Community, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”

Another week, another fantastic and innovative episode of Community. I feel like I’ve spent so much time writing about the series’ innovations and high-concept episodes and then the next week, Community does it again. I don’t think I was ever convinced that the series’ had a ceiling or a limit to the different kinds of things it could do or stories it could tell, but that doesn’t stop me from being overwhelmed with joy when Dan Harmon and his team pull out episodes like last night’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.”

In the pre-air discussion, there was a lot of buzz about the documentary/mockumentary style of this episode and for good reason. I don’t think Community is a series that could use that kind of aesthetic framework every week because the world is so expansive and wild that the shooting style wouldn’t work. You could never, ever do something like “Contemporary American Poultry” with an Office or Modern Family aesthetic, though I would have enjoyed to see how something like “Modern Warfare” would have worked as if it were a documentary news crew shooting the “war.” Of course, that would have totally undercut the reality of that episode even more than it already was.

In any event, using this framework, while not applicable for regular episodes, totally works for the narrative of this particular effort. Although we really didn’t recognize it at first, this season has been building to an episode like this. In a short period of time, Pierce has lost his mother, presumably had a fallen out with his cult, broken his legs, got addicted to pain killers and slowly watched himself become more detached from the rest of the group. A good amount of these beats have taken place in the background of episodes, but it’s been very clear that the writers have had an interesting plan for Pierce all season. And so, with the character in the hospital recovering from his overdose and hoping to make everyone in the group feel awful for abandoning him, it makes sense to bring in Abed and the documentary crew.

The normal world of Community wouldn’t really allow for the kind of raw emotions and issues that come up here. It’s not that other episodes avoid emotional moments, but the flow of the episodes don’t have within them the ability to really get inside the characters heads in the way that an edited documentary does. So when Jeff is destroying things in the hospital lobby because he’s freaking out about the possibility of having to see his father for the first time, it’s better that we see that from an edited, distant-but-intimate perspective. In usual Community episodes, Jeff would have just walked to his car to have that freak out and the action might not have followed him in the same way it does here. In short, this episode gives the series an excuse for making the emotions more real and less overtly comedic, which is perfect for an episode with this specific story to tell. And of course, it also allows for some cunning editing wherein Troy can go from flipping out in the dinning area to crying in the bathroom to staring directly in the face of LeVar Burton. Despite all their strengths, normal episodes of the series can blow through big moments like that within a few seconds.

But back to Pierce. Last week, I wondered about where the series was taking the character with the presumption that journey involved a fairly substantial moment of redemption. I didn’t have to wait too long, but I actually really appreciated that the series didn’t allow Pierce’s time in the hospital to serve as the end game. There is a sense at the end of this episode that the characters, especially Pierce and Jeff, have found some common ground, but I still don’t think this is over. That appears to be the biggest complaint about this episode and the season as a whole, but I fully trust the writers to make sure this doesn’t just go away. This episode had references to countless small moments that have developed throughout the season and that suggests to me that the writers have no interest in just tying this off and moving on. It might not be the focus of every episode moving forward, but the tensions with Pierce are not going away. And that’s fine, the group can’t be harmonious at all times.

Pierce’s actions here are arguably worse than anything he’s done before, even if he appears to be more sympathetic in this episode than he was in something like “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” which I think is more of a reflection what those two very different episodes needed from the character. Jace Lacob wrote a great piece this morning about why he’s okay with hating Pierce and I fully agree with his assessment. Pierce’s place as an outsider in this group of misfits allows the series to reflect the characters’ less flaws back to themselves and I think that’s a really interesting approach to take and most certainly is interesting from a viewer perspective. I think Pierce has some right to be upset with the group and they have a lot of reasons to be upset with him, but these are people who aren’t going to let someone drift off into the world alone, no matter how much they might be frustrated or angry with him.

Sure, it’s a bit forced and unearned that Jeff is able to come to an understanding with Pierce by the end of this episode, but at the same time, it’s not. If this is a story about Jeff Winger becoming a better person, that narrative requires Jeff to forgive a little bit and also think about what kind of impact his actions have had on people. The two of them have a weird relationship where they both think they’re mentoring or caring for the other and those signals are bound to get crossed, creating a whole bunch of drama. And while I think Pierce’s actions towards the others are still really awful — especially to Troy, Britta and Shirley — I think the group dynamics are so established that if those people can see Jeff attempting to work through his problems with Pierce, they can get on the same path as well.

From my perspective, this arc for Pierce is kind of ballsy. It takes some guts to make one of your lead characters so obviously awful and easily despised without fully trying to manipulate the audience back into thinking that character should be redeemed. I don’t think Pierce is ever going to be redeemed in the traditional sense. He’s always going to be on the outside, even if it’s just outside once the group realizes they have treated him wrongly for a while now. But this is a series about the connections between these seven people and how they need one another, no matter what. Pierce is still apart of that, even if he’s in a dark place and the group may or may not hate him. We’re still mid-way through the journey and I’m very excited to see how it pays off.

Other notes:

  • Even though this was a legitimately heavy emotional episode, there were just too many hilarious moments to go right along with that. Donald Glover is rightfully being spotlighted for his work, but Gillian Jacobs was also tremendous here, in both her scenes with Joel McHale and the solo talking head testimonials.
  • I love how the series never forgets these characters’ biggest flaws and hang-ups, whether it’s Shirley’s use of guilt as a weapon to Annie’s lofty determination to Britta’s false sense of superiority and humanitarianism.

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