Community "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

By Cory Barker

Mar 15, 2013

Community S04E06: "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking”

As this week’s episode of Community explored who Kevin/Chang is, I couldn’t help but continue to think about what this show is. I don’t want to talk about the past or what Community could or should be, I really don’t. But in its six episodes so far this season, the show has tried too hard to recreate some former version of what it was, which ultimately leads to the audience making comparisons. In the two episodes where the writers managed to break free a little from certain expectations about what Community is “supposed to be” (the two holiday episodes) in order to tell simple, but effective character stories, it felt like there was enough juice and goodwill (certainly in the cast and in the writers room as well) to make the season worth sticking with.

“Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” was a tough episode for me, because it begged us to compare and contrast how it stacked up against Community's previous two documentary-style episodes (and for the record, I adore “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” but I admire “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” more than I enjoy it). But it also put together a nice—albeit unfortunately Chang-heavy—story that united the whole cast and Greendale for a specific purpose. While the new Community is still very clearly a work in progress, these last two episodes suggest that it might be building toward something.


I can’t really defend the choice to return to the documentary conceit. "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" did make some attempt to justify why Abed was filming everyone again (he’s Abed) and why the Dean might be pushing him to do so (he’s the Dean), and there were a few new winks toward the process (Abed watching and reacting to footage on-screen; his line about crane shots conveying emotion and his constant desire to get better shots, which sort of reinforced that this was a sloppy attempt to re-create magic), but those moments didn’t overcome what felt like worn-out territory. Whereas the show's first two outings with the documentary style were used to take character-first stories to different extremes (along with the show’s typical convention-busting stylistics), this one doesn’t get to that interesting place. What could have been a cool moment for Shirley was bypassed so that the episode could use Britta’s technical ineptness to make a joke and give Jeff “evidence” to take Chang down. There was value to tracking Jeff’s journey from deceit to acceptance that made the confessionals beneficial, but they just weren't enough for me. Annie and Troy’s detective work too obviously recalled their prior experiences (Annie with Shirley in Season 1’s “The Science of Illusion,” and Troy with Abed in the Law & Order riff last year). It was a beat that existed so Jeff could use the two characters’ enthusiasm for fake police work to serve his minorly nefarious plan, but then the episode didn't do anything else with it. Jeff set them up, they took the bait and sure, we got a few solid jokes powered exclusively by Donald Glover making faces at the camera, but so what? And on a similar note, by the time the episode confirmed what we already knew—that Jeff was right and Chang is faking it—the show was back telling a story we’ve seen before: Chang trying to cause an insurrection, this time presumably with the help of City College (which we’ve also seen before).

All of this signifies something that’s both disheartening but also not just related to any behind-the-scenes changes: Community has reached middle-age, and the show is now more willing to open to that box on the shelf that’s marked “Things That Work.” You could argue that the show is pushing half-cooked versions of stories and character moments we’ve seen before solely because the new showrunners suck, but as The A.V. Club’s Joel Keller wrote a few weeks back, that’s not necessarily the case. The show returned to certain conceits in Season 2 and Season 3, too, and in my mind, often to diminishing returns. "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" was an extension of that, combined with writers wanting to keep the peace, combined with the show simply aging.

It’s generally easier for me to stomach these things in episodes with strong character bits (like last week’s), but at least this one didn’t mangle everything like “Conventions of Space and Time” or “Alternative History of the German Invasion.” And what I like about “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” is that, despite the familiar framework, it was a relatively calm episode. Community has struggled to balance multiple stories this season like never before, but this one brought everyone into one singular plotline, which is where the show has traditionally done its best work. The documentary allowed for every character to get their moment (even Chevy seemed lucid this week), and that makes me happy.

Plus, we got another solid Jeff story. Even though we “learned” that Chang was faking, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate Jeff’s recognition that he can’t always push things to the most insane, severe degree. We’ve seen him learn various lessons in humility before, but his willingness to start over with “Kevin”—even though he literally did try to kill everyone—was a big man move. It’s interesting to me that the show is so reliant on Jeff this year. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the lead character and Joel McHale has been doing great work in bringing his tough transition from Jeff to full-time New Jeff to life, but to me, re-centering on a lead character suggests that the writers are holding on to what’s a little easier to do while they attempt to find the other characters’ voices. So here we are, another week, another episode of Community sending us conflicting signals. I—along with a lot of the audience—am ready and willing to move on from the past. While I don’t think the show should completely break from what came before, it can’t keep trying to be what it was, because it’s only reminding us of how it can’t get there anymore. 

And yet, the show also keeps giving us great moments like Jeff reaching out to shake Kevin/Chang’s hand, which totally hit the mark. Figuring out your lead character and giving your star good moments are big steps forward. But then you've gotta keep taking those steps.



