TV Review: COMMUNITY 4.06 “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking”

The uneven season four doesn't have room for this sort of lazy filler, Brian says.

"I was dead for three minutes!"

Community has made a couple of jokes about how the 2nd paintball excursion might have been pushing things, but that hasn't stopped them from having Abed do a documentary every season. But while it was just a subplot the first time out, subsequent episodes have taken on the form of a faux-doc a la Modern Family and Parks & Rec, and since the first (Season 2's "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking") was such a classic, the subsequent ones have had a lot to live up to. Season 3's "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" was solid, if not perfect (that Annie subplot didn't work for me at all), but if "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" is any indication, perhaps they shouldn't continue the tradition if a Season 5 comes to pass. In an uneven season, I found it to be the low point, and even more disappointing when you consider last week's episode seemed to indicate that they had finally gotten back in a groove.

Of course, part of the problem is that the episode focuses on Chang, easily the most grating character and also the one that's never felt like a necessary PERMANENT addition to the show. The best thing they could have done was let him be like every other teacher they've ever had and just disappear from the school once they graduated his class, but since Ken Jeong is a gifted comedic actor (and co-star of two of the most successful comedies in the past decade), he's been kept around, with the writers having to find something new for him to do every year. Sometimes it works - I rather liked his insane detective noir subplot in the Todd episode from S3, and his S2 stuff with the beloved Professor Duncan (we are NEVER going to see him again, are we?) was usually solid. But this "Changnesia" thing just hasn't worked for me even in its small doses in the two other episodes this season (the premiere and the German one), so devoting an entire episode to it, built around the already shaky idea of yet another documentary to boot, didn't sound very promising.

And it wasn't. Maybe because it's painfully obvious that Chang is faking the whole thing (if you didn't figure it out yet, the tag spells it out), but even when he's not on-screen the episode often felt strained to me, kept afloat only by the cast's usual strong efforts and the occasional good line. It certainly doesn't help that the episode is mainly about Jeff's attempts to prove Chang is faking, and we know he's right but he goes about it in such a dickish way (more on that later), rendering it entirely inert - the climax is about how they're embracing his new Chang as if he WASN'T faking anything, and then, you know, he is. The highlights are when neither Jeff or Chang are on-screen; I quite enjoyed Annie and Troy playing detective, trying to find out where Chang was during the three months he was missing. This leads them to a trout farm owned by Sully, played by familiar character actor Mike Hagerty, who is always a welcome sight. His nonsense about trout not being a "vengeful breed" was particularly amusing, and if there's a silver lining to this Changnesia stuff it's the possibility that we might see him again. But also, Donald Glover and Alison Brie seemed to be having fun together; it's been a long time since they've been paired up, and Troy's plan to just argue with everything she says was an amusing runner that actually had a payoff, so kudos for that one, writers. And it wasn't funny at all, but I admired the fact that Jeong has to repeat an entire scene's worth of dialogue to Jeff after he seems to screw up regarding his amnesia - I may not laugh, but I can always respect when they commit to a potential trainwreck of a gag.

Jeff, however, seemed to be completely reverted back to Season 1 jerk, going above and beyond (and even spending money to rent a crane and license a New Radicals song for Abed's documentary) just to a. expose Chang and b. seemingly cost Greendale a grant. Remember last week when he was all selfless? And the week before when he realized Greendale had given him a family and thus it was time to give back? Where'd that guy go? Who's this guy that's making out with Chang's ex-wife just to try to get a rise out of him? I know he can't become a saint overnight, but if there was any sort of arc going on for Jeff this season, they really blew it here. Also, he once again convinces Pierce to inadvertently help his situation by encouraging him to be racist; it was funny in the S3 finale's "court" scene ("A Jew, and an Irish, walk into a bar... with a gay duck."), but here it's forced and shockingly unfunny, with Chevy Chase reduced to making racist hand puppets (one's a Mexican in blackface, the other an Asian woman) at Jeff's urging. It's a dumb connection to make (Jeff's a pretty smart guy - he can't think of any better way to screw over the school than have Pierce be racist?), and it wouldn't surprise me if it was this material that caused Chevy to have his outburst on the set (which, as the press tends to forget, was over his annoyance that his character was being given more racist dialogue than usual). There's a huge difference between his clueless, "from a different time" mentality and just being a flat out racist asshole as he is here, and if my assumption was right, I don't blame Chevy for being upset (and if I'm not right - Christ, does it actually get WORSE?).

Pretty much status quo for everyone else; Abed is just going through the same motions he did the last two times the writers remembered that he was a film student and gave him a whole episode to show off his skills, the Dean does his Dean thing (sans any costumes, thankfully) and Britta just pops up every now and then to screw something up. Nothing about it is very inspired, and the cast can only do so much with what is the closest thing to a throwaway episode the show's done in quite some time. All we learn is that Chang is faking his amnesia, and it's only in the tag - they could have done that in any of the episodes (the tags have been terrible all season, frankly); any other ongoing story threads are completely ignored. I already discussed Jeff's reset, but weren't Britta and Troy dating a couple weeks ago? What happened there? Someone suggested the episodes were airing out of order, and while it's certainly a possibility, it can't possibly be THAT far ahead - if anything it seems to be an episode that should have taken place earlier in the season*, when the two were still dating, not after they possibly broke up.

After my first viewing I dubbed this the weakest episode the show has done; a second go-round warmed me to it a little more (totally missed Abed's line about practicing frowning and smiling the first time); it may not be the all-time weakest but I still think it's the season's low point by a wide margin. None of S4 has been perfect, but they've been trying, and even at its previous low (the premiere) I was at least laughing a lot. I'm perfectly OK with an episode not being wall to wall laughs if the character/story is strong (last week's is a fine example, as is "Mixology Certification", which was also directed by tonight's Jay Chandrasekhar), but it's gotta be one or the other. For me, this episode had neither - and the season's too short to have much patience for lazy filler.

*Using the holidays/Ice cream class subplot as a guide, I think the order of the season would be Hunger Deans, German Invasion, Documentary, Halloween, Inspecticon, Thanksgiving.