Episode 314: Pillows and Blankets
314: PILLOWS AND BLANKETS
/Keith David Voiceover
On April 5th, 2012, an episode of television aired that, by all logic, should have never seen the light of day. It was too weird, too unusual, too esoteric, even for the most esoteric show on
television. “Pillows and Blankets” was all of these things, yet there was one thing…
/Keith David Voiceover
Ok, enough of that. There was no way I’d be able to keep the voiceover gimmick up for an entire essay. I’m not nearly that creative, and I probably butchered the Ken Burns style intro enough in only three and a half sentences. Besides, what the cast and crew of Community did in this episode was so impressive, for me to even attempt to emulate it would do a disservice to the episode. While I can’t do anything like that, what I can do is talk about why “Pillows and Blankets” works as an episode, as well as how it works as an example of how some of season 3’s experiments in serialization were successful.
The first, most notable thing about the episode is the particular kind of documentary format in which it is presented. “Pillows and Blankets” isn’t a documentary so it can easily tell a complex story by cutting to people explaining things to the camera; it is a documentary with a purpose. Community had already shown a true mastery of the mockumentary form on two occasions, but this one was stylistically different for a reason. “Pillows and Blankets” acts as a fully produced documentary that exists in the world of the show and was made in the style of a man best known for a documentary on the Civil War. The shift in style is key. Presenting “Pillows and Blankets” in this specific format adds a level of seriousness that wouldn’t have existed had this been the same kind of documentary as “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” or “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”. This isn’t another chance to show Modern Family how a mockumentary is supposed to be done*, nor is it even an exploration of the Dean on a journey into his own personal heart of darkness**; to the characters, this is a civil war, an event of great import and seriousness. The use of the same style as The Civil War helps “Pillows and Blankets” to highlight that point.
*The camera crew has to have a reason to exist, people!
**I could have said “heart of deanness”. You’re welcome.
It almost goes without saying, but the way the episode absolutely nailed the aesthetic of the Ken Burns-style documentary is incredibly impressive and leads to some great laughs. It isn’t funny simply because it was entirely unexpected and off the wall***, but because it is also so faithful. From the voiceover narration, to the use of “primary documents”, to the slow zooms and pans over still photography, everything is spot on in terms of style. Again, this is a case where the normally weighty tone of this documentary format becomes a gag itself. The juxtaposition between these hallmarks of serious documentary filmmaking and the subject of a campus-wide pillow fight leads to some big time cognitive dissonance, which results in some
hearty laughs. Take the “English Memorial Spanish Center” bit, for example. Keith David is narrating a field of battle in much the same style that troop movements at Gettysburg were described in “The Civil War”. He is treating it with the same tone and reverence, but the words coming out of his mouth are just so entirely out there given what is normally expected of such a
documentary that it becomes even funnier (although that monologue would have been funny if one of us delivered it on vocaroo, to be sure).
***I personally had no idea that they were going to attempt an episode in this style, which is probably why I was entirely blown away by it the night it aired. Earlier in the day, I had seen Alan Sepinwall tweet that he couldn’t believe Community did an episode that was a Ken Burns homage, but I thought he was engaging in a round of #CrazyCommunityPitches or something. It never occurred to me that he was being serious.
While this is an incredibly unique and incredibly funny episode of Community, it is not without its faults. The episode has a very strong focus on Troy, Abed, and Jeff. While that leads to some great moments that the show has been building towards for its entire run, those moments come at the expense of the other main characters. It would admittedly be tough to cram in an arc climax for all the characters along the lines of the one Troy and Abed experienced in this episode; however, it was disappointing to see the rest of the study group reduced to their most basic traits: Britta Britta’d things, Shirley was a barely-contained rage monster hidden by a veneer of sweetness, Annie was a disapproving and scolding angel on
Jeff’s shoulder, and Pierce was old, irrelevant, and kept off screen as much as possible. These characteristics are true of all these characters, but they were not developed or explored in new ways at all within the context of the episode. The burden of pathos was shifted to Troy, Abed, and Jeff, and the other characters suffered slightly as a result. They were still allowed to be funny, but they were certainly not as memorable as the three leads.
Season 3 is recognized as the most heavily serialized season of Community to date. Many episodes deal with a variety of ongoing plots, whether it is Britta’s attempt to become a therapist, Shirley’s Sandwiches, Jeff’s ongoing struggle against himself (more on this later), or
the ménage a trois between Troy’s need to become a man, Troy’s desire to stay young, and Abed. While the season’s attempts at serialization (and the season as a whole) were controversial in some corners of Community fandom, I maintain that some of those attempts at serialization were successful because they were concerned less with moving the plot forward and more with moving the characters forward. We didn’t see ongoing plots for the sake of emulating The Wire. Instead, we saw ongoing plots as a new way to examine characters as they moved along their respective story circles.
Considering that Dan Harmon uses story circles both on an episode and season-long level simultaneously, the circles lead to incremental changes in each episode that eventually add up to big changes over the course of the season. By tying these incremental changes in with a continuing set of circumstances, the audience is presented with a unique way to track those changes over the course of many episodes. We can now see how a character would react to a similar situation when the changes they have accrued over the course of the preceding episodes are introduced. By utilizing continuing stories, Dan Harmon and his writers were able to display the changes each character went through more clearly as they moved out of their zone of comfort.
