Escaping from and to family
I found that to be a pretty satisfying episode. Both storylines–Thanksgiving at Shirley’s and at Jeff’s father’s house–explored themes about whether to stick with family, either in its conventional form or in the form of a chosen family. I appreciated that two perspectives were represented: In Shirley’s case, where her (husband’s) family’s offenses are the relatively minor issue of making her the butt of jokes, she thinks it’s worth it to put up with them. She copes as best she can, in this case by inviting her friends to serve as a buffer. In Jeff’s case, where his dad’s offense is the major issue of abandonment, he judges it not worth it to remain emotionally shackled to a man who doesn’t deserve to have that kind of power over him.
Two aspects of this episode disappointed me. First, I felt sad for Shirley. While her in-laws’ treatment of her might not merit cutting off relationship with them, it still stinks. What’s worse is that her friends don’t even notice she is having a hard time, because they are too focused on their own desire to be elsewhere. (And what was so bad about the experience for them? That wasn’t clear, since they basically went straight to the garage.) They think they are keeping sight of her feelings by looking for an escape plan that won’t hurt her, but they aren’t paying attention to what is actually happening to her. Once Shirley reveals that she invited them to provide a buffer, they understand that they need to help her. But instead of being real about doing that–namely by going inside and shielding Shirley from her extended family–they hatch a prison break (the show) plan. I guess that was supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t provide the kind of support Shirley had just told them she needed.
Second, I felt unsatisfied by Jeff’s interactions with his newfound half-brother, Willy Jr. From the time Jeff arrives at his father’s house, Willy Jr. is the Winger who is being honest about his feelings. He’s worried about being replaced, which is understandable. (“This roll is me. He’s crying.”) Unfortunately, Willy Jr. doesn’t just come across as honest, he also comes across as weird, especially by surprising Jeff in his car and then later outside of his car. Along with Jeff’s own need to come to terms with his feelings about the major life event of re-meeting his dad, Willy Jr.’s low-level creepiness lets Jeff dismiss his half-brother. At the end, he does tell Willy Jr. to save something for Christmas, so I hope that Jeff actually develops a relationship with his brother. Jeff might not need Willy–he has his chosen family in the study group–but Willy needs Jeff. You can’t show me that and then let me think poor Willy is still out there on his own.
All in all, some interesting family dynamics unfolded. There weren’t a lot of laughs, but that wasn’t because jokes flopped, it just wasn’t a laugh-focused episode. I didn’t love or totally buy the nod to The Shawshank Redemption, but I did get a kick out of Abed’s closing voice-over. I share his hope for a Die Hard homage in the Christmas episode!
So I’m developing a bad habit. I’ve found myself – and it’s been an unmeditated reflex – going back to old episodes of Community after watching the latest season 4 has had to offer. Tonight, episode 5, “something something Thanksgiving,” had the misfortune to be followed by “Mixology Certification” – the episode where Troy turns 21 and the gang goes on an ill-advised visit to a bar. Now, it’s not fair to judge any given episode by a prior incarnation, and no matter how good this week’s show was, it wasn’t going to match one of the most emotionally honest, searching episodes the show has ever done. But there was a striking parallel – we had two episodes that went for emotional resonance by way of deconstructing the pretensions of self-presentation. And wow, did this episode turn out hollow for me.
After last week’s “Hey, this wasn’t bad,” I entered last night’s episode with modest expectations, but honestly I felt like I was watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Forgoing the awful set design and fake car scenes (a victim of budget cuts), and putting aside the offensiveness of the whole Willy Jr. character, whose lines seemed to come out of some computer’s approximation of how humans speak, we were back again with a half-hearted afterthought of a high-concept episode, this time being Shawshank Redemption, I guess. That it went nowhere, revealed nothing about the way these friends relate to each other (“hey, about Thanksgiving: family, amirite?”), and didn’t even have the heart to follow up with the Chevy Chase gag or Annie’s desperate menzies ploy – well, that’s just the new Community.
But really, I’m just sick of hollow gestures at emotional depth through the use of the most hackneyed of sitcom tropes. “Mixology Certification” succeeds because it goes to dark, dark places to peel back the social facades that many of us rely on to function, with what should have been the greatest of sitcom cliches: everybody goes to the bar when someone turns 21. But what happens instead is that, outside of the safe space of the study room, we realize how disfunctional these characters are outside of that safe space, to the extent that Troy, the most immature of the group, is the only one who realizes what is going on (him, and Shirley, who we find out has been the most mendacious of the gang, in one of her finest hours). This week’s episode could have built on that – meeting family is a whole different layer of intimacy and vulnerability – but no, we got “my father is so bad he raised a man-child” and “family – they get crazy at Thanksgiving!”.
So, for my part, the disappointment continues.