Somewhere back in season one, I posited that Ben Chang was Community’s riff on sitcom breakout characters. Within the show’s world, someone so sociopathic and catchphrase-spouting was vaguely terrifying, but on a lot of other sitcoms, he would have been the guy who came in with the big one-liners and made the studio audience cheer. In that role—particularly when he had a little authority—Chang wasn’t my favorite character, but the show more or less knew how to use him and did so effectively. In seasons two and three, the character became something the show could never crack, as much as it tried. In season two, his lack of power made him all the more grating, while season three tried to restore him to a position of authority with mixed results. Season four has mostly backgrounded the guy—even more than usual—until tonight’s episode, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” which returns to a well the show has found fruitful in the past and creates a mostly enjoyable half-hour of television.
As some of us discussed in comments last week, this season of the show has had a real problem with knowing which storylines to emphasize. Many of the first batch of episodes were simply too overstuffed with stories, to the point where not all of them added up in the end (or simply disappeared about halfway through), while last week’s episode had a clear A- and B-story, but treated them like equals, which threw light on how much weaker the B-story was than the A-story. (B-stories are designed to be weaker stories; put too much emphasis on them, and they have a tendency to reveal that fact.) In story terms, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” is likely the best episode of the season. It has the one story—everybody’s trying to help Abed made a film about Changnesia, while Jeff tries to prove Chang is faking—and by running all seven of the characters through that storyline, it’s filled with far fewer leaps of bizarre logic. (Bizarre logic is often a good thing on Community, but you know what I mean.)
In fact, I quite liked the last act of this episode, which was less laugh-filled—or, well, attempts at being laugh-filled, but we’ll get to that—but had some nice dramatic reversals and some good moments in it. In particular, the reference to Grizzly Man, when Jeff is yelling at Chang and Abed cuts away to show footage of Abed watching said footage, made me grin, and the last scene where Jeff and Chang talked in the cafeteria was a solid example of the kinds of character beats the show does well, perfectly undercut with the long crane shot and popular hit Abed had referenced earlier, then Abed himself saying that crane shots are often used to underscore emotion. I also enjoy when any of the characters pushes way past the boundaries of good taste in pursuit of an obsession, and Jeff’s the best at doing that. (It’s something Joel McHale plays really well.) It was more modulated here, however, because of the documentary format, and there was a weird desperation to it that fit well with McHale’s performance.
Community has always been a show whose greatest theme might be forgiveness, the ability to find a place where people won’t judge you for who you were but who you are. (Maybe Abed wasn’t so far off when he pulled that copy of Lost out of the box in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”) In that sense, the idea that “Kevin” Chang might have a literal condition that erases his past and makes him a better person in the present is the ultimate manifestation of that theme. Acceptance is currency at Greendale Community College, and no matter what Chang once did, it means he should be forgiven, so long as he’s properly remorseful (or operating under a mental condition that removes his memories of his past wicked deeds, apparently). The show uses Dean Pelton’s politically correct, New Age-y methods as a punchline a lot of the time, but it also seems that those ideas have become part and parcel of the campus. The longer people spend at Greendale, the more willing they seem to be to simply let go.
This, of course, turns out to be the wrong choice. I’m not sure how I feel about the tag here, to be honest. Now, I knew that Chang was faking, and I knew that this episode would indicate that somehow. (In fact, I spent much of the episode thinking that if he wasn’t faking, it would be sort of a waste, at least until that lovely third act.) So I was completely prepared for his reveal that he wasn’t such a good guy after all. But embroiling Chang in another “conspiracy against the school” plotline (presumably, this time, with the good folks down at City College)? That just strikes me as a dumb idea and one that left me rolling my eyes. I’m willing to see how this plays out, but I don’t terribly want to get involved in yet another plot revolving around this concept.
The bigger issue, as always this season, is that the jokes just aren’t as good as they were. Not to turn this into my own weekly laugh tally (okay, completely to turn it into that), but I laughed aloud once, and I smiled a handful of other times. There was stuff here that I enjoyed as a comedic premise—Troy and Annie going to investigate “Kevin’s” missing months at the trout farm where he ended up working and uncovering human rights issues (Jeff is disappointed by this)—but I don’t know that the jokes ever went far enough to be as funny as they needed to be. Cute and clever? Sure, and that’s a big step up over some of the jokes from other episodes this season. But there needs to be an element of the unexpected there, and I don’t know that the episode ever hit that point for me.
