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.
– 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!