As a singular episode of television, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” is pretty stellar. As a payoff to an arc that’s been building for months, it’s less satisfying, though still good. After a number of goofier episodes—with solid emotional underpinning—it’s also another turn toward something just a bit darker, like “Mixology” and the Christmas episode. But instead of a sweet sadness, in this one, we get years of barely repressed rage trickling through to the surface. I don’t want to say it’s hard to watch, because Community is never hard to watch, but it does take on an air of bruising reality by the time it’s all over. The documentary aspect of the show—which is commented on surprisingly rarely for this series—becomes a way for the series to take a look at these characters in a rawer, purer state than we usually see them. And that’s not always a good thing.
In fact, let’s start with the mockumentary aspect of the episode, since that’s one I’m sure plenty of people will want to talk about. I’m sure some folks will write this off as another “concept” episode, one where the high concept of the episode’s premise gets in the way of straightforward storytelling. But I’d argue the opposite is true and in a way that suggests some interesting thoughts about how the different TV comedy formats work or don’t work. At first, I thought perhaps this whole device was a sly way of poking fun at the sorts of single-camera comedies that have managed to find some degree of success, particularly when Abed talked about how it’s easier to boil down a complex plot when the characters can just explain it to the camera. For whatever reason, the larger audience seems more comfortable with comedy that doesn’t come packaged with audience laughter when there’s that mockumentary aspect to the proceedings. Compare the ratings of The Office, Parks And Recreation, and especially Modern Family to something like Community, and you’ll see what I mean.
Community, on the other hand, couldn’t really get away with being a mockumentary. Its pace is too quick, and its laughs already come from things that are too heightened to be pushed too much farther. On the other hand, the mockumentary thrives on these moments where something that seems unreal abruptly intrudes on “reality.” Here’s an example: Troy’s entire plot in this episode is very broad and very silly. But it’s hard to imagine the show being able to do something as big as Troy’s meltdown about how you can’t disappoint a picture in its usual format. Something about the camera capturing it from a distance, as though Troy doesn’t know he’s being watched, makes the joke work much, much better than if, say, LeVar Burton had strolled into the study room, quirky music burbling along on the soundtrack, and Troy had to excuse himself to go freak out in a bathroom or something. The mockumentary format doesn’t just allow greater possibilities for exposition; it also opens up the possibilities for the writers in terms of non-narrative jokes, jokes that don’t necessarily follow from anything else that happens (how does Troy get to that room where he freaks out? How does he break out of his catatonia? Etc.) but COMMENT on everything else that has happened.
The other performances outside of Donald Glover’s (and Glover’s Emmy-worthy in this episode, I would argue) have to go slightly smaller than they likely would in the usual format, the better to match the lower energy pacing of the mockumentary. This allows the show to push to some darker places than it has in the past without feeling like it’s pushing too hard. The things Pierce does in this episode are arguably far worse than anything else he’s done all season, but it doesn’t FEEL like it because the format itself calls for a smaller, less over-the-top performance. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” called for a cartoon villain (and I don’t mean this as an insult), and the show slotted Pierce into that role. This episode calls for a more nuanced portrayal of someone who’s hurting but still does fundamentally terrible things and asks for a pass because of what other people did to him. Because the format demands everyone go lower-key, it allows the show to both get away with this and the climactic moment when Pierce rages at the group for all they’ve done to him. In its own way, Community is doing its own version of that episode of Scrubs where J.D. imagined his life as a four-camera sitcom, but it’s doing a version that fundamentally highlights all of the advantages of the mockumentary format, without completely giving up its Community-ness (as 30 Rock did in its very enjoyable “Live Show” earlier this year). Was it as packed with jokes as Community usually is? No (though there were hilarious moments in nearly every scene). But it WAS more rawly emotional, in a way the show might have struggled to attain in its normal format. It’s an interesting stylistic trick, and I’d love to see what these writers would do with a one-off episode filmed before a live studio audience. (Season three, please?)
But now comes the more story-specific question: Do you buy the group’s seeming forgiveness of Pierce at the end? Let’s not forget that no matter what Pierce says at the end and no matter how much the format of the show and Chevy Chase himself (who is stellar in those final moments) make you want to forgive Pierce, he’s still done some things that are really awful. In some cases, he’s just set little traps that allow people to realize their own inner issues, as he does with Britta, but in others, he sets up scenarios that are largely hurtful. What he does to Jeff deserves the extreme anger Jeff unleashes on him, and the show realizes this, to a degree. But it also seems too quick to wrap all of this up at the end, as if to suggest that this moment of catharsis between the two will be enough, allowing the creepily co-dependent relationship the two were developing (where both saw themselves as a surrogate father for the other) to return wholeheartedly. Maybe the show will deal more with the fallout from this. I certainly hope it does, because I’m not sure this emotional payoff, while satisfying in the moment, wholly lives up to all of the build-up that led up to it.
I mean, God bless Community for remembering that the show should take place in a universe where events accumulate and don’t just disappear at the end of every episode. (It’s one of the things that sets the show apart from the often-very-similar Glee, about which I’ll essay more on in a week.) Pierce’s breakdown here has been coming since episode two, but it’s been coming in a way where it didn’t always seem to be heading in that direction. At times, he just seemed to be that cartoonishly evil old man because the show needed a cartoonishly evil old man in its ensemble. Dan Harmon and his writers were building something here, but it often became too easy to lose sight of that arc, simply because they never called attention to it, outside of haphazard reminders of the death of Pierce’s mom and the fact that he was on pain medication. Hell, he even seemed to get out of that wheelchair awfully quickly. And, look, I love a show that rewards close viewing, and you know I watch this show as close as anyone, but the level of Pierce’s dickishness has occasionally been so hard to take that I’m not surprised some people wonder why the group continues to hang out with him. Even here, I can mostly write off their re-acceptance of him as most of the group being fundamentally caring at heart and wanting to take care of a man who’s obviously hurting.
