17
Feb
2011
Community: Season 2, Episode 16
Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking
Jordan
Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking will probably never make a list of my favorite episodes of Community. If I was asked to show a friend an episode to get them hooked, it certainly wouldn't be this one. It is dark, full of bitterness and rage, and for long stretches of its runtime, it isn't really that funny. But it is an important episode of Community, and it does remind me just why I think this show is a stellar piece of television. On its surface, the episode is a riff on the mockumentary series, but it doesn't seem as interested in that aspect as it is when the show takes on other genres like gangster movies, action movies or zombie movies. Instead, its interested in showing us the characters we spend time with ever week in raw form. we may not like what we see, but these people are works in progress, and improvement isn't always pretty.

I think the show did make some excellent digs at the mockumentary format of the sitcom. Abed pointed out early on that its easier to explain subtlety to a mass audience when the characters just explain exactly how they're feeling to the camera (this lead to the nice payoff where the obviously not dying Pierce explains to the camera that he is not dying), and at the episode's end, he explained that it was easier to boil a set of events down into a fairly simple and relatable theme just by cutting to a bunch of people doing things with a voice over making meaning out of it. This is a technique that pretty much every mockumentary uses (and especially Modern Family, which often tries to tie episodes up with a heartfelt voice over while the camera cuts between the families loving each other or laughing or something), and taking a step outside the format for a second, it is admittedly fairly lazy and cheap from a narrative perspective. I enjoyed the little digs the show took at the mockumentary format, but what I liked even more was the point Abed was making within this show's narrative: the events of this episode don't necessarily have a theme or a "message" that can be nailed down in a simple monologue. What occurred to these characters is more raw and complicated than that, and the show let's us feel that while also demonstrating the emptiness of the mockumentary format at its worst (to be clear, I think mockumentaries can work excellently. I like Modern Family, though not as much as this show, and I think that Parks and Rec is easily one of the best sitcoms on television).

The format of this episode is more than just a "concept" though. It allows for the story this episode is telling to be told, and I would argue this is largely impossible otherwise. Britta, for example, freely admits she would've taken the money if she wasn't being watched, which is a huge character moment, and one that would've been less effective if she wasn't being observed by the silent camera (Abed behind it). Sure, the show could have had Jeff or Shirley watching Britta, but her realization could not have been as pure as it was if the show wasn't doing a mockumentary format. Also, Troy's reaction to LaVar Burton's presence would have been conceptually difficult if the show wasn't doing a mockumentary. His freak out in the break room where he squeals about how you can't disappoint a picture was hysterical, but try to imagine how this would have been staged without the mockumentary format, and you run into trouble.

I also think this format allowed for greater nuance in each character. While the show mocked that the format can erase subtlety (and this is a true charge at times), what it also proved is that when done well, a mockumentary can actually allow for a great amount of subtlety (think of how long The Office was able to go without making Jim and Pam's tension overt, or, for a better example, think of the training day episode of the British version when Tim thinks Dawn hass broken up with Lee and tries to ask her out). We've been building all year to this Pierce episode. He's felt left out for a long time, as he cites in his speech lying in the parking lot. The group doesn't invite him to Dungeons and Dragons, they don't tell him about their secret trampolines, they mock him behind his back. This group does not treat Pierce very well, and they never have. That's a dark realization for a show that ends most weeks with the group realizing how great they are to each other and how lucky they are to have this support in their lives. No one has been supporting Pierce, and he's been getting worse.

The revenge he takes on each member of the group is revealing too. He forces Britta to confront the inherent selfishness at her core that she covers up with pretenses toward altruism. He forces Shirley to confront he tendency to use guilt as a weapon (and, I would say, her penchant for paranoia that she's being talked about). He accidentally forces Annie to confront her elitism and her unrealistic drive to be the best at everything. But where these tricks all come across as sort of petty, what Pierce does to Jeff and Troy seems a different level of outright cruel. Troy is petrified of meeting his idol, and has told Pierce this a thousand times. All he wants is a signed picture of LaVar Burton so he can never disappoint it. But Pierce makes troy confront his fear of disappointment, and in doing so, forces Troy to embarass himself in front of his idol, and basically come off like a crazy person. And Pierce tells Jeff he has found his father and is bringing him there, forcing Jeff to confront a lifetime's worth of father issues and fairly boundless rage, only to reveal that it was actually going to be a huge practical joke. There's nothing funny about the way Jeff beats Pierce just as he promised he would, and there's nothing funny about the sad, lonely old man lying bleeding in the parking lot raging at the only people he has left, begging them to take him seriously as a human being, not just a walking punchline. This isn't a joke anymore, but a glaring flaw at the center of a man who has driven everyone he's ever had away with his pettiness, his arrogance, and his cruelty.

It wasn't a funny scene, but it was a damn brave one, and a surprising one in a show continuously full of surprises. Ever since the series' second episode, in which Pierce paid to be in Jeff's group to earn his respect and Jeff gave it to him, but really only to earn Britta's, we've been building toward this moment. And in that respect, I'm not sure the show went quite far enough to give us catharsis. This might be a failing in the episode if viewed objectively, but the show went so, so, so much darker than I expected this week that to push it any farther may have been too much darkness for one episode of a sitcom. Pierce doesn't "get better" this week. It would be too easy if he did. But his journey is more clearly defined now than ever before.

Season two of Community has been about defining that journey for every character on the show given short shrift in season one, and that means that we've seen a lot less of Jeff and Britta takign center stage. We got these two by the time season one ended, but Pierce, Shirley, and Troy (and to a lesser extent Abed and Annie) still felt like characters who had yet to be fully realized. At this point in season two, I think I have an idea of where every single character stands and what road they are on as the series progresses. Its a bold move to have the show's previous main characters backgrounded for most of this season, but unless you think about it, you've probably hardly even noticed. And Jeff has some absolutely stellar material to work with tonight, which Joel McHale handles very well. Really, though, this episode gives everyone a chance to shine (can we start a "Give Donald Glover an Emmy" campaign now?). We barely see Abed this week, and yet this episode is subtly giving us insight into how he sees the world and how he understands each of the other characters. This episode was a mini masterpiece of rage, guilt, sadness, introspection, and personal failure. So no, it wouldn't be a great jumping in point for Community as a whole. But I'll be damned if it wasn't a pretty great episode of television and a fantastic moment in an ever ongoing story.

Grade: B+

Notes:

-After this episode I wonder how long it'll be before we get a "meeting everyone's parents" episode. Its a definite cliche, but I think its something the show actually needs to do to deepen our understanding of the characters. Meeting Abed's Dad in season one and learning about his mom in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" did a lot for that character, and I think it would be great to meet the rest of the parents.

-"If one of us dies, we stage it to look like a suicide to protest the unjust cancellation of Firefly. We're going to get that show back on the air, buddy." As someone who legitimately still gets upset that show was cancelled, I laughed hard at this. It was going to have SEVEN SEASONS people. Think of the awesome!

-"I was never one to hold a grudge. My father held grudges. I always hated him for that."

-"Don't you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out."

-"Set phasers to love me."

-"Are these blood diamonds? Are they Holocaust diamonds?" I liked the touch that Annie is actually just Pierce's favorite, but, totally in character, she overanalyzes the whole thing.

-"More fish for Kunta."

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Tags: Community
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