Wednesday, March 20, 2013

4x06 "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" (On Rebuilding Yourself)

"Advanced Documentary Filmmaking"
Original Airdate: March 14, 2013

Hey guys!  Obviously, I am not Jenn.  But I am her best friend, so that’s about the same thing.  I’m Jaime (@elspunko), known for my excessive use of capslock on Twitter and my occasional posts at Stories in the End.  Jenn’s a bit swamped this week, with a huge test for work and, like, staring at Jake Johnson’s face, so she asked me to fill in for her on this week’s Community review.  But enough about me, guys.  It’s time to learn about Changnesia.

Rebuilding yourself isn’t easy.  Even if you’re able to do it on your own (recognize the flaws in your behavior, get yourself to fight against your instincts and act as the sort of person you want to be), there are going to be people who can only see you as you once were, and who will fight tooth and nail to keep their image of you intact.

But college offers a chance to change.  I go to school nine hours away from my hometown, and knew absolutely no one when I first moved away.  And my school’s huge, so I’m no longer seeing the same exact faces in every single class.  No one knew me, which meant I was free to present myself however I wanted.

And that’s exactly what our study group did.  Troy wanted to be seen as the cool quarterback, so he wore his letterman jacket around campus.  Britta wanted to be mysterious and scary, so she snarked at Jeff and bragged about dropping out of high school to follow Radiohead around the country.  But those were only small portions of who they were, and over time, their true, complete selves emerged.

As you may have guessed from the episode title, this episode follows "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" and "Documentary Filmmaking Redux."  This time, Abed’s making a documentary to follow the response to Changesia, a new disease that’s sweeping the nation.  Haven’t heard of it?  Of course you haven’t.  You’re streets behind.

When we last saw Ben Chang, he had returned to Greendale under the name of Kevin, claiming to have no memory of who he was or all the terrible things he’d done to the Greendale Seven and Dean Pelton.  But his condition is garnering some attention, and the brilliantly named MacGuffin Neurological Institute is offering Greendale a $40,000 grant to continue researching Changnesia.

Jeff is dismayed to discover that his friends are planning on helping Kevin with the Institute representatives.  After all, Chang tried to kill them, and kept the dean prisoner for months.  But his friends are quick to remind him that Chang was the one who hurt them, not Kevin; they’re all willing to forget about what their former Spanish teacher did and let him form this new persona, but Jeff won’t back down.  He still sees Chang as the crazy man who’s tortured them for years, and pledges to do whatever he can to prove that he’s faking Changnesia.

Now, ordinarily, I would think that Jeff’s attitude towards Chang says a lot about our hero and how far he’s come in the last four years.  There are definitely elements of Jeff’s prior experiences that shape his treatment of Chang, especially considering his recent encounter with his father and subsequent realization that the study group is his true family, because he got to pick them.  He doesn’t want anything, especially not Chang, to tear them apart.  This is Chang, the guy who took over the school, had them expelled, and almost killed the dean.

Now, keep this in mind as you read, because this plays in a lot more later in the episode.  But this would totally justify Jeff’s actions, right?  It would make this episode kind of sweet and poignant, right?  I’m glad you agree.  Because that is not what happens.  But we’ll come back to this later.

Naturally, the only way to bring down Kevin is from the inside.  So Jeff tells the dean that he’s willing to help the school win the grant, but then tells Abed his real plan to make the study group listen to him and see how wrong they were.  The twist in the story excites Abed, who asks Jeff to help raise the production value of the documentary.  After all, Garret needs a Steadicam.

Now leading the charge to build a case for Kevin to present to the MacGuffin Institute, Jeff tells Annie to investigate where Kevin was from the time he woke up with Changnesia to his arrival at Greendale.  She teams up with Troy, and work together as Partner and Houlihan to discover that Kevin spent three months as a undocumented worker at Sullivan’s Trout Farm.

Meanwhile, Shirley and Britta are tasked with following Kevin around to document his everyday activities, including his work at Shirley’s sandwich shop.  Except, spoiler alert, Britta Brittas it, and winds up leaving the camera at Shirley’s Sandwiches, giving Jeff and Abed twelve hours of “unusable crap” to look through.  That is, until Chang comes into frame – he dials a number and then immediately hangs up.  It’s the smoking gun Jeff needs, and it’s all thanks to Britta (as much as he doesn’t want to admit it).

