Review: Community, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”

Just picture for a moment that someone who was randomly, in the off-chance,  moved by the swell of online support for Community in the wake of NBC’s decision to “bench” it for a bit in early 2012 decided to watch tonight’s episode and it was their first experience with Community. Can you even begin to imagine how those new viewers responded to “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux?” This is an episode that is filmed differently than all other episodes but one, surely leading said new viewer to assume that they were accidentally watching a new episode of The Office instead. This is an episode that mostly sidelines the production’s “biggest names” in Chevy Chase and Joel McHale and does very little with the standout character Abed.

In their place, this episode focuses on the series ninth lead, an awkward, uncomfortable bald man who loses his mind mid-way through and ends up covering himself in the ashes of his college diploma. Oh, this is an episode that also features at least a half-dozen other random tertiary characters, many of them dressed in random costume and includes a random appearance from Luis Guzman and the sixth lead from Chuck.

Long story-short, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” is likely not the best episode for new viewers to come in on. It’s always tricky to join the party late when it comes to comedies that value long-running jokes, gags and intertextuality and Community is surely especially difficult to master. But this? Good luck, new people (All two of you). Obviously, the Community production team didn’t know that NBC was going to bench their series and they ultimately shouldn’t be writing or producing the series to serve any master like that anyway, but this is probably one of the worst episodes of the series that couldn’t have aired for this specific time.

All that nonsense aside, I’m conflicted on “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.” On one hand, I appreciate the series’ ballsy willingness to take another run at a style and format that they nailed so beautifully the first time around and therefore created almost unattainable expectations (just like they did with paintball) and I can’t say enough about Jim Rash’s odd, hilarious performance within the episode. However, on the other hand, at times this effort did feel like it was straining a bit to accomplish its goals. Ultimately, I think I like this episode, but it also has one major functional issue that permeated into the rest of the episode.

I don’t need to rehash why I love “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” in-detail, but I will posit that the great season two episode worked so well because the documentary/mockumentary style aligned perfectly with the subject matter. Pierce’s illness was the perfect “serious” event to approach with that raw, loose and intense shooting style framework because the emotions were surprisingly high and powerful. Obviously, the episode is supremely hilarious and “Intermediate” uses the framework to pull major jokes forward, but it also treats Jeff and Pierce’s emotions relatively seriously up until the moment that it wants to make fun of them a bit. That episode succeeds because it perfectly straddles the line between documentary and mockumentary.

Therefore, the fundamental problem with “Redux” is that it’s centered on a character and an event that is inherently less serious and “real” than the events of “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.” Though Dean Pelton is a fairly enjoyable antagonist and worth the focus of an individual episode, I’m not sure that his heightened persona fits the intimacy of the documentary/mockumentary style very well. Unlike “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” this episode starts in mockumentary territory and never lets up. In fact, it only gets progressively more ridiculous and outrageous as it goes on. And while I understand that is sort of the point since the whole affair is supposed to be a riff on “Heart of Darkness”-like making of documentaries, I just don’t think this episode is as successful as the first go around with the style. That’s not the most damning criticism I’ve ever made, but I still think it’s a worthwhile one nonetheless.

I’ve always been able to go with whatever situation and tone Community throws at me on an individual week, but for whatever reason, I felt myself being held back with this one. There’s absolutely no question that “Redux” is riddled with tremendously hilarious moments, including the extended, well-cut sequence of Troy and Britta’s hugging bit, Annie’s Stockholm Syndrome madness and basically everything Chang said or did. And I already praised Rash’s great work here, but Joel McHale delivered one hell of a performance this week as well.

Nevertheless, I felt like the characters succumb to Dean Pelton’s egomaniacal direction too intensely and subsequently reacted in a similarly ridiculous fashion. Again, I know that this was all purposeful and I know that characters have reacted more extremely to less ludicrous circumstances before, but I found it hard to believe that Jeff would stick around in costume for that long and descend into madness like that or that Britta or Shirley would stick around at all. Let me tell you, this is a really weird feeling when it comes to this series. I’ve never been skeptical of the world or the character motivations, but tonight, I just couldn’t get there in the way that the episode was asking me to.

Where this episode succeeded for me, perhaps oddly, was in its final few minutes. Once the members of the study group and all the supporting players were out of the picture and the Dean broke down and recognized the error of his hysterical ways, I was hooked more fully. Perhaps I just prefer my mockumentary-style episodes of Community to address the intimacy of the moments the style can create, but Pelton’s conversation with the ever-game and always-funny Luis Guzman and the final bit with the reveal that Abed came out from behind the camera and helped save his school worked very, very well.

Not only did those final sequences give us a lot of insight into why the Dean tries so damn hard to make Greendale something more than it is, but they also reinforced the quirky, backdoor value that the school has. Guzman’s speech simply, but effectively portrayed the “special” powers of Greendale and opened up the Dean’s eyes. I think the Dean’s reaction to Guzman’s speech would have been even better had the character been given more than one-note (but admittedly hilarious) beats up until the last two weeks, but the episode made it fit.

And it’s always nice to be reminded of Abed’s humanity. We’ve seen him snap out of his pop culture-induced haze to save the day or make the human, emotional choice before, but every time he does it, I can’t help but smile and pump my fist a little bit.

Ultimately, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” is a successful outing because it’s representative of what I want Community to be: Complex, odd, risky and somehow still soft and warm at the center. There are a slew of great, funny moments in this episode. Although I think this episode has issues at the fundamental level that lead to some wonky tonal things and slightly unbelievable character choices, “Redux” pulls it together at the end. And again, any episode that features Jim Rash doing the kinds of things he does here is always going to be a big treat.

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