“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” has everything that makes a great episode of Community. It has a story line for each character in the study group, a wide range of tones from laugh-out-loud funny to very dark comedy, the kind of stylistic exploration the show has become known for, and, as always, characters that feel so real in their outrageousness that we can’t help but see parts of ourselves in them.
The story line of Pierce’s turn for the worse has been building ever since he broke his legs on the hidden trampoline Jeff and Troy discovered and kept hidden. For most of the fall, Pierce putted around in a wheelchair, making for some great visual gags and developing Pierce into an even more cantankerous and alienated member of the group. This has given the show a surprisingly dark streak with Pierce, varying between the background and foreground of different episodes. He’s been frustrated with his inability to get into the bar in “Mixology,” struggling with an addiction to painkillers last week, and developing into an outright villain two weeks ago. Tonight Pierce becomes the puppet master of an evil scheme by attempting to fake that he’s dying.
Pierce’s motives have been laid out over the past few months rather clumsily, but Chevy Chase has been doing his absolute best with the material, committing to the character so completely that he’s been able to sell the bitter loneliness Pierce feels at being ostracized by the study group. Where in other episodes he’s felt one-dimensional in moving about as an uncaring, insufferable douche to the group, during this episode, while confined to a hospital bed, he manages to be all over the map: genuinely kind, insanely manipulative and everything in between.
Pairing this kind of a plot with the filmic style of the mockumentary is an incredibly bold decision, because it’s the trademark look of The Office, and this episode is tonally very different from anything the American version of that show has ever done. Community uses the style to its advantage in order to break the fourth wall in its most explicit way, and enhance character. In this case, the relationship between Pierce and Abed, the wannabe filmmaker handpicked to document Pierce’s “final moments.”
The gimmick of Pierce bequeathing items to every member of the study group puts everyone on alert that something is wrong, but doesn’t stop them from seeing what he’s up to. He bequeaths Shirley a recording of the group talking behind her back; Annie a tiara for being Pierce’s favorite; Britta a check for $10,000 for the recipient of her choosing; Troy a visit from Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton; and Jeff a visit from his long-lost con man father.
All of these are designed as mind games for Pierce to exact revenge on the group for ignoring him, but it does lend the episode the opportunity to be as comedic as possible with the mockumentary style. Shaky handheld longshots mixed in with interview cutaways describing the action are not only used as a way to insert jokes into uncomfortable situations, as they are most of the time on The Office, but again, deepen the connections of the characters. The best example of this is Shirley’s makeshift confessional. Once Britta plays the CD and Shirley realizes that the recording has no evidence of anyone badmouthing her but Pierce, she realizes that by deciding to never play the recording and repeatedly forgiving everyone, she’s been using guilt as a weapon. Then, in the very same take that she confesses this fault to the camera, she makes Abed feel guilty for not asking her to do a confessional. It’s the little things like this that Community manages to get right so often that affords it the ability take the great stylistic risks that it does.
“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” could be written off as another one of the show’s many genre experiments, and visually speaking it definitely falls into that category; but the story is the payoff of months of character and story groundwork with a much more somber and dramatic tone, leavened with enough hilarious moments to fall in with the best episodes Community has to offer. While it didn’t offer a complete resolution to its overall conflict between Pierce and Jeff, that’s what future episodes can grapple with. For now, this episode was pretty much pitch-perfect as a stand-alone example of Community, but how well it fits into the second season overall will have to wait.
Final Grade: A
Man, Troy is freaking hilarious. His reactions to LeVar Burton, especially the moment the camera captures him going crazy on his own are the best comic beats of the episode…
…Except possibly the conversation Britta and Jeff have while pretending to be each other’s father. That was hysterical, and continues to further my theory of the continued romantic relationship between the two that’s been buried in subtext the entire season.
Even though I appreciate the Firefly reference, I can’t help but think it’s already very dated, even with Nathan Fillion cruelly saying he still wants to make more episodes when we all know it’ll never happen.
The nurse was absolutely hilarious.
“Mr Hawthorne is requesting ‘Sour Face.’”
“People shouldn’t die in the same place People magazines do.”
“My father held grudges. I’ll always hate him for that.”
“You know what Dylan Thomas said about death?” “No, tell me.” “Bluff called.”
“Britta, you’re the selfless one of the group, right?” “Wouldn’t know. Haven’t thought about myself in years.”
“See what I just did there? That was an explanabrag.”
“I wish I could relate, but much like my son, I’m a closet homosexual.”
“What do I know? I’m Jeff Winger’s dumb, gay dad.”
“I just wanted a picture! You can’t disappoint a picture!”
“Don’t you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out!”
“I was nostalgic from a very early age.”
“You are a really generous friend, but you are really stupid with your money.”
“Could you imagine bouncing a check to Kunta Kinte?”
“More fish for Kunta.”