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Docu Drama: An Advance Review of Community's "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"

Question: What do LeVar Burton, Firefly, and twisted mind games have in common?

Answer: They're all together in one place on this week's sensationally satirical episode of Community ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"), written by Megan Ganz and directed by Joe Russo, which I watched earlier this week. (That was, as you'll learn soon enough, an "explanabrag.")

NBC's Community has already tackled zombie invasions, paintball wars, outer space, and stolen pens with vigor and gonzo spirit intact, so it was only a matter of time before Dan Harmon and his merry band of mischief makers in the writers room would attempt to transform the actual physical format and style of the series for an episode.

In this case, "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" does just that, satirizing the mockumentary style of such fellow NBC series as The Office and Parks and Recreation, as Danny Pudi's Abed attempts to make a documentary which shows the study group's reaction to how close Pierce (Chevy Chase) brushed against death itself. Shot docu-style--with all of the talking heads, cutaways, and montages (more on that in a bit) that you might expect--the use of a physical camera in the action here makes sense within the reality established by the series, and the episode itself has quite a bit of fun deflating this particular stylistic device.

As always, I don't want to give away too much about the episode, lest I spoil the experience for the audience. But I will say that the episode serves several functions: it picks up the threads from last week's ending (where Pierce was seen lying on a park bench after overdosing on prescription pills, perhaps in a wish fulfillment scenario out of many a viewers' mind), it challenges the viewer to care about Pierce even as he's behaving in a malicious and cruel manner, and it sets up a number of crucibles by which to test the individual members of the study group.

The latter is effortlessly achieved by the "psychological vengeance" enacted by the (not) dying Pierce Hawthorne, who creates a series of gifts that he bequeaths to each of them from his hospital bed. But these are not mere gifts, but objects that can he use to torment members of the group, who he feels have excluded him and who don't take him very seriously at all. (I'll echo comments made by Joel McHale's Jeff Winger here and say that Pierce's actions this week don't exactly make it easy for them to do so.)

"And so it is bequeathed." The bequeathed items are specific to each of them, targeting a weak spot in their character: Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) receives a CD ("compact record") said to contain recorded proof that the group talks about her behind her back; Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a.k.a. "Sourface," receives a check for $10,000 with the "pay to the order of" line blank so she can decide which charity to donate it to; Annie (Alison Brie) gets a family heirloom, a diamond tiara ("Are these blood diamonds?!?!") because she is Pierce's "favorite"; Troy (Donald Glover) gets a chance to meet his idol, Star Trek/Reading Rainbow star LeVar Burton; and Jeff is about to be reunited with his long-lost deadbeat dad.

All of these moments are captured by Abed on film and assembled in the editing bay for maximum drama, which means quick cuts, threaded-in reaction shots, staggered zooms, and emotional montages, which overlay "generic" voiceover with random images to give the final thoughts some real weight, according to Abed. (It's a masterful and rather tongue-in-cheek send-up of Modern Family's closing montages.)

But there's a real emotional weight to the episode as well, seeing how each of the characters deal with the challenge that Pierce has created for them. Will they give in to the treachery that he's concocted? Or will they rise above it? Will Shirley listen to that CD? Will Britta be selfish or selfless? What will Jeff say to the father he's not seen in decades?

And just what is Pierce's relationship to the group? After everything he's pulled of late (destroying the gang's attempts to save Fat Neil via the Dungeons & Dragons game), Pierce has become an antagonistic force within the group, a role previously played by Ken Jeong's Chang. But there are questions of integrity and, well, community that Pierce's nature sets up within the show. He's a part of the group but a divisive part and his actions here don't necessarily engender loyalty from them.

I will say, however, that Pierce's most dastardly action within this episode does have an unexpected consequence and perhaps reveal the true relationship he has to the group. Pierce's words--often racist, misogynistic, or just generally ignorant--often force the study group to say things that they wouldn't normally speak aloud, to confront uncomfortable truths or misguided ideas, to respond to questions raised with certainty and accountability. (Even if, after all, refers to Shirley as the group's new "black swan" now that he's dying.)

Keep an eye out for some other high points of the episode: the scene where Jeff and Britta role-play; Troy's reaction to LeVar Burton (and one the weirdest renditions of the Reading Rainbow theme song); Troy and Abed's suicide pact (with the best Firefly reference ever); Shirley's talking head in a janitor's supply closet; and, well, just about all of it. It's an episode that is set entirely away from Greendale and the study room but the sense of community versus isolation, acceptance versus disapproval, play heavily into the action here.

It's an episode that both celebrates and satirizes the mockumentary format (the search for "profound thematic connection"), as well as the messiness of real life, the speed bumps along the way, and the lessons you learn when you least expect them. A bit like Community as a whole, really.

Community airs Thursday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


George Matusek said…
I hope this send-up plunges a death-dealing stake into the heart of the loathsome mockumentary style. For me, "The Office" is unwatchable, and, as much as I like Amy Poehler, "Parks and Recreation" would be better without this artificial stylistic device. "Modern Family" is the only show that manages to lightly use it without making me groan.
Wes said…
These reviews make me wish the show was on right now. You're feeding my addiction! (Really, I just love the way you tease us just enough to get us in the mood.)
Anonymous said…
First time visiting your site. After reading this I am kicking myself for not coming by sooner. Sounds like a great episode tonight. I'm a recent COMMUNITY convert and caught up on DVD over Xmas. It's the best comedy on TV right now.
Elias said…
This was a really great review, and thanks for throwing it up so fast! I didn't get a chance to watch last night but since I have DISH Network I used their TV Everywhere app and watched here at work (I work at a DISH call center) while on my lunch break. That WAS the best Firefly reference ever, and as funny and touching as most of this episode was, I hope they don't go "back to normal" with Pierce next week...he really has a long way to go to atone for the awful things he's done, whatever the reason, and I think the gang has a ways to go to forgive him. Otherwise, another great episode in a fantastic season.

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