Community has heart, and that is its greatest strength. The show is clearly made with incredible amounts of love for the characters, love for the setting, and love for the pop culture landscape it reflects as much as it has begun to build upon. What sets it apart from other sitcoms that make it to their fifth season running on a tank filled with love and laughs is that Community isn’t interested in uniting a central romantic relationship. There is no Maris and Niles (or Pam and Jim, or whatever you want) tension central to making for a cathartic conclusion. At the end of the day Community succeeds when it reaffirms that its characters make each other better people as friends.
“Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” succeeds entirely because it is a 22-minute deep exploration of that very theme, disguised as a hacky set-me-up-with-your-ex-for-sex comedy. It starts off in the teachers lounge, with Jeff and Duncan scheming selfishly, and ends around the Table Mk II with warm assurance, the bondage of honesty, and the best reference to The Shining since The Simpsons had a crack at it in the early 90s.
Mining the series-old conflict pool of Duncan’s unrequited lust for Britta, the “British Jason Biggs” lobbies for Jeff Winger’s help in seducing his old girlfriend. Jeff advises that his old love interest will be unable to resist any sort of activist cause, and he’s almost immediately proven right when Duncan mentions a theatrical performance for the benefit of starving children with cleft palates.
What Jeff didn’t foresee was the enthusiastic piggybacking of nearly everybody else. These people only have each other, after all, so when one doesn’t have plans that seems to go for all of them. That is, all of them except for lonely, Troy-less Abed who will be attending an opening night performance of the Kickpuncher reboot, cosplaying the original character design (“They shouldn’t have redesigned the costume. Keep your heads in the sand if you want”), and criminology teacher Buzz Hickey.
By the end of the teaser it’s official: The seventh episode of Community’s exceptional fifth season will be a six-way date night with the proceeds going to hungry children with cleft palates.
Catching up after the title sequence, the play is over and Chang wanders off to take an angry phone call before absently walking on to a studio stage and angrily hanging up to the applause of 24 eager audience members. In delightfully true-to-Chang fashion he doesn’t miss a beat, launching immediately into a one-man show. The situation is wish fulfillment for fans of Chang, and he really Fat Dogs it on the laughs.
Outside of this conceptual gem, at the reception, the engineered romance side of things gets rolling. Britta runs into an ex-boyfriend of hers named Michael (but he pronounces it like Mikhail), and once it looks like it will be a guest player vying for the apple of Duncan’s eye, with Jeff coaching his fellow teacher, things get conflict heavy. Jeff realizes that he finds Britta extremely desirable when she’s liked by other people. Michael not only toasts to her, but gives Britta the floor where she earns peer recognition with a strong, “Make sure you tell yourself the truth.”
Back at the school we see Abed putting the final touches on his cyborg-cop outfit complete with working shoulder cannon. After making us feel the absence of Troy with a “Cool, cool, cool” to an empty chair, Abed becomes the Kickpuncher and finds Buzz alone in his office, staying late, swearing and scribbling.
After being briefly ridiculed for his incomprehensible nerdery, Nadir tries to endear his craftsmanship to Buzz, activating the foam dispensing launcher that drenches five hours worth of the wannabe cartoonist’s illustrations.
Buzz handcuffs Abed to the filing cabinet to teach him a lesson like no one has, and just like that we’re treated with the best conflict of the season. The show’s breakout new cast member versus its lonely long time icon. Both of them are the outcasts of the group for their ambitious imaginations, and neither understands the other. As soon as the cuffs were slapped on to Danny Pudi’s wrist it made sense: By the end of this episode we were going to know how Abed still fits.
After spending the commercial detained, Abed is quickly trying to find a way out of being grounded by this self-imposed surrogate father. He tries to apologize but Hickey is steadfast. This has been a long time coming, and he’s never been impressed with Abed’s magical imagination. He watched his third wife die, and those aren’t chickens he’s been “doodling,” he’s been drawing a duck (and publishers are interested).
Back at the reception, Chang emerges from the studio only to be chastised by a janitor. It doesn’t matter if he’s been killing with his one-man show, there hasn’t been anyone in there since the fire back in 1997 when an audience of 24 died.
