‘Community’ Recap: Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking Redux

‘Community’ Recap: Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking Redux

Joel McHale as the Dean Community NBCS3E8: Well, this is certainly one way to tell the world to suck it. Community’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” is unapologetically, unequivocally alienating; it’s an episode only a Community fan could love. We were warned, Dan Harmon tweeted, “AND, tonight, celebrate Community’s unschedualization with the least accessible, least marketable episode in its alienating history!” And let’s face it, we Greendale fans are a webby bunch, so we all follow Harmon and we all had an idea of what we were in for: pure, unadulterated madness.

“I follow the fire, not the smoke. Ever seen Hearts of Darkness? Way better than Apocalypse Now.” -Abed

Here’s the scene, Dean Pelton is setting out to replace a 1980s commercial for Greendale that has been running for something in the ballpark of 20 years – and yes, observant Chuck fans, that was Chuck’s brother-in-law lending his support to the E Pluribus Anus institution. Abed is capturing it all because he’s certain the Dean will have a mental breakdown. The study group is roped into the ordeal, except for Pierce who rents his own trailer so he can refuse to come out of it the entire time.

At first, it seems we’ll just see some zany antics as Jeff dons a Dean Pelton costume and plots to tape all his scenes in front of the alumni statue of Luis Guzman because it’s illegal to use his likeness. We knew that would come back to bit him in the ass when Guzman not only gave his consent, but offered to be in the commercial. We knew Britta and Troy would be forced to film together and get all twitterpated over working together. We knew Annie would take the organization role and attack it with OCD-esque zeal. We knew Pierce would be a selfish ass. We knew Shirley would be, well, Shirley.

But if Harmon’s tweet of a warning wasn’t enough, Abed’s conversation with Britta (and the fact that this whole thing is a parallel of Hearts of Darkness, which was a documentary about the tumultuous, potentially life-destroying process of filming Apocalypse Now) signifies that there’s a whole lot more to this game than just a few sideshow antics. When Abed says he decided to film the filming of the commercial because he knew the Dean would unravel, Britta says that’s terrible and Abed only responds that it’s great because he’ll probably submit it to a few festivals. Here we have, slapping us right in the face, the notion that documentary filmmaking is a cold, heartless act. It seeks to capture the drama of others lives, and most often, the best drama comes from one’s downfall. I was a bit skeptical about this series doing yet another documentary style episode; after the last one touted how manipulative the practice is, I figured they’d be hard pressed to find another argument. Well, that’s what I get for thinking Community didn’t have something up its sleeve. 

”Fight the power, fight it with your hugs!” – Dean Pelton

As we descended into the complete and utter darkness of the second act of the episode, I love that the writers managed to keep a few lampposts of humor – that is until the Dean falls into a compete meltdown. As he slowly unravels, Annie becomes a victim of Stockholm Syndrome – but if the Dean didn’t invent that, she doesn’t care what it is. It’s a great line, plus, seeing Alison Brie in any sort of tizzy is always fantastic.

My favorite moment is probably the scene in which the Dean forces Troy and Britta to redo their hug scene over and over for 12 hours. Watching Britta writhing on floor in anguish and seeing Troy cry yet again (it’s not quite like his bathroom floor “Reading Rainbow” sing-a-long, but we’ll take it) is comedy gold. I did enjoy the way the whole thing escalated with Jeff beginning to believe he really is the dean and losing his part to the suddenly Jeff-esque, apathetic dean’s erratic needs (which apparently directed him to Chang, who’s been missing from a lot of the action since he went too far with his security job).

It’s at this point that the dean dares everyone to leave him and they do, as he stands in misty fake jungle in the cafeteria. And then things get dark. Really dark. Luis Guzman shows up and tells the dean he’s trying to hard to be better than the school when he should be grateful for it and this sends the dean into a tailspin. As we witness a mental breakdown that would make Coppola proud – we hope – Abed captures every moment of it. It’s the moment he’s been waiting for. But it doesn’t last. When the time comes for the dean to show the board of directors his commercial – which, from what we heard of the footage he showed Guzman, was shaping up to be the Koyaanisqatsi of community college commercials – it seems his demise at the hands of Abed’s all-seeing lens is complete. But, alas, Abed has a heart. He uses his own footage together with the dean’s early footage to create a perfectly adequate ad for Greendale, thus returning the dean to sanity and saving him from termination.

”Some flies are too awesome for the wall.” –Abed

By the end of the episode, we get our happy message about the necessity to retain humanity and how that means you’re inevitably involved in some way when you attempt to capture it on film. Of course, that doesn’t keep Abed from filming, just from needlessly exploiting his fellow Greendalians.

Of course, as the study group forgives the dean and everyone hugs, Abed continues to film and it’s a brief moment, but at the end we see Britta and Troy linger longer than the group hug actually lasted. As they giggle and walk out of the room, Abed looks like a light bulb has just gone off and he follows them. Since this episode was so out there, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this moment existed because Abed found the other side of the documentary coin. Drama and destruction are great food for the documentary lens – they’re visceral and enticing topics and filmmakers seek them out endlessly. But, there is another subject that captures just as many minds without exploiting the sad, tumultuous moments of people’s lives: romance, attraction, and (and I’m not saying Britta and Troy are at this place, it’s just part of the argument) love. It was sweet and it gives fans another study group romance to wonder about – Annie and El Jeffe are so March 2011.

Even if my wacky little characterizations or theories are way off and this episode alone prevents me from ever being able to convince my friends and family to watch this show, it’s an example of the talent behind Community. Sure, they’re a room full of very funny film buffs and nerds, but the end result is a 20-minute opus that simultaneously makes us laugh and question everything we know about the topic at hand. It encourages strange little theories and off-the-wall explanations. That’s exactly why it can’t manage to bring up its ratings or secure a spot on NBC’s 2012 midseason lineup, but it’s also why those of use who wept (figuratively speaking) earlier this week and subsequently added little goatees to our Twitter profile pictures in support of the benched show love it as much as we do.