count, it did. Shirley admitting she’d invited the study group to her Thanksgiving because Andre’s family always makes her the butt of the joke was nicely heartbreaking. Jeff telling his dad how he faked surgery to get “get well” cards from classmates as a kid, just so he could feel like somebody cared about him, was even more so. This is a new high-water mark for the season, and it leaves me optimistic about what the show is capable of dramatically going forward.
“Escapism” also reminded me that one of the best character pairings on this show—in fact, maybe the best character pairing—is that of Britta and Jeff. The two cancel each other out in such interesting ways that stories featuring the two of them bouncing off each other almost always result in at least a handful of good moments. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that my two favorite episodes of the season—this one and the Halloween one—both featured some heavy Jeff and Britta moments. I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of Britta pairing off with Troy or Jeff pairing off with Annie, but these sorts of relationships tend to force the characters into scenes that exist primarily to serve whatever romantic relationship they’re in at that very second, and they cut down on time spent with the other characters. I don’t need Jeff and Britta to be sleeping together; I do need her awkward attempts to therapize him bouncing off of his not-so-Teflon shell.
Anyway, there are weird issues in the Jeff storyline. The character of Willy, Jr., Jeff’s “soft” younger half-brother, played by Workaholics’ Adam DeVine, never really felt like much more than an attempt by the show to underline just how lousy William, Sr., was as a father, even to the son he was forced to keep around. (Full disclosure: I did laugh a bit when he and Britta started doing some role playing with the rolls. And, yes, Britta, I see what you did there.) The character was simply too easy, and all of the jokes that stemmed from him felt a little too much as if the show were poking fun at the guy who wasn’t all there. Though the show may have a mean streak, it’s not relentlessly mean-spirited, and given the fact that the Halloween episode actually did some nice (albeit it out of nowhere) work with Pierce and his half-brother, I was hoping for… more than we got out of Willy, Jr. Maybe we’ll see more from the kid in the rest of the season, or there will be a major plotline about him in season five or something.
Other than that, though, the “Jeff meets his dad” storyline was a potent reminder of why the show has borne such fruit from going to this well so many times. I’m, of course, an easy target for stories about adults finding their biological parents, but I liked the way that this one was marked so much by a profound sense of absence. Jeff is the person he is because his dad abandoned him, yes, and that’s made him colder and angrier than he really needed to be. But he’s also the person he is because he has the study group around him, and they’ve made him a better man than he was when he started hanging out with them. Jeff’s dad admires his “hustle” in faking his college degree all those years, but the Jeff who did that has never been someone to be admired, at least in the show’s point of view. Jeff has always needed the study group, and they really are the family he’s chosen (as the too saccharine closing scene would have it).
Weirdly enough, the scene between Jeff and his dad also put a pretty solid capper on the Jeff and Pierce relationship. Since Chevy Chase checked out of the show or became too antagonistic to be dealt with or whatever, the show has had to backpedal from some of the stronger material featuring his character, which usually dealt with how he was simultaneously an omen of what Jeff Winger could become and a stand-in for the father Jeff never knew. When Jeff’s dad tries to get out of an emotionally complex moment by faking a heart attack, it’s a callback to all of the times Pierce has done something similar, and the episode suggests that Jeff isn’t just moving past his father and all the baggage from that relationship. He’s also moving past his fears of becoming Pierce. Now, granted, this all feels very sudden—in reality, this would probably take years of work—but it’s a TV sitcom, and I suspect we’ll see something more of this at some point or another.
Speaking of sudden, didn’t that other storyline feel extremely cut down? The basic idea of it—Annie, Troy, Abed, and Pierce feel isolated and weird at Shirley’s Thanksgiving feast, so they hide out in the garage—wasn’t bad, but it also felt as if it were missing two or three scenes of setup. Perhaps the episode ran long and everybody involved just decided to go for broke on the laughs in the “prison breakout” section of the episode, but I would have liked a scene or two of seeing just how bad the party was, even if it just involved one of the characters getting buttonholed by one of the two guest stars the show had budget for. Cutting from the characters arriving to hiding out in the garage felt just a touch too abrupt.
