Community NBC

Prior to finally sitting down and watching “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking,” I was racked with anxiety. After last week’s episode, my faith in Community had been shaken. I was no longer sure the show could find its footing in this mixed bag of a season. Knowing ahead of time this was going to be the third documentary episode – fourth if you count “Pillows & Blankets” – I couldn’t shake the feeling this would be too much of a good thing. Community has had great success with its documentary style episodes, but it was a rare enough occurrence lightning struck twice. What were the odds of it striking a third time? In the past, the show has shown awareness of dipping into a well too often, which is why we never got a third paintball episode – I’m counting the two in Season 2 as one hour-long episode. But the new showrunners are free to change the rules and I’m glad they did. “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” (just “Advanced” from now on) may not have been as integral as its predecessors, but it was easily the highlight of the season.

“Advanced” has an easy charm to it that’s been missing in the last couple of episodes. There hasn’t been enough of the characters just interacting with each other and being goofy. We could use more scenes such as Annie and Troy acting like detectives – Partner and Houlihan – and just doing their thing without too much worry. Everyone manages to have a highlight in the episode, but no one could’ve prepared me for the realization I’ve grown surprisingly fond of “Kevin” Chang. In fact, I think I prefer this incarnation of Chang to any other, which makes it all the more frustrating to learn he’s been faking the entire thing. There’s a surprising amount of emotional development with Chang – it might even be a first – so to have that yanked out from under us feels like a cheat, but that’s the only big complaint I have about the episode. Any episode that makes me actually care about Chang deserves a special acknowledgement.

The trouble with Chang has always been the not knowing what to do with him. He was his most successful as the Spanish teacher, with his small abuses of power. Once he was stripped of his teaching title and became a student it felt like the character was drifting, not really a part of the show anymore. Sure, he still managed to be funny and worked his way into many great episodes, but he felt like more of a background character. Turning him into a security guard in Season 3 didn’t help matters. He was still oddly absent until he was abruptly shoved into the thick of things and made a tyrannical emperor. Chang plays big parts, but in between it’s like he doesn’t exist. We’re six episode into Season 4 and Chang has only appeared in half. Why? Likely scheduling, but from a viewing perspective it looks like there just wasn’t anything for him to do.

He’s always been a troubling character to place and I don’t blame the writers for struggling to find good used for him. I’m amazed they were able to do anything with him after Season 1, to be honest. In any other show, he would’ve been the breakout character, shooting out his catchphrases and getting up to crazy antics, but Community didn’t want to do that with him. This is a show that takes classic sitcom tropes and hangs a lampshade on them. Chang was just such a trope. He was deliberately made more insane to remove any chance he could “breakout,” but it cost him his usability. Chang became too crazy for his own good.

Which is why I like Kevin so much. He’s a reset for Chang. Or he would’ve been if it hadn’t been for the reveal its all part of yet another plot to hurt Greendale – I smell City College – which is regrettable. Up until that point, the story of Kevin’s changnesia was becoming a parable for Greendale. It’s a place anyone can go to forget their past, start over and reinvent themselves. Certainly that’s what Jeff has done, as Shirley is kind enough to remind him. While Community may not be as sharp with its wit as previous seasons – opinions have varied – it has managed to keep its heart mostly intact, delivering strong scenes grounded in real emotion. The last shot in Abed’s documentary, of Jeff and Chang shaking hands, greeting each other for the first time as friends, was easily Ken Jeong’s best work on the show that wasn’t him acting like a raving lunatic.

As for the style of the episode, kudos to the writers for finding a way to do a third documentary episode that felt reasonably different enough to set it aside from the other two. The beginning intentionally feels like a medical doc before transitioning to a more straightforward narrative borrowing elements from other docs, including Grizzly Man. It isn’t as slickly done as “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” was with its Hearts of Darkness homage, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. As successful as the episode was, I hope this is the last we’ll see of this particular style. It might have worked a third time, but I think it had more to with luck than anything else.