Let the healing process begin. After last week’s terrible episode of Community, my faith was all but broken. The show was a version of itself, a box of discarded ideas hovering listlessly after the bottom was ripped out, just waiting for the moment at which every last bit lost its resolve to hang on and finally let go, slipping into the abyss of forgotten television. “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” was no crowning glory. It doesn’t fix the fact that the NBC show has become a shell of itself, but it proved that there’s still something left to enjoy here.
It’s fitting then, that Abed’s fantasy homage of the week was The Shawshank Redemption. After accepting Shirley’s invite for Thanksgiving, along with Troy, Annie, and Pierce, Abed realizes family holidays can be uncomfortable to the point of unbearableness, especially if the family in question isn’t your own. The non-familial foursome find themselves escaping Shirley’s relatives in the garage, only to realize there’s no possible way to actually escape the dinner. Cue Abed’s Shawshank-inspired montage of the “prisoners” wiling away the hours until Troy’s dream is served: yams baked with marshmallows on top (as a Jehovah’s Witness, he’s never experienced such decadence).
The problem is, just when the homage was starting to hit its stride, just when we started to feel like it might once again unfold into some greater meaning (or at least some greater hilarity), it stopped dead in its tracks. Abed realized the metaphor wasn’t perfect when Shirley said she only asked them to come because she needed friends to buffer her in-laws’ apparent ire towards her. In the end, we learn that Troy, Annie, and Abed have hearts because they don’t eat the two-year expired Seite Layer Dip that Abed brought in order to escape the dinner in a trio of ambulances. They stay with Shirley as Pierce delivers what he thinks is a comedy act (thankfully unseen by anyone but Shirley’s unseen relatives) and our hearts are warmed, sort of.
And then there’s Jeff, who’s decided to spend Thanksgiving with his dad William (James Brolin), and by default his half-brother Willy Jr. (Workaholics star Adam DeVine, who was a far more entertaining guest star). In typical Jeff fashion, he leaves before he can ring the doorbell, but Britta has already inserted herself into the situation and is sitting in his dad’s living room. (Anyone who didn’t see this coming has never seen a second of Britta on Community.) Jeff knows she’s right and he comes back, where he proceeds to go through the checklist in his head and avoid the mushy stuff at all costs.
It’s not long before he realizes that while his dad’s equipment still works and his hair is still very full (a good sign for Jeff, who fears aging more than Harold Camping fears the Rapture), his father is the sort of person Jeff never wants to be. He raised Willy Jr. only because his mother died and left William alone with the overly-attached young man. DeVine outplays every other actor in the cast this week as he panics over William’s proclivity for Jeff, who’s “got it together” while Willy Jr. is “mushy.” When William points out his disappointment in Willy Jr., the son he actually raised, and says that he did good with Jeff because leaving him made him a strong, independent person, Jeff realizes the man he’s shaped his existence after is nowhere near who he really wants to be.
He leaves, but when he finds Willy Jr. in his back seat, Jeff realizes that William needs to know what his brand of loveless parenting has done to Willy Jr. (but mostly what it has done to Jeff). That’s when Jeff delivers his most vulnerable speech to date, explaining that he’s been seeking love and avoiding showing emotion for his entire life, even cutting his own stomach with his mother’s scissors as a kid so he could get sympathy cards from his peers (sympathy cards he still keeps 22 years later). It’s heartbreaking, it’s moving, it’s almost the Community we’ve missed so much.
When his dad tries to fake a heart attack to get out of the conversation, Jeff realizes that his real family is his study group and not this heartless bachelor. The result is that Britta and Jeff finally share a moment of friendship without the obtrusive presence of sexual tension, and Jeff has a hilarious half-brother who adores him enough to lean into his car window and smother him with a hug. (I wish DeVine could stick around for more episodes, but I fear he’s going the way of Giancarlo Esposito as Pierce’s half-brother.)
In the end, Jeff throws the group a Thanksgiving dinner because they’re the family he chose and thus his real family. It’s a sweet moment that reminds us that even without the fancy homages and antics, we do still love these seven people. It’s a point that the episode itself makes when Abed realizes that he wants Christmas to be like Die Hard, that he hopes it plays out as seamlessly as it looks in his head (it won’t), but that it won’t matter because they’re together.
This is the Community we live with now. The sitcom will never return to its former glory, but what we can expect is a series that allows us to spend some precious moments with characters we came to regard as televisual friends. We love these “people,” and if that’s all this show can give us anymore, we’ll have to let this episode serve as the height of the series’ redemption and simply choose to accept it for what it now is.
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[Photo Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC]