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Community: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”

Illustration for article titled Community: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”
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I don’t know if you heard, but we’ve only got a finite number of episodes of Community left before the show goes on a hiatus that has no defined end. It’s a scary time to be a fan of the show, regardless of how many optimistic articles are posted or how much NBC says, “Oh, yes, we’ll air all of the episodes in this season, and this doesn’t reflect the show’s impending cancellation,” because everybody knows that when shows start to get yanked from the schedule with no defined return dates, it’s usually the first step down the road to a sad, lonely cancellation and summer burn-off. While I’m not horribly worried about the show’s future—for reasons I’ll spell out in a ratings roundup tomorrow, in hopes of keeping this article vaguely on topic for a terrific episode—I get the anger and frustration and fear. I get the attempts to barrage NBC with Twitter messages. I get the efforts, seemingly willed collectively by everyone on the Internet (seriously, political and sports bloggers I follow were all over this story), to get a bigger audience to tune in tonight. Everybody turned their Internet keywords to “Greendale” and got ready to watch.

Now, when the show is back in February or March because NBC has an awful, awful schedule that’s betting on The Voice somehow singlehandedly propping up the network, we’ll all look back on this terrifying time and laugh, but for now, yes, scary time. Fully acknowledged. But I kind of like that this episode aired in the midst of all this uncertainty. It made the final message—this is a special place, and you should treasure the time you spend here—unexpectedly poignant in a way the show couldn’t have predicted back when it was being filmed. (I was on set for a couple of the scenes filmed in this episode, and no one was terribly concerned about the low numbers, beyond the usual wishes that they would be a little better.) If these are the last episodes we’re ever going to have with these people, then, yes, we should probably treasure them.

At the same time, I’m not surprised that some people seem to have found tonight’s episode a disappointment. It had a lot riding on it for plenty of us, and it’s impossible to live up to those sorts of expectations. Furthermore, it was one of the show’s more self-aware episodes, self-aware in a way that even last year’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” wasn’t. This was closer to “Ancient Myths And Messianic Peoples,” an episode I loved at the time and love a little more every time I watch it. But a lot of you hated it, for very justifiable reasons. As Noel Murray pointed out in this article about Eerie, Indiana, it’s sometimes isolating to have the people making the stories tell you all about how they’re making the stories. Sometimes, you just want to sit back and have a good time, you know? But I think this sort of thing is excellent in moderation—why else would we need a Charlie Kaufman?—and I loved this episode almost as much as those two others.

For one thing, this episode provides a terrific showcase for Jim Rash as Dean Pelton. Rash, who also co-wrote the script for The Descendants, making this a very odd, very big week for him, has always played one of the show’s goofier characters. Before this episode, I would have had a hard time imagining an episode that took him basically seriously, even if he’s toned down the crazy outfits this season. There’s not a problem with a character who’s essentially just there to spice up the comedic energy from time to time, someone who’s weird and off-putting and a little hard to put a finger on. The Dean has always served that role within the show, but making him the lead of his own episode seemed like a particularly difficult thing to do, since he’d have to be more than just a one-liner machine. Furthermore, the episode’s built around the idea that Abed fundamentally remains outside of the group, even as he’s a part of it. He cares about these people and what happens to them, but he’s never going to be as interested in that as he is in the stories unfolding around him.

While I guess I’d classify this episode as “smart” more than it was “funny,” that’s not really a detriment in my book. (And it’s not saying that the episode wasn’t funny, as I laughed lots at it; I just think the cleverness of everything that was going on—namely a very, hyper-specific parody of Hearts Of Darkness and a less specific parody of Charlie Kaufman stuff, particularly Synecdoche, New York.) It hit all three of the bases a good Community episode needs to hit, in that it was funny, clever, and heartfelt. In particular, I thought the third act—which mostly focused on the Dean’s sanity dissolving and Abed deciding to step in and save him, even though it would ruin his precious objectivity, was the strongest ending the show has done in a while. (Okay, “Remedial Chaos Theory” excepted.) There are times when the show doesn’t earn those group hugs at the end, but this episode—with Jeff giving a tired, “Yep,” after the Dean asked for forgiveness—ended with one that seemed to acknowledge that these people are, in a way, trapped, so they may as well make the best of it and enjoy the people around them.

Along the way, there was a lot of funny stuff. I loved Garrett in the mo-cap suit. I liked the Dean trying to direct Shirley and not being able to find a way to ask her to be “sassy.” (There wasn’t a lot of Shirley in this episode, but it was the strongest episode this season for the character. Megan Ganz seems to know how to write the character without giving in to her more stereotypical elements.) Britta and Troy’s hugging montage was hysterical—particularly the ropes meant to pull them together. Leonard talking about breaking into the TV industry or feuding with Pierce over Pierce’s desire for a trailer as nice as Luis Guzman’s reminded me how much I love Leonard. And Luis Guzman’s walk through the lonely, vaguely apocalyptic campus—mirroring the statue of himself—was very funny as well, especially once he got into the building and met the Dean (and his possum).


So while the funny part was covered and the heartfelt part was nailed, the clever part was where I was less certain the episode worked, at least on the first time through. This is, in a lot of ways, a redo (puns!) of the original documentary episode, but it lacks that episode’s commentary on the falseness of the documentary format, the way that it promises “reality” but instead delivers something just as fictional as anything else. But this episode isn’t as interested in that idea. It has less of a bone to pick with the Modern Family-style mockumentaries of the world. No, it’s interested in something far more wide-ranging and fascinating, at least to me.

The act of telling a story—a true one or a fictional one or one that combines elements of both (as all of the best stories do)—necessarily requires that something be distilled, that reality be twisted and changed in ways that make it more interesting. There’s no way to make a movie or write something as it really happened, because the process of creating art is often all about editing, about cutting out the stuff nobody wants to see. Abed understands this intellectually, but he hasn’t yet understood that sometimes the thing the story needs most is for the author to step in and help the characters toward a better ending. When he cuts together a solid commercial from the footage the Dean shot (mostly on the first day), he’s abandoning his objectivity in this case, but he’s doing so in a way designed to preserve something he really cares about.


And isn’t that why we tell stories in the first place? We want to share some part of ourselves that’s important to us. We want to get across some idea or some theme or some alien bug monster that we really care about and have other people latch on to that and say, “Hey, I love your alien bug monster.” Stories are about entertaining other people, yes, but they’re also functionally about being part of something greater than yourself, about tapping into a community that gets excited by the same stuff you do and wants to listen to the same tales of excitement and woe. Community—one of the fan-service-iest shows on TV—has always understood this. It’s always understood that the flipside of being a low-rated cult hit is that the people who love you, adore you. It’s understood on some primal level since around mid-season one that it’s making this show for a very small, very fervent fanbase, and no matter how much Dan Harmon and his writers talk about wanting this show to be a big hit (if only for self-preservation), there’s something in them that just won’t let them betray the cultier aspects of the show.

And that’s underlying this episode, too, which makes it even more intriguing that this is the episode fans tried to get newbies to tune into. I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t seen (and loved) every episode of this show tuning in and getting anything out of it. If you’re not a Community believer, then this episode probably reinforced your feelings of indifference (or even dislike) toward the show. If you’re someone who’s never watched before, you probably laughed at some of the jokes but couldn’t make heads or tails out of some of the character dynamics or why the group’s embrace of the Dean at the end was meaningful. And that’s cool! No one’s attacking you for not liking or never having seen the show, because we’re all wired differently to like different things. (And, yes, I know we Community fans can be as annoying as any group of fans out there, and there’s nothing more horrifying than a fan who thinks his or her favorite thing is about to be taken away.) You’ll get no anger from me if this one just didn’t work for you.


But when you get down to all of the wailing about the show this week, what it comes down to in the end is that a bunch of us were forcibly reminded that the number of people who like the same thing we like is punishingly small. This is the sort of thing that always hurts to be reminded of, because stories are designed to bring people together with those who are like them, and nothing hurts more than realizing that in all of the world, there are very few people like you. Community is tremendous at creating a space where the sorts of people who like it feel like they belong, and it’s tremendous at pulling up a chair and asking us to sit a spell. But the flipside of that is always going to be that the people who don’t like it are just going to feel more and more isolated with every passing episode, because they don’t get what everybody else is so nuts about. That’s the loop the show’s always been caught in, but after watching tonight’s episode a second and third time, I think that’s something the episode is trying to address. When Abed steps in to save the people and the place he cares about, he’s saying that sometimes, it’s okay to enjoy—or, okay, love—something this much. An episode produced long before anyone ever thought about this show being in trouble has—completely inadvertently—created the best possible argument for why it should be allowed to survive.

Stray observations:

  • This one is late, I know, but I wanted to make my way through the episode a number of times before making up my mind on it. It rose in my estimation with every viewing. (I think if I’d graded it after my first viewing, you’d all have been very upset.) And, hey, we had to give the people who end up buried on page seven of comments and complaining about that fact a fighting chance, right?
  • Jeff Garlin turns up in the tag as the guy who gets the trailer Pierce is in. I liked the flashy music meant to signify “Hollywood!” over the establishing shot, too.
  • Here’s a big episode for those of you on board the Britta/Troy shipper train. The hug the two shared looked pretty meaningful, huh? And I liked Abed’s acknowledgment to the other cameraman that, hey, this is something new.
  • I believe that the Dean is wearing the same underwear that Jeff wears in the episode where he plays pool naked. Nice touch.
  • I can’t believe I didn’t say anything about Joel McHale’s Dean impression up there. I will say one thing: It was fucking amazing.
  • If I saw a commercial featuring Troy doing that thumbs up and Luis Guzman saying, “I got laid!” while watching late-night TV, I’d definitely think about searching my Internet keywords for Greendale.
  • Ryan McPartlin features in the old Greendale ad from the ’80s, and I do hope we’ll get to see Dean Bigley at some point in the near future.