Representatives from the MacGuffin Institute arrive at Greendale, ready for the presentation on Changnesia.  Jeff speaks on behalf of his group, but to everyone’s surprise, he calls up Alessandra, Chang’s ex-wife, with the explanation that if Chang doesn’t react to her presence, then he surely can’t be faking his Changnesia.  But there’s no reaction, so Jeff shows Britta and Shirley’s footage, where Chang is clearly seen dialing Alessandra’s number, revealing his plan to prove Chang’s been faking.

But Kevin explains that he found her phone number in the vents, and even though he didn’t know who it belonged to, he could never bring himself to actually call it, because he didn’t know if the person on the other end would want to talk to him after knowing Chang.  This sweet response earns the audience’s sympathy, so Jeff panics and does the only thing he can: he kisses Alessandra, yelling that if Kevin really doesn’t remember her, then this won’t bother him.

This makes his friends realize that Jeff had been manipulating them in order to prove his own theory about Kevin.  And this is where the idea of Jeff wanting to protect his friends comes back.  Though the other characters vary in how strongly they believe Kevin, Jeff is the only one actually reminding them of his previous transgressions, and at one point asks if he’s the only one who remembers all the things Chang did to them.  But he isn’t – the audience remembers, too.  And we’re the people who tear up whenever we hear “Greendale is Where I Belong,” or when someone in the group acknowledges that they’ve grown past having to study together in order to stay connected, or…okay, basically, we just get emotional a lot.  So on a show whose main purpose is to show how these seven people have become a weird, sewn together family, it’s asking a lot of its audience to ignore the fact that Chang had them kicked out of school, and accept that six of them are completely fine with it now.  Because of course we’re going to hold last season’s events against Chang.  Of course we’re going to view Jeff as the good guy when he’s trying to keep Chang from winning people’s affection and trust.  But…that’s not how the episode presents Jeff.  He’s supposed to be the bad guy because he manipulated everyone.  It doesn’t celebrate him for sticking up for his family.  He’s treated with disgust for kissing Alessandra, as if he did something unspeakably wrong.  Now, this episode got mixed reviews, but personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of it, and I realized that this is the number one reason why it didn’t sit well with me.

See, Jeff Winger is no stranger to acting selfishly, or earning the disdain of his friends.  But this isn’t like the time he hulked out at a kid’s bar mitzvah, or when he fake proposed to Britta just to get her to admit she was wrong.  Jeff made a huge, public spectacle, and for once, he had good intentions.  He wasn’t acting in his own self-interest.  He was trying to prove to his friends that their gullibility and acceptance was misdirected, and would hurt them.  There’s no possible way the audience could watch this and think Jeff was acting selfishly or maliciously by trying to discredit Chang…and yet, that’s the viewpoint the episode seemed to endorse.

But the representatives from the MacGuffin Institute choose to reward Greendale after seeing the sort of opposition Chang (er, Kevin) has to overcome.  Jeff feels like a failure, commenting that his actions made him become “more Chang than Chang at his Changiest,” and ostracizes himself from his friends.  But Kevin approaches him and asks to start over.  Jeff still doesn’t believe him, but accepts Kevin’s offer, now that he knows what it feels like to be Chang.

After a viewing of Abed’s documentary, Jeff apologizes to the group for his actions.  But the tag reveals Kevin calling someone and letting them know that he’s won the group’s trust.  He ends the call with “Chang out,” proving that he was in fact faking Changnesia.

Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan of this episode.  I did think it was hilarious, and the dialogue was spot-on.  I’m not a big Chang fan, but he did have some great one-liners this week which made me enjoy his presence onscreen.  I already went over my biggest opposition to the episode, but the one that immediately jumped out at me the first time I watched was the study group’s instant acceptance of Kevin.  Now, for some people, it made sense – Britta is a licensed psychology major, after all, and just wants the opportunity for Kevin’s disease to be studied.  And Shirley, as she tells Jeff, doesn’t really believe that he’s lost his memory and all senses of who he once was, but she doesn’t care, because Kevin’s a good worker and all her customers love him.  This, I could buy: there were waves and variances to how everyone felt about him, and it was done in a way that didn’t suggest they had all completely forgotten what Chang had done to them.

