Episode 216: Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking

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 Affrosponge88

Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking Review

Whether it’s useful or not, many people like to split Community in half: “normal” episodes to the left and “concept” episodes to the right. It’s not like these people aren’t on to something, but sometimes it does a disservice to the episode itself to think of it through only through those lens, and with this I’m speaking about episodes that fall into either arbitrary camps. “Intermedia Documentary Filmmaking” is one of those special Community episodes that breaks down the walls between those two camps, and delivers an episode that proves that the show is best when it defies those expectations. The episode is clearly employing a mockumentary format to tell its story, but it all feels so organic, that it’s easy to get lost in the episode and forget anything’s different. Like the proverbial chicken and the egg, the best kind of Community “concept” episodes are the ones that make you ask: “what came first? The concept or the story?” Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking is such an episode.

When Pierce winds up in the hospital after finally overdosing on the pills he’s been taking for his leg for quite a few episodes (a great, subtle use of serialization that the third season could have learned a lesson from), Abed takes it upon himself to make a documentary of the hospital visit. Feeling neglected for a long time now, Pierce uses his hospital stay to play mind games with each member of the study group (except Abed) as retribution for how the group has been treating him lately. What’s great about this development, is that it hardly comes out of nowhere, and the episode picks up a lot of running threads and obscure jokes concerning Pierce and brings them to a head. There is a nice natural progression of events that all lead up to this episode. Anyone that classifies Pierce’s actions in this episode as “out of character” or “not built up to enough,” needs to go back and look at the past events of season 2. 

In half a season’s time, Pierce: 

  • loses his mother 
  • has reawakened father issues courtesy of Colonel Sanders
  • starts to struggle with his age in the group
  • breaks both his legs
  • has his birthday forgotten by the study group, and covered up by the members
  • gets ignored by the group during Troy’s 21st birthday celebration
  • once again gets reawakened father issues, thanks to a play
  • gets excluded from a game of Dungeons and Dragons, without being informed why
  • overdoses on pills prescribed to treat his leg

Not exactly a fun year, all in all.

Can Pierce be a dick? Absolutely. But so can the other study group members, Jeff especially, and the group seems to be much more forgiving of everybody else’s transgressions over Pierce’s. Because of this, Pierce sets out to torture everyone by giving them each a gift that brings out their biggest insecurities to light. Everyone except Annie, that is, since she’s his favorite.

The gifts are as follows:

  • Britta: a check for the amount of $10,000 with the “payee” line blank, so that she may write down any charity she chooses… or her own name
  • Shirley: a CD recording made by Pierce of when Shirley leaves the study room, to shed light on what the group says about Shirley behind her back
  • Troy: Levar Burton to come visit him personally
  • Annie: a tiara
  • Jeff: Pierce supposedly tracks down William Winger, Jeff’s long lost father, and has arranged a meeting for the two

We’ve all seen the episode, so we know how they all react. Britta and Troy’s “gifts” are comedic goldmines, and Shirley’s is a nice touch on acknowledging her more judgmental side. Jeff’s bequeathal is easily the biggest one, as far as the weight it has on the character, and in turn, his arc. Having serious father issues of his own, Pierce takes it upon himself to force Jeff’s to resurface as well, because misery loves company. What I especially like about this storyline, is that it stays true to the character, no matter how abruptly it comes to an end. When Jeff attacks Pierce (and in another sense, his own father), it’s the first time the repressed hatred he feels towards the man has surfaced. Pierce essentially is the catalyst in bringing William Winger back into Jeff’s life, and although the true ramifications of this aren’t manifested until the season three finale, it all stays true to who Jeff Winger is. Jeff Winger wouldn’t go out immediately and track down his father, because he’s only coming to grips that he might actually care about his existence. But that doesn’t stop him from at least salvaging the only semblance of a fatherly relationship he does have in his life, which is why it actually is incredibly sweet to see him at Pierce’s bedside.

In fact, he’s not the only person who benefits from Pierce’s agonizing bequeathals. With the exception of Troy, everyone faces one of their biggest weaknesses head on, and it’s a moment of clarity for each of them as they’re brought to light, even if it was unintentional on Pierce’s part. Because that’s what Pierce is in reality: mildly malevolent, but ultimately much more harmless than the group gives him credit for.

Lastly, the episode plays it smart with the use of its mockumentary format, getting its jabs against the format in early, and ending it on a note of appreciation for what it does have to offer. There are certain stories and jokes that a show like Community wouldn’t be able to tell as effectively without it, and this is a shining example of one of them.

Stray Observations:

  • Besides being a wonderful examination of these characters, it’s also one of the funniest episodes of the entire series. I could list virtually any of the quotes here, but I’ll give special mention to Jeff and Britta’s hysterical role-playing.
  • “Well what do I know? I’m Jeff Winger’s dumb gay dad!”
  • It makes sense for the character to be sidelined during these kind of episodes obviously, but a part of me wishes we would have gotten to see Abed in front of the cameras during one of the mockumentary episodes.
  • On a personal note, I was never a huge fan of Britta, comedically, until I got to this episode. I didn’t think she was bad or not funny in the slightest, but I never considered her as a personal favorite until I saw the Britta we see on display here. BRITTA FOR THE WIN!
  • Troy’s arc is still great upon rewatch, but I can’t help but say it’s lost a little luster for me personally compared to the other comedic storylines. I think it works best for me when I didn’t know the jump cuts to his outbursts were coming.

