Just to get it out of the way, Community isn’t on NBC’s midseason schedule. That’s cause for concern, but I’ve been strangely undisturbed by the news. Let’s be fair, Community’s never had great ratings, and while some of that in the past two years can be attributed to the brutal timeslot it occupies, it’s never going to turn its cult audience into widespread appeal, it’s just not that kind of show. That means I’ve always been resigned to the fact that any year of this show might be its last. When I heard the news earlier this week my reaction wasn’t shock or indignation, it was simply recognition of a moment that I knew was coming. It was the same as my reaction to news of Arrested Development going off the air, both were cult shows that somehow, miraculously, didn’t die instantly, and that’s important to remember. We’re going to get, at minimum, around 75 episodes of Community, and that’s a whole lot. It’s also worth acknowledging that thanks to the fact that Community is produced by Sony rather than NBC there’s always a chance that Sony will give NBC a great licensing deal to push Community through to one more season so it’ll hit successful syndication numbers, even if its ratings don’t change.
That’s all ratings talk though, and it’s a whole lot less interesting than digging into “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” a rather fantastic episode of the show. It’s one of Community’s high concept episodes in that it’s a reference to the documentary Hearts of Darkness that follows the making of Apocalypse Now and the struggles that went into that massive undertaking. The undertaking is a little smaller in this episode, the Dean sets out to make a new commercial for Greendale to replace the hilariously out of date current one that runs primarily during late night reruns of Fantasy Island. The Dean starts out relatively unambitious with his modest $2,000 budget, but when a failed ploy by Jeff to use the Luis Guzman statue as a way to make it impossible for his scenes to be used backfires and the real Luis Guzman offers to be in the commercial the Dean starts to set his sights on perfection.
It leads to some of the best work Jim Rash has ever done on the show and an excellent use of the Dean’s character, he’s always reached for more, always strove to make Greendale bigger and better than it truly is. His obsession quickly takes over, which is a surprise to very few, especially Abed, who has been prepared for just such a meltdown and is documenting the entire process. For most of the episode Abed’s documentary is just a fun way to show just how much over budget the Dean is running, the tally ends with the commercial running Greendale somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 grand, but it ultimately ends up paralleling the Dean’s story. That’s getting a little ahead of things though, and it’s worth pointing out just how funny this episode is before diving into the heavier stuff. Part of what’s so enjoyable about it is that it’s an episode that could only emerge from a show deeper into its run like Community. So many of the jokes stem from the ways that the characters we know and love descend further and further into their own personal psychoses as the episode wears on.
The best of these is Jeff, who starts out trying to play his character in the commercial, the Dean himself, in such an absurd fashion that the Dean will stop him. Predictably though the Dean loves Jeff’s performance, and after spending days and days in the Dean’s head, Jeff stops playing the part ironically, fully embracing his Deanhood. Much of what’s so good about this plot is Joel McHale’s performance, he absolutely nails Jim Rash’s mannerisms and vocal inflections as the Dean, to the point where it actually is believable that Pierce would mistake him for the Dean. The performances in general are fantastic, from Annie’s frazzled Stockholm Syndrome infused love of the Dean to the Dean’s bizarrely convincing machismo when he tells Jeff to lose the bald cap. And let’s not forget the tragicomic scene of Britta and Troy being forced to hug over and over again when the Dean decides he’s going to tackle the “race” issue head on through a multicultural hug. It ends with the pair being so repulsed at the concept of a hug that they recoil in sheer terror at the prospect of doing just that and Gillian Jacobs and Donald Glover are predictably fantastic in doing so.
The best episodes of Community are about more than just being very, very funny, and “Documentary Filmaking: Redux” has that extra oomph that pushes the episode into the all timers list. It’s an episode about telling stories and that’s why it’s so important for Abed to be making a documentary to go along with the Dean’s commercial. The Dean’s always been convinced that he’s the man who’s going to take Greendale and make it something incredible, something more than it is. That’s the narrative he’s chosen for himself, and when he gets a hint of that dream in the form of Luis Guzman appearing in his commercial, it whips him into a frenzy trying to realize that dream. As I’ve mentioned, this goes poorly, and Abed’s there to cover the whole thing, watching and observing as a fly on the wall.
He’s documenting the Dean, and eventually all of Greendale, fall apart in the endeavor, and when the Dean is at his lowest Guzman shows up, and refuses to appear in the Dean’s commercial after seeing his rough cut. (A cut that, smartly and quite funnily, we only hear and, by the sounds of it, is a terrifying mix of horrible acting, Star Wars homages, heavy metal, and, seemingly, just a smattering of porn.) Guzman asks the Dean just why he’s so intent on changing Greendale and can’t stop focusing on what it isn’t rather than what it is. What Greendale is and has always been is right there in the show’s title, it’s a community of like minded people, and hey, if it can launch the career of a Luis Guzman along with getting him a whole lot of tail while he was there in his pre-Boogie Nights days, it can’t be that bad?
Abed breaks it down in his final speech, he may have claimed to be a fly on the wall in an effort to remain objective, but like all documentaries, it’s essentially impossible to be objective. The second you cut a shot together with another you’re creating a story in the way you desire it to exist, and that’s Abed’s ultimate realization. He ends up interacting with the Dean and affecting his story for the better, taking a tragedy and giving it an undercurrent of hope. I’ve mentioned many times how my favorite episodes of Community tend to have a hefty dose of sadness mixed in with the levity and I was happy to see that trend emerge here. What Abed tells us in his final monologue is that we’re never better than when we engage with others, when we enter other people’s stories and prop them up, give them the happy ending they deserve. It’s why the end of this episode is so utterly fantastic, the moment where Jeff offers the Dean a hug is one of my favorite moments in the season so far because it builds so beautifully off the rest of the show. It’s a major act for him, and we know just how much it means to the Dean. It’s hard not to get swept away in the swing from sadness to happiness, and it’s all the more powerful because Community doesn’t shy away from the real heartbreak at the core of the Dean’s story.
- Not much on quotes this week as I was just a little too invested in actually watching the episode.
- “I’m in psych 101 and I don’t even know what’s happening.”
- “You don’t have a trailer.” “Well then I’ll rent a trailer and not come out of that one until I have one.”
- It seems we’re getting closer and closer to Britta and Troy’s inevitable hook up after their extra long hug at episode’s end.