After creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dismissed from his role as showrunner at the end of Season 3, Community‘s loyal fans feared its departure would plunge the show into what Abed Nadir would surely call “the darkest timeline.” But despite our concerns, we hold out hope that the new showrunners and their stable of writers are able to make the best of this worst possible role of the dice. This week’s episode, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” examines the enigma of “Changnesia,” and puts a new spin on one of the show’s favorite stylistic tropes.
Abed has been engaged by Dean Pelton to put together what he calls a “propaganda film” spotlighting the plight of “Kevin” (the amnesic Chang) so the school can get a $40,000 research grant from the “MacGuffin Neurological Institute.” But Abed is no propagandist; he painstakingly documents not only the study group’s attempts to help Kevin and the Dean, but Jeff’s efforts to sabotage the entire effort, so sure is he that Chang is faking it. Yet even Jeff is ultimately convinced of the authenticity of the story — which (in a twist that will surprise no one) is revealed in the stinger to be, in fact, a fake.
“Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” marks the third time in as many seasons that the show has taken on the form of an Abed-directed documentary within the show. Upon seeing the title of the episode, I was immediately alarmed. As I’ve noted before in these recaps, the shortcomings of the post-Harmon Community are made most evident when it hews closest to his version of the show, and especially when quoting it directly.
However, the two previous documentary episodes went in very different directions; Season 2’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” aped the style of documentary sitcoms like Community’s Thursday night companion The Office, while Season 3’s “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” was an elaborate homage to Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the 1991 documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. (You type a line like that, and you start to understand all those network concerns about the show’s “accessibility” and so on.) In the course of this week’s episode, Abed name-checks Capturing the Friedmans, placing his film in the mold of investigative documentary, and if the episode neither skews nor replicates its forerunner as astutely as the earlier shows did, hey, points for trying.
Credit must also be given to Ken Jeong, who gets some honest-to-goodness laughs here. As we’ve discussed, Chang is a character that pretty much wore out his welcome after Season 1, and I’ll confess to wincing a bit at the episode’s opening, as I realized it was going to be Chang-heavy. But the notion of Chang the wide-eyed, childlike innocent has given Jeong some rich new beats to play, and new avenues for his weirdness. The absurdly drawn-out scene of him recreating the entirety of Jeff and Shirley’s conversation was both ballsy and funny, a combination the show doesn’t hit that often anymore.
Still, as with any Season 4 Community episode, there were some sour notes. This script is the first of the series for writer Hunter Covington, whose previous credits are mostly My Name Is Earl episodes, and some of his dialogue rings especially false — for example, the slam on Tree of Life sounds more like the yahoos of Earl than Abed, sophisticated fan of My Dinner with Andre. And we again have Jeff’s jerkdom painted in strokes far too broad, which makes his third-act sentimentality that much less subtle. (This is the second week in a row that poor Joel McHale has been forced to learn some lessons about himself.)
Still, the direction (by Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar, who helmed two episodes each in Seasons 2 and 3) is brisk and efficient, and there are enough laughs in “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” to move it to the front of this season’s episodes, quality-wise. This is about as good as Community gets these days, though it’d be nice if that weren’t such a low bar to clear.
- Best throwaway gag: the “rent Memento” note written on Chang’s arm.
- Second best: Britta’s on-screen super, branding her “basically a therapist.”
- Troy and Annie’s cop duo (“In an investigation, one dude always has to go opposite the other dude. That’s how they get things done”).
- Dean Pelton’s lament for Chang: “It’s sad to see him like this. Well, it’s mixed. He was pretty terrible before.”
- The name-checking of Hitchcock’s favorite device, The MacGuffin, would score more points if it had anything to do with anything, or was funny. Instead, it’s the kind of “hey, look at me, I made a reference!” writing that’s not doing this staff any favors.
- So, are we gonna get any further acknowledgment that Troy and Britta are doing it? It was the focus of episode three and has basically gone unmentioned since.