“Pillows and Blankets” is concerned with two of the most successful of these character-based attempts at serialization; Troy/Abed and Jeff. On the surface, as part two of a two parter, this episode is primarily about the state of Troy and Abed’s friendship as seen through the prism of Troy growing up. Troy’s decision between embracing maturity and continuing to have youthful fun with his friend has been a recurring story throughout the season. Troy recognizes that his friendship with Abed as it currently exists is keeping him in stasis, and while he doesn’t want to lose that friendship, he wants to become an adult. Troy’s choice between the two is made most evident by Vice Dean Laybourne’s attempts to get him to join the AC Repair School, but both Troy and Abed have moments where they recognize this impending growth and how it may affect their friendship in episodes such as “Remedial Chaos Theory”****, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”, and their heartbreaking discussion in “Contemporary Impressionists”. They realize they are getting too close and that their desires in life are dovetailing less and less. This is then made manifest by Vice Dean Laybourne, who pushes Troy to stand on his own and no longer be Reggie to Abed’s Inspector. Troy wants to be seen as a man, as his own person, and Laybourne makes it clear that his friendship with Abed is holding him back. While Laybourne may have been the one to add the vinegar to the paper mache volcano that was the Trobed friendship, it was already primed to explode.
****I’m referring to “chop busted, fellow adult”, and Troy’s reaction to being treated like a child by Jeff. Even though it didn’t take place in the prime timeline, it is still very revealing because either A) there is a timeline somewhere where it did happen due to the alteration of one variable, meaning those sentiments exist in the prime timeline, or B) assuming that all of the timelines occurred in Abed’s head, it has been shown repeatedly that Abed is incredibly perceptive when it comes to how the other members of the study group will react to a given set of circumstances, so the fact that he recognizes this desire for maturity in Troy makes it very valid.
While it isn’t as clear on the surface, this is also a very important episode for Jeff. Jeff has been engaged with a conflict between his lawyer self and his Greendalian self throughout the series. He wants to be the cool guy who is above the goofy community college hijinks, but Greendale still manages to change him, slowly but surely. While he has had breakthroughs in the past, his scene with the magical friendship hats represents a turning point for him moving forward. His entire story circle has been building to him truly embracing Greendale, and the idea that he participated in something so unnecessarily goofy as returning to the Dean’s office to get the hats shows the effect that his friends and his surroundings have had on him. This isn’t a temporary fix, either; rather, Jeff acts very different moving forward from this point. I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder here, but I find it very interesting that his next big Winger speech, in “Origins of Vampire Mythology”, is more directed towards himself than the group. He isn’t monologuing in order resolve a conflict or heal a rift among his friends, he’s monologuing in an attempt to heal himself.
Although Jeff’s story circle was truncated at the end of season 3 due to Harmon’s impending ouster (and he seriously backslid in season 4 in order to generate drama), the small changes in Jeff throughout the season and the series culminated in a beautiful moment where he did something truly unselfish. Naturally, he immediately undercut it by bragging about how he
“nailed” it to the film crew, but his arc was not compete at this point. He wasn’t a fully actualized human being yet, and the episode left him room to grow while still showing the strides he had made to this point. More change was yet to come, but the events of this episode represent a key signpost in turning Jeff from a smarmy lawyer looking to get out of Greendale with as little effort and as few attachments as possible to the guy who walked down the halls of Greendale with his friends at the end of “Introduction to Finality”.
THE STRAY OBSERVATIONS and THE COMMENTARY ON THE COMMENTARY
-Despite my 2,000+ words of analysis about humor and emotion and serialization, the true genesis of “Pillows and Blankets” came from the fact that the season was behind schedule and over-budget. The two parter was a way to save money by reusing sets and costumes, and the still photography enabled them to show action without actually having to stage all of the action.
-The “we are this close to losing our fund-“ joke in the tag gets my vote for the “biggest break of the fourth wall in Community history” award.
-I must say, the episode did manage to make good use of Chang and his child army. For a plot that seemed like a total throwaway in “Contemporary Impressionists”, the Changlourious Basterds was a good gag that made sense in the context of the episode.
-Keith David nailed his dialogue in one take. What a pro!
-Andy Bobrow had experience writing in this style, as he had written and directed a short called ”The
Old Negro Space Program” that employed the same Ken Burnsian style prior to working onCommunity.
-I had never watched it before writing this review, but the “This is War” documentary on the season 3 DVD has some really high quality information on the creation and filming of “Pillows and Blankets”. The fact that they made a documentary about the making of their fake documentary might be the most Community thing ever. If you’re like me and haven’t checked it out yet, I highly recommend doing so.
THE QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
-What are your thoughts on the serialization used in season 3 and how this episode functions as a representation of that experiment?
-What did you think of how the documentary style was employed in “Pillows and Blankets” compared to the mockumentary episodes of Community?
On the AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/advanced-introduction-to-finality,97134/#comment-1073705121 (page 248)