It is Thanksgiving. (It’s not Thanksgiving, but if Community’s fourth season had debuted in October as scheduled, this would have been Thanksgiving. But I digress.) Shirley invites the study group over for Thanksgiving dinner — ultimately, it turns out, to serve as a buffer between her and her judgmental in-laws. Jeff turns down the invitation, grunting, “Plans,” which are revealed to be the long-gestating reunion with his estranged dad (James Brolin, a nifty bit of casting). Britta invites herself along, convinced that Jeff will need guidance through the emotional minefields of the day.
Holiday episodes are always a trick business, inherently predisposed towards the maudlin, and in all fairness to “Cooperative Escapism,” it might have gone down smoother in its originally intended, calendar-appropriate airing. But the episode’s embarrassingly clunky transitions from comedy to pathos are a trend in this season’s weaker episodes, and there’s more syrup in this one than we’ve seen yet. They’re just plain overdoing it with the sentimentality — particularly with Jeff, who is given two explicitly saccharine speeches (one to his dad, one to the study group) when one would’ve been a stretch. It’s not that characters can’t grow and change; it’s that they can only do so much growing and changing in one episode, lest they stretch credibility past the breaking point.
And for what it’s worth, “I’m constantly texting… and there’s no one at the other end” is the louisest dialogue of the season thus far, a line reminiscent of the worst voice-overs on Sex and the City.
If the episode never quite figures out how to make the father/son dynamic play (aside from overcooking Britta to a point of caricature), the scenes at Shirley’s feel like a giant missed opportunity. We get, first of all, not a glimpse of her beloved husband Andre; the stated reason for his absence (that he’s getting ready for Black Friday at the stereo store) sounds less like logic and more like penny-pinching producers didn’t want to scratch together a few bucks to pay Malcolm Jamal-Warner. That’s understandable, but letting Shirley tell her classmates (and thus us) that her in-laws make fun of her, instead of showing that tension, is just plain lazy. And the halfhearted Shawshank spoof merely serves as a reminder of how well the show used to do that kind of thing, and not as a confirmation that it can still do it well in the post-Harmon age.
“Cooperative Escapism” was written by Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane, who collaborated on two of Season 3’s best episodes: the Glee-styled “Regional Holiday Music” (which still has one of my all-time favorite Community moments: the “Bop be doop be doop be doop SEX” conclusion of Annie’s baby-talk Christmas torch song) and the season finale, “Introduction to Finality.” So they know their way around these characters, which makes it that much harder to figure out how this episode went wrong. But it did, so there you are.