One of the things that I’ve noticed over the run of Community is that every time the show goes back to a well it’s already visited, the results are never quite as good. The paintball two-parter that closed out last season was good, but it wasn’t “Modern Warfare” good. This season’s weird psychological deconstruction of Abed wasn’t as good as last season’s. And while I enjoyed this season’s blanket fort episodes quite a bit, they couldn’t compare to the sheer joy of seeing the blanket fort and conspiracy plots intersect in the original “Conspiracy Theories” episode. There’s something about seeing something for the first time that inspires that immediate shock of laughter, the sense that, hey, this is really wild and daring and out of nowhere. There’s just no way that a second trip to the well can replace that, and that’s hurt all of the episodes that have repeated things the show has already done, even if only slightly.
This is going to be a controversial claim (I already can’t find any critics who agree with me on this), but I’ll make it anyway: “Curriculum Unavailable,” the show’s second attempt at a fake clip show, is better than “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” the show’s first attempt. “Paradigms” is one of the show’s touchstone episodes, one that everybody immediately knows if you say even one word of its title (or mention one of its jokes). It’s the funniest half-hour the show’s ever produced, and it probably will be for as long as the show is on the air (which will, of course, be for another five years). It’s packed, wall-to-wall, with jokes, and the sheer onslaught of hilarious moments makes it easy to realize something about it: It doesn’t really have a story. It has a revelation—Jeff and Britta have been having secret sex—but it doesn’t really do anything with that, choosing instead to repeat the same “the group nearly breaks up” story the show has done a million times before. This is not to denigrate “Paradigms,” which remains one of my favorite episodes and the gold standard for the show telling jokes. With all of that hilarity, maybe there just wasn’t room for a stronger story.
I’m not saying “Curriculum” isn’t funny either. Indeed, it’s ridiculously, amazingly hilarious, tossing off bit after bit that lands and finding new ways to make the clip show structure inventive and funny. (The asylum montage in act three—in which the show actually revisits “Paradigms” as involving the characters as mental patients remembering their own delusions—is one of the funniest things the show has ever done.) But this episode does something interesting: Where the original clip show was a way of celebrating and mocking one of the most persistent and irritating forms of television episode, this was a way of celebrating the show’s setting. This was a way for the characters to realize both how much they’d lost when they were kicked out of Greendale and just how much they would miss it. Much of it was shot on standing sets, and most of the gags were about the school, from odd classes to the weird way that the Dean holds the study group above all else. It was oddly heartwarming.
I also liked that the episode tipped its hand about the nature of the Hodgman character from the first. It’s fairly obvious that he’s a fake, planted by the fake Dean to trick the study group into forgetting its attempts to get back into Greendale by separating them from Abed. It’s not immediately clear just how he’ll have Abed committed when he’s not an actual medical professional, but that’s something I just thought of while writing about this, so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, the group goes along to the psychiatry session, and while they’re trying to prove that Abed isn’t crazy, there are multiple flashbacks to their many assorted Greendale adventures. Only, of course, they’re all adventures we haven’t seen before.
Part of the reason “Paradigms” was so funny was because of the sheer audacity of what it was doing. There had been fake clip shows before, but there had never been a fake clip show quite as fast and funny as this one. It looked like it had cost quite a bit to make, and it showed us an alternate season two we hadn’t gotten to see, one filled with St. Patrick’s Day episodes and visits to Mexican drug lords. It was the kind of thing that seemed genius at first, then just got wilder and funnier the longer it went on, and everybody involved really committed to that idea. “Curriculum” doesn’t have that advantage to lean on. When the clips begin, it’s easy to say, “Oh, hey, this is just another fake clip show. Ho hum.” Where “Curriculum” succeeds is in taking that conceit and using it the way memory might actually work, so that good and bad are juxtaposed right up against each other, and not everything is so clear-cut.
