In the years since The Sixth Sense, the name M. Night Shyamalan has become a punch line, synonymous with feeble attempts at suspense. This reputation is not unearned. It does, however, ignore some good stuff like the polarizing but interesting Unbreakable and the mostly delightful alien flick Signs. Unlike, say, The Happening, which creeps its way toward a final twist so weak it couldn’t open a pasta jar, Signs skips amiably to the finish before hopping genially off of a cliff into a chasm of nonsense. The aliens were allergic to water? Was that from a first draft or something? (No apology for giving the ending away. It’s not a spoiler if you wait a decade to reveal the conclusion of a movie that is nonessential viewing.) “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” this week’s Community episode, is the series’ Signs, breezy and fun with a vexing conclusion.
I am on record as being sick of Ben Chang. I found his arc as the head of a Greendale-based military junta as jarring and abrasive as an actual coup d’état. In spite of myself, though, I kind of like Kevin. Like the Greendale community, I’m taken in by his wide-eyed, Amelia Bedelia view of the world. It would take a hard heart not to smile at a grown man reading a book called How to Wear a Hat and then putting the book on his head, ignoring the actual hat in front of him. As much as the Greendale student body forgot that Ben Chang had attempted to murder several of their peers, I’ve let slide how visibly I recoiled at the character’s early appearances this season. Changnesia, it seems, is a boon to us all.
While Chang/Kevin is turning over a new leaf, the other characters get to do what they do well. Abed’s role as documentary auteur suits him much better than the onus of omniscient narrator that he bore last week. Abed’s not Red from The Shawshank Redemption. Red had too deep an understanding of the human condition. Abed, meanwhile, is an outsider. He sympathizes with Chang/Kevin’s habit of practicing smiling and frowning for future social interactions. Abed is less Red and more Mark, the narrator from Rent. Abed, like Mark, prefers to remain on the sidelines, taking part in his own life as an observer. Yes, I know that reference off the top of my head. As we established before, I’m not made of stone. I know how many minutes of love are in a year. Anyway. Abed’s unnatural behavior seems most natural behind the camera, capturing the action, not narrating it to the viewer.
Off campus, Annie and Troy (or, to use their detective names, Houlihan and Partner) make a charming team. Annie’s eager-beaver attitude pairs nicely with Troy’s confident misunderstanding of cliché. Troy’s decision to contradict Annie’s every move as a crime-solving tactic unfolded like a Saturday Night Live sketch that knew when to wrap itself up, which is to say it was fun. Plus, the adult-as-boy-detective plot delights me in any incarnation. (Donald Glover played a different version of it in Derrick Comedy’s 2009 feature film Mystery Team, which is worth seeing.) Their innocent and bubbly chemistry is enough to make you wonder why Troy and Britta are together, that is, if you remember that they’re supposedly romantically involved still. Or are they? We haven’t seen them so much as hug lately. In the words of Springfield, Massachusetts, band Staind: It’s been a while. Almost as long as it’s been since I’d thought of the band Staind for any reason.
In their slightly less meaty screen time, Britta and Shirley do Britta and Shirley things. Shirley religiously intones that she thinks God made Chang, but Kevin is a choice. But she still gave him a job for some reason. Look. Don’t get down on Shirley for that. She’s not a businesswoman; she’s a business, woman. Britta continues her endless probing for a cause to make her own. You know … the usual. No more, no less.
Pierce’s brief subplot, though, feels a little undercooked. His normal buffoonish racism feels more like regular, run-of-the-mill racism this week. His black/yellowface hand puppets seem like many old people's idea of an actual funny performance. Trust me. I do stand-up comedy. People feel the need to tell me a lot of racist jokes. Generally you can spot them a mile away. Pierce’s insensitivity usually has more of an absurd edge to it. His racial humor here is too banal. The writers would do better to do worse, if that makes sense.
Most of the characters fulfill the roles set out for them, like they would in a genre film. In a satisfying twist, though, Jeff acts like a jerk, and everyone pretty much agrees he’s a jerk. His recitation of lessons learned can’t bring the study group around to his side. Interestingly, Kevchang is the first person to forgive Jeff’s attempt at vigilante justice against him. The two share what appears to be a legitimately tender moment, despite Jeff’s skeptical narration. It’s a nifty, unexpected inversion of the show’s usual dynamics with Changvin in a position with more social capital than Jeff. It’s interesting … until it isn’t. More on that later.
For the most part, though, like Signs, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” isn’t out to revolutionize the medium. It attempts to provide just enough of what it promises in order to be worth the viewer’s time. Signs came through with enough gasp-worthy moments to keep my (Rent-loving) high-school girlfriend clutching at my arm in the theater. This week’s Community episode provided enough Community-type jokes to elicit chuckles at appropriate intervals. Abed’s movie caption announcing Britta as “basically a therapist.” Dean Pelton’s insistence that Abed’s documentary be “the Hoop Dreams of things people care about.” The farmer so terrified of a trout uprising that he was relieved at the sight of a naked stranger on his property. These jokes all worked. None of them changed the way we watch or think of television, but that’s not always the point. Sometimes it’s okay to be entertained by something less than a masterpiece. By scaling down its ambition, Community ironically delivered a stronger episode than many this season.
Even the referential nature of the show was kept largely in check. A few smarty-pants moments stuck out to me, but none seemed especially grating. Abed Abed-ly referenced the perplexing art-house film Tree of Life and the unsettling documentary Capturing the Friedmans. A lab-coat-clad doctor explained that Changnesia inhibited the memory but not the ability to make forced puns. The nonprofit with the ability to grant funds for Changnesia research was cutely named the MacGuffin Institute after the film term macguffin, meaning a goal or object desired by the protagonist. “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” ran long on I-see-what-you-did-there-isms but fortunately lacked instances that drove me to optic-nerve-straining fits of eye-rolling.
The only scene that really rubbed me the wrong way was the episode’s final minute, in which Kevin, in a phone conversation, reveals that he has been Chang all along. I thought I’d witnessed a brisk half-hour of television comedy. Instead, I realized, I was witnessing the first steps toward a new Chang of Terror. The conclusion undercut the message of the value of second chances and once again broadened the scope of the show beyond just an oddball community college. Also, Kevin’s moment with Jeff was all part of a ruse! Oh, go fuck yourself, Community. Why don’t you just make Chang allergic to water while you’re at it?