14
Mar
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 6
Advanced Documentary Filmmaking
Jordan
The further we get into this season of Community, the more it seems like many of you are enjoying what the new team brings to the table. And that means that the further we get in, the more I feel isolated by a show that used to make me feel included, and used to make a point of how alienation could in and of itself create connections. I hated "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking," and I hated it in so many ways it may be hard for me to adequately express them all. I hated it structurally. I hated it from a plot perspective. I hated it from a character perspective. And I hated it from a comedic perspective. You may disagree with me on any or all of these, and I honestly welcome you to let me know. But I thought this was a new nadir for the show, and it was an episode that (if that isn't already clear) actively upset me.

Let's start with the structural perspective. We've seen this show do two "Abed documentary" episodes before, with "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" and "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" (not to mention the documentary style "Pillows and Blankets," which mocked Ken Burns quite adequately). Both of those were good, but both of those also had reasons to be documentary episodes. Think about this for a minute. Why is "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" done in this style? What purpose does it serve? I don't even mean a thematic purpose (which both of the previous documentary episodes did serve). I cannot even fathom why, from a comedic perspective, this needed to be a mockumentary episode. I don't see what purpose it served, and I don't think a single laugh here landed for me because the show was pretending to be a documentary for an episode. Even if I was being hard on the episode (and its clear that I am) and accusing it of using the format for laziness, I do not see why making this a "documentary" made the storytelling any easier. Did it give Abed something to do? Sure. Abed was making a documentary about a disease to draw attention to it. And that's a story. But Jesus, it's a dumb one.

Which brings us to the episode's plot failings. This episode is premised on the idea that every character not named Jeff (including some scientists from the MacGuffin Foundation, which the episode clearly thinks is a clever name but mostly just illustrates the emptiness at this story's core) believes there is a disease called "Changnesia" that effects their friend "Kevin." There is a mother fucking doctor on camera, explaining Changnesia, and no matter how many times the episode stops to have Jeff tell us this is ludicrous and no one should believe it, it undercuts every other character on the show to have them believe it.

Beyond that, though, the episode's attempts at a subplot are retreads at best, while they are ignorant of character developments and lacking in jokes at worst. Take, for instance, the Troy/Annie runner, which has the two of them "investigating" Changnesia, and completely ignores the idea that both of them have been in "good cop/bad cop" scenarios before and have made jokes about the tropes they seem to fall into all too easily here. In season one's "The Science of Illusion," Annie and Shirley competed to be the bad cop, both trying to be more disagreeable and less "by the book." In that episode, this worked as a character development for each, as both rebelled against their "nice girl" characterizations and tried to establish themselves as a bad ass. In season three's "Basic Lupine Urology," (an episode I admittedly was less than fond of) Troy and Abed had a good cop/bad cop runner and even switched roles halfway through. The Troy and Annie story in this episode doesn't work for two reasons: it doesn't work because it ignores the characters' pasts, and it doesn't work because it fails to be humorous throughout.

The former of those issues is easier to argue objectively, so let's start there. This episode fails in nearly every respect to connect on a character level. Jeff's skepticism works, because he has long been established as the group's skeptic, but also because his reaction to Chang's "condition" is the only logical thing in the episode. We believe Jeff would be skeptical because anyone in their right mind would be skeptical of this. Which gives all of the other characters problems from the start. Beyond that, the episode basically asks us to forget that Chang kidnapped the Dean, got every one of our main characters expelled, and actively tried to murder them (in a plotline that also didn't work for me). Community has set itself up as a show about forgiveness and second chances, and if this had been an episode about no one believing Chang but everyone agreeing to give him a second chance by feigning belief, I would have gone along. But to tell me every one of these characters is dumb enough to buy this is asking me to lose respect for characters I love, and again, its asking me to do that for no benefit whatsoever.