Take, for instance, the long section in act two that begins with the characters remembering how weird Greendale was—the 10,000th flush is celebrated in the bathroom, and one of the classes is apparently for “Ladders”—then shifts into them remembering all of the times the Dean helped them out. It’s an easy way to get them to realize that the Dean has been replaced by Fauxby, but it’s also a reminder of just how much Greendale has added to this series. The twist that Greendale “doesn’t exist” is very silly, but I love that the show treats it with that level of goofiness, as Troy is more worried about parking in front of a meter initially, and the group eventually realizes how ridiculous the psychiatrist’s claims are. (It’s also, hopefully, where the audience cottons to what’s really going on.) There’s some real fun here with Hodgman constantly throwing out Lost-style “explanations” for what’s going on, including Greendale being Purgatory and he the devil.
No, the reason the story works so well here is because each clips package advances it. There’s a very simple structure here, but it feels like an actual plot, not like the weird meandering of “Paradigms.” Somebody will say something that inches the plot forward, then we’ll get some clips to back that up. Somebody says something else, and we get even more clips. “Paradigms” took the form of an argument the group was having, and, as such, it felt like a long conversation interspersed with assorted memories the characters were having. “Curriculum” feels like a mystery. It’s a fun way for the characters to catch up to where the audience actually is, and the only clips package that doesn’t work is the one with Chang, which just feels spliced in to give him something to do and kill time. (That said, I still laughed, so it didn’t matter, ultimately.) “Curriculum” moves swiftly once it settles into its plot arc, and even the moments without clips are funny, as shown in the early scene in the apartment with the brick-obsessed security guard escorting Abed back home.
Does it retroactively save last week’s episode, as some have claimed? Not really. Last week’s is still a messy, messy episode that bites off more than it can chew in attempting to do a weird structure inspired by the five stages of grief and advance the season-long plot several degrees too many. (Then again, over-ambition is a uniquely Community-an failure.) But this episode does make me think the season’s experiments in serialization have gotten it to a nice place heading into the final three episodes. This really does feel like the equivalent of an episode on a serialized drama where the characters all realize something the audience has known about for weeks, and it’s packed with laughs throughout. It even offers a parody of those sorts of “big revelations” episodes in the moment where everybody thinks Greendale doesn’t exist.
As I write this review, the news of Community’s renewal for a fourth season—though not a final one, at least yet—has come down. After a season that’s been filled with such stress and anxiety for fans who’ve worried about everything from low ratings to the creative direction of the show, it’s nice to have that good news accompany a really good episode. Not everything Community has tried has worked this season, but “Curriculum Unavailable” shows that the series is able to pull many of its plot strands together heading into its giant, super-sized season finale. We’ll see you next week… and we’ll see you in the 2012-13 season. Thank goodness.
- I like the way the show deals with the “Don’t community colleges usually last two years?” question that keeps getting tossed at the writers of the show by having Hodgman point out all of the weirdness about the series’ very premise. And when Jeff says most community college students attend for five to seven years, well… it’s not hard to imagine that he’s pointing out where this show just might go if it somehow makes it past season four.
- Another really great episode for Donald Glover, who gets my favorite line of the night when he says the ATV is “all terrain.”
- Can we see that final scene with Chang as Dan Harmon writing himself into the show just a bit? It sure seems like he’s making fun of himself there, having the guy keep asking for pitches and handing something off to a “Megan.”
- This was also a subtly good episode for Joel McHale. I loved his impression of a vaudeville comedian when he was trying to stop Hodgman from committing Abed.
- And while we’re at it, Chevy Chase and Jim Rash also did great jobs with the small amounts of stuff they were given to do. The episode also used the clip show conceit as a great way to get Dean Pelton in the episode without actually having him be there. (I’m very curious to see where he’s been holed up.)
- Oh, man, deep-voiced Garrett made my life. As did precog Garrett.
- I’ve gotten some of you asking me (already) whether 13 episodes is a good sign for the show’s future or not. I’ll say this: It’s unclear. I suspect both this and Parks may be held for midseason, at which point, NBC will have a better idea of whether any of their new comedies succeeded or not. If all of them bombed, expect additional episodes for the reliable performers. If all of them succeed, hope that placing these shows behind the hit shows will result in increased ratings for them, like when Cheers ended up behind The Cosby Show. However, having just a 13-episode order could be good for this show in creative terms. It would mean all involved would hopefully buckle down and just create the most solid 13 episodes of the series’ run. That’s easier to do with fewer scripts to turn out. At any rate, it’s great news. Here’s to season four!