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-748155533 (page 694)

 

Discussion:

  • I TOLD YOU A THOUSAND TIMES, I DIDN'T WANT AN ACTUAL REVIEW!!!!! I WANTED A SYNOPSIS!!!!! YOU CAN'T BE DISAPPOINTED BY A SYNOPSIS!!!!!!!!!

  • Capt. Blicero offered Affrosponge88 Holocaust diamonds so he would finish this review.

    For realsies, nice work 'ffro! This episode is fantastic upon rewatch and forget how great and funny an episode it is, and your review does a great job explaining why.

  • Britta Perry: [pretending to be Jeff’s estranged father] Hi. I'm Jeff's dad. Hi. 
    Jeff Winger: [pretending to be Britta’s dad] Oh, hi Jeff's dad. I'm Britta's dad. 
    Britta Perry: What? why? 
    Jeff Winger: I don't know. Got drunk, didn't have a condom, and her mom gets freaky when she hears Oingo Boingo. 
    Britta Perry: Oh, God, I wish I could relate, but much like my son I'm a closet homosexual. 
    Jeff Winger: Don't apologize for that. You're talking to the guy that banged Britta's mom. I have NO standards! 
    Britta Perry: Well, what do you say we take a tumble? I'll put on a wig. 
    Jeff Winger: That's it, you're under arrest; I'm an undercover cop. 
    Britta Perry: It's not illegal to be gay. 
    Jeff Winger: It is here in Iran. 
    Britta Perry: Not if we're in the Green Zone. 
    Jeff Winger: That's Iraq, stupid. 
    Britta Perry: Well, what do I know? I'm Jeff Winger's dumb, gay dad!  
     
    Ahhh that's great interplay. Fine writing — and a fine writing to YOU, affro sir. 
     
    Next up is Intro to Political Science. Automatic Taglines said she couldn't do it, so who's willing to tackle the beast? I'd want the review posted within a week. Make sure you can handle that kind of turnaround, but it's the break people! Come on.

  • Affrosponge88

    I could totally do that review, Capt!

    (NOTE: Since jokes have gone unnoticed on this board, I'll take this opportunity to point out that I am joking.)

  • You were joking? What?

  • I really love how you cited actual reasons for why Pierce was an ass. It's one thing to just assert something; it's another to back that up with episodes worth of evidence. 

    Take note, next reviewer: use the full breadth of Community's oeuvre for your thesis.

  • Since I'm on break from school until the 6th I'd have plenty of time to write a review, but I did write one very recently in episodic, if not chronological terms. If nobody else steps forward feel free to enlist me.

  • Harmon and Ganz writing, Joe Russo directing = crazy delicious. This is a great episode for every study grouper, which can't be said about even the best of episodes.

    Deleted scenes:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…

    This episode also has one of the best commentaries. Smug, condescending Dan Harmon kicking ass at its best.

    It took 129 pages but we finally did it; I finally got a reason to edit the hallowed Google doc again http://aclockworkoffense.com/g…

  • The deleted scenes are fucking awesome.  This episode is just amazingness packed to the gills.

  • Great review, Affrosponge88 . I can see you've put a lot of work into writing longer, more substantial stuff in the last 6-8 months, and it's really paid off in things like this and your Freaks and Geeks review, among other things.
     
    I have to admit that I sometimes forget IDF when I'm thinking about the large group of brilliant, conceptual episodes in S2. Eeven though it uses it's concept to get at the heart of the show and the main characters as well or better than those other eps, the dry, melancholy, everyday-life nature of the ep makes me think of it as "pizza" when it's anything but. (For the record, I had it #16 overall on my rankings.)
     
    It's especially a great Jeff episode, with him demonstrating dramatic, escalating emotion throughout that ends up exploding when he pulls his "Dad" out of the limo. Not only is McHale exciting to watch in scenes like that, but it also helps to explain his overall demeanor and why (for example) his standoffishness to Britta in this ep is crueler and more defensive than he really means for it to be.
     
    You really explained in your review why Pierce's story in this ep shows so much about him. He's just as dependent as Jeff on diverting people away from his real pain and problems, then using big, over-the-top gestures to get their attention when simply being a little bit nicer and more considerate would do.
     
    I differ a little bit with you on Britta (although I've come around to seeing why she's so funny in this ep, and why she's often most relatable when she's at her worst). I loved her character from the beginning, and I still bristle sometimes at her treatment in the back half of S2, where she's often a pin cushion and a modern sitcom stereotype (self-indulgent, grandstanding liberals are the worst kind of people, etc.). I'm more OK with it now because she recovered in the first half of S3, and now I feel like I can chart her character through a breakdown in confidence and a stubborn recovery of her own life. But unlike Jeff, I don't feel like her psychological motivations were demonstrated enough to justify how cruel the show was to her at times, really starting with this ep. 

