Friday, February 18, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"

In retrospect tonight’s episode seemed inevitable—Abed has tried his hand at documentary filmmaking before, but never had the show utilized this to create an entire episode that carried the look and feel (and tropes) of a documentary “reality” show.  As usual everyone was up to the task of genre mimicry, from writers and director to cast.  The worst I could say of this episode is that I don’t think the show should get in the habit of going high-concept every week; they’ve done well with most every genre they’ve played with, but part of the fun of these explorations is that they’ve been occasional changes of pace.  I know that none of Community’s episodes are what you’d really call “normal” as it’s a show built around turning sitcoms and pop culture on their heads, but consider that this season we’ve already had a claymation episode, a bottle episode, another bottle episode that also incorporated a fantasy game, a space-movie parody, a Halloween episode which went all sorts of goofy directions, and now a documentary episode.  I’m content with all of them, in love with many of them, but a bit worried that the show is starting to steer its course towards trying to pull this type of thing off every other week, where I’d rather spend the occasional (comparatively) quiet episode just hanging out with the study group.  But like I said, that’s the very worst I could say about this episode—the best is that it was consistently hilarious, clever in further revealing the nature of several characters, and clearly having some fun sending up the never-ending parade of reality television we’re all guilty of letting rot our brains for a few dozen hours a year.
Abed was the obvious choice as creator of the documentary, so I liked that they added a twist in making his motivation a bit less expected; Pierce has asked him to basically document the end of his life.  He claims he’s on his death bed due to his addiction to pills, which led him to see horrible things like “demons, aliens, ‘Critters 3’, and something called ‘Bruce Willis “Surrogates”’.”   I’ve never used that many quote marks in a single sentence before.  He tells them that he wants them all to be there to witness his final words (which Troy takes to mean Pierce is going to kill them, which, hey, you gotta love how Troy’s brain works).  Everyone is instantly suspicious, but reluctantly caring enough not to say much about it.  Enter dramatic irony:  Pierce tells the camera that he’s actually using this to “exact his revenge” for the group failing to respect him (which would also be situational irony, given that this is a ridiculous way to gain respect).  His “confessional” to the camera is the beginning of the shows’ many interesting examinations of how documentary reality is never entirely honest or real—for Pierce, the presence of the cameras are serving a dishonest purpose; he’s altering the behavior of his friends by making them believe they are witnessing his final moments, when in fact the cameras are there to witness the humiliation of each member of the group as they receive confusing and cruel gifts from him one at a time (except for Annie, who gets a nice Tiara because she’s Pierce’s favorite).  As Abed explains though, it’s always easier to tell a complex story when you’re just talking to the camera (which in the era of Michael Moore and other subjective documentaries, I think we have to take with a grain of salt entirely intended by the writers). 
Pierce begins the bequeathals (and a great running gag making the verb ‘bequeath’ seem filthy) with the gift of a “compact record” to Shirley which supposedly contains a recording of the group talking about her behind her back.  Britta gets a $10,000 check with the recipient line conveniently left open for her favorite charity (which might be herself), Jeff gets the promise of his long-lost father paying a visit to him right there in the hospital (an interesting follow up to the joke back in the D&D episode which names Jeff’s father “William the Unknown” within the game), and Troy gets a personal day with his idol Lavar Burton, which seems like a wondrous gift indeed until we see Troy weeping in the snack room and screaming about how Pierce knows that the one thing Troy never EVER wanted was to meet Burton in person (he wanted his autographed photo because “you can’t disappoint a picture”). 