But then…they forgot what Chang did to them.  Suddenly, when Jeff was making his presentation to the MacGuffin Institute, everyone was horrified that Jeff didn’t believe in Chang – even Shirley, who didn’t believe him earlier on, and Annie, who had no real investment in it beyond her excitement to investigate a case with her new forensic know-how.  Everyone except Jeff lost their personal attachment to the plot; by the end, it no longer mattered why anyone believed Kevin, just that they did.  There were no stakes to the story – even if Jeff had proved himself, so what?  The other characters had no real reason to believe him other than the fact that the story dictated it, so no one would have lost anything.

The study group’s behavior in this episode reminded me of "Alternative History of the German Invasion," where all seven acted as one character.  No one had any real individual moments or storylines – the safety of a group as a whole was threatened, and therefore, they acted as one to defeat their antagonist.  And it was brilliant.  Of course they would react that way.  Of course individuality would be lost in an episode like that.

And that seems to be what happened in this episode with the other six members.  An episode that started with emotional nuance went from Jeff facing off against his study group (with five different motivations for each individual conflict) to Jeff vs. a Shirley/Britta/Annie/Pierce/Troy/Abed conglomerate.  This time, the melding of the individual characters into one didn’t work.  Sure, anyone can change, as I discussed at the opening of this review, but it’s unbelievable to suggest that the six of them would be so receptive to Chang’s new identity.  Had those individual twists been kept to color each character’s reaction, I think I would have enjoyed the episode a lot more, or at least viewed it as connecting better than it did.

But the dialogue and humor in the episode were absolutely spot-on.  This was Hunter Covington’s first Community script, and he completely nailed the voice of each character.  This is the second episode this season that’s been written by a freshman Community writer, and so far, I have a lot of faith in the newbies (despite my misgivings about how this episode came together).

Some additional delightful moments:

- The opening with Kevin explaining his condition (“By using a special, shiny glass called a ‘mir-ror,’ I’ve estimated that I’m fifteen years old.  Although I have no way of knowing”) was brilliant, as was the psychiatrist’s joy at finally being able to study the effects of Changnesia “now that someone finally has it.”
- I was glad that Chang’s insistence on forming puns with his name hasn’t ended now that he’s Kevin.  I snarfed at “Welcome to Shirley’s Sandwiches, where the food is Kevin-ly.”
- “What are you having?”  “None of this.”
- On a shallow note, can we discuss how good Joel McHale looked this week?  The sweaters and that suit looked wonderful on him, especially in the wake of Khakigate from a few weeks ago.  Of course, even Khakigate flounders in comparison to the vest he wore at the end of the episode, which.  What was that?
- Troy and Annie teaming up was wonderful.  They both have the same childlike joy that they bring to everything, and it was a nice twist for them to succeed in their investigation.  Community does a really good job of not punishing its characters for their silliness, especially the younger characters.  I want all the gifs of them high fiving, and I want them now.
- “Growing up, I had a cat named Troy, a bird named Troy, and a hamster named Troy.  They were all older than me…oh my god.”  Oh, Troy.  Never chang.
- Though I already talked about how Jeff’s actions were unusually selfless, I did appreciate that he still approached the situation in his regular cocky way.  His exclamation of  “MY LOGIC IS FLAWLESS” after kissing Chang’s ex-wife was beautifully in-character – and, weirdly, he wasn’t wrong.
- “Why can’t you ever make a documentary about the thing you planned to make a documentary about?” was an awesome callback to the previous two documentary episodes.  I don’t know how well this one stacked up against those – regardless of quality, this just seems to be a slightly different style.  Kim said this struck her as being closer to Pillows and Blankets than the two documentary episodes, and I think she nailed it.

Thanks for reading and sticking with me, even though I am but a random interloper!  But don’t worry, Jenn will be back later this week (unless she’s still too busy staring at Jake Johnson’s face.  Seriously, he’s ruined both our lives) with a review of "Economics of Marine Biology"!


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