If you have not seen this episode yet and don't wish to be spoiled, don't continue reading.
Jeff Winger is in an odd place. He pretty much completed his character arc in the season 3 finale, but that gives some mystery of where he could be taken next. "New Jeff" is much more mushy and willing to admit he loves his friends, he's willing to let Dean Pelton more-or-less sexually harass him to keep him happy, and he's more prone to doing the right thing (albeit with appropriate amounts of snark.) But he's also a man who goes to great lengths to protect himself and keep up some semblance of a self-serving image, even whilst being all mushy and caring. If he ever became truly carefree, he wouldn't be Jeff, and it's that juxtaposition of "mushy friendship guy" and "guarded smarmy lawyer" that's an interesting angle for the show to explore. This week is meant to be a big one for Jeff right from the get-go, and while he doesn't really change in the grand scheme of things over the half-hour, it's still important to see it unfold for him. After all, we're meant to (and should) care about him quite a bit, at this point.
The blunt approach to introducing the story---and the surprise that he has a half-brother, which was totally unexpected---was a smart way to jump right into things. However, it does seem like Jeff's storyline could have been given more time. There are too few scenes packed with too many changes of emotion, and it makes it hard to track exactly how Jeff is getting from point A to point B. Having Jeff try to have his reunion "without mushy stuff" or the need for closure was a smart, in-character move that helped build up to his blunt confrontation, but it might have been more powerful to spend more time seeing him gradually break down and slowly realize what he needs to do.
But, admittedly, there seems to be a "less is more" approach taken to the messy sappiness (since, well, this is a sitcom.) In addition to the Willy Jr. material, which throws in lots of silly commentary, we also have a B-plot that cuts into it at times, featuring the rest of the study group facing trials at Shirley's Thanksgiving dinner. The Shawshank Redemption spoof was completely out of nowhere, but it was a clever one. The whole "prison of your heart" theme was kind of forced, but even Abed acknowledged that none of it played out correctly and he stopped listening anyway, so at least it wasn't played up more than it needed to be. But aside from some one-liners and decent comedic material for the cast, there wasn't really much to the story. Which was probably the point; it brings the group together to support Shirley, which is sweet, but it functions mostly as breathers in-between Jeff's scenes that we know, inevitably, will blow up into something tense.
Joel McHale's performance is a huge factor to the episode's success. While the rest of the cast often outshines McHale comedically, he's probably the best at delivering subdued performances by way of body language and speech patterns. It stands out here, since there's admittedly a certain lack of subtlety this week overall. Abed's narration of the prison storyline didn't help the effect, though it played into the joke---which itself wasn't terribly deep or anything---so it was forgivable. And Community has always had a knack for spelling out its more serious lessons by way of Winger speeches. Really, would an episode spotlighting Jeff's most deep-seated character beat be right without a Winger speech?
The speech itself was the highlight of the episode. It doesn't quite feel like a Winger speech, actually, and that's why it works. It's less wordy, more raw and direct, and while it might not be as well-written as Jeff's beautiful speech in the season 3 finale, its lack of flair packs it with more of a punch. However, the texting-riff/explanation didn't quite land; had it never been directly referenced until now, it might have, but at this point the "Jeff texts a lot" gag already ran its course. But it was quickly saved by the appendicitis story, a dark turn for the show that hits the right balance of striking an emotional chord without becoming too overwrought. Jeff's story doesn't play his teen self as a suicidal cutter, but he does tell a scary story about an instance of self-mutilation in a kid that may or may not be a singular occurrence, which is huge enough in its own right for a show featuring pillow and blanket fort wars. It's shocking, and it completely justifies what, up until that point, had been a fairly temperate plot. It also plays into what we'd seen and heard of Jeff before; Jeff having that box of cards from 7th grade plays into why he'd be so guarded of his stuff at home, which Britta called him out on in "Remedial Chaos Theory."
James Brolin, while certainly not Bill Murray (who everyone including Dan Harmon wanted to get in the role), fit the William Winger enigma quite well. He emulates many of Joel McHale's mannerisms and generally suave nature, though he doesn't really feel big for a character that's been painted as a big figure. But it was probably impossible to live up to what had been painted before. Adam DeVine as Willy Winger was a bit annoying at first, sometimes feeling too much like he was impeding on the story we wanted to see. But he was used effectively as the episode went on, both as a foil to Jeff and as a necessary plot device.
The episode may have worked better if more care were taken to integrate the group into a singular plot. This type of story might have benefited with less of a split-focus, perhaps more akin to "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" or "Remedial Chaos Theory." But what we got, while maybe not quite at the top of any Community's best of lists, was still very solid outing that makes a valiant attempt to live up to an impossibly big plot development. It might not have been the kind of episode that blows you away, but it's a powerful little gem that carries the emotional resonance it should.
Odds & Ends
- I'm not sure if it was totally necessary to have Britta forcibly be around for Jeff's reunion, but it was nice to see Jeff/Britta play off each other extensively again. It's been a while.
- There was an odd amount of gay jokes this week. Pierce's "coming out" joke worked (and was relatively tolerant for him), but the "Batman is gay" gag was tired back in 1962. Though, Shirley's reaffirmation in Batman and Robin's defense was a nice little surprise.
- Chevy Chase was on point this week. All of his one-liners landed, like "Let's carve that jive turkey," or "I could speak Star Wars. I bet you'd like that. Dick."
- Any episode that gives Yvette Nichole Brown some good material is a treasure, too. Especially when her religious enthusiasm is only used as a quick joke and not hammered in as being too character-centric. And she's wearing the "He is risen" apron from "Remedial Chaos Theory"!
- As someone who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, I always like references to Troy's tribulations in a holiday-less faith.
- I love Dean Pelton, but the "Dean creeping on Jeff" stuff is getting kind of out of hand. Unless it's specifically leading up to a confrontation between the two, it's just become uncomfortable.
- "Look at them bonding. Probably laughing cause I can't grow a beard."
- "With all due respect, which is none, go to hell."