Shortly before “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” aired last night, creator Dan Harmon tweeted, “AND, tonight, celebrate Community’s unschedulization with the least accessible, least marketable episode in its alienating history!” There was a lot riding on “Redux,” because if an episode of Community were to ever get new viewers, short of a not-yet-announced Ashton Kutcher special episode, this would have been it, due to the Internet nearly exploding earlier this week when The Announcement That Shall Not Be Named was, well, named. In theory, at least, though to quote Homer Simpson, “Communism works…in theory.” The ratings for Thursday haven’t been announced yet, so I have no idea if there was a significant upgrade in how many people watched last night, though I’d wager to guess the midseason-no scheduling impact was minimal-to-nonexistent. Besides, Harmon was right: “Redux” would have been an extremely tough episode for new fans to enjoy, even with its life-affirming ending.
There were many, many things I liked about the episode — everything from Britta and Troy having to do take after take of their commercial, leading to the Director Dean screaming that if they don’t get it right, he’s going to segregate the school, to Luis Guzmán impersonating his own statue (the quintessential Guzmán movie is, of course, Beverly Hills Chihuahua); from the opening Greendale video with a girl who looks like to Blossom, to Jeff’s fantastic Dean impersonation and Annie’s reasoned Stockholm Syndrome; from Abed giving himself some credit, as an “awesome” fly on the wall, to the return of Garrett — but I thought the plot was…well, I have no idea. We’ll get to that.
It’s a tale as old as time, a trope as old as rhyme, the one where an innocent-seeming character gets a smidge of power, and becomes a tyrant because of it. Every sitcom has done it at some point, and in “Redux,” it’s the Dean who becomes the power-hungry monster — a power-hungry monster director, actually, of a new Greendale commercial, and Abed’s filming the making of it as a documentary. The advertisement featuring everyone in the Seven except for Abed and Pierce, who’s outside in a trailer he rented demanding a new trailer, is nearly finished, when the Dean receives a call from Greendale alum Guzmán who wants to lend his services to the cause.
This is when things begin to unravel for the Dean. “Redux” is similar in style to both Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdote, New York, and Hearts of Darkness, the Apocalypse Now making-of documentary that shows Francis Ford Coppola slowly coming apart at the seams while making his 1979 masterpiece. The Dean begins snapping at his crew and making unreasonable demands (“I’m supposed to be a book, reading a book, but that doesn’t make sense”), and he’s even convinced a beleaguered Annie to convince herself that he’s brilliant, because if he weren’t, she’d have been working for a crazy man all this time. (It’s been a heck of a week for Jim Rash: he not only starred in this episode, but he also co-wrote The Descendants, which is receiving strong Oscar buzz.)
It’s Jeff, though, who’s gone the furthest down the rabbit hole, after initially just trying to point out to the Dean how ridiculous he is (“Welcome to Dean-dale Community Colle-dean”!). But the Dean loves his Fake Dean character, and Jeff’s instructed to never take off his bald-cap. He begins making bald friends and, similar to Troy in the Room Temperature Room, he doesn’t know where the Dean ends and he begins anymore. I thought the initial sight of Jeff as the Dean, along with the silly goose honking, was absolutely great, but I became slightly beleaguered by the character as the episode wore on. Same with the Dean himself, whose spiral into madness included a naked romp through the school (in my mind, he’s listening to ABBA’s “S.O.S.” while doing nude high-kicks), molesting an ice cream machine, and burning his diploma and rubbing the ashes all over his face. Community usually finds a way to subvert tropes and the movies/TV shows its parodying, and I was afraid that there was going to be no final pay-off, no undermining of the originals, until right at the end, when Abed saves the day by editing together a commercial from the Dean’s pre-Kurtz footage and his own. It took so long for Abed to step out from behind the camera and help his friends, even after Troy scolds him for not warning everyone that the Dean was going crazy (and what a brilliant idea it was by Megan Ganz and the rest of the writers to have one of the Seven film the Dean’s descent into madness), that the final moment, where he does just that, is that much better of a resolution.
Yet, like Abed, I’m going to step into my own work, and admit that I’m honestly not sure what to make of “Redux” of a whole. My assessment so far has been slightly underwhelming, both in terms of my feelings for the episode (it’s been getting an overwhelming positive response on the Internet so far; the A.V. Club even gave it an “A”) and my inability to make a definitive critical statement. While watching the episode live, I didn’t love it, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more my feelings for it have grown, because not only was it very, very funny; and not only did it feature a long-lasting hug from Britta and Troy; and not only did it make fun of Shirley’s voice, something some fans of the show have asked to be toned down; and not only did it have the Dean handing Annie an orange, calling it “scene four,” it also was a perfectly-timed episode for old fans. The ultimate message I got from “Redux” came from an unlikely source: Luis Guzman. He tells the Dean to not worship the people who are leaving Greendale, but rather, “worship the people who are here.”
We have no idea how much longer Community will last — we know there will be two more episodes this year, then twelve some time in 2012. Beyond that, even with Bradford’s optimistic outlook, the future is very cloudy and impossible to guess. But that’s not what we should be worried about; we shouldn’t be worried at all, actually. We should embrace the time we have left with Community, because there’s not much of it. Remember when Fox aired the final four episodes of Arrested Development on the same night, February 10, 2006? I didn’t watch any of them until months later because I didn’t want to admit that after I finished “Development Arrested,” there would be no more Arrested (if only 2006 Josh could have seen six years in the future!). I’m not going to do that with Community. When the show does eventually end, it shouldn’t be mourned — it should be celebrated, as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.
Josh Kurp did like “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” more than The Descendants.