Remakes are a tricky thing. If you attempt to reinvent something people already love, you are bound to be compared unfavorably to the original. However, sometimes the surest way to satisfy people is to give them what they already know. Plus, it is perhaps for the best when you are charged with Community’s fourth season and have already fired two complete duds within five tries. Hence, it is time to sign up for “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking.”
This week marks the third mockumentary from the mind of Abed Nasir. His first production came in the second season when we viewed an entire episode from his skewed POV. In Season 2’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” Abed “directed” one of the show’s best episodes when Pierce fakes a terminal illness at the hospital. He bequeaths each of his “friends” a psychologically tortuous gift and has Abed film their reactions. In truth, the episode is also a send up of sitcoms like The Office, Parks and Rec and most especially Modern Family (one of Community’s chief rivals). Abed deconstructs for the viewers how easy it is to write, shoot and edit that sitcom formula. One can simply take random images, put them in an inconsequential order and overlay a sappy, aimless voiceover above it to create sentimentalism. It was a fanged barb at more popular shows and led to Season 3 revisiting the formula with “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.” In that one, Abed shoots a film about the Dean losing his mind while making a grotesquely over budget and pretentious commercial for Greendale. It was modeled around the real documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), which itself detailed Francis Ford Coppola’s feverish nightmare shoot of Apocalypse Now (1979). So what does Abed deem worthy of his lens for senior year?
It seems that the MacGuffin Institute (Hitchcock would be proud) is coming to Greendale to discern whether Ben Chang has amnesia (or Changnesia). If they believe his tale of woe, Greendale could net $40,000 in research funding. Thus, the Dean enlists Abed to film a documentary about how maniacal Chang has transformed, overnight, into benign Kevin. It is important to note that the Dean could not truly overcome his distrust and dislike of Chang until school grants became involved.
Abed indeed shoots the whole film, but as with Redux, he ignores the Dean’s scholastic intent and instead records a battle of wills between “Kevin” and Jeff. While the entire rest of the school has forgotten and forgiven Chang’s attempt to blow up the school at the end of Season 3, Jeff just cannot let it go. Geez, get a hobby, Winger. Abed, ever the observer, witnesses Jeff’s need to be right turn into an obsession. Along the way, Jeff sends Annie and Troy off as an adorable pair of crime solving partners (Annie wears a trench coat and Troy dons a cynical grimace). To best serve the meta-television convention, as Troy insists, they disagree on everything, including how to badger a suspect. Their gumshoeing ultimately hurts Jeff’s thesis when they discover Chang spent three months as an oblivious, unpaid laborer for a trout fisherman at Trout World.
There is another subplot involving Britta britta-ing her camerawork when taping Shirley at the sandwich shop, but it inadvertently pays off after she leaves the camera on for 12 hours. First, it allows Abed to take a sharp dig at Malick (“It’s unwatchable and I sat through Tree of Life”) and then it further serves Jeff’s quest. On the tape, the two discover “Kevin” has been phoning his ex-wife.
I can appreciate the show digging up the backstory of Chang having a wife from Season 1. Even Harmon strangely dropped that plot thread when Chang became a student in the sophomore season. The tape’s revelation leads to Jeff climactically confronting “Kevin” during the MacGuffin Institute’s visit. There, he produces Chang’s wife who tries to help “Kevin” remember. When Kevin shows a total lack of recognition for his ex, Jeff harasses both to the point of sticking his tongue down her throat in an attempt to provoke Kevin’s inner-Chang. It fails miserably and “Kevin,” who once almost blew up the school and kidnapped the dean for three months, becomes a hero with $40,000 of support from the MacGuffin Institute. Meanwhile, Jeff becomes the school’s new Chang pariah. Abed’s documentary ends with the two reconciling in the cafeteria to the sweet sounds of ‘90s pop rock and an expensive crane shot (Jeff paid for it). Jeff has finally accepted “Kevin.” Too bad, because as soon as the documentary ends, the final credits bumper reveals that he has remembered his Chang-iness all along! Surprise…for no one.
This episode is a shameless rehash of two previous, far cleverer episodes of Community. And I loved it! This is the first episode in all of Season 4 that actually feels like old Community to me. I would not dare call it one of the great episodes of the series, but it felt like a standard run of the mill episode from the old days. This “documentary” lacked an overall theme like the previous two, which were more focused in their satire. Still, I enjoyed the unraveling of Kevin’s Changnesia right down to the Trout man speaking of his fears about a giant, vengeful trout.
Now, do I believe Greendale would forgive Chang for nearly blowing everybody up? Doubtful. Then again, that was a fairly preposterous episode written by Harmon’s own hand. I appreciate they embraced Jeff’s reluctance to the concept with a whole episode and made a callback to the Mrs. Chang mentioned several times during the first season. Most of all I appreciated the characters sounded like my Greendale friends from years past and their adventure did not feel forced or generic. It is a set-up that would only work at Greendale and only in Abed’s hands. With two previous shows doing it, how could they screw up? They did not. This is a perfectly average episode of classic Community. I’ll take it!