Our dads usually have a lot to do with the people that we wind up becoming, whether directly or indirectly. Typically, this makes for some great television, and Community couldn't have picked a more precarious time to dive headlong into one of its most anticipated reserve storylines. The first four episodes of this fourth season have been mostly shit, so it almost seems lucky that the episode in which we finally meet William Winger is actually a really good one. The episode starts with the group figuring out what to do during Thanksgiving, and thanks to the Dean's penchant for snoopery, we learn that Jeff has made plans to visit his dad for the big day. Aside from a few lame jokes, this episode's main problem is a technical one. This script needs a lot of things to happen, and not all of them are easy to work out, logistically. We need a way for the group to find out that Jeff is visiting his dad's house, but Jeff never tell them something like that. It's good that the writers went with this, and the idea that the Dean's tendency to listen in on Jeff's personal life makes him an expository tool is a pretty great one. The biggest issue with this episode is Britta's presence at William's house. We get a few lazily-written lines of dialogue in an attempt at passing this off, but really her presence would never be acceptable in the real world. And how did she get there before Jeff? "Hi, William, I'm Jeff's friend whom he invited to Thanksgiving Dinner—where he would also be meeting his estranged father for the first tim in years—and I've arrived up early. Also I came here without Jeff. But I'm going to leave in his car." Britta had to be at William's house so that the story involving Shirley's didn't feel lopsided...but the details surrounding her presence were lazy in their execution, and that lack of detail really pulled me out of that part of the story. Things at Shirley's place are decently tense, as the rest of the gang realizes that her awful in-laws are a bit too much to deal with. This leads to Abed, Annie, Pierce, and Troy camping out in Shirley's garage while Abed's narration steers the B-story into a Shawshank Redemption send-up. The conceit works here because it's not overdone and never gets distracting. In fact, when it's basically ditched in favor of Prison Break ("the show!"), we wind up getting one of the episode's best jokes.
Really, though, Shirley's house is a joke mill while Jeff's adventure at his dad's place allows the show to explore some of its more heavy themes. Family is obviously a huge part of Community's underlying thesis, as it were, and this look at Jeff's is something of an unprecedented one. Adam Devine is brilliantly cast as Jeff's bizarre half-brother, and together the two form a fully-realized portrait of William's shortcomings as a father. Devine's Willy, Jr is an easy character, and broadly drawn, but his inescapably obvious fragility does a great job of highlighting the emotional truth hidden behind what William mistakes for a strong and well-adjusted son.
"Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations," despite an unfortunately stupid title, sees Community doing a decent job of what made it a good show to begin with: knowing its characters well and connecting the audience with the parts of their personalities that led to their becoming such a special family in the first place. By the end of this very decent Thanksgiving episode, we get the entire cast (FINALLY) sitting around the study room table after having spent twenty minutes reminding us why we cared about all of them so much in the first place.
Oh, and also...
• "We were just....about to.....EAT GARBAGE DIP." Is it just me, or is Donald Glover firmly in the lead for funniest cast member this season?
• Piece is still unfortunately bigoted and rote, but his Star Wars crack was a pretty inspired one.
• Britta's broad-stroke, Vaudeville bullshit is really starting to grate on me. The use of a stunt double added an extra layer of lame to an already-stupid joke with the whole "escape from Troy's room" a couple weeks ago, and she didn't do much better this week.
• Shirley's father-in-law farting in response to being introduced to Shirley's friends is something I wish would happen more often. In real life.