‘Community’ – ‘Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking’: Pierce the puppet-master

Senior Television Writer
02.17.11 149 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I bounce a check to Kunta Kinte…

Taken just on its own merits as an individual episode of “Community,” I thought “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” was pretty fantastic: an affectionate spoof of the mockumentary style of “The Office” and “Modern Family” that then used that style to tell a bunch of really effective, even moving, character stories while still leaving room for big laughs from Troy’s terrified reaction to smilin’ LeVar Burton.

Looked at from the bigger picture of season two – specifically from the episodes we’ve gotten in 2011 – it was more problematic.

To put it simply, I loved the episode and yet I find it hard to believe that the study group would ever tolerate Pierce’s presence after what he does here.

I talked about Pierce’s troubling behavior in the D&D episode, and when we got the painkiller addiction story last week, I assumed that was how the series would deal with it: all of Pierce’s recent thuggishness would be written off as a result of the pills and he would go back to being the offensive but not malicious character he’d been before. When the Russo brothers spoke about this episode with Vulture’s Joe Adalian, they said one of its goals was to help redeem Pierce. If anything, I think the opposite happened. Pierce was even more evil here than he was in the D&D episode, or the trampoline episode, or at pretty much any time in the life of the series. What he did to the group in general and Jeff in particular was pretty unforgivable, and it was done without the aid of pain pills. This was an unclouded Pierce doing this, and if we’re supposed to take the emotions of the study group seriously – which this series, and this episode in particular, asks us to do – then this would lead to a permanent shunning.

Even Pierce’s explanation for why he did it shouldn’t help. It makes sense from Pierce’s point of view, because he’s so oblivious to his own flaws that he thinks he’s been treated unfairly by the others all this time. But this isn’t like Jerry on “Parks and Recreation” being unfairly turned into the butt of everyone’s jokes and scorn(*). Pierce is treated the way he is because of how he treats others, going all the way back to the pilot. He wasn’t originally a bad guy, but he was definitely someone who could be extremely difficult to be around, to the point where it wasn’t unreasonable for the others to avoid him and/or joke about him behind his back. Jeff says that Pierce’s behavior here doesn’t disprove the theory that he’s a joke, but it’s actually worse. The only way I could see him regaining the others’ affection and approval would be if he acted out what’s written in Royal Tenenbaum’s epitaph – and, of course, he’d be dead at the end of that.

(*) Though, come to think of it, a “Jerry’s revenge” episode of “Parks and Rec” would be kind of fantastic. Get on it, Ken Tremendous!

If “Community” wants to be a show that doesn’t care about continuity or consistent characterization and just try to tell the funniest jokes and most memorable stories it can each week, I would be disappointed but would at least be able to accept Pierce’s ongoing presence. But that’s not what that show was or is, and all the material involving Jeff, Britta, Shirley and Annie was a reminder of that.

Right now, the show has a pretty big Pierce problem, and this episode not only didn’t start to fix it, it made it worse.

And yet, again, taken outside the context of that Pierce problem, it was wonderful. Hell, even Pierce’s behavior itself was a great showcase for Chevy Chase if you can set aside the notion of consistency and consequences.

First, let’s take the mockumentary framework, which was a great example of “Community” having its cake and eating it, too. Not only does it get Abed out of the way (since Pierce’s mindgames would have never worked on him, and I think even Pierce would recognize that), but it allows the show to point out the many crutches that the docu-style comedies lean on – talking head interviews for easy exposition of complicated plots, random shots plus a voiceover to suggest thematic connection when you don’t have a proper ending in mind – at the same time it’s taking full advantage of them. I don’t know how you tell this particular story – or, at least, tell it this well – without the device.

And showing everything as filmed through Abed’s cameras also allowed the show to achieve a level of intimacy and emotional honesty with several of its characters that it’s much harder to achieve within the context of a “normal” episode.(**) Yes, most episodes have some kind of heartwarming moment, even the more ridiculous or pop culture referential episodes like the chicken fingers outing, but the documentary device created this added illusory level of reality to the proceedings. This version of Jeff Winger seemed even more human than the Jeff Winger we usually get, and that allowed the show to really get up close and personal with the anguish and confusion he was feeling over Pierce’s lie about his dad.(***)

(**) As we’ve discussed repeatedly, ain’t no such thing as a “normal” episode of this show.

(***) If the Emmys ever recognized that this show, and Joel McHale in particular, existed, I think this might be a very fine submission episode for him.

It was especially impressive that the episode reached this level of intimacy and vulnerability and yet was still able to leave plenty of room for jokes. Troy’s bequeathing was just a joke from beginning to end – and a hilarious one, given that Donald Glover crying and/or screaming is never not funny, and when you couple that with his stone-faced terror mask, you get something truly special.(****)

(****) Similarly, if the Emmy voters ever got their heads out of their rears and realized how funny Glover was, I imagine he could get very far with an episode that features him breaking down in sobs as he sings the “Reading Rainbow” theme and screams, “Set phasers to love me!!!!”

But even the other four bequeathing stories had their funny moments: Britta’s explanabrag about complisults, Britta and Jeff’s role-playing exercise that quickly gets out of control as they try to one-up each other, Shirley acknowledging that she uses guilt as a weapon and then using it on Abed, Troy explaining that he and Abed have a pact to stage the other’s death like a suicide based on the unjust cancellation of “Firefly,” LeVar Burton’s pleased “More fish for Kunta!,” etc. At the same time the episode was dealing honestly with Jeff’s abandonment issues, with Shirley’s insecurities about her place within the group, with Britta’s belief that she’s not worthy of the ideals she always brags about, etc., it was also finding ways to tell jokes about many of those things.

And, again, within the context of this episode, Chevy Chase was pretty damn superb. We know how desperately Pierce craves being the center of attention (and suspect that Chevy does, as well), and so an episode in which every character is either talking to him, talking about him, or struggilng with something he’s done to them was like a dream come true, and I loved the ways both big and small that he picked the others apart. (One of my favorites was his disappointed “oh” at hearing that the presence in his room isn’t Death, but Britta.)

On its own, one of my favorite “Community” episodes ever. But I don’t know how the hell they dig their way out of the Pierce hole after this. They could try swapping his position with Chang’s, but the end implied that he’s still part of the group, and I don’t buy that. At all.

What did everybody else think?

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