STUDY NOTES

This is where I talk about Britta’s new glasses. Hey there.

– I appreciate that Jeff was willing to pony up the rights for that New Radicals song, and I enjoyed the show’s use of it (and the crane shot).

– Ken Jeong did a nice job in that final cafeteria scene. Chang no longer fits into the show and hasn’t really for two seasons, but that was a good moment for him.

More History of Ice Cream diabetes drop-outs. We just need three more!

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  • gmanBegins Mar 20, 2013

    For the record. I love this show...but IMO with the Dan the Man leaving there is something off this season, I will continue to watch but this Chang storyline is played OUT..
    A couple of episodes back they played up the other students hating them for hogging the study room..The need to bite a little more on that idea..Them vs Greendale...Your Welcome!!

  • gsager1 Mar 19, 2013

    For the record, this review was several paragraphs of opining for Community seasons past, followed by 4 bullet points discussing the rest of the episode.
    I found this episode, if nothing else, thoroughly enjoyable television. Plenty of funny lines (and none that tried but fell flat) and some nice character moments. Joel McHale is turning into quite the actor this season.
    Also, there's a giant elephant in the room that hasn't been mentioned -- Does anyone realize what a MacGuffin is? A plot device with no inherent meaning that serves purely to move the plot forward. So for the entire episode, I was wondering if the MacGuffin was the grant, or if it was Changnesia itself and that we were headed for a giant swerve. It was fitting for them to throw that nugget into a documentary-style episode, too, since it originated in Citizen Cane, which was itself part investigative mystery.
    Overall, I thought this episode was very well done and one of the season's stronger showings.

  • numberonecubsfa Mar 18, 2013

    The fact that users of this site have rated it a whole point higher than the very touching Thanksgiving episode makes me think Community fans just want more of the same tired crap instead of actual character driven stories.

  • briandouglash Mar 17, 2013

    The joke with Abed reacting to the footage because it would be too hard for the viewers to watch was a reference to the documentary Grizzly Man.

  • n_amososeta Mar 16, 2013

    The show is definitely going through a Chang. Ken Jeong is doing a pretty good job acting as a nice-having-no-clue guy. Although, the evil laughter at the end was kinda predictable, the show is taking the Community fun path.
    I really love it! It's like watching cartoons...but with people.

  • CoryBarker1 Mar 17, 2013

    Chang puns!

  • DavidJackson8 Mar 16, 2013

    Maybe I'd have thought better of the episode if it wasn't so Chang-centric. Not only have I not liked Chang's character since he became Greendale security -- and teacher Chang was the best Chang -- I also hate this idiotic version of him. You KNOW a show is trying to dumb down when they start incorporating a seemingly mentally retarded character pretty much only for cheap comedy (Abed has a psychological condition, but he's never been an idiot or 'tool' for laughs). Derp, what's a microscope? LOL.

    Maybe I'd also have thought better of the episode if I had laughed at least once. I've always loved Community for its heart and morals, but for most of its run, it was also a legitimately hilarious comedy. I don't see the hilarity anymore. I can still give this current Community a couple daps and props every other episode or so for still conveying the heart and morals side of things, but it's just not funny. It may not have been as horrible as the wishing fountain scene, but Pierce's idiocy wasn't funny... Britta's idiocy wasn't funny... Troy's idiocy wasn't funny... Ugh, the characters are all just idiots now.

    So with that said, this wasn't the worst episode of the season and I can still see certain aspects improving. Hopefully the jokes are next to improve because a 20 minute melodrama with a touch of 2-Broke-Girls-jokes doesn't do much for me.

  • CoryBarker1 Mar 17, 2013

    Teacher Chang was definitely the best Chang. The show's been sort of screwed with the character from the jump once The Hangover turned Jeong into something of a star.

  • JamieBlumenfe Mar 16, 2013

    Still enjoy the show but Chang... haven't really liked the character since he stopped being the Spanish teacher.

  • thorthorsen Mar 16, 2013

    I didn't think the episode was 'bad', but it wasn't that good either. And that's the problem with Community this season, 6 episodes in and none of them were great. How is that possible?

    Luckily we still have Parks and Rec :)

  • XY Mar 16, 2013

    I decided to give the show a chance after the disappointing premiere being one of the optimists. 6 episodes in I don't see much hope. Half baked, recycled, worn out ideas everywhere while it seems that they try way too hard to bring something new. I miss the creativity which made this show unique. I really like Cory's analysis; this is not the first time Community recycles and tries to play it safe. I don't think this is only a Harmon-thing. But yeah, whatever it is - it kind of doesnt matter anymore as this show is finished...

  • withoutcanseco Mar 16, 2013

    I'm out. Gone from my DVR, gone from my active TV show list. What a TV shame.

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