The Horror: Community Goes Upriver to the Heart of Darkness

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 18 2011 1:50 PM

I Love the Smell of Community in the Morning!

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Jim Rash as Dean Pelton in a still from last night's 'Community'.

Photo by Lewis Jacobs – © NBC Universal, Inc.

If Community were a pretentious show, it would model an episode on Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s dark novella about a man named Marlow taking a journey up a river to find a man named Kurtz—and perhaps his own soul. If it were a modestly ambitious, hipster-y operation, it would do a show on Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s grandiose interpretation of the story—with Marlow turned into a government assassin named Willard—which he used to encompass both the original and America’s tarnished psyche at the close of the Vietnam era.

But, Community being Community—which is to say, a show not about any one particular piece of pop culture, but about pop culture qua pop culture qua qua pop culture—its latest episode instead turns its lenses on Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse—not the book, not the movie, but rather the documentary, built from the director’s wife Eleanor Coppola’s on-set footage, that searingly details how Francis nearly lost his mind while making his Vietnam epic.

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Community uses that doc as a model for the making of a TV commercial. Our setting, you will remember, is Greendale Community College—which, as we learn from a 16-year-old ad that opens last night’s episode, has the most advanced typing program in the south Greendale area. (Students can register by fax.) The show’s heroes are a bunch of hapless students who are attending to the school for various reasons, few of them having anything to do with actually getting any sort of education.

Over its two and a half seasons, the show’s soul has become Abed, a brilliant, if Asperger’s-afflicted, young man who among other things has displayed no little affinity for making movies. He’s the perfect man to head up the project, but instead perky Dean Pelton elects to do it, which leaves Abed to do the making-of documentary, and along the way to illustrate the myriad aesthetic and moral implications of the form. What could possibly go wrong?

In the event, Pelton becomes Marlow and Kurtz, Willard and Kurtz, the hunter and the hunted—and the star both behind and in front of the camera. Of course, as a director in this episode, he also must serve as a metaphor for Dan Harmon, the show’s creator. (Harmon’s also a brilliant obsessive à la Abed, but never mind.) Harmon’s usual stand-in in the show is Jeff Winger, a disgraced lawyer who generally serves as the group’s leader. Here, in the commercial, he plays … the dean, complete with a bald wig.

In other words, the dean is Dan Harmon and Dan Harmon is Jeff, who is the dean, who is also Marlow, Kurtz and Willard. Got it?

OK. Then allow me a brief digression about the state of the show: We’re worried about Community now, because Kabletown has bought NBC, and Kabletown is one of those annoying entities that does things like buy a TV network and then go around acting like it owns the place. NBC’s Thursday night lineup used to rule the world. Now it just does decently in “the demo”—viewers 18 to 49—which is what you talk about when your shows get bad ratings.

NBC’s traditional position is, Hey, it took Seinfeld a few seasons to catch on yadda yadda yadda. But even The Office after five seasons wasn’t drawing half the viewers Seinfeld did, and Community—which, incidentally, is the smartest show on television—is a laggard, ratingswise, even in this ratings-challenged company, and so should probably not have made it to a third season. Somehow, it did, either because the deed was done before Kabletown figured out what was going on, or because the new owner figured it would give the plan another year to gel.

Anyway, it was announced this week that Community would be off the air for a while as NBC did some midseason experimenting in January. The network did not specifically say the show was cancelled, and some TV blogs quoted NBC folks saying it would be back.

To an obsessive hyperintellectual like Harmon, what’s worse than cancellation? Purgatory.

The horror! The horror!

Anyway, back to last night. Of course the episode was made months ago, but watching it this week one couldn’t help projecting these new worries onto the thing. Harmon must be distracted by all of the behind-the-scenes corporate depravity. The Hearts of Darkness angle, while laudably multilayered, is, in another sense, one-dimensional. With his concentration undistracted Harmon would have also modeled the show on Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which traced (more laceratingly even than Hearts of Darkness) the fanatic endeavor that was Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. (If we were being picky we’d also carp about how Abed carefully explains to us before the opening credits that he’s doing a Hearts of Darkness homage. On the other hand, we haven’t seen Burden of Dreams in a while, and it could be we missed a reference and are misunderestimating Harmon.)  

Anyway, as the Dean’s ego grows, his personality begins to disintegrate, which is what we expect. Jeff, playing the dean in the ad-within-the-show, has to walk around in a bald cap—and his personality starts to warp as well. Pierce, the Chevy Chase character, just wants to have his own star trailer, so he rents one for himself.

The dean’s progress is done delectably: On the first day of rehearsal, he shows up with his suit pants tucked into Von Stroheimian knee boots. Greendale’s one semi-famous alum is character actor Luis Guzmán; scoring him for the commercial, the dean’s psyche turns a corner, which Abed nicely limns by layering in some foreboding Errol Morris-style music. There seems to be a Waiting for Guffman moment as well.

Innocent Annie becomes the dean’s amanuensis. In another one of those Community asides that takes fives times as long to untangle as the reference itself, she explains her job is to ensure continuity in the script. This is a position that in less enlightened times was called “script girl.” The enlightened term is “script supervisor.” The dean calls her “supervisor girl.”

Meanwhile, Britta and Troy—who, in the dean’s original script are supposed to hug—are asked to “pull a 400-year-old dagger out of this nation’s heart.” (Troy is black, Britta white.) We (and Abed) notice that they enjoy the opportunity to hug.

Community is on Thanksgiving hiatus next week, but will be back for two or three more episodes before the mid-season and the following purgatory. More news as it unfolds.

I also enjoyed:

The episode’s title: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” a reference to Coppola’s “Redux” version of Apocalypse.

When Luis Guzmán arrives in deflating ex machina fashion, you can see how his pot belly is nicely mirrored by the one on his memorial statue in the quad.

After Troy says he likes the old commercial, the dean says, “You know I love being seen to agree with you, Troy.”

What seems to be a Sarah McLachlan joke (“I’ve become a stranger to myself,” Jeff moans).

An obscure shout-out to “Chump’s Rusty Bucket,” a brewpub in Madison, Wisconsin.

A review of last week’s episode, “Studies in Modern Movement,” is here. Details of the show’s mid-season replacement are here. My piece on the show’s most elaborate concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” is here.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.

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