Community: I Love the Smell of Guzman in the Morning

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"I'm just saying, don't worship the people leaving Greendale. Worship the people that are here. Worship this place. It changes people's lives. ... This is a special school."

If there's a theme to this season of Community, it's that these characters are made for each other. Actually, more than that: They weren't made for each other, but once they found each other, they decided to form a family anyway. There's a kind of proud defiance to the study group's chemistry, as if they know things might be easier alone but they're willing to pay the price of occasional pain or discomfort for the benefit of having each other around. These kind of mission statements keep popping up on the show, but the lesson came screaming home this week when Luis Guzman spoke for the show's own spirit to plead with viewers to really see Greendale/Community for what it is and enjoy it for all its skewed beauty. Of course, the episode takes on special resonance after the news earlier this week that Community isn't on NBC's midseason schedule, and though it looks like the season will eventually get to play out, the show's push from the spring slate is reason enough to wonder how long NBC will live with a critically adored but anemically rated show that costs a lot more than The Sing-Off. This is a show that, in creator Dan Harmon's own words, was always going to be more of a "challenge" to viewers than traditional sitcoms (even popular single-camera ones). It's a show you have to work for, and it's a show that doesn't always work, but when it does, it can really pop.

This week's episode is a perfect example. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" wasn't the strongest episode of the series by a long shot -- if not for its fortuitous thematic resonance with the show's struggle for survival, it would likely slip quietly into the night -- but by the end of the half hour, the cast and crew had managed to make a mediocre and occasionally off-putting story about the dean's personality issues into a genuinely moving story of friendship and forgiveness. There was something undeniably and unironically sweet about the way the dean asked the gang to forgive him for going so crazy trying to make a silly recruiting commercial, and their instant acceptance of him was right at home with the episode's message.

Yet that moment wasn't quite enough to sustain the episode leading up to it, and more importantly, those scattered bright spots might not be enough to sustain the show in general. It was interesting to note just how dark and disconnected the group became when one of its members was absent, and though Abed occasionally piped up from behind the camera, his presence was cold and aloof. Sure, he got to save the day, but only after he calmly watched all his friends disintegrate. That doesn't quite feel like the move of a man (even a socially stunted one) who just a few weeks back spoke so plainly about the way the people in the study group need each other to survive. Similarly, the parallels between the dean's emotional breakdown and Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about the troubled production of Apocalypse Now, were cute enough but felt like one joke pounded out into 20.

I liked certain moments in the episode, but as a whole, I only appreciated it. One of the dangers of a show you have to work for is that you can wind up enjoying the math of it but not relating to the story. Some episodes, even if they include some genuinely entertaining or empathetic moments, still feel like calculations on the part of a writer determined to prove that he's the smartest guy in the room. Community can be a brilliant show, but sometimes that brilliance comes at the expense of entertainment. I'm not saying that greatness isn't worth the risk. I'm saying sometimes, the risk doesn't pay off.

Scattered thoughts:

• The episode title had another tie-in with Apocalypse Now: an extended version of the film called Apocalypse Now Redux was released on DVD in 2001.

• "Abed, true to form, has decided to do the weird thing."

• "I loved you in IMDb."

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