Community Review: "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (2.16)

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<em>Community</em> Review: "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (2.16)

After last week’s much more traditionally sit-com-y episode, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” returns us to the strange and wonderful world of Community’s genre parodies. But while in the past these parodies have tended to overpower the rest of the episode, making it so that the zombies or whatever are more important than the show’s continuity, here we get the inverse. The episode is formally parodying the faux-documentary style of other TV shows, in particular The Office, but the focus is really on Pierce’s relationship with the rest of the study group.

The titular documentary being shot is just a bonus to the episode, but once again it illustrates how good Community is at both honoring and dismantling the genres it appropriates. It’s pretty clear here that the show could easily have been shot in the now somewhat tired faux-documentary sub-genre of sit-coms—it feels right for the show’s pacing and being able to instantly cut to a character’s confessional makes the difficulty of establishing so many characters much easier. That being said, shows like The Office function as a result of how rarely their cameras end up referenced. When the fourth wall does end up broken, once or twice a season, it’s always pretty noteworthy.

The cast of Community, though, can’t just pretend that a camera’s not having an effect on events. Even if Abed filmed things from here on out, it would never become normal for these people. They’re just too well versed in television and films to let this happen, and so we have an episode that looks for the most part like it was shot by a documentary crew (we’ll ignore that the logistic for this don’t work much of the time, but if the show can have zombies then it can have a unrealistic film practices) but with characters constantly talking to the camera, stealing the camera, mentioning editing, etc. The show’s rarely allowed to become truly self-referential, but this device, like the claymation device or the Goodfellas appropriation, allows for endless playfulness with the formal elements of film and storytelling.

That’s a good thing, too. There’s no other live action show currently on TV I’m aware of that allows this sort of joke. It’s a unique part of Community and every time the show’s found a way to do something like this it’s led to a particularly strong episode, as was the case tonight. Oddly enough, the form that Community may be worst at is the traditional sit-com. It’s just too constricting for the show, so at every opportunity Community has headed into unique directions so as to avoid the same old sit-com plots and cliches that we’ve all been watching our entire lives.

But as I said earlier, Abed’s documentary was by no means the focus of the episode. Pierce was hospitalized from the drug overdose we saw at the end of last episode, and with the study group gathered around him he’s decided to bequeath—using that specific word—gifts to everyone under the guise that he’s dying. He’s not, and this isn’t a spoiler, but it’s nice the show doesn’t pretend there’s any real drama about this. Each of his gifts is meant to screw with the receiver in some sort of weird and specific way, with the exception being Abed. Instead of a weird gift, he gets to film the day. Or something. Hard to say why he didn’t get one as well, but that will suffice.

Annie gets a tiara, Britta gets a $10,000 check to make out to a charity of her choice, Troy gets a visit from the extremely awesome LeVar Burton, Shirley gets an audio recording purportedly of the rest of the group talking about her behind her back, and Jeff is told that Pierce has arranged for his long-lost father to arrive. Annie’s storyline is sweet but something we already kind of knew before, Britta’s is quickly resolved, as is Shirley’s. The meat of the episode is really in Jeff’s drama with Pierce, giving us more backstory about how Jeff became who he is and forging a much stronger connection between the two characters.

Also, LeVar Burton’s visit to Troy, while it’s also just a fun one-episode joke, is amazing. The semi-catatonic expression on Donald Glover’s face is perfect. What heart of stone isn’t moved from hearing him sing the Reading Rainbow theme song?

While we learned a lot about Jeff, this was really Pierce’s episode. Community has always had a balancing act as far as giving all of its cast members enough screen time, but in general Pierce is the one it has the most trouble placing. He’s so much older than everyone else, and more aggressive than everyone except for Chang, that it’s no surprise the show often doesn’t know what to do with him. But like “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” this episode was helped immeasurably by Chevy Chase’s comic timing and personality.

So it was another strong episode of the show. Maybe it lacked that wow factor some of the episodes have, but it was extremely well done in every respect and in my book one of the best of Community’s more continuity-driven episodes. There were really no wrong notes, with every single character’s storyline interesting. And just because I may have transcribed fewer jokes than usual doesn’t mean it wasn’t extremely funny. It’s just that its jokes had fewer one-liners, which is by no means bad. It was a sterling episode that was for once a little understated in its awesomeness.

Stray observations:
•“It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people talking to the camera.”
•“Usually when I need to cheer up I just make fun of Pierce … but that just makes me sadder now.”
•“Mr. Hawthorne is requesting sourface.”
•“You know what Dylan Thomas said about death?” “No, tell me.” “Ok, bluff called.” – such a wonderful Britta moment.
•“People shouldn’t die in the same place People magazines do.”
•Rather random Firefly shoutout there, but at least it was in character. Also, Firefly’s awesome.
•Pierce’s fake fire on the TV is great, although not quite as great as his idea about being a hologram.
•I also enjoy the even more random Oingo Boingo reference
•“Well what do I know, I’m Jeff Winger’s dumb gay dad.”
•“Your bequeathal is at hand.”
•“I’m crying on the inside.” “Gross.”
•So wait, is Annie’s tiara supposed to be real, or what?
•“Jeff and I became kind of like father and son today.” “No, we did not.”
•Wow, Burton did Reading Rainbow for 25 years. Now I feel old.