My review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as a leprechaun takes my clothes…
This has been a season to experiment for “Community,” and those experiments seem to have divided the show’s fans into two camps(*): those who love seeing what bananas idea each episode will be built around, and those who just want “Community” to make them laugh.
(*) And, yes, that is (like any attempt to sum up the nature of fandom), a gross generalization. There’s overlap between the two groups, and there are people who are more concerned with the experimenting getting in the way of characterization rather than comedy, etc. But based on the reaction here and elsewhere, those are the two biggest camps I’ve seen.
“Paradigms of Human Memory” is an episode that seems designed to please both camps – and the characterization fans, too – at the same time. It’s an incredibly clever riff on the tradition of sitcom flashback episodes, but it also features some of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the show in quite some time, and it told an actual story about the study group in general and Jeff and Britta in particular. And it did so while commenting on how often the show tells these specific kinds of stories. Meta on top of meta on top of meta, with many gut-busting jokes piled high on top of that.
“Community,” boys and girls!
First, the flashback idea itself. Clip shows were a sitcom staple in the ’80s and ’90s – an easy way for production to fill the contractual obligation for a “new” episode late in a season when everyone was tired, out of ideas and way behind schedule – but they’ve become something of a dead form lately. When “The Office” did a clip show last season, some younger viewers were both outraged and mystified by the idea – How dare you promise me something new and instead mostly give me stuff I’ve seen before? – because they had grown up past the era when most big sitcoms would do this at least once a season.
But it was, indeed, a familiar idea to many of us – so familiar, in fact, that “Community” is far from the first comedy to make fun of the idea. There was a great “SNL” sketch from the late ’80s parodying the sheer number of “Family Ties” clip show episodes by featuring a series of interlocking flashbacks not too different from the montage here of the gang recalling the many times they decided that this would be the argument to end all their future arguments. And “Clerks: The Animated Series” also did a fake clip show composed almost entirely of flashbacks to events that had never been seen on the show before. (It helped that it was the second episode ever.)
So the idea behind “Paradigms of Human Memory” wasn’t new, but the execution was still pretty flawless. It made fun of the general idea of clip shows, and then made fun of various sitcom tropes – and specific “Community” tropes – within that. We got the aforementioned arguments about arguments, and a riff on how so many of the study group’s adventures are tied to holidays, and a little homage to “The Brady Bunch” ghost town episode, and an interlocking series of inspirational, metaphor-filled Jeff Winger monologues (“It is a locomotive that runs on us!”). We got a lampoon of ‘shipper YouTube videos and how any interaction – up to and including a monkey beating up a half-naked, greased-up Chang – can be made to seem romantic if you put it in slo-mo and accompany it with a Sarah Bareilles
McLachlan song. We got a montage of Dean Pelton’s creepy fetish outfits. When there were references to actual previous episodes, they featured brand-new scenes(**) set on the edges of what actually happened.(***)
(**) Or, in one case, showed the real-world POV of a scene from “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” which is exactly the thing I said I wanted to see when I wrote my review of that episode. Thanks, “Community,” for the service with a smile!
(***) I’m told that the claymation sequence was specifically produced at the same time as the Christmas show, as the first ideas for this episode took shape, but that other scenes like Jeff and Britta going into the bathroom on Halloween were written and produced now. So the production team had to reconstruct the Halloween party decorations, put Danny Pudi back into Abed’s homemade “Aliens” costume, etc.
And within that, there was somehow room to tell both an actual story – the gang finds out that (as has been hinted for much of the season) Jeff and Britta have continued to be secret friends with benefits – and to comment on the darker nature of many of this season’s arcs(****) and the way the group keeps breaking up and making up. And there was even room for a few mini-arcs within the flashbacks, like Jeff slowly coming to embrace Abed’s love of “The Cape.”
(****) Though it was interesting to see which characters the show could plausibly fit into the “everyone acts like a jerk” montage and which felt forced. Abed’s imitation of The Cape seemed fairly harmless, for instance, and Karate Annie beating people up was an accident. (Annie can be selfish and destructive, but this wasn’t a great example of it.) On the other hand, Shirley definitely has a devious, manipulative side hidden underneath her sing-song piety.
Obviously, by calling attention to some of these crutches that the show leans on, the writers have made it harder to use those crutches in the future. There are only so many times Jeff can give the same speech, even if the other characters are pointing out how often he’s done it before, even if he insists that this time they’re not really breaking up because they’re too strong for that, etc. Even the note of Annie having a crush on Jeff has been played so often that the episode lost interest in it by the end, as Annie had absolutely nothing to say when the rest of the group said it was fine for Jeff and Britta to openly date. But the people who make this show are smart, and they know that their small but insanely loyal audience is smart, too, and they had to know that most of those devices were reaching the end of their shelf life. So why not make a self-aware mockery of them before (hopefully) letting them go and trying something else with this group?
I laughed heartily throughout this episode, at times at the audaciousness of the flashback structure, but just as often at the jokes themselves – at the gang’s reaction to Chang diving into the vent, at the glee club flashback song having no real lyrics, at Jeff’s “romantic” Heimlich of Annie, at the entirety of Dean Pelton’s animated fantasy in the tag, and a lot more.
Well done, all around. I imagine this one still won’t please everyone, as there was way too much referencing/meta humor for some, but that was a damn fine, funny example of what this show can be when it pushes the outer edge of the envelope.
The one thing I wonder, though, is where we go for the rest of this season, because that sure as heck felt like a finale to me.
What did everybody else think?