All of the gifts are as ill-intentioned as Troy’s, meant to reveal weaknesses or, more simply, create misery.  Shirley is wringing her hands (and purse handles) endlessly trying to decide whether she needs to hear whatever is on the CD, Britta eventually signs the check to charity but admits, miserably, that the only reason she did so was because the cameras were in her face (another point in the “win” column for the episode’s dismantling of the “honesty” of documentarianism), Troy wears a look of rigor-mortis shock for the duration of Burton’s visit, Jeff walks through several stages of denial before deciding to confront his father after all, and poor Annie draws a false conclusion about her shortcomings which Pierce doesn’t bother to tell her wasn’t his intention with her gift at all—it really was just a beautiful tiara for his favorite.
Even if this was as far as the episode had gone, it would have been a strong one with some nice character moments—like Britta relieving Shirley of her stress by making her listen to the CD which contains nothing but audio of the group calling Pierce out for trying to get them to speak ill of Shirley, which they don’t.  But, as usual, Community isn’t content with anything unless they can exceed the standard.  It’s not unpredictable that the group falls into infighting as a result of the stressful gifts, but some of the emerging revelations are wonderful touches that continue to build these characters into very complex figures for a comedy show:  Britta has a moment of redemption when she volunteers the last money in her checking account to buy Burton another plane ticket so that he can get a chance to see the real Troy.  Burton tells her she’s a wonderful friend but a financial fool, which of course is exactly what Britta wants to be (plus she didn’t actually have the $261 she offered him).  Jeff and Britta role-playing as one another’s moms is a great stand-alone moment in the episode, but it also seems to be a small part of what makes Jeff change his mind about what to do about his dad, and Abed does the rest by shoving a camera in his face and cutting together a nice montage of him freaking out on camera to reveal to us (and remind Jeff, who tells him NOT to do it) that Jeff isn’t nearly as dismissive of the issue as he would like us to believe. 
Again, the moment is handled nicely as a send-up of the documentary camera’s supposed omniscience, revealing “secret” and “private” moments that characters don’t want us to see.  Jeff shoving the camera away is a requisite part of these moments in reality television and it compliments nicely the other staple of the revealing of private moments in a documentary, the camera-through-the-window gambit, which tonight was used to capture Troy’s hilarious freakout about having to face the real Lavar Burton.  The trump card tonight is the parking lot scene, though, when Jeff steps outside to meet his father, who pulls up in a black sedan which is, of course, hiding Pierce trying desperately to get himself out of trouble.  The scene is captured in perfect reality-TV format with Abed manning the shaky camera; the sound of the car approaching is over-emphasized on the soundtrack, the camera bounces around like it’s an episode of Cops when Jeff chases after a retreating Pierce, and the physical altercation looks so perfectly like an actual reality-TV fight straight from The Real World that the line blurs for a moment.  The entire farce draws to a close with Pierce making his final confessional to the camera while his injuries from Jeff and the car accident are stitched up.  Exhibiting the true egocentricity of a reality TV star, Pierce takes full credit for the success of his mostly-failed escapade, most especially helping to bring Jeff to face the facts about his father.  While Pierce isn’t entirely wrong about that particular point, the subtle jab at reality TV is that the whole exploit was unethical and immoral and disgusting, but like most reality television “stars”, Pierce is too lost in the gazing eye of the camera lens to consider anything but the “victory” he’s won with his childish behaviors.  It’s phenomenal commentary on the genre and played so lightly as to slip past almost unnoticed.

Community is on a great run right now, finding incredibly strong moments for existing characters to excel in, and bringing in a variety of new characters and actors and giving them room to shine as well (Neil a couple weeks ago and Lavar Burton tonight both got some fairly meaningful screen time without seeing gimmicky or stealing the proceedings from the primary characters).  The cast is reaching a point where their interactions feel so organic as to seem ad-libbed (they could be, but the wit and pop culture riffing still seems so sharp as to require scripting), which bodes well given that the writers continue to give them such great situations to bounce around in that there’s barely time to catch your breath between laughs.  More’s the shame that it continues to rank low enough in the ratings that my local affiliate pre-empts it every time they have local programming to air—which is why you didn’t hear me weigh in last week.  Here’s hoping the show’s ongoing excellence eventually leads to a ratings boost; meanwhile you loyal viewers should continue to condescend viciously to anyone who refuses to add this show to their weekly list of comedies. 
Overall Score:  9.7/10
Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you: 
The subtlest pop culture stuff on this show is the best.  To wit:  Troy’s reaction when he realized he can’t make himself feel better anymore by laughing at Pierce because it makes him sad now is “It’s Gregory Hines all over again.”
I love that Abed cuts to an autographed photo of Burton to illustrated for viewers what Troy’s wish would look like.
“Mr. Hathorne is requesting sour face.”
Britta:  “You know what Dylan Thomas said about death?”  Pierce: “No, what?”  Britta:  “Okay, bluff called.”
Troy and Abed both plan to make their deaths look like suicides due to grief over Firefly being cancelled.  What does everyone SEE in that show? 
Britta’s contributions to the English Dictionary:  complisult and an explanabrag.  I plan to use both as often as possible.
“I’ve thought about this day for a long time but I pictured it differently.  For one thing, I thought you’d be the one in the bed and I’d be hologram.”
“My father held grudges…I’ll always hate him for that.”
I think Jeff wins the “dad” dialogue with “I dunno, I was drunk, I didn’t have a condom and her mom gets freaky when she hears Oingo Boingo.”
“Are these blood diamonds…(whispers) are they holocaust diamonds?”
“Thank god he didn’t take it—can you imagine bouncing a check to Kunta Kinte?”
Troy’s unending terror at being faced to face with Burton wears thin by the final moment of the show, but the joke is saved when he flees in terror, leaving his salmon behind, to which Burton:  “Well, more fish for Kunta!”

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