Sure, it bothers me, as a continuity freak, that Troy and Annie seem to forget their previous "good cop/bad cop" routines entirely. But that would be, at most, nitpicking if the rest of the episode worked. Instead, this episode again reinforces my belief that this writing team completely fails to understand its characters, and completely misses much of their previous growth and all of their previous awareness. For "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" to work, it needs the show to be full of idiots. And unfortunately, for fans of this show and these characters, the writers seem more than willing to sacrifice the intelligence and believability of their characters for a plot that is, if I am being charitable, completely misconceived.

Finally, we come to the humor. I am honestly willing to forgive a whole lot if something makes me laugh consistently. And if "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" worked for you, comedically, I understand why you might like it better than I did. I watched this episode stone-faced, cracking a smile only twice throughout (both of which are documented below in the notes). For the most part, this new version of Community seems content to rely on references to previous jokes to get us to laugh. This worked as long as my loyalty to the show held out, but the more it alienates me, the more its attempts to cash in on running gags feel false, like an Invasion of the Body Snatchers plotline in which I am clearly supposed to identify this is not the person I loved. When the reference-humor isn't the focus, this new show seems to hit the whimsy pedal hard and hope we love how weird these characters are enough that we'll crack a smile at their wild antics. It isn't working for me, and it fails in no small part because I have never been convinced the new regime really understands these characters or sympathizes with their oddness. A lot of these jokes feel either like pale imitations of the type of jokes this show used to do, or like the new writers inviting us to laugh at characters we are accustomed to laughing with. I want none of either.

The jokes the show is doing now are just less interesting to me, and I fully recognize that may be a matter of taste. This may have nothing to do with the regime change (though I think it does), but the show just feels like its settled now into a mode where they aim straight for what they think "works" comedically, and hope that whatever doesn't land is carried over by the affection we have built up for these characters over time. The new version of Community is in no sense bold the way Dan Harmon liked to be, and in some sense I don't mind that, at least not necessarily. But if the show wants to sacrifice its narrative experiments, it needs to at least bring the chuckles to the table, and I think it failed there (and in virtually every other way) tonight.

It probably doesn't help this episode that it follows two of the most experimental and heartfelt episodes the show has ever done. The original "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" was the culmination of Pierce's alienation from the group (an arc many people hated but I actually enjoyed) and gave us Jeff's deep-seated fears of being re-united with his father (as well as some nice underlining of the way Pierce played that role for him) and Troy's meeting with LeVar Burton. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux," on the other hand, was one of the show's boldest and most referential hours. It was an episode-long homage to a fairly obscure documentary (the Apocalypse Now making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness) that also addressed head on the show's creative concerns that motivated much of the third season and gave us great moments of character development (and devolution) for virtually all of the cast. Even a solid documentary episode would have had trouble living up to those two, and a weak one looks even worse in the inevitable comparison.

I hated "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking." If the show is trying to recreate past glories, it is failing. If the show is trying to remind us of those and coast on nostalgia, it is misgiven, as every reference just points out how much this version fails to live up to its dearly departed predecessor. And if the show is hoping to do something new, it is tying itself far too closely to its past. At this point, I find it unlikely that I will enjoy the rest of this season, and I may be alone in this regard. If you are enjoying the new Community, if it is working for you on one or many levels, then feel free to disregard some or all of this (and feel free to let me know how wrong you think I am). But I am increasingly losing hope in this show to do anything more than put people I like on camera and make me watch them visibly strain for laughter. And that is something I can do for only so long.

Grade: F

Notes:

-"This needs to be the Hoop Dreams of things people care about."

-"Hey Not Calling You Kevin. What are you having?" "None of this."

-I am seriously dreading the resolution of Chang's plot. Its obvious he is working with City College, right? But this plot, from its inception, threatens to tank an already pretty bad season in the way Chang managed to derail last year. If Chang was bad when Harmon was handling things (and his story kept Community off my Top Ten Television Shows of 2012 list), I shudder to think how low we will sink in this new regime.
Tags: Community
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