Community Recap: Shawshank or Bust?

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
Episode Title
Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations
Editor’s Rating

Community, in its ideal form, is a show that Abed Nadir would enjoy. It’s complex and self-referential and not for everyone. Canon Community contains its own internal system of mythology like the poetry of William Blake, the music of the Hold Steady, or … I don’t know … the 50-year run of Inspector Spacetime.

Unfortunately, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” is an episode made more for the Pierce Hawthornes of the world, folks who crave broader comedy and “very special episode” emotional stunts.  

Last night’s episode had a few standout jokes, but they were like the moments of lucidity in the eyes of a relative lost to Alzheimer’s, fleeting and ultimately setting the viewer up for disappointment. Yeah, that’s dark stuff. But I’m going to say it and move on, just like “Cooperative Escapism” did whenever it presented any difficult material. It happened over and over.

Wait. Jeff was a cutter? Oh, never mind. I guess it wasn’t that important.

Hold on. Abed has been holding onto a batch of seven-layer dip for two years until he had a special occasion to celebrate? That’s okay with everyone? While we’re at it, is Abed even still in therapy? I’m very concerned about this. With a few minor script tweaks, this whole season could play out as a drama called We Have to Talk About Abed. I smell spinoff. Or maybe I’m having a stroke.

The show refuses to delve into its own darkness the way an oblivious parent might ignore a child’s Intervention-level illness. Even the promising Shawshank Redemption scenario in Shirley’s garage fails to pay off, which was a major disappointment. I love The Shawshank Redemption so, so much. I’ll watch it every time it comes on television, even though its running time with commercial breaks approaches the length of a Rand Paul filibuster. I love Shawshank so much that on the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I narrate the journey of “Andy 2 Train” to my girlfriend in my best Morgan Freeman drawl. I really, really wanted this story line to work.

The lukewarm parallels between Shawshank Penitentiary and the gang’s sequestration in Shirley’s garage failed to capitalize on the setup. Instead of raising the stakes or committing to a full-on parody, “Cooperative Escapism” gives us a dose of references-as-comedy so weak the Wayans Brothers would have mercifully excised it from even the last, driest gasps of the Scary Movie franchise’s death rattle. The narration just didn’t work. Maybe it wasn’t punchy enough. Maybe Danny Pudi’s voice just doesn’t carry the same gravitas as Morgan Freeman’s voice-over, which, lest we forget, can make penguins seem dramatic and compelling. Whatever the reason, it came off rushed and undercooked.

“Cooperative Escapism” hedges its bets throughout, splitting time between the half-parody of Shirley’s garage and the family drama in the home of William Winger Sr. (James Brolin). The comedy seems to come mostly from a series of fits pitched by Willie Jr. (Adam DeVine), Jeff’s half brother. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it insults the viewer’s intelligence. We’re supposed to see Pierce’s off-camera slapstick as pandering and base, but the biggest laugh the episode got out of me came when Jeff pulled a quick u-turn, causing Willie to careen goofily across his car’s backseat. The episode was trying to have its cake and smear the frosting all over its face for a quick chuckle, too. It’s possible I was laughing at the wrong parts, I guess, but I couldn’t figure out where else to laugh.

The attempt at double dipping becomes obvious when the Shawshank plotline runs aground. Abed hypothesizes that maybe the gang was actually a Prison Break sendup the whole time. Oh, go fuck yourself, Community. Take a stand. Don’t try to cover up a weak parody by suggesting it was a different parody. That’s like covering up a mile-long tunnel with a poster of Rita Hayworth. Okay. Bad example. But you know what I mean.

Another thing that made me seethe was Troy’s unironic anxiety over the suggestion that Batman might be gay. It’s 2013. Not only is the Batman/Robin ambiguity a tired premise, but also Gotham City has probably passed marriage equality by now, rendering the whole discussion moot. Troy is naïve, but I’d like to think that we’ve passed the point where blithe homophobia passes for comedy. Especially since we like Troy. Pierce can refer to Black Friday as Jew Friday because we know he’s a bigot. I expect more from Troy. I’m not mad. Just … disappointed. No, wait. Mad. I’m mad. It’s a cheap joke, and it’s mean, and I don’t like it. Community is supposed to be for the kids who got called gay as an insult, not the ones who called other kids gay. More than that, though, it’s for people who get that gay isn’t actually an insult.

Also, while we’re talking about inconsistencies, what happened to Britta and Troy’s relationship? Is Jeff trying to sabotage it by flirting with Britta? Is he that much of a jerk, even after three and a half seasons of learning the importance of friendship? Or is NBC airing episodes out of order again? Oh, by the way: Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. It always sneaks up on me because I spend so much time planning for Valloween.

It’s frustrating that a show that used to be as precise as Abed’s knowledge of Star Wars minutiae is now spiraling out of control. I can’t tell how much of it is on account of the turnover on the writing staff and how much is because of the wanton disregard the network has shown for the program.

Last week’s episode at least gave us a unified, harmonious (Dan Harmon pun intended) story line. This week, we get a fractured narrative. The Abed-Troy-Annie-Shirley-Pierce story attempts to appease the diehards. We’ve already learned from the Germans, however, that appeasement doesn’t work, even when the villains are more Sprockets than Hans Gruber. The Jeff-Britta-Jeff’s Family story line is an attempt to inject “heart” into the series. The two plots merge in the end, but what was the message? The family you choose is the most important? You have to accept your biological relatives for who they are? I’m confused. The problem with playing both sides of the fence is that most of the time you just get a fence post up your butt. This is one of those times.

The mainstreaming of Community isn’t going to win over enough new fans to keep the show afloat. The only time anyone has ever come out on top by changing their entire personality is the last scene of Grease. Besides, even at its least subtle, Community will never reach the plug-and-play glibness of a Two and a Half Men. I wish it would stop trying. Pierce Hawthorne has had enough sitcoms cater to him. According to Jim ran for eight seasons. Television has never had a shortage of fat guys with hot wives. Community should play to the Abeds of the world, the weirdoes who immerse themselves in a world and fret about the specifics.

Abed himself sums up the show’s predicament in his closing narration: “I was thinking about Christmas. I hope we do Die Hard. I hope it lays out as clearly as it does in my dreams.”

Me too, Abed. Me too. I’d love to see a fully committed, Die Hard episode of Community when Christmas rolls around this April, but I’m worried we’ll be forced to settle for a cut-rate, Steven Seagal–caliber episode. The series can’t take many more of those before even the staunchest fans abandon ship.

In the words of Ellis “Red” Redding: “Get busy living, Community, or get busy dying.”