This might be the first episode of Community I just straight up did not enjoy, a fact made all the more frustrating by the amount of potential “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” had. As a dramatic story – something Community has always had a strong hold on – Jeff meeting his dad should’ve been a slam-dunk if the writers had just committed to the seriousness of the situation. I can’t help but think back to “Mixology Certification,” an episode deliberating holding back the laughs to tell a more somber tale of Troy entering adulthood. There was no concept to the episode; it was straight up and to the point and was better for it. What I miss about Community is not its audacity at trying high concept episodes – if anything that’s starting to weigh it down – but it’s willingness to cut the crap and get to the heart of a matter.
To be fair to the episode, there is a lot of heart to Jeff’s interaction with his father and ends in a satisfactory way. James Brolin was a good fit to play William Winger and he comes off as you would expect – exactly like Jeff. Jeff and Britta are always a great pairing and her butting into his life to act as his unwanted therapist is a goldmine. The real problem comes from William’s other son and Jeff’s half brother, Willy Jr. He’s this whiny, shell of a character that’s only there to be contrast to Jeff, an example of how he might’ve turned out with William in his life. But he’s grating to hear and has almost no redeeming qualities. His one funny scene was only possible because Britta was involved and you can’t really go wrong when Gillian Jacobs is around. All the good parts of Jeff’s Thanksgiving dinner with William are seriously hurt by Willy’s presence. Thankfully he’s mostly in the background for Jeff’s touching speech explaining how broken he is – I was reminded of his story in the Dinner With Andre episode where he let people think he was a girl just so he could be told he’s pretty.
Shirley invites the rest of the study group to her family’s Thanksgiving and they have a terrible time, yet another storyline that had potential to get real and explore someone’s issues. We find out Shirley is the butt of her family’s jokes and invited everyone to act as a buffer. I wish we could have seen the dinner and more than just two members of her family, but instead we spend most of the episode in her garage where Abed attempts to force a concept episode down our throats. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Abed’s voice over as he tried to make a Shawshank Redemption episode happen, but it was way too obvious a thing to do and didn’t at all mesh with what was happening. Maybe if the episode had committed fully to the concept it could have all worked out, but all we get is that garage and Abed’s narration. We never set foot outside and see anyone really interact. We don’t get a proper sense of how miserable Shirley is, which takes all the impact out of the revelation she doesn’t want to be there anymore than the others.
It’s not even that Abed comes right out and says he wants to do an homage to Shawshank that hurts the storyline– the show has often pointed out what its referencing – it’s that he is actively trying to force the situation into something it isn’t. Maybe that’s the intent. I wouldn’t be surprised given Abed’s eventual realization what their doing is more like the TV show Prison Break. But if the writers are poking fun at the fact these concepts aren’t something you can just make happen then they did a poor job of getting that idea across. Maybe if the Shawshank idea had been done away with almost immediately it might have worked, but it drags on throughout the episode and never comes to fruition. With these concepts you either shut it down right away or fully commit. This was anything but a full committal and it shows.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so troubled by Community until now. For everything that worked there was a problem that overshadowed it. Britta and Troy continue to deliver their lines with comedic perfection, but Pierce was been relegated to racist dick. I can understand now why Chevy Chase had that heavily publicized outburst a few months ago where he said the N-word on set. It really felt like at any minute Pierce could start dropping some serious racial slurs. But I also get that Chase was becoming increasingly difficult to work with and this is the best material they could come up with for him.
Upon a second viewing, “Cooperative Escapism” doesn’t gain any favor. The problems are there and aren’t going to go away. Over time you might be able to numb yourself to Willy Jr. or the half-assed Shawshank homage, but you’ll still be wishing Community had done something more with the episode than what we got. Community, under the guidance of Dan Harmon – I hate that I’m bringing him into this yet again – would never have pigeonholed itself like this, where all it does is try to be this constant pop culture referencing machine. To be sure, Community wouldn’t be the same without the homages, the references or its meta sense of humor, but it also would know when to cut it back and just be a show about an unlikely family of misfits.