Sometimes it seems like our favorite shows are speaking directly to us — when thematic arcs echo our own personal lives, or two fan favorites are finally brought together in a way that feels like a direct reflection of the will of the fans. Other times, it’s pretty clear that the shows actually are speaking directly to us, as in last night’s Community. “The truth is, it’s been a dark year,” Troy intones early in the episode. “Pierce got hooked on painkillers, Shirley’s having an unplanned baby and, apparently, Chang is in the group now.” “It’s true,” Annie replies, horrified. “
That one snarky recapper from Vulture God hates us!”
“Paradigms of Human Memory” was Community’s attempt to have it all: It was a funny episode of a sitcom about the nature of sitcoms; it commented directly on the up-and-down intricacies of the show’s sophomore season while also adding significantly to its honor roll of world-class zingers, and, in an attempt to please all possible demographics, it featured both Britta and Chang stripped to their skivvies. The subject was memory, yes, but also perspective: There have been plenty of times this term at Greendale where a sort of emotional dissonance has distracted from the laughs. Abed’s Claymation Christmas was sweet, but it was also, as this episode reminded us, a half-hour of a beloved character experiencing a complete dissociative break from reality. On the one hand, Pierce is a sad, lonely old man with a serious pill problem (classic comedy!), but on the other, he’s a maniacally evil, manipulative ass. And poor Chang — left just outside of the group even in their twentieth anthropology diorama — is misunderstood as a disturbingly creepy man-baby best utilized when he’s oiled-up and shirtless wrestling a monkey in an air vent. (Actually scratch that last one — we’d say that’s pretty accurate!)
And so, using the discovery of Annie’s Boobs’ treasure trove (!!) as a hook, the gang launched into blindingly complicated, impressively clever parody of a typical sitcom “clip show.” Only this time, outside of the purple pen, the memories weren’t all cheerful and, oh yeah, they were also all 100 percent new memories: like the time the gang was shot at by an ornery prospector in an old west ghost town, or that one time they blew up an entire habitat for humanity, or, best of all, that treasured day when they replaced the school’s glee club at regionals by singing an appropriately peppy song called, evidentally, “Sing.” (Sure, the actual Glee Club had died in a bus accident, but Jeff chooses to remember “around the bad times.” Also: There’s that cool new bus driver now!) There was an abundance of LOLs here: the running gag about Abed’s devotion to (and killer imitation of!) recent NBC stinkbomb The Cape (“Six seasons and a movie!”); Annie remembering “the Annie of it all” in her slo-mo montage memories of Jeff saving her from both a killer robot and a pile of horse manure; Troy defending himself to the drenched group by insisting he’s seen enough movies to know that “popping the back of the raft makes it go faster.” There’s even an MVP-caliber turn by the sneaky-good Jim Rash who slays in each of his entrances featuring “dumb costumes” and “irrelevant news.” (And that’s not even getting into his bravura post-credits cartoon that featured a robotic “Megadean” devouring Jeff and belching out an angel.)
Truly, these were some delicious memory pops for us to feast on with our ear-tongues. (Though the unsung hero of this episode has to be the production manager for not only creating these new sets but coordinating all the mini-scenes within scenes the script called for. A fresh box of Hubba Bubba for you, sir!) But there were also some welcome reveals: Jeff and Britta have been background boning for a while now — but get quickly turned off when the illicitness is removed. Jeff is as frustrated with Abed’s meta meanderings as we sometimes are, demanding to know in his best snarky recapper voice, “Why do you always have to take what happens to us and shove it up its own ass?” The bigger picture? These guys are aware of the constantly squabbling, ridiculous-adventure-having, mysteriously mercury-poisoned impossibility of their situation. As Jeff gives a half-dozen versions of the same inspirational, summing-up speech (“These drug runners aren’t going to execute Pierce because he’s racist ... It’s a locomotive that runs on us ... The Cape still might find a second life on cable!”), Community manages the neat trick of showing us its cards (This is a sitcom! It’s knowingly preposterous! These people would never stay together!) and still winning the hand. Despite the endless — or at least 22-episode-long — cycle of “screw-ups and hurt feelings,” these mismatched individuals will stick together like some sort of supergroup. As Jeff puts it, “like the Traveling Wilburys of pain.”
It’s a delicate balance, what Dan Harmon and Co. try to accomplish every week within the confines of a network comedy — the equivalent of fighting about fighting about fighting. But this strangely satisfying episode proves it’s doable, provided the details are, ahem, handled with care.