Community: Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality

"She’s everything I love about America: bold, opinionated, just past her prime, and starting to realize that she has to settle for less.”

When we look back on Community, after all six seasons and that movies are finally finished, which Community will we remember most? The series has reinvented itself many times over, due to studio meddling and behind the scenes drama. Now, with Glover and Chase non-factors, the creative team locked in, and cancellation not likely in the wake of NBC’s horrible year, the series has an opportunity to develop its remaining characters. “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” restates some important character beats that have been ignored for a long while, and even more importantly, returns to a tone we’ve not seen on Community in some time.

The only reason that Jeff Winger is at Greendale College at all is because of his friendship with Professor Ian Duncan, but the ever-expanding roster of Greendale characters, along with the busy schedule of John Oliver (who has been great this season), have kept Duncan from playing much of a role in the series past Season One. That’s a shame, because Oliver has such an easy chemistry with Joel McHale that their scenes are always fun to watch. In this episode, Duncan asks for Jeff’s help to woo Britta, by enticing her to a benefit for starving children with cleft palates. But when Britta meets up with some old activist pals at the event, their admiration rekindles Jeff’s dormant romantic interest in her. In deference to his friendship with Duncan, Jeff offers to keep his attack delayed for one hour.

Britta herself is afraid of her old friends seeing that she’s sold out, but they’ve all become sell outs themselves. The only difference is that they are far more successful at it. Britta bristles at the idea that her lack of financial gain makes them more important than her until they counter with a killer: their money and influence has allowed them to help more people, and who has Britta ever really helped but herself? It’s a devastating point, which sends Britta running into Duncan’s arms as she asks him to take her anywhere but there.

Duncan, of course, has some pretty explicit ideas on where that anywhere should take them, but of course he doesn’t pounce. Instead, he offers her the advice that in the midst of an existential crisis the best thing that she can do is to be alone. It’s a sweet, well-written moment, capped by Duncan’s wheel-pounding frustration when Britta says she could have been talked into just about anything.

With everyone else growing up and moving on, things are lonely for Abed. While the rest of the group attends the charity event, Abed plans a trip to see the reboot of Kickpuncher dressed in the costume from the original movie. It’s a good costume, built from cardboard and plastic hoses, and Abed’s robotic noises are on point—but there’s nobody to play with. There’s genuine melancholy in the shot of Troy’s empty chair and the scene of Abed’s special effect noises echoing down a long, empty hallway.

With the rest of the group gone, Abed tries to impress Hickey with his whimsy. He barges into his office to show off the functionality of his suit, which fires foam from a shoulder-mounted launcher. The foam lands on Hickey’s practice drawings of Jim the Duck (publishers are interested), ruining a night’s worth of work. Fed up with the entire school catering to Abed’s whims (“Everybody hide your hamburgers, if Abed sees a hamburger we’ll all travel in time”), Hickey handcuffs Abed to a file cabinet so that he’ll miss his movie.

It’s been awhile since any of the main characters called Abed on his bullshit, and Abed reacts here in a way that we’ve never seen before: he throws a tantrum. Abed manipulates Hickey into thinking he likes his cartoons, then reverses course when Hickey still refuses to let him go to the movie. Though Abed doesn’t quite understand the social procedure of an argument like this (his fighting style consists largely of yelling the word “yelling”), he does know how to hurt someone. He screams that Hickey is “untalented”, and the old man gives up.

It’s a side of Abed we don’t like, but we’ve seen sides of every other character that seem extreme, and that only serves to humanize them. Seeing Abed learn a real lesson gives him a new dimension. Instead of attending the movie, Abed brings Hickey a script for a cop movie he wrote. The script fell flat because of Abed’s lack of real life experience—something that Hickey has in spades. The two agree to a partnership.

The other plot thread in the episode follows Chang as he becomes convinced that there are ghosts around. It may be an audience full of theatergoers, it may be a creepy old janitor, or (in a reference to The Shining that doesn’t play) maybe even Chang himself. The initial gag—Chang steps through the wrong door while on an emotional phone call that an audience thinks is a raw performance piece—is pretty funny. The rest is not, and steals time away from the parts of the episode that run so well.

And this episode does run with a confident rhythm. Its tone strikes the same mixture of gentle humor and bittersweet realization that “Mixology Certification” did in Season Two. Community will likely be an entirely different series next week. I just wish it was this series more often.