The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff recently expounded on the differences between Community and Glee, astutely observing that the main difference between the two is that Glee's "base reality stays consistent, but it often makes details unrealistic" to suit plot needs, whereas Community "will freely change its base reality almost completely but KEEPS details consistent." In other words, Glee sacrifices continuity of character and cause-effect relationships in order to constantly return viewers to the world of the Lima Losers; Community breaks the laws of sitcom settings but never veers far from the fact that its characters should behave like real people, and that what happens in one episode can very much affect the next one. Last fall's Halloween episode is a great example: the gang fights zombies, but we also get some major story changes with the Shirley/Chang hook-up, and while the students of Greendale eventually stopped biting each other in an undead haze, the repercussions of the dalliance are still being felt, from Shirley's rocky relationship with her ex to Chang getting kicked out of his house. Silly fringe; serious center.
All of which is why last night's "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" is potentially incredibly problematic.
Yes, the script had some fantastic jokes, and the conceit of framing the episode as a documentary shot by Abed let the writers take a few playful digs at other doc-style sitcoms while also trimming Abed from the main story and tightening up the plot. But the problem was that Pierce was still in full-on rage-filled hate-a-thon mode, rocketing past even the excesses of his Dungeons & Dragons sabotage to enter a seriously fucked-up place. He's just too mean. He's no longer a weird but somewhat likable guy bouncing around the group; he's changed into its villain, and his presence feels like an imposition on the rest of them. He wasn't just messing with people's heads last night; he was doing severe psychological damage. The level of destruction he's wreaked upon the group would be past forgiveness in the real world, and because that's the world to which the show's characters emotionally aspire, they now have to think about banning him. His attempts to rationalize his behavior as a wake-up call for the others were weak, and Jeff totally called him on it. In the past Pierce has been awkward and foolish but still willing to work on his basic humanity enough to get along with the group. But how can they recover from this? He's detonated an A-bomb in their midst. They can't go back to just sitting in the study room with him. It doesn't matter that some of the characters came out unscathed from Pierce's faux brush with death; the guy still did some major harm, and Community's writers have some serious work to do if they're going to make him remotely tolerable again. They have to. If they chuck character continuity now, they're undermining their entire run. Pierce is now essentially a bad guy.
Still, there were some good jokes and moments throughout. Abed's documentary was able to riff quietly on The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family. The latter's habit of closing montages seemed to be the specific target of Abed's sly meta-commentary, "Fortunately, if in the end your documentary is turning out just as messy as real life, you can always wrap it up with a series of random shots, which, when cut together with a generic voice-over, suggest a profound thematic connection." Pierce also got a brilliant line when he said, "My father held grudges. I'll always hate him for that." Troy's amazement and terror at actually meeting LeVar Burton was adorable, though the underlying psychic trauma was terrifying. That one just barely landed on this side of OK.
Ultimately, it was a pretty good episode, but only time will tell if the show knows what to do with Pierce. He's gone too far this time; he really has. This wasn't his redemption, but his condemnation. Maybe he needs to go for good. Would we really miss him?
• "Could you imagine bouncing a check to Kunta Kinte?"
• Erik Charles Nielsen was one of Abed's film crew. He's appeared in several other episodes, as well. Nice little continuity touch.
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• "Don't you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out!"
• "Set phasers to Love Me!" Troy's desire to get a photo of LeVar and not meet him in person got some really depressing backstory -- as he says, "you can't disappoint a photo" -- but still, Donald Glover was great in his sad, tragic moments.
• "Complisult" and "explanabrag" are now in my lexicon.