Episode after episode of this, Community’s fourth season, I keep coming back to the fact that a show which used to elicit numerous belly laughs with every outing now has trouble making me chuckle once. Humor, as everyone knows, is subjective, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason that this season consistently falls flat, and a lot of that is because it’s based upon repetition. The reason why most fans loved the show was its sense of being able to go anywhere or do anything. With its Simpsons-esque flexible reality, Community was a live-action sitcom with an unbridled need to try new things out, week after week. Not all of them worked, but the successes always meant that was easy to overlook.
When it comes to something like “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” though, we’ve already seen a similar premise. The aptly titled “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” from two seasons ago already did this trick and used many of the same gags we had this time out. That’s a problem, but it’s also simply easier to talk about story repetition than it is joke repetition, as that’s actually the bigger issue. Suffice to say, once Pierce announces he wants to help out in the effort to get funding to study Changnesia, we know that something racist or sexist or homophobic is on the way. What, exactly, is still a bit of a surprise, but only a bit. And without that element of the unexpected, the show feels like it’s still treading water.
With that in mind, it almost goes without saying that the best parts of “Advanced Documentary” were the little bits of new material that weren’t merely documentary spoofs or self-referential humor. The strangeness of the trout farm was inspired, if not particularly funny, and Shirley’s desire to advertise her restaurant came off well and finally gave it some more screen time. The confrontation between Jeff and Chang was weirdly moving, and at this point it seems that unlike the rest of the cast, Jeff actually is moving forward. His maturity has become the defining positive feature of this season thus far, and my only hope is that the writing staff doesn’t make him revert like everyone else. Unfortunately, none of these parts of the episode were hilarious, but at least they felt fresh.
Still, despite everything else that happened, the episode’s main story was about Changnesia, which was new material but not in a good way. Jeff decides that Chang must be faking it while everyone else, for reasons unclear, believes him and sets out to get a $40,000 grant to study and help him with its symptoms. As stupid and infuriating as this central premise was (and it was a whole ton of both), it worked dramatically. Its plot turns made a sort of sense… up until the end of the episode, at which point it went against its own moral and left the audience with an unfortunate vacuum. One of the main themes of Community has been forgiveness, yet here when Jeff decides to forgive and move on we’re told it’s the wrong choice. Wonderful.
Ben Chang has gone through more and wilder changes than any two members of the show’s normal cast, and in several of his identities (particularly his first as Spanish teacher) he’s been one of the funniest parts of the show. But ever since he left the faculty, Community’s writers have only intermittently known what to do with him. It’s a strange thing when a show has all but written a character off, then devotes an entire episode to them. Ken Jeong did a good job here, showing some restraint when Harmon increasingly seemed to let him take things over completely, but with the stupidity of his overall storyline coupled with the repetition and numerous lame jokes… well, it wasn’t enough to justify his return to the show. Like Pierce, he has a schtick at this point, and even in the Kevin persona it’s predictable and dull.
The strange thing was that, for a documentary-styled episode based upon Changnesia this episode wasn’t bad at all. It was far better than it had any right to be, really, completely watchable and well-made, to the credit of everyone involved. It wasn’t funny, but that’s usually too much to ask of the show these days, and structurally it felt sound. However, that’s some very faint praise, since it was such a misguided idea for an episode in the first place that “Advanced Documentary” still couldn’t be redeemed. Whatever the wrapping paper, a terrible idea is still a terrible idea.
•“Basically a therapist” – What do you guys think of this becoming, essentially, Britta’s schtick for the show? I usually find it annoying, but not this time out.
•”Changnesia isn’t a disease, it’s a con.”
•I like the way they acknowledged the weight of a steadicam. Most of the other filmmaking jokes were either tired or, more frequently, weren’t jokes. They were just observations.
•Speaking of Britta, is she still together with Troy? I assume so, but they do little together (including, you know, talking to each other).
•”Even though you don’t know her, or how to use a phone, or what a number is.” – I get pretty frustrated when an entire cast of characters acts far below its intelligence level for plot reasons, regardless of how flexible a reality may be. Another way to read the episode was Jeff acts for the audience in his irritation and skepticism, but learns to just accept the (new) show as it is. He’s, of course, proven wrong and betrayed for making this dumb choice to drink the Kool-Aid, and the audience is the sucker for playing along with these shenanigans. Or maybe I’m just getting bitter.