On the other hand—and here, we’re getting back to the comedy of the episode—I liked that “Escapism” ultimately didn’t lean too heavily on the stuff that fans liked in previous seasons and tried to strike out for its own comedy territory. Sure, Shirley hums “Daybreak” as she’s putting her laundry into the washer, and there are a handful of other callbacks here and there. But for the most part, this is a story that largely uses the four characters who get stuck out in the garage (and Shirley, who keeps sticking her head in as the “warden”) in a way that’s roughly in keeping with their established characters but largely not leaning on jokes from the past. I don’t mind a callback now and again, but I have an instinctive aversion to when an episode seems to be doing just callbacks, and it often felt to me like the last two episodes tipped the balance on the joke scale far too much toward the latter, as if hyper-defensive about proving to fans that “their” Community hadn’t left. I’m still not laughing at this as much as I used to laugh at the show, but at least the vast majority of the jokes in this episode were original. I even smiled at a fair number of them.
Ultimately, I also liked that this episode tried something new with the show’s story structure. The show has done jokes before about how Abed thinks something is going to turn into a particular pop culture homage, only to find out that it’s something else entirely, but I liked the way that he tried to actively manipulate things into becoming a Shawshank Redemption here, before ultimately realizing that he was in more of a Prison Break (and drawing a blueprint of Shirley’s house on his stomach). As always, Annie and Troy get drawn into his shenanigans—and I realized how much the show has squandered the comedic potential of this trio after the first season—but when Shirley comes out and says that she was just hoping for some friends as a buffer from a family she can’t quite deal with on a major holiday, well, I appreciated that even Abed knew the concept had to be set aside for someone he cared about, though I’m sure he’ll work out a Prison Break homage in the near future on his own time.
“Escapism” has some issues here and there, but there’s nothing in here that rises above the level of “slight problem.” (Really, only Willy, Jr., feels like an irreparable part of this episode; everything else could be easily fixed with some sort of “producer’s cut.”) The episode even manages to cut down on the weirdness in the last few episodes, where it sometimes felt like the writers were trying to cram seven or eight storylines into every episode. (Seriously, go back and look at last week’s episode again—as I did last weekend—and realize just how much story the script tries to cram into 22 minutes. This is rarely a good call.) It’s essentially just an episode about two things happening, and it falls back on some of the show’s most reliable character pairings. That’s not reinventing the wheel, but who tries to break from tradition at Thanksgiving? Heathens. That’s who.
- James Brolin was very good as Jeff’s dad, even if he was basically just called in to play James Brolin as Jeff Winger’s father. I also liked when he tried to launch into a Winger speech and Jeff cut him off. I get the impulse too, William.
- The show sometimes forces the “Shirley’s a Christian!” jokes, and between the “He is risen” apron and the bit about the Christian literature scattered around her house, it came awfully close again.
- I’m all in favor of suspending my disbelief in the name of comedy, but who on Earth would be okay with a hole cut into the side of their house?
- Now that we got a nice, big Jeff and Britta episode, it’s time for some classic Jerley action. Who’s with me?
- Though I don’t really know that the show earned the Shawshank parody and though the last scene was too syrupy, I did quite like all of Abed’s voiceovers.
- I knew I was in good hands when this episode opened with all of the characters sitting around the study room table and just talking about stupid shit. I also knew it was going to work when Jim Rash came in and continued to make the best of some weaker material. (To be fair, however, some of his lines—particularly the bit about the water glass against the wall—were pretty funny. And he wasn’t in a dress for increasingly labored comic effect!)
- So that last scene. I imagine lots of you loved it, but it just went too far for me. Jeff bringing the dinner just felt like too neat of a button to place on everything that had happened, and I found myself really hoping that there would be more to it than that. It was fine, or whatever. Maybe it would have worked if this were actually November, and my heart weren’t so very cold.