“Paradigms of Human Memory,” Community’s flashback episode that never went back to anything the audience had seen before, was one of the best parts of last season. It was a concept episode that felt perfect in its execution: the idea that while the show only has so many weeks of episodes, the characters still have the same wacky adventures together while we’re not watching. It allowed the audience to fill in the blanks of several plotlines themselves and fired off a barrage of one-liners as fast as the cast could spew them.
Because it was so successful, it looks like the show wanted to return to that well but in a more structural way, basing it around a story that’s not just the same “the study group might break up” nonsense we’ve seen repeatedly. Because Abed’s been acting weirdly, the fake Dean Pelton requires him to see a psychiatrist, and the rest of the Greendale Seven go with. The psychiatrist, played by John Hodgman, asks them to recount what happened during the year and eventually comes to the conclusion that everyone there is crazy. In fact, they’ve been in a mental institute the whole time and Greendale doesn’t exist, giving the episode a Shutter Island-style twist. Except, of course, that that’s complete nonsense, and by trying to convince everyone of such a ridiculous story it’s clear that Abed is right that Dean Pelton must not be who he says he is.
Unlike last episode, where the convoluted structure completely took over the story, here it offered a perfect jumping-off point for more non-existent flashbacks. It not only made them feel more natural than last time, it also gave them the same sort of feeling that a real flashback episode has. The way the cast sort of ignored what was going on in the psychiatrist’s room in favor of telling stories about themselves worked well, and even the abundant meta-commentary, from the “asylum” to Chang yelling for pitches, felt a lot less strained than usual. The episode essentially felt like fun for everyone, and the jokes came almost as relentlessly as they did last year.
I didn’t actually like it as much as “Paradigms,” though, and that had nothing to do with originality. “Curriculum Unavailable” did a great job with the cutaway jokes, but what I loved best about “Paradigms” was learning about huge plots going on that we never saw. Nothing in “Curriculum” was as great as the non-existent Wild West episode, or the Glee Club plot. Flashbacks this time were more just isolated moments, and while that made sense, it paled in comparison to the brief glimpses of the St. Patrick’s Day raft trip. The best part of “Curriculum” was actually the part that never actually happened, Hodgman’s asylum version of reality. It had just enough of a kernel of truth to be truly interesting, and while obviously fake, it was fun to imagine that twist for a few moments.
“Curriculum Unavailable” was still exceedingly strong, and may be the better episode of the two in a lot of ways, seeing as it managed to move the plot forward and do something far more interesting with the non-flashback part of the episode. It also managed to make the Chang takeover plot somewhat interesting, something I really thought would be a problem. The repetition didn’t make it any less entertaining, and even the meta-commentary about the paintball episodes seemed to make clear that Community’s probably done with flashbacks for a long time. That “Curriculum” comes immediately after “Course Listing Unavailable,” probably the worst episode of the season, isn’t a surprise, either. Community’s so ambitious that it’s wildly inconsistent, but when it’s good it’s very, very good, and this is one of those instances.
•I really love Community, which shouldn’t be a surprise since at this point I’ve written some 50,000 words about the show, but that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy about the 13-episode order for next season. Since the beginning it’s felt like the show has a real problem keeping up with a full episode order, which has resulted in some sloppiness and misfires. Thirteen may be a more manageable number for them to make everything up to the level of quality that it sometimes hits.