‘Community’ – ‘Documentary Filmmaking: Redux’: Heart of darkness

A review of tonight’s “Community” – and further thoughts on recent scheduling/ratings developments – coming up just as soon as I fight the power with my hugs…

This has been a tumultuous week to be part of the small, strange, fiercely loyal group of people who call themselves “Community” fans. NBC put out a mid-season schedule that left “Community” without a home; we have two more episodes airing in December, including another Christmas outing, and then… unknown. There will be 12 more episodes, and they’ll air at some point because other things NBC tries will fail, but no one knows where or when. Some have speculated that this hiatus, coupled with the horrible ratings so far, means the show will end this season. Others have suggested that the show’s fate is unchanged, and that it’s still going to come down to what kind of deal Sony cuts with NBC in order to produce enough episodes for a good syndication package.

Some fans despaired. Others rallied, posting photos of themselves with evil goatees from the darkest “Remedial Chaos Theory” timeline, suggesting Twitter hashtags and other ways to contact the show’s sponsors. Some of the writers and actors joined in (though in a moment that sadly summed up the whole situation, Yvette Nicole Brown had to explain the goatee thing to many of her Twitter followers), and everyone tried to promote the idea of a mass tune-in (relatively speaking) for tonight’s episode.

That was a lot of pressure to hang on any one installment of a show, especially a show that’s as much of a chameleon as “Community” is. Even if this particular mess had landed in the week that “Remedial Chaos Theory” or “Paradigms of Human Memory” or even “Modern Warfare” was about to air, you couldn’t necessarily point to that show and tell the newcomers, “Yes, that’s exactly what the show is always like.” (That box-of-chocolates stylistic approach is one of many things I love about this show, but also undoubtedly one of the reasons it’s struggled in the ratings.) Perhaps recognizing how much the fans were trying to pump up expectations for this one, Dan Harmon tweeted earlier this evening, “AND, tonight, celebrate Community’s unschedulization with the least accessible, least marketable episode in its alienating history!”

And I don’t know that he was wrong about that. To use a wildly unscientific sample, my wife – who watches the show intermittently, really enjoys some episodes (she was a big fan of “Chaos Theory”) and doesn’t like others – mainly sat patiently through this one because she loves me, and said at the end, “I appreciated what they were trying to do.” I think the ship of growing the show’s audience sailed a long time ago. “Community” is what it is – defiantly, proudly, awesomely – and you’re either in or you’re out. If it continues past this season, it’ll be for the same reasons we’re currently watching the fifth season of “Chuck”: because new NBC shows have done even worse, and/or because the studio cuts a deal that makes it worth NBC’s while to keep it on the schedule somewhere.

I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m going to get three seasons of this marvelous show that seems to have a direct line some weeks to both my childhood memories and my brain’s pleasure centers, and maybe I’ll get more.

And ultimately, I don’t mind that my wife didn’t rave about the episode, and don’t give a toss that it might not be the gateway drug for a hypothetical goateed army of new viewers. Because I loved it. This was “Community” as I know it – maybe not representative of the series as a whole in terms of style (because nothing really is), but in terms of ambition and smarts and emotion and comedy.

The title obviously referred back to last year’s “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,”and beyond the format, there was also the way “Redux” was, like the one before it, structured around one character driving the rest of the study group (save Abed) slowly crazy. The difference, of course, is that where Pierce was executing a deliberate, evil plan in the original, “Redux” made everyone inadvertent victims to the contagious, hilarious madness of Dean Pelton(*) as he tried to update the ancient(**) Greendale TV commercial.

(*) Jim Rash is having himself a hell of a week, isn’t he? “The Descendants” (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon, who amusingly plays husband to the Pelton lookalike character on “Allen Gregory”) is opening to rave reviews and Oscar buzz, and he absolutely kills it in his biggest “Community” showcase to date. 

(**) Yup, that was Ryan “Captain Awesome” McPartlin as one of the students in the original ad, and I like how two of the other actors were styled as Blossom and Dwayne Wayne from “A Different World.”

The episode started out just seeming like it would be an excuse for Joel McHale to bust out his excellent Pelton impression, but things spiraled out of control in a hurry – appropriately enough, because Jeff’s plan to shut the commercial down backfired horribly when Luis Guzman(***) volunteered to be in the ad.

(***) I always say that only Luis Guzman can play a Luis Guzman part, and there may be no more Guzman-y part than playing Luis Guzman himself. You knew the show was going to bring Guzman in at some point, and I’m glad the episode in question was up to both him and whatever anticipation we may have had since that statue was erected. And the best part of all is that “Luis Guzman” briefly trended on Twitter during the episode. 

I thought Megan Ganz’s script did an excellent job of showing each character slowly succumbing to Dean-adjacent madness. Troy crying is never not funny, but the highlight of that scene was when Troy and Britta turned to hug each other for comfort in this desperate moment, then recoiled at the thought that they were back in that scene the Dean made them keep shooting over and over and over. Annie is emotionally wobbly to begin with, so she didn’t need much of a push over the edge, and her reasoning (that Pelton had to be a genius, because she couldn’t possibly waste so much of her time on something that was horrible) very Annie. My favorite, though, was Jeff slipping deeper and deeper into character (and wearing one of the more convincing bald caps I’ve seen), rambling, “I’ve become a stranger to myself. I’m bald now. I’ve always been bald. I’ve dreamt of having hair… and now the bald man is awake.” (That he had now made “bald friends” out of this ordeal seemed both poignant and hilarious.)

Pelton’s post-Guzman descent into naked, filthy, ice-cream-machine-molesting insanity drove the whole “Apocalypse Now”/”Hearts of Darkness” parallel home, and also helped deal with Abed’s role as filmmaker, narrator, godlike figure and the only person on the show who’s aware that he’s a character on a television show. There are times when his Abed-ness is presented as the most wonderful thing in the world, and then others where it makes him a tragic, disconnected figure. This seemed like it was going to be one of the latter – or, worse, one where the things that make Abed Abed made him terribly unlikable. (An anguished Troy asking Abed why he wasn’t doing something if he knew Pelton was going to make them all crazy put an emotional target on Abed’s unseen back for most of the rest of the episode.) I suspected, ultimately, that Abed would stop being The Watcher from Marvel Comics and step in to save the day – he does have a heart and cares about others, even if he often gets caught up in his various identities and pop culture fetishes – but the episode lingering so long on the idea of Abed as this cold, off-camera bastard made his heroic moment feel all the more powerful.

So, no, I don’t necessarily see “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” as the key that’s going to unlock a bright new future for the series. But I do look at it as yet another inspiring, hilarious, moving, example of why I’m so glad Team “Community” is out there, pushing the outer edge of the sitcom envelope, finding new and strange and brilliant ways to tell stories about this very diverse (minus Hispanics, alas) group of people who came together through a cosmic quirk of fate and now can’t live without each other. Beyond whatever financial concessions Sony makes in renewal negotiations, I can’t come up with a legitimate business reason for NBC to bring the show back next year. But I can think of a million artistic ones. This is the kind of show any TV executive who actually cares about the medium should be proud to be associated with, whether that’s for another half season, for another year to let Jeff get his bachelor’s degree or, heaven help us, beyond that (again, see the absurd impossibility that is “Chuck” season 5). 

I briefly put a goatee on my own Twitter avatar, but I’ve taken it down for now. We’ve got two more episodes to go in 2011. When I know there’s new “Community on tap, I can’t possibly be in the darkest timeline, can I?

What did everybody else think?