At its strange, messed-up heart, “Community” is the story of a family. It’s not a traditional family, and it’s not a family bound by either blood or law. Usually, however, this central family — the study group — functions in its own special way.
Maybe it was the inherent dysfunctionality of Thanksgiving, but the “Community” family felt fractured in “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.”
Considering that the two “real” families in this episode also failed miserably, we might want to blame Thanksgiving for all the dysfunction.
The dysfunction of Jeff and Jeff’s dad
The main story of the “Community” Thanksgiving episode is the long-awaited reunion of Jeff (Joel McHale) with his father, William Winger (James Brolin). It doesn’t go well, to say the least.
Sure, we get to see how similar these Winger men are in their roguish ways and their scotch drinking. It’s kind of cool to see a moment of triumph for Britta (Gillian Jacobs) either.
Alas, pretty much everything else falls apart.
When faced with his father’s essential indifference and uselessness, Jeff mainly uses Thanksgiving to realize how much he both benefited and suffered because of William’s absence. The elder Winger was a terrible dad, as we see when introduced to Jeff’s painfully pathetic half-brother, Willy Jr. (Adam DeVine). Jeff may have had it bad (and creating your own appendectomy scar is pretty bad), but the presence of his father would have been worse.
The dysfunction of the Bennetts
Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) has the misfortune of hosting her in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner. They don’t like her or something. It doesn’t help that Shirley’s husband Andre is elsewhere (which is what happens when Malcolm-Jamal Warner is busy).
So she invites the study group.
With Britta and Jeff otherwise engaged in fruitless attempts at daddy-issue closure, Shirley gets to subject only Annie (Alison Brie), Abed (Danny Pudi), Troy (Donald Glover) and Pierce (Chevy Chase) to this particular Thanksgiving torture.
Not that they are much help to Shirley. After a brief bit of mild provocation, the four study groupers retreat to the garage. Abed reenacts “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Prison Break” to rationalize their plight. There’s even a tunnel that appears behind a randomly sexy poster for Shirley’s sandwiches.
But then everyone realizes that Shirley just wants some company in her misery. So no one escapes, which is an utter waste of Abed’s stomach map.
It may be wishful thinking, but it also seems like a waste to not have Shirley’s in-laws be the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show.” You know, considering who plays her husband. Oh well!
The dysfunction of the study group
The previous two familial dysfunctions work well in the service of “Community.” This last one, on the other hand, does not. How could it, when the study group is the beating heart of the show? You can’t break the heart and have a good story!
In a successful episode of “Community,” the characters join forces (or oppose each other) for a common purpose. Their various quirks and foibles combine to create comic genius and surprising depth.
So it’s too bad dysfunction also hurt this family in “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.”
After a brief moment of togetherness at the beginning of the episode, the group members go their divergent ways. Their subsequent stories do relate to Thanksgiving and family, but they feel like plots on separate shows. Only generic holiday lessons unite them.
And what is the deeper theme? That family kind of sucks? That Thanksgiving is a rough holiday to get through? We learn nothing new about the characters from any of this. “Cooperative Escapism” is a pleasant enough half hour, but it is also forgettable.
The cheesy ending with everyone sitting down to a full Thanksgiving feast in the Greendale library doesn’t help (Seriously, where did Jeff get all the food???).
Maybe “Community” was just doomed with this Thanksgiving episode. It’s hard to get into the spirit of the season now that it’s March, after all. It could be a calendar dysfunction that doomed the family to blandness.
Let’s hope so. This is a show that needs its special, messed-up and somehow **functional family to keep going.