This is the second episode of Community in a row to put me in a really odd state. It has these moments where the elements come together effectively in the proper way: the characters act like they should, the morals they’re espousing seem to fit, and familiar music from the past seasons kicks in to punctuate it all. With these forces combined, a tickling of the heartstrings is achieved.
But then I think back through the episode later and realize how flimsy it all felt, how sloppy, how cheap… And then I feel kind of hollow.
Trumping the previous one, this is now the best episode of this season and a lot of that has to do with the resolution of the major series arc about Jeff’s issues with his estranged father. It addresses this head on as the plot sees Jeff, having made contact with his father three episodes ago, invited to Thanksgiving at his dad’s house. Yes, this is Community’s first Thanksgiving episode and, thanks to this season being bumped to the beginning of this year, the Greendale Seven are celebrating Thanksgiving on… a random date in March. Anyway, the other plot going on is that the remaining members of the study group hate Thanksgiving with their families so they all go to dinner at Shirley’s house for dinner with her and her husband Andre’s family.
Both plots feel contrived in a number of ways. It seems a little odd that most of the gang can just readily ditch their respective families to hang out at Shirley’s on an impulse. Worse is the extremely sloppy setup of the situation at Shirley’s house. We only see her living room briefly and then the rest of the time is spent in the garage. The setup is that Shirley and Andre’s families are so awful that Annie, Abed, Troy, and Pierce need to keep retreating to the garage to avoid them, but it still feels very sitcom-y in a really bad way. We only meet two of Shirley’s relatives and are told that Andre himself is stuck at his stereo store for Black Friday (which makes very little sense).
The whole thing feels very obviously and unfortunately burdened by budget. A big, extended family dinner would mean paying a lot more actors and extras, not to mention Malcolm-Jamal Warner to guest star as Andre again. It ends up being very awkward the way all the interactions in this storyline take place in the garage and whatever events are happening in the dining room are only described to us secondhand through dialogue. The forced nature of the situation is used as a springboard for a Shawshank Redemption parody, which has some good moments, but ultimately feels half-hearted (something that Abed comments on, but just because the shoddiness of something is lampshaded doesn’t mean it wasn’t still shoddy).
Jeff’s dad plot comes off weird too because Britta, eager to be there to therapize the situation, shoehorns herself into it. While I understand her motivations, it’s still very hokey and overly crazy, even for Britta, that she actually gets Jeff’s dad’s address and shows up there before Jeff does. It’s also just a little too convenient that Jeff’s dad is within reasonable driving distance and he’s just there and ready to have Thanksgiving dinner. Jeff’s dad issues have been built up for long enough that this handling of it feels rushed and anticlimactic. It’s sad that this catharsis that was supposed to be fairly huge comes and goes so quickly and with such little fanfare.
The heartstring tickling moments I mentioned come at the end of this plot when Jeff bluntly tells his dad how much his absence screwed him up. But before that we get mostly a lot of nothing and also Workaholics’ Adam DeVine guest starring as Jeff’s half-brother who isn’t there to do much except yell all the time (one could argue that’s what Chang does too, but he’s had better-written lines). Also, I can’t say that having Jeff’s dad be played by James Brolin did anything for me (though NBC spoiled his appearance about 80 times in advance of the episode’s airing, so I guess we were supposed to care a lot). He was ultimately a pretty boring character and it feels like they could’ve gotten any stone-faced tough guy for the part. (Dan Harmon’s dream was to get Bill Murray to be Jeff’s dad, which I imagine would’ve been a lot more fun and interesting, but if they couldn’t even afford Malcolm-Jamal anymore, what chance would they have of getting Bill?)
I do also want to mention that, though there was a fair amount of dead air in-between them, there were some great jokes here. I keep reading people claiming that Chevy Chase had clearly checked out already during the filming of these episodes, but he still gets to say some pretty choice, awful stuff as Pierce and managed to crack me up twice (like at his realization that Shirley and Andre’s family find him funny, referring to it as his “Showtime at the Apollo”). Also, though the setup for it made little to no sense, Troy’s “about to eat garbage dip” line was up there with some of his best.
I actually felt sort of good about this episode when it ended, but, looking back on it, it’s very slapped together and confused. I don’t mean to sound petty. I know this season of Community was working with a tiny budget and a very limited run of episodes, but I still maintain that the plots in the first three seasons never reached this level of sloppy. I could never so easily break them down and envision the writers straining to get everything to fit together like I could here. And that’s a huge difference.