Community: “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking”, Review

Joe Matar gives us his view on the "mockumentary" episode.

Another week, another episode that technically feels like Community. It’s been referenced sparingly before, but here we finally address Chang reappearing, calling himself Kevin, and claiming to have Changnesia. It’s done in documentary style, making for the third time the series has ventured into this territory. Once again, Abed is the one filming with Garrett as his second camera (though sometimes we see footage from Britta and Shirley too) this time with the supposed purpose of documenting Chang’s affliction in order to create a stirring narrative that, if convincing to the soon-to-visit Macguffin Neurological Institute (oh, I get it), means a $40,000 grant for Greendale.

The first core question for me is whether or not there’s a good reason for this to be yet another documentary episode. In a series all about trying new things from episode to episode, it already felt like a questionable concept to do a second time. However, the second documentary episode, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” managed to put a new spin on the original premise by making it a documentary about filming something else (a commercial for Greendale) as Hearts of Darkness is to Apocalypse Now. So what was the point of using the format this time around? Well, I’m not really sure.

It makes sense enough for the storyline. Abed was the one who eventually cut together the Greendale commercial in the aforementioned episode, so why not him for this documentary? But it doesn’t feel like anything new is being done with the documentary style. Jeff is the only one who doesn’t believe Chang/Kevin so he gets heavily involved with Abed’s documentary, getting Shirley who is letting Chang work at her sandwich shop and (for no reason) Britta to get more footage of Chang. He also sends Annie and Troy out to investigate what happened to Chang before he reappeared at Greendale. Jeff claims he’s doing this to make a more effective documentary, masking his real intention of hoping to dig up something that outs Chang as a liar.

With its footage from various sources, this episode feels like maybe it’s going in the direction of parodying the found footage filmmaking genre. However, the parallels are so few and unexplored that I suspect they were accidental, ultimately leaving me again struggling to find a meaningful reason to revisit the documentary format a third time.

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Also, some of it is sloppy. When Troy and Annie visit Sullivan’s Trout Farm, it’s odd that the guy they’re interviewing never questions the camera. There are also a number of moments in this episode where there’s match cutting between two people having a conversation, but done in a way where we’d see the other cameraperson in the shot, yet we don’t. These sound like small details, but go back and watch the two other documentary episodes and notice that tiny things like this are constantly accounted for or explained. Quite frankly, Dan Harmon and the crew he kept around were INSANE and therefore completely obsessive about getting this stuff to be perfect.

Something also really lame is that Abed knows Jeff’s plan throughout all of this, so he goes along with Jeff’s plan and, in a pretty weird move for Abed’s character, just plain abandons the documentary the Dean wants him to make. The beauty part of the second documentary episode was that Abed managed to both make his documentary AND cut together a Greendale commercial for the Dean. Here, in the end, the only footage that ends up getting shown to the MacGuffin group are a couple of incriminating seconds of Chang that Britta accidentally filmed. The actual documentary is just screened for everyone later just… for fun, I guess? Following this, the Dean comments, “Why can’t you ever make a documentary about the thing you plan to make a documentary about?” But, in actuality, this is only the first time Abed has not carried out his original documentary plans.

I recognize I’ve stuck to deep, Abed-levels of geekiness, mostly discussing technicalities throughout this review, but these flubs are the sorts of things that would never have shown up in the past and I’ve become acutely aware that what characterizes Season 4 as different from Seasons 1 through 3 are these mistakes and this willingness to retread ideas for no good reason. But, anyway, this episode is pretty good as far as my standards for Season 4 go. I know some people just straight up hate Chang, but Ken Jeong gets to do some fun stuff here (like when he has to quickly recite back a whole section of dialogue we already heard) and I’d say Chang is the best aspect of the whole thing. Jeff had one great line. Annie and Troy’s detective dynamic was kind of a funny idea. But, on the whole, I didn’t laugh that much, which is a pretty big deal in itself.

Hey, by the way, are Britta and Troy still a couple? Hmm? Huh? Just asking.