But I’m just not sure that moment in the parking lot was enough. It might have been enough if this were the only terrible thing Pierce had done all season, but he’s been acting like an asshole since at least the trampoline episode (with a nice, notable respite in the Christmas episode). The limits of the mockumentary format mean that there’s not space for anything more than his primal howl about how little the group takes him seriously, but it almost feels like something more is needed, some gesture or small moment other than Jeff just realizing he’s really mad at his dad (which is a nice moment, nonetheless). I mean, yeah, I have no doubt this could be the start of something bigger and we could be building to a real redemption for the character, but the episode almost seems to treat this moment like it’s IT. And it shouldn’t be.
That said, the episode itself is so satisfying that I’m hard-pressed to complain about it, beyond its function within the season as a whole. It’s an immensely well-crafted piece of catharsis that brings a number of things that have been building all season to a head. It gives Jeff and Britta—who’ve been weirdly underused this season—both some interesting stuff to play and offers the best Jeff/Britta scene since late season one. (I just love watching these two bounce off of each other, and I’ve missed that aspect of the show.) It gives every member of the ensemble something wonderful to do, and it gives Glover a plot that tops all of the other amazing stuff he’s done on the show. Hell, it even has great guest turns from LeVar Burton himself and that nurse who keeps using new variations on the word “bequeath.” It’s even a great stealth Abed episode, once again suggesting how he sees the world without quite as much direct comment as the show usually provides. It’s a great, great episode of television in a great, great season. I’m just not sure it closed off this particular storyline well enough to say, “That’s it, everybody! Let’s move on!” We’ll see in upcoming weeks if that’s what the writers thought it did.
- I’m genuinely impressed that every character here gets a story arc. Even Abed gets a little story about realizing that real life can rarely conform to the expectations of whatever format he wants to fit it into, all while largely remaining off-camera. In particular, I thought the way the show played on Shirley’s inherent insecurities about fitting in with the rest of the group very well.
- I have no idea who directed this episode (screener), but the framing of the early shots in the waiting room very oddly seemed to be trying to keep one of the extras hidden from view. I kept expecting it to be someone important.
- Much as I enjoy the score on this show, I hope that the broadcast version was score-less, minus the music over the closing montage (where it would make sense for Abed to plug in some music). It underscored the difference in format.
- In talking with a fellow critic about the episode, he questioned whether the group could forgive what Pierce did not just to Jeff but also to Troy. And when you think about it, even though it’s played for laughs, what Pierce does to Troy is pretty mean. That said, it’s easy enough for him to write the LeVar Burton affair off as not understanding just how much it would disturb his friend that I can buy no one ever mentioning it again.
- As a self-avowed Britta booster, this was my favorite Britta episode in ages, even down to the amusingly awkward self-congratulations after her little talk with Burton.
- I’m not saying you should stop watching the show or stop forcing your friends to watch the show, but both TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly’s recent “which shows will be renewed” scorecards have this show in the “looking good” category. Doesn’t mean the ratings can’t be improved, but it sure seems like NBC is happy with having an audience this consistent, especially in such a tough timeslot. (This is all my conjecture. I don’t know anyone at NBC, probably because they’ve all been driven mad there by having to stare into the dark abyss left by the departure of Jeff Zucker, who now sleeps in R’lyeh, waiting for the time when he may return.)
- While there’s pretty much no way we don’t meet Jeff’s dad by the end of the season now, I’m much more interested to meet Britta’s parents.
- In the process of writing this, I've graded it at every step between B and A. As an episode, I definitely think it's an A. But as a piece of this season, I'm less sure. So take that A with more of a grain of salt than usual. (It assumes this will all pay off down the line somewhere.)
- Also, the screener I had didn't allow rewinding, so apologies for any errors in quotes/missing your favorite.
- "It's easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera."
- "It's Gregory Hines all over again."
- "Oh cool! I mean... cool."
- "I'd like to be bequeathed a drum kit or a signed photo of actor Levar Burton."
- "You know what Dylan Thomas said about death?" "No, tell me." "Bluff called."
- "Britta, you're the selfless one of the group, right?" "Wouldn't know. Haven't thought about myself in years."
- "We're gonna get that show back on the air, buddy!"
- "See what I just did there? That was an explanabrag."
- "For starters, I thought you'd be the one in bed; I'd be a hologram."
- "And so, it is bequeathed."
- "I wish I could relate, but much like my son, I'm a closet homosexual."
- "What do I know? I'm Jeff Winger's dumb, gay dad."
- "I just wanted a picture! You can't disappoint a picture!"
- "Your bequeathal is at hand."
- "Don't you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out!"
- "Set phasers to love me."
- "Just shooting a talking head! Or did you want me to be the only one who didn't have one?"
- "I was nostalgic from a very early age."
- "You are a really generous friend, but you are really stupid with your money."
- "Could you imagine bouncing a check to Kunta Kinte?"
- "More fish for Kunta."