Britta is reconnecting with all of her old activist friends, worried she’s lost cred and sold out, only to find that all of them have too. More accurately, they have all done really great in life and found that in selling out they can feed starving children with cleft palates better than when they were starving activists.
Duncan buys himself one hour to win Britta’s heart by pulling a beta male guilt card on Jeff. He calls him a bad friend for trying to pull a Dane Cook in one of those three movies where Dane Cook gets laid by accident (only this time it’s not a Dane Cook movie because someone is watching).
At the criminology office turned animation studio turned detention center Abed appeals to Buzz’s pride, trying to learn about the cartoon duck pictures he ruined. The prisoner guilts his captor into letting him see a sketch pad open to a comic strip featuring a duck getting kicked out of a supermarket express line because each banana in a bunch counts as one item. The punch line is “What the hell?”
Two big surprises happen at the reception: The undead audience tells Chang that the janitor is really the ghost, but when he goes back to confront the spirit cleaner he’s told that those apparitions are lying before being treated to a maniacal polter-laugh. Britta is rejected by her old friends who pity her and with two seconds left on Jeff’s digital watch Duncan swoops in as a shoulder to cry on. She accepts his offer to get out of there and Winger is left alone to drink.
After having taken a long look at Buzz’s Jim the Duck comics, it appears as though Abed really likes the hilariously sad sketches of a broken man’s failed dreams. But when Buzz refuses to let his admirer go, even after calling him a “good kid” (the greatest compliment a pseudo-father can bestow), Abed snaps.
Buzz’s feelings are decimated by the end of Abed’s surgical ripping of the old man’s “monuments to joylessness” that he claims has the interest of publishers (or are they misinterpreted form letters?). He lets Abed go and sits in his office for the duration of the commercial.
We come back to see Duncan driving Britta home and are treated to the emotional thesis of “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality.” Britta is feeling really sorry for herself. It’s an existential crisis: If you define yourself by counting your friends, what happens to you when you realize you have none?
“Do you have any friends?”
Duncan has his neighbor Pat (to whom he owes money) and Jeff: The sorry lawyer he’s known longer than anybody, who he left at a bar in pursuit of sex with a self-sorry woman in emotional crisis. He gives up on his selfish ambitions, encourages his passenger and drives back to the man he should have been getting to third base with this entire time.
Abed returns to Buzz’s office with a script about a cop named Police Justice that Troy laughed at even though it was supposed to be serious. Abed admits his failings, he knows all about concept but is lacking the substance that Hickey has in such abundance. They team up as film partners, say their respective sorries, and sit down for some scotch.
Concluding in the study room, the team is as good as they’ve ever been, with the exception of Chang, whose ghost conundrum has come to a head. The gang mention not remembering him at the benefit and he convinces himself he doesn’t exist.
Cue a slow pan to an ancient picture on the wall with Chang’s face in a crowd the caption, “Old Timey Photo Club 2014.” It’s the perfect way to cap off the episode about the positive power of friendship: A silly reference to Stanley Kubrick’s movie about a man driven insane by isolation.
Before Community went on hiatus for the Olympics, I was worried that with the departure of Troy the show wouldn’t have a place for Abed. The idea of having to fill episodes with special guest stars to fill the void seemed like an easy, albeit expensive way out of finding new dynamics within the show’s generous and robust cast.
By the end of “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” I was happy to find that the show went in the opposite direction. It found solace in itself without having to reach out. It even committed to a new Rimples and Splickett-esque comedy duo, complete with hilarious high concept exchanges like: “If you were a post-apocalyptic survivor…” “I would raise goats, hoard cinnamon, and travel only at night.”
Community proved this week that it still knows how to love its characters despite the huge changes they’ve had to endure. The reason they can make each other better, in the way that Troy used to anchor Abed, is not born from dependence, it’s a result of generosity and love.
It’s like Duncan put it in the car with a just-vulnerable-enough-to-do-something-stupid Britta, “You are someone even when you’re by yourself.”
Final Grade: A, and a satisfying trip to McDonald s for Annie and Shirley (Who felt like they were taking a lot of the focus lately anyway)