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Community is back with another theme episode tonight, once again changing up the setting and even the filmmaking style of the show to bring us "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," which-- you guessed it-- is shot in the mockumentary style made popular by shows like Arrested Development and The Office. The setup for the whole episode is actually fairly grim-- Pierce has landed in the hospital thanks to the prescription pill addiction he's been harboring ever since he fell off the trampoline, and while he recovers he's hired Abed and a documentary crew to make a film about his life. As Abed explains in one of the many talking head interviews strung throughout the episode, "At first I said no, because at the risk of sounding overly sensitive, I feel intensely bored by Pierce as a subject. But I feel excited by the narrative facility of the format. It's easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera."
Abed is right, of course-- that's how The Office has laid out its complicated stories for years now-- and this particular episode of Community takes advantage of it by cooking up an incredibly complex episode, with character arcs for every single member of the study group (save Abed, who's behind the camera for the most part) and probably the most serious grappling yet with Pierce's personality, which has ranged wildly from "lovable, befuddled grandpa" to, in last week's Dungeons & Dragons episode, seriously sociopathic. From what he claims is his death bed (it's not) Pierce "bequeaths" an item on each member of the study group, and from the moment he hands Shirley a CD that he says is a recording of the rest of the group talking about her behind her back, it's clear he's not giving gifts but mind games.
The gifts themselves and what they inspire the study group members to do probably ought to stay secret until the episode airs tonight-- I don't even want to reveal a guest star already promoted, for how hilarious his eventual appearance is-- but this is one of those Community episodes that leans a lot more heavily on the drama. Yeah, last week's "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" had the entire suicide saga for Fat Neil, but this is more like the episode set at the bar from a while back, in which all of our characters are forced to confront the nastier, more petty things about themselves that are easier to ignore in the more fast-paced gimmick episodes. There are plenty of laughs-- I couldn't help myself literally every time Donald Glover was on the screen, for reasons that will become clear-- but particularly near the end of the episode, the characters engage with each other on a more honest, emotional level than the show has really approached in the past Abed makes a few meta cracks about the way documentary format can provide fake insight with some clever edits and music, but "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" really takes advantage of its concept, centering Community around its true heart at the exact moment in the season it was in danger of flying off the rails.
We'll have a full recap of the episode after it airs tonight, at 8 p.m. on the East and the West coasts, and the usual times in the time zones in-between. Be prepared to take everything a little more seriously than usual, but maybe come out with even more respect for the team behind Community and where they manage to take these characters.