‘Community’ Season 5 Episode 7 Recap: “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality”

The question of how Community would get over the loss of Donald Glover has proven as all-consuming, for fans, as how it would function without Dan Harmon—though with much happier results. After an interminable month off the air for the Olympics, Community returned last night with the provocatively titled “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality,” with one possible solution to the conspicuously empty seat at the study table: keeping the rest of the cast very busy.

I counted four different simultaneous plotlines: Britta’s dubious reunion with her old anarchist friends, the slightly overlapping issue of Jeff and Duncan’s competing affections for her, Hickey teaching Abed a lesson for ruining his duck drawings with foam from his replica of the original Kickpuncher costume by making him miss the first screening of its reboot (nice timing to the Robocop remake, Harmon and crew), and Chang’s delightfully odd encounter with either an audience full of ghosts, or the ghost janitor that told him about them.

In other words, it’s a plot-heavy episode—while still basically leaving out Annie, Shirley, and Dean Pelton altogether (aside from the end credits scene, a perfect little comic sketch between Pelton and Duncan about going to lunch). Yet what’s interesting about “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” is its effective (yet not overwhelming) sense of melancholy. The sad look that Abed casts at Troy’s empty chair while constructing that intricate costume is the most obvious example, but all through the episode—in Britta’s existential crisis, in Jeff and Duncan’s insensitive little competition, in Hickey’s solitary cartooning, even in the scowling “What the hell?” stinger that ends all of Jim the Duck’s adventures—there’s a bit of sadness that lends the closing dramatic beats some extra weight.

Which isn’t to say that “Bondage” isn’t funny. Duncan’s accusation that Jeff is “gonna go pull a Dane Cook, in one of those three movies he was in about Dane Cook getting laid by accident” made me laugh longer and louder than anything on television in quite some time, and kudos for writer Dan Guterman for supplying an immediate topper: “It’s not a Dane Cook movie, because this time someone’s watching: me.” Abed and Hickey’s collaboration on a cop script (“The character’s name is Police Justice?”) could become another of the show’s exquisite little running gags. Annie’s announcement that the committee is granting teachers a ten-minute head start at the job fair is one of the best of the season’s many jabs at community college life. And that Shining gag at the end is magnificent, working first as a rapidly approaching out-of-nowhere parody, which is then turned, hilariously, on its head.

But those quiet little flashes of self-doubt and self-inflicted pain are what stick with you—and, really, those are what often make Community the great show that it is. That’s what it was so badly missing in season four; the problems of these people can’t all be solved by a heartfelt Winger speech, no matter how often they may have tried that little trick. No one’s getting solved; everyone on Community is a work in progress, which is why it remains so involving, eighty-some episodes in.