Community leans slightly serious again to explore male bonding [Recap: season 5, episode 7]

The fifth season of Community isn’t breaking new ground, but it’s a perfectly satisfying addition to a catalogue of episodes that now breaks down into a number of categories. Right now, I think there’s a bit of a gradient along which episodes fall: Conceptually ambitious and serious (“Virtual Systems Analysis,” “Critical Film Studies”), the lightly serious (“Mixology Certification”), the lightly comedic (“Introduction To Teaching,” basically most of the first season), and the structurally adventurous joke factories (“Epidemiology,” “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics”).

Episodes fall into or between those categories, but largely that’s what the show is working with at this point. “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality” falls into that second list. It’s not structurally overambitious, nor is it a consistent laugh-fest. But it’s an earnestly serious episode with many laughs examining two male relationships—a pair of old friends out of touch and a student/teacher interaction—that haven’t been featured previously on the show.

And I think it’s important to note that Community has some classic, nearly flawless episodes in each of those categories. The extremes aren’t automatically better than ones that are less ambitious in scope. Each respective fan of Community perhaps prefers one side of the spectrum, either the serious episodes that examine the psychological wellbeing of the characters, or the batshit crazy genre homages that have a high joke-per-minute output. But the dynamism involved in creating successful episodes across that gradient makes Community one of my favorite shows on television.

With the departures of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover, it’s been nice to see John Oliver worked back into the Community ensemble as a recurring player with more significance. His friendship with Jeff was a cornerstone of the show’s pilot, but since Professor Duncan faded into the background during the second season before disappearing altogether, that relationship hasn’t been an essential part. Now that the show has a reduced cast, suddenly an established rapport and relationship between Jeff and Duncan is necessary for the show to continue. “Bondage” establishes the surface-level acquaintance that those two characters have, complicates it with a foolish competition for Britta, and then pivots into a far more rewarding place that binds the two characters together as friends. Jeff has gone through this type of arc before with Shirley (“Foosball And Nocturnal Vigilantism”) and others, but for two comedic performers as adept at coming off as both slimy and charming, this is a delight.

Duncan has overtly and shamelessly tried to hook up with Britta since he re-emerged on the show, and he solicits Jeff for help making it happen. He’s a sleaze ball about it, but Jeff is just lackadaisical enough to help out while not really getting involved. But his suggestions end up sending most of the group to a charity event for starving children with cleft palates. Jeff even gets dragged along while caught in limbo between staying out of Duncan’s way with Britta and seemingly like a jerk for not joining the group outing at a charity event. The almost bored camaraderie eventually gives way to petty competition, but wisely the episode never lets that sense of boorish masculinity escape the conversations between Jeff and Duncan.

Whereas the fear of getting older in “Mixology Certification” belonged to Troy as he watched his friends devolve in various ways while at a bar for his 21st birthday, the existential crisis of this episode belongs to Britta. At the charity event, she sees some activist friends from her past, and freaks out that she’s sold out by going to community college and not sticking with their lifestyle of fighting the power. But over the course of the first two acts, she learns that her three friends actually own the building the event is being held in. They’ve sold out more than she has. Her realization that one of her friends looks at her opinion as less valid because she has less material wealth and thus less to potentially lose through a resurgence in thrilling-but-unwise guerilla activism is heartbreaking. Here’s a character so downtrodden by her friends, and still so fiercely charitable even as she fails publicly that it’s impossible not to root for her personal breakthroughs.

This plot succeeds because it advances each of the three characters. Jeff, initially drawn to competition once he sees that other people find Britta cool, lets go of that machismo in order to help a friend; Duncan actually imparts useful advice to an emotionally vulnerable Britta, though he pounds on the steering wheel in a private tantrum when he makes the choice not to make a move. And Britta emerges from a delicate crisis slightly more confident that she can roll with the punches of being a previously aimless adult still figuring out which path to take.

In the other plot, Abed and Professor Hickey are the latest to take a turn on the bonding-with-teacher carousel. Community has sent Hickey in orbit around three characters so far—Jeff, Annie, and now Abed—in order to tease out more of his story and to put Hickey’s accomplishments in contrast with the goals the younger characters have for themselves.

The gist of Abed’s initial motivation is that he’s lonely since Troy has departed for his journey (now presumably captured by pirates). In an act that keeps him within his pop-culture parameters but appears wary to venture outside the things he shared with Troy, Abed is going to a KickPuncher screening in full costume. Troy wore the cardboard suit in their homemade videos, but Abed wanders the halls alone. The long shot from the other end of the hallway emphasizes his loneliness, and I think it’s both his depression and need for connection that leads him to interacting with Professor Hickey, who’s alone sketching more duck comics in his office. After a mishap with KickPuncher’s “ballistic foam” destroys all the work Hickey’s done in the past five hours, he throws a Hail Mary and handcuffs Abed to a file cabinet in order to punish him.

It’s a completely contrived sitcom plot: old fogey punishes young whippersnapper by confining the offender, causing them to lose something they desire. But in that mini bottle plot, not unlike the “stuck in the freezer” cliché from countless other episodes, Abed and Hickey get under each other’s skin before coming to an enlightening understanding. Once Abed realizes he’s truly stuck, he attempts to make a genuine apology, and it nearly works, until he realizes that Hickey won’t let him go until the screening begins to prove a point. Then Abed turns into an overly critical monster, insulting Hickey for being jealous of his creativity when Jim The Duck is so plain and lifeless.

As seen in “Analysis Of Corked-Based Networking,” Hickey has bottled up his anger about what he sees as the failures in his life. But by the end of the night, he and Abed come an understanding that they complement each other creatively: Hickey is down-to-earth, and Abed is up in the clouds. Together, they can meet in the middle to make something inventive with a strong foundation in reality. I really liked that this episode only picked at Abed’s mental state and how the group tends to tiptoe around him, allowing him to fight back with vitriol against Hickey in order to gain equal footing. Sometimes the episodes that examine Abed’s instability tend to victimize him too much—he devolves into a shrieking mess—but this plot correctly calls him out for his selfish and stubborn attitude while allowing him the strength and confidence to defend his approach to creativity.

And then there’s the Chang plot. In the words of Buzz Hickey’s hacky duck: “What the hell?” It’s a hilarious runner that has nothing to do with anything else in the episode, and probably the best Chang solo plot since the initial inklings of campus takeover in the third season. The Bear Dance plot found a way for Ken Jeong to mesh with other members of the cast, but this story has him in a quick comedic arc all his own. The idea that he accidentally stumbles upon a black box theater audience rapt with attention to his impromptu one-man show is a great setup. The janitor is a nice complication, and then the audience and janitor dialogue through Chang over which are the ghosts takes the arc to the surreal limit for the show. The Shining and Sixth Sense twists in the final scene are a bit obvious, but they’re still fun, especially the final gag about the club picture Chang appears in.

Jonathan Banks is headed to AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, meaning he probably won’t be around for a hypothetical sixth season of Community. And John Oliver has his new weekly show on HBO, so he likely won’t be back as a regular either. That’s a shame, since they’ve both proven to be delightful actors capable of crafting intriguingly complex characters that fit right in with the rest of the topsy-turvy world that is Greendale. But it’s impressive that in the wake of losing Pierce and Troy, Community has found a way to tie in new characters by forging new, meaningful friendships and professional relationships between the study group and the new (or returning) characters. This isn’t a laugh-a-minute episode, but it’s one that comes to grips with male friendship in a way that isn’t the bromantic crutch that became the Troy/Abed dynamic. I loved each and every time those two got into shenanigans together, but it’s good to see the show branching out and understanding that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

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