I’m at the point now where I don’t know what to think about Community anymore. Based on critical acclaim, I feel like I’m enjoying it less than I should, but based on what’s actually happening onscreen, I feel like I’m enjoying it more than I should. Maybe I just don’t “get it,” or maybe there’s no “it” to get. I don’t understand if Community is trying to be something bigger or if it just wants to be a collection of random jokes. Heck, I’m not even sure if Community knows what it wants to be. Community is locked in a state of perpetual identity crisis, and that was strikingly apparent in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” an episode that left me with mixed feelings and a whole lot of confusion.

As a parody of its network brethren, The Office and Parks and Recreation, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” adopted a mockumentary format, complete with talking heads and shaky camera movement. The format presents a unique opportunity for a show to really get inside its characters’ brains, but perplexingly, this episode didn’t take advantage of it. The talking heads spouted a few amusing lines and obviated the need for expository dialogue, but other than that, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” played like an amusing exercise in adapting Community to the mockumentary format, nothing more.

Thus, like many other episodes of the series, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmakingfell prey to gimmickry. Too many episodes this season have vied to be the next “The _____ Episode.” We’ve already gotten The Apollo 13 Episode, The Zombie Episode, The Mean Girls Episode, The Bottle Episode, The Conspiracy Episode, The Alcohol Episode, The Claymation Episode, and The Dungeons and Dragons Episode. Did we really need The Documentary Episode too? Perhaps only the most shallow viewer would essentialize these episodes in those terms, but I think that such reductionism is warranted when the central gimmick becomes the star of the show, ahead of the comedy or the characters. Gimmicks are to Community what guest stars were to Will and Grace. In fact, though they may appear to be a crutch, gimmicks may actually be a hindrance.

I felt as if this episode was actually being bogged down by its documentary conceit. For example, Abed never got to interact with Pierce because the premise of the episode had him “filming” the entire thing. In fact, the episode reached its greatest heights when it didn’t need to rely on the mockumentary format; the conversation between Jeff and Britta where they pretended to be each other’s father was the best (and funniest) part of the episode. By contrast, the running gag about Troy’s reaction to meeting LeVar Burton relied heavily on the mockumentary style. The lingering shots of Troy’s facial expression were a clear parody of the use of the same device on shows like The Office, as was the scene of Troy’s freakout in the secluded sitting area. Unfortunately, the gag didn’t work at all (which wasn’t Donald Glover’s fault; he did the best he could with the material he was given).

Those kinds of gags demonstrate that Community is not very aware of the TV landscape, nor does it possess the same degree of self-awareness that having a character like Abed on the show would suggest. The episode ended with a voiceover from Abed, who said that documentaries can be as messy as real life, and implied that the format didn’t add much of value. What Community failed to recognize is that the decision to use the mockumentary format isn’t arbitrary. The format influences the tone and feel of the series, and for programmes like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, it’s an invaluable tool. Community also showed a lack of self-awareness in failing to recognize the implication of Abed’s voiceover. If the mockumentary style didn’t add much of value, if it could be used for any episode chosen at random, why bother with it in the first place? Now, a smart-ass might suggest that in devoting so much text to criticizing the mockumentary format used in this episode, I missed the point; the idea is that the mockumentary format isn’t useful, so to criticize the satire thereof is to miss the point entirely. But that is unfortunately the same smug attitude towards satire that Community has adopted. Being satirical does not make a show impervious to criticism. There’s good satire and bad satire, and the kind of satire where a show falls victim to the very traps that it is satirizing is bad satire.

From an analytical perspective, it’s difficult to get away from the documentary conceit because this episode was so wrapped up in it. But for argument’s sake, let’s try to isolate the character beats that weren’t motivated by the episode’s format and examine them in the context of the wider picture. This episode put an end to the storyline of the group’s alienation of Pierce, and I don’t feel that it was resolved in a very satisfying way. Pierce’s increasingly reckless and unlikable behaviour has been a sore point for the past few episodes, but “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” didn’t provide any redemption for him, nor did it explain the reasons for his pill addiction. Instead, Pierce tried to play mind games with the other members of the study group because he felt that they were mistreating and excluding him; he was tired of being thought of as a joke. But as Jeff so accurately stated in this episode, “This isn’t disproving the theory.” If Pierce is stooping to the level of emotional manipulation, then the group was right to exclude him in the first place. Thus, the resolution to the storyline was hollow, and it gave the episode an oddly cynical feel. Pierce’s storyline was also clumsily intertwined with a subplot about Jeff’s dad. It felt bizarrely out of place, and Pierce preying on Jeff’s daddy issues just further reinforced the idea that Pierce doesn’t deserve to be in the study group.

Overall, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” was another so-so effort, lackluster without being offensively bad. It felt constrained by the confines of its format rather than liberated by the new storytelling possibilities that the format could afford. I don’t understand whether this episode’s purpose was to parody the mockumentary format, to reset the group dynamic, to provide redemption for Pierce, or just to generate a bunch of laughs. I’m not sure that the episode accomplished any of those purposes or that the writers even knew what purpose they wanted it to accomplish.

Maybe I need to do some reflection before I can sit down to watch Community again. At this point, I’m going in to each episode expecting to be disappointed and looking for flaws. It’s not as if the writers have started crafting jokes that are less clever. It’s not as if the characters, Pierce aside, have morphed into something unrecognizable. It’s not as if the show is radically different than it used to be. Maybe it’s me who just doesn’t understand Community anymore.

Or maybe the show is as lost and fucked-up as I think it is.

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