  • Stephen and I were talking about McHale's acting and he pointed out that McHale actually hits his dramatic beats better than the comedic ones, which I think this episode bears out, as do Accounting for Lawyers, CFS, RCT, among others. He is an MFA, after all. His one main weakness seems to be cry-acting. It was so odd to see the subtle work in this followed immediately by his petulant storm-off in the next episode, then the outbursts in UMaSA and CLU. I couldn't tell if those were supposed to be funny or the genuine desperation of a severely depressed person.

    Nice observation about Britta and why the change in character is more palatable when leavened by better–or actual–characterization. The jokes still bother me but the way they drew her arc in S3 of finally channeling her passion, owning her personality and letting ridicule slide, strengthening a bond with someone she knows better than anyone (Jeff) into more of a friendship than a dead-end romance, and counseling the others when appropriate was one of the best accomplishments of the season.

  • I didn't like his drunk acting in Urban Matrimony, but I've noticed that even when the show has guest stars his acting still appears stellar.  He made Drew Carey look stilted in Accounting for Lawyers, although it's only Drew Carey, so big deal….

  • Oh lord, yes, the cry-acting leaves a little something to be desired.

    He's great with the more subtle dramatic acting but I think his comedic acting is funnier when it deviates more from the Soup model of crackin' wise, when there isn't that slick veneer of Winger coolness. (See the euphoria over the decision to bang that kid's mom.) Some of my favorite moments from McHale have also come when he's become a little unhinged (this episode's "You better not intercut this with footage of me freaking out"), and the Goldbluming, of course. 

  •  I actually like the crying; in the context of the narratives, it's almost always supposed to be sincere, but it comes off as wacky and comical, which is very much in keeping with Jeff's inability to express emotion in a natural or healthy way. He comes closest to Pierce the petulant kid when he cries.

  •  Great review, Affro! This is a wonderful episode and you do it great justice. I like your characterization of it as a not-quite-conceptual episode: it clearly has a bone to pick with mockumentaries, but it's more a riff on the form than a straight up pastiche (it's similar in that respect with "Conspiracy Theories" and "Calligraphy").

    What I like best about it (and about most of Community's forays into genre is that the show is capable of criticizing without being dismissive or mean. On the commentary Harmon is rightfully boastful of the show's ability to construct elaborate narratives and real character development without having to rely on expository asides and winks to the camera. But in the episode itself, the actual criticism of the format is rather subdued, and the rest of the story rather relishes what it affords (there's some great camera work when Shirley runs to listen to her CD or when Jeff pulls Pierce out of the car).

    Re: Joel's acting. I think something happened between S1 and S2 because he started getting better at naturalism, and right when the show got more complex. Joel was fine in S1 with a form of snarky deadpan, which was very close to what he does onThe Soup. But his style was far more traditionally sitcommy. But I first started paying attention to him as a dramatic actor in "Calligraphy," where he really sold the explosive anger.

  • My first Community episode ever! This was a somewhat confusing one for a newbie. The jokes about Abed exploiting the documentary format should have clued me in that the show was not normally like this, but somehow I didn't get it and the fact that it was on the same network as a mummifying Office made me think, like prescient internet commenter Michael Dyson, that Community was in fact The Office on a community college campus. I liked it, but wasn't bowled over. What if I'd stopped watching???

    [PICTURES WORLD WITHOUT SUNSHINE]

    (I now have IDF at #16 in my ranking. What up, rankin' twin Eric!)This really brings home what a great season 2 was for Pierce, huh? And how seamless the serialization could be. And how…non-labored the exploration of intra-group dynamics could be. Season 3 was often concerned about highlighting the group's insular dysfunction, and it produced some great instances of this, but I don't recall anything that felt as effortless as this episode, where so much is revealed about each character and many of the key relationships, and all very organically, as you say. A first-timer like me could glean so much (except for the conceit of the episode): 

    All about Shirley
    -Britta's desire to heal and how quickly it is tempered by her one-upmanship with Jeff
    -Classic Winger empathy-deficit rebuke from Annie: "We know there's no point Jeff, we kinda just felt like feeling it."
    -Pierce's undying, creepy, but ultimately sweet paternalism: "Jeff and I became kind of like father and son today."
     -How incredibly easy it is to make Troy cry: "Set phasers to love me!"

    Fine review!

  • I'm more than a bit late, here, but fantastic review.  Great point about how the bequeathals force the characters to confront a truth, which is really basically a good thing.  Nice connection to Pierce's "I say things others won't.  That has value."

  • Love the review. The hard truth's thing is spot on. I also am on the same page with you on comedy and Britta. Loved the Jeff/Britta banter this episode. I got to do the write up for IDF for the Glazomania rankings list, but really didn't think about it from Pierce's point of view – thanks for including it in your review.
    I'll say it again – amazing review.