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Community Watch: Docu-Mental

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Spoilers for last night’s Community coming up:

A typical episode of Community—there aren’t any typical episodes, but humor me—can really be reviewed on a few levels: the basic sitcom level (how funny was it), the format level (how well did its parody or formal experiment work, on its own and with the storyline) and the story-arc level (how did it handle characters and ongoing plots). Let’s take a quick look at “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” Community’s tongue-in-cheek mockumentary experiment, on each level—plus a bonus one.

First, the comedy level: it was flat-out hilarious.

You might think that doing an episode of the show that uses documentary style (which demands a different pace) and that did some fairly heavy emotional lifting might put a damper on the episode. Not so. “Documentary” went to some dark places, but it went there by way of some dense and sustained comedy. I won’t bother listing every laugh-out-loud moment—that’s what the comments are for, folks—but I feel like I want to pin a medal on Donald Glover for his work with and around LeVar Burton. Glover has been an example of what you get when you cast a comic who can truly act as opposed to a comedian who can read lines: there’s real pathos in his freakout at meeting his childhood idol, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen “Staring in nightmarish terror of disappointing a hero” represented better on a screen.

On the formal level, the sitcom-mockumentary look and feel were re-created flawlessly, as you would expect for an episode directed by co-producers Joe and Anthony Russo, of Arrested Development. But far more important to me was that it worked organically with the characters and the story. As I’ve said before, a problem I sometimes have with “parody” or “experiment” episodes of Community is that they feel heavily reverse-engineered: they often play like somebody thought it would be awesome to do an episode that looks like X, then went back and figured out what kind of plot and character behavior was required to justify the cool episode.

In “Documentary,” though, everything just worked. That’s partly because it simply makes sense for filmmaker Abed to shoot an “episode” (and I wouldn’t mind if the show used the device again). And in this case, the format was servicing the story, instead of the other way around. Pierce did not die in this episode, and maybe you never seriously thought he would. But you needed to go into it believing that the characters would believe that he might, and the handheld video look was an aesthetic break that said: something more serious than usual is going on here. (It reminded me in a way of the documentary episodes of M*A*S*H; and while the episode obviously had more contemporary inspirations, I wouldn’t be surprised if sitcom historian Dan Harmon had that sort of thing partly in mind too.) And the visuals were so natural and seamless, they lent emotional gravity without getting in the way of the comedy and dialogue, which was still distinctively, surreally, playfully Community. (Just to take one example, Jeff’s “complisult” of the nurse, followed by Britta’s “explanabrag.”)

The story-arc level—that’s where I hit a problem. I actually thought that Pierce’s “bequeathments” did an excellent job of inducing mini-revelations in a lot of characters in very little time, and bringing Jeff’s daddy issues to the foreground has a lot of potential in the future for bringing out the man behind the sneer. But while the episode seemed intended to bring some kind of climax, and maybe redemption, to Pierce’s arc, his story still feels like a mess to me.

By that I don’t mean “Why would they hang out with him?”; it’s a problem, but I can deal with it by remembering that the answer is, “Because Chevy Chase is a cast member on this show.” Rather, it’s that a bunch of things happening to and around a character don’t add up to an arc. I feel like I’m supposed to feel that, over the course of two seasons, Pierce has been on some kind of journey, complicated this year by his injury and the loss of his mother, and that it’s been brought to some sort of crisis. In practice, it just seems like Pierce is who he’s been since the show started—needy, jealous, demanding, manipulative—but now more so, sometimes in ways having to do with the pills and sometimes not. You can explain this by describing him as a Louie DePalma type, and so on. But bottom line, when I watch him, I feel as if I’m watching a competently executed sitcom character in a sitcom—not a person. And while Jeff’s attack on him in the parking lot was set up like a raw moment that should actually change things, I’m not sure, yet, anyway, that anything did.

None of which lessened how much “Documentary Filmmaking” entertained me, so the episode had that going for it. Oh, and the bonus level? This probably wouldn’t stand out to someone who doesn’t follow TV obsessively, but I don’t think I bought the implicit argument the show was making about the mockumentary format vs. its own: essentially, that it’s a greater challenge to tell a complex story without using the first-person, while it’s “fish in a barrel” to have characters feed plot points to a camera. (Again, if you follow these things closely, this is an argument Harmon has made before in other forums, to TV writers and on Twitter.)

I’m not saying there’s no truth to it: mockumentary can be a crutch, parody can be a crutch, any format can be. To generalize, though, is like saying that third-person-omniscient novels are “harder” than other ones, or vice versa. Tools are tools; you can use them well or poorly, cleverly or lazily. NBC’s Thursday night is a pretty great example of that. I’d argue, for instance, that there’s a difference between how The Office and Parks and Rec use documentary as opposed to how Modern Family does.

The Office, at its best, very slyly uses the ironies, say, in showing the difference between what we’ve just seen and how Michael Scott perceives the world. Modern Family has done this too; but too often, lately, it’s simply used its confessionals to overexplain jokes or stories. (And, of course, the Russos’ Arrested Development used the mockumentary format in very different ways from any of those shows. See their interview about the episode with Joe Adalian.)  Community, meanwhile, is formally much more baroque than any of these shows, but I don’t think it’s story or characters are any more “complex” at all (where “complex” is distinguished from “tricky”).

But again, this is probably something that stands out more to a critic than to any but the most obsessive fans. Though Community probably has a high ratio of obsessive fans—and as this episode shows, it deserves them. Community has a lot of tools in its box, and it uses them well.

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