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Community recap: “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking”

By on March 15, 2013
Chang doesn't remember the past three years--neither do the writers. (Image © NBC)

Chang doesn't remember the past three years--neither do the writers. (Image © NBC)

If we are very lucky, last night’s disjointed episode of Community will end up being the worst episode in the series’ history. However, we’re just now at the halfway mark in this fourth, and likely final, season, and for all of the occasional highlights in performance or writing we’ve seen so far, there’s been nothing to suggest that it’s going to get better. And it can probably still get worse.

Ben Chang has been back at Greendale, suffering from the tediously titled syndrome “Changnesia” since the premiere episode of the season, but he’s been relegated to the background for so long that for the last few episodes it’s been easy to forget he’s even still around. Chang has always been a divisive character — that’s part of the whole point of Chang. He’s a character who’s always at his best when he has a touch of power to lord over the study group, making his desperation to join the group in season two unsatisfying. Season three saw Chang rise to power again, restoring a bit of the season one dynamic, but ultimately going a bit too far with it.

All of this makes his reintegration into Greendale more than a little hard to swallow, especially for Jeff, who’s fond of pointing out that he kidnapped the Dean and tried to blow up the school. Fair points, all, Jeff. Because the motto of Season Four of Community is, apparently, “tell, don’t show,” we’re told that Chang—now calling himself “Kevin”—has become a beloved part of the fabric of Greendale. Again, we’ve hardly seen him all season long. It’s too damn late now, but there have certainly been storylines this season which could have been excised to allow us to see Kevin ingratiating himself to Greendale.

And while we’re speaking of blown opportunities, let’s talk a bit about the “documentary” framing device of this episode. Community’s reputation has been built, in large part, on the veracity of its homages, but this season’s homages have been either passing asides or wild swings and misses. The documentary in this episode begins in a scratchy 8mm style, switches to standard sitcom episode blocking, and ends with a sweeping crane shot and cheery music. Abed’s “making” the episode we’re seeing, so what we’re being shown has to be a reflection of Abed himself—so what are we to take away from Abed with the resulting footage here? That, in the time since his expertly made Pillow War documentary he’s become an inconsistent hack?

Maybe I’m just mad that the song used during the crane shot is my all-time favorite pop song, “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. If you haven’t seen this episode yet, just go watch the video for that song instead. There’s more energy and emotion in those four minutes than anything we’ve seen from this show all season long.

Every episode this season has dipped its toe in a reference then stepped out, a deadly lack of engagement with premise which ends up rendering each episode more bland than the next. So, for instance, in the scene with Annie and Troy at the trout farm, we acknowledge Garrett (always glad to see Garrett) struggling with the camera, but there are at least two other cameras getting footage as well. Not to mention the fact that their investigation might be better served by a hidden camera thing. Or, better yet, by cutting the entirety of that uninspired sub-plot. Other shows that use the mockumentary format cheat from time to time (who, for instance, is filming either the Dunphys on Modern Family or the Pawnee city employees of Parks and Recreation?), but Community used to be better than that.

The one successful reference to the documentary format is the moment where Abed “spares” us, the audience, from the horrors of Jeff’s end freak-out, a tribute to the moment where Werner Herzog “graciously” spared the audience from the devouring footage in Grizzly Man. But, though Danny Pudi sells that moment pretty well, it’s too little, too late.

The central conceit of the episode is that Dean Pelton is using Chang’s disorder to get funding for the school, from the MacGuffin Neurological Institute. Okay, slow down for a minute. If you want to, kids, skip ahead to the next paragraph, because I need to get really pedantic for a minute here: this is not the proper use of the word “MacGuffin”. MacGuffin was a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to mean the triggering device of a story that is revealed to be meaningless once we learn what the movie is truly about. The classic example is the money that Janet Leigh’s character has stolen at the beginning of Psycho. We think the movie’s about her and her run from the law, until she takes a shower and (hey, spoiler) gets knifed by a maniac. That’s what the movie’s really about. Another example is the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. What’s in it? It doesn’t matter. The movie’s not about whatever was taken from Marsellus Wallace, but the spiritual damnation or deliverance of those caught up in the hunt for it.

This episode reveals that Chang was lying, but that’s not a MacGuffin because, first of all, everybody saw it coming, but most importantly because that is what the episode is about, from beginning to end. We never abandon that story thread at any point, even if we shift focus to Jeff’s single-minded obsession to prove Chang wrong (a plot that plays out almost exactly like his single-minded obsession to prove Pierce lying in the season three premiere). So the institute name, like the documentary format itself, becomes just another half-assed reference trying to be clever. There’s flop sweat all over this episode, and this entire season.

I never thought I’d be sticking up for Chevy Chase, but Pierce’s racism has taken such prominence this season that I can understand his frustration. I can imagine anyone, especially someone who participated in civil rights marches in his youth as Chase did, would be pissed off having to play a scene that features a blackface hand-puppet. There’s no point to the sub-plot, the jokes aren’t funny, and Chase seems embarrassed to be playing it. Even worse, it’s the plot of a much funnier episode of South Park from ten years ago.

Meanwhile, the show continues to turn Annie’s interest in forensics into “Annie likes to play pretend,” by splitting her and Troy off to investigate Kevin’s origins. Donald Glover and Alison Brie are two of the most adorable people on the planet, but even their cheery high-fives can’t convince that there’s anything important or funny happening here. The scenes are gibberish, the plot inconsequential.

One of the lone highlights was the callback to Britta’s poor camera-work in the more successful Ken Burns parody episode (an episode that actually commits to its homage), but even that story raises more questions than it answers. Why wouldn’t someone with Abed’s obsessive focus have seen the moment that Chang dials the phone before he watches it with Jeff? But by that point, an already thin episode has completely dissolved, and wraps up with a stupid confrontation with Jeff and a weary reveal of Chang’s treachery. So we’ve got another “Chang is evil” arc to look forward to. Perfect.

From the very beginning of the series, there has been a vocal contingent of TV viewers who found Community to be a frustrating show full of characters they didn’t like and references they didn’t get. Now I know how they feel.

Community
Season 4, Episode 6
“Advanced Documentary Filmmmaking”: F

4 Comments

  1. John

    March 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I think you’re overthinking the MacGuffin reference, if not misunderstanding it altogether. The potential of receiving a grant from the MacGuffin Institute motivates Abed to make the film, which ultimately has little to no bearing on their decision to award the grant and which fails to uncover the truth of Chang’s condition (or lack thereof). That is to say, the Institute propels the plot forward but ultimately is of no consequence … in what sense is that not a MacGuffin?

  2. Matthew Guerruckey

    March 15, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Oh, I’m definitely overthinking it. I see your point about the overall function of the institute, so it may indeed function as its namesake. I still think it’s an overly custely and unsatisfying reference, as much of this season has been, but good call.

  3. TJ Burnside Clapp

    March 16, 2013 at 12:36 am

    I totally agree with the “F” … that was the most unfunny episode of “Community” I can remember. Ugh.

  4. Tam

    March 22, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    That song is absolutely horrible. And it was drowning out the dialogue. I really wanted to mute it.