In fact, “cute and clever” seems to be a fairly good way to describe a lot of what the show is doing this season. When it’s not leaning on jokes that were funny in the past, it’s hitting the whimsy button hard, then hoping that our affection for the characters is enough to carry the day. What I’m finding as we get deeper into the season is that this is definitely true for the storytelling in the better episodes, which is a bit softer than it was in the first three seasons of the show and doesn’t go to as many unexpected places, but definitely has the ability to produce moments that play off our affection for the characters and show them as the human beings they are beneath all the sitcom artifice. Moments like that last moment between Jeff and Chang in the cafeteria are the kind that work best later on in a show’s run, and that one was one of the better the show has ever done in that vein, I think. (I have a piece revolving around this and Parks And Recreation coming on Monday, so look for that, because I’m a one man hype machine.) But even here, the storytelling pushes a little too hard to capture past successes. Was there a real reason for yet more cop show stuff in the middle of a documentary story, other than the fact that we all enjoyed the Law & Order episode and/or enjoy hearing Troy call Annie Houlihan?
But the jokes are less interested in trying to be off-the-wall or original or daring. They’ve very much settled into a place where the show goes to its most reliable comedic wells and counts on whatever residual affection you have for those wells carrying you through. And a lot of this seems to be the characters running around and doing cute things, as well as some references to pop culture and meta-storytelling that are meant to seem clever. And, honestly, sometimes both of these goals succeed, and if that’s what the show’s really aiming to do, then well done. But I can’t say that the jokes are really all that funny, and that can be a problem in a more traditional sitcom like Community, where there need to be at least a few laughs (unless the show’s doing a more experimental episode like “Virtual Systems Analysis,” which this one was not). Then when you consider the fact that this episode follows on the heels of one of the show’s funniest episodes in the first documentary story and one of the show’s most successful experiments in the second one, well, it can’t help but feel even more disappointing.
Comparing the show to its own past is going to continually be disappointing at this point, I suppose, not just because of the vital creative personnel who have left but also because the show is just getting older, and it’s lost a step. This happens. Shows get old, and at a certain point, a switch flips where the drama is almost more successful than the comedy (see also: the final season of The Office, which I haven’t laughed at once but have found compelling as stories about characters I used to care about confronting their worst fears). I just find myself hoping that Community, like “Kevin” Chang, will attempt to make a fresh start, breaking free of the past and doing something new. And then, at every turn, it reminds me that it doesn’t particularly care to do that, and that the past makes a warm, if smothering, blanket.
- For what it’s worth, Chevy Chase seemed about as engaged by the show as he has in many episodes by the blackface and yellowface Señor Wences gag.
- The trout farmer seems genuinely scared of his trout, which makes me want to see Megan Ganz make a spinoff based entirely on a bunch of trout trying to escape his farm. This is the most I’ve ever used the word “trout” in a Community review.
- Pierce’s presentation to the McGuffin Institute (whose name I liked very much) includes his “genuine thoughts on Geraldine Ferraro,” says the Dean.
- In general, this was a good episode in what’s shaping up to be a good season for Jim Rash. I’ve always liked his performance, of course, but he seems to have gotten some good stuff this season, and he always finds what’s funny in it.
- That guy who played the doctor at the start should play Steve Carell’s brother in a movie.
- Automatic extra point for use of The New Radicals. I will never tire of that song. Go ahead. Test me.
- Incidentally, his medical advice includes: “Science tells us that hitting his head could only cure him if hitting his head was the original cause,” which was both the line that made me laugh and good advice from The Muppets Take Manhattan.
- Mostly, when he’s alone, Chang just practices smiling and frowning, says Abed. We’ve all done it. The show’s being a bit more blatant about placing Abed on the autistic spectrum this season (just as season three was more blatant about this than the first two seasons were). It’s one of the more interesting choices the new showrunners have made, and I’m curious to see how much more they’ll push it. I’m all in favor of the show diagnosing Abed, or at least outright confirming that he’s on the spectrum, as opposed to last season’s winking at this, then running away from it. But we’ll see if that will be the case.
- Grading-wise, I'm not sure about this one. In terms of new Community, it probably deserves a B+. But if we're comparing to what the show once was, it's a B-, one of the weaker efforts. Let's split the difference.