Before I get into it, I just wanted to say quickly that if you’re concerned about Community’s chances, take a deep breath. Yeah, it freakin’ sucks that NBC is being complete idiots about their scheduling and probably going to regret their little switcheroo, but the show’s not canceled. They’ve committed to episodes and at some point they’ll air. NBC does weird things all the time. Remember when they decided to hold Parks and Rec until mid-season last year? Same with 30 Rock this year? Gave Whitney Cummings any sort of deal at all? Everything related to Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno? My gut tells me that everything will be fine; once the dust settles, the network will realize, in the parlance of Arrested Development, that it made a huge mistake.
But NBC is also the same network that gave Community a chance in the first place, and after last night’s episode, I’m grateful at least for that much. Because holy hell, that was the best Community episode I’ve ever seen. Sometimes genre episodes can feel limiting, like the show is simply dressing its character action figures in different outfits; there’s a push-pull between the dynamics we already know, and the dynamics present in these genres (the Western episode springs to mind). The documentary format, though, opened the world up immensely, and “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” not only went over-the-top in every capacity, but it kept outdoing itself at every turn. Literally the only thing that bothered me at all was the fact that we don’t get to see the Dean’s version of the commercial — the one he shows Luis Guzman— because everything leading up to that moment was pure joy, and I wanted so desperately to witness his mad vision come to life.
It starts with the Dean showing off the eighties-tastic commercial Greendale has been running for years (even the dude’s legs are coated in neon graphics). He approaches the study group with a proposal: They star in the new commercial and become the new face of Greendale; and to prove this isn’t some fly-by-night operation, he’s secured a cool $2,500 for the endeavor. The group jumps onboard mostly because of Jeff’s endorsement — the Dean uses last week’s knowledge of Jeff’s “sickness” (which Jeff confessed to the gang at the end of last week’s episode, so maybe it’s some other, unrecorded karaoke session the Dean has on Jeff) to coax the guy not only into doing the work, but also playing the Dean himself, bald cap and all. Jeff even tries to weasel his way out of the commitment in his Jeff-type way, which takes the form of a ridiculous flamboyant portrayal of the Dean. Which the Dean loves. Because the Dean is getting his first taste as a director, and he’s liking every morsel.
The stage is set for a commercial on a modest budget, and each study group member plays his or her part. Annie’s quick to snatch up the script supervisor role, which, in her logic and organization-focused mind, is clearly where the leader of the operation would be. Shirley plays the part of “upbeat mom” (even though the Dean tries to tone down her sassy side). Pierce is so frustrated at his inability to demand even a tiny craft services budget that he storms off into the trailer he rented for himself, setting the scene for an awesome Curb Your Enthusiasm–style post credits sequence with Jeff Garlin. Troy and Britta are just regular ol’ students, nursing a secret crush on one another and giddy at the prospect of hugging each other over and over. Chang self-proclaims himself as Jeff’s understudy, leaving him wearing a Jeff wig under a bald cap as part of an airtight seal that’s literally killing him. And Abed — who may have social issues but has the uncanny ability to see a train wreck coming a mile away — takes on the role of documentarian, stepping back to capture the Dean’s inevitable collapse. This is as much a tonal decision as it is a structural one; “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” feels like an episode of The Office, making the Dean a more cocksure (and more cock-obsessed) Andy Bernard.
The pieces have been set in motion, but Jeff is not content; blackmail or not, he simply must get out of doing any of this. So he convinces the Dean to shoot all his scenes in front of Greendale’s Luis Guzman statue. That way, Jeff posits, when Greendale asks for permission to use Guzman’s likeness in the commercial, he’ll say no and Jeff’s scenes will be cut. It’s a wily move, but it backfires — not only is Guzman totally okay with this, but he wants to come on down and be in the commercial himself.
Cue the Dean’s God complex, or whatever it means to just hand someone an orange with no explanation. In just one day, the budget for the film goes from a couple hundred under to multiple thousands over. The size of the crew grows exponentially. Any tiny impulse the Dean has turns into a mandate: Make his creative vision happen, or else. And to make matters worse, he changes his mind so much that the members of the study group find themselves questioning every little thing they do. Troy and Britta used to giggle every time they hugged; after twelve hours of different takes they simply cannot do the hug to the Dean’s satisfaction — including a few takes where other people pull strings attached to their arms until they’re forced into a robotic embrace. Plus, now even the simple idea of touching one another freaks them out to the point of tears. Meanwhile, Annie has developed a variation of Stockholm Syndrome — she’s been treated like shit for a long time and doesn’t see herself as someone who would put up with this unless the man doing it was a genius. Therefore, the Dean is a genius in her eyes, and this continues to feed the man’s ego. Shirley’s part now includes the latest in motion capture technology, and there’s apparently some scene that involves a man in a diaper (not to be confused with the guy who just showed up in a diaper — friend of the Dean). And Abed is there capturing everything, including the grand showdown between Britta “licensed psychology major” Perry and the Dean, resulting in everyone leaving the set.
Worn down and relegated to a disgusting paper-filled office he now shares with a possum, the Dean is finally visited by Luis Guzman, who’s eager to do his part on the commercial. The Dean shows him the spot, which judging by Guzman’s reaction is horrendous — I assume it’s like watching the cut of the Banksy documentary that Thierry Guetta made. Guzman gets upset that the project has spun out of control, reminding the Dean of the original script, which he liked. The Dean insults the school, Guzman reminds the Dean about how much love (and pussy) he received from this wonderful institution, and storms off. In normal TV world, this would be the part of the episode where the Dean has an epiphany, apologizes to the entire group, and shoots a normal documentary. But this isn’t a normal show, it’s the bizarre and fantastic Community. So along with that epiphany, throw in a demented spiritual journey involving the Dean burning a college degree, smearing the ashes over his naked body, and running around shouting as his pixilated dick flaps in the breeze. And instead of simply redoing the commercial, Abed cobbles a really sweet version together from his own footage and the stuff from the old commercial— sprinkling in a little Magnitude for flavor. Why did Abed interfere, even though as a documentarian he’s supposed to be a fly on the wall? As he puts it, “some flies are too awesome for the wall.” And I’d also like to think some shows are too awesome to follow a normal NBC production schedule.