Community's "Paradigms of Human Memory:" A salute to the most insanely self-referential 22 minutes in sitcom history.

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Aug. 25 2011 10:55 AM

Tonight's Community

The most insanely self-referential 22 minutes in sitcom history.

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So Community is not without some conventional constructions. On top of these the writers dance like Fred Astaire. An early episode found the group taking control of the school cafeteria in a Goodfellas parody. A Christmas fantasy last year had the group go through its motions in Claymation, all taking place inside Abed's head. Once each season, there's a massive school-wide paintball fight. The first one genuflects toward latter-day horror films like 28 Days Later (along with, of course, a dozen other movies). The one this year, a two-parter that ended the season, begins as a spaghetti Western, but changes in the second episode, when Abed announces that it will continue as a Star Wars homage. The women in the crowd moan. "I know, I wish it had happened sooner, too," Abed says.

Some of the pop-culture references are almost indigestible, and delineating them can be more trouble than it's worth. Take, for example, the school's dean, a barely closeted compulsive cross-dresser whose pathologies, including a fixation with Jeff and an active participation in the local plushie scene, are on prominent, discomfiting display. At a Halloween party, Britta tells him that his iPod, which is providing the music, is also playing private "note to self" audio messages. We hear, "Check Netflix for that movie where Greg Kinnear is a ghost. No, an angel. And something called Human Centip-…"

This is a bit hard to parse. The Kinnear slam seems just to be a blank reference to the Ricky Gervais film Ghost Town, in which Kinnear co-starred, but the joke could be that he's confusing Kinnear and Patrick Swayze, who was in Ghost. Then comes a hugely gratuitous reference to a reputedly revolting torture-porn film called The Human Centipede. I won't gross you out with the details, which have captivated some writers and provided fodder for South Park's truly foul season premiere a few months ago. Here, the joke seems to be that the dean had heard about the film second- or third-hand and had no idea what he was in for.

But as the second season has trundled along, some of the conceptions have taken on a virtuosic quality. In one of them, Jeff works hard to put together a surprise Pulp Fiction theme party for Abed's birthday, with the various members of the cast dressed up as characters from that film. (Shirley is given Samuel L. Jackson-like whiskers.) But Abed just wants Jeff to take him out to dinner at a nice restaurant and, uncharacteristically for someone with his affliction, have a normal, deep conversation. The episode is two-thirds over before we realize what's going on. Abed has obsessively created his own My Dinner With Andre-themed episode even as Jeff was trying to pull off the Pulp Fiction homage. In the process he infuriates Jeff, who realizes that the human connection he'd been making with Abed over the meal was false. Live by the homage, die by it.

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Anyway, even by Community standards, "Paradigms of Human Memory" is an extreme example. If you haven't seen it you can stop reading here.

It begins with the group looking at a diorama they've just completed. (Dioramas are one of the show's academic punchlines.) It's their 20th diorama together, and it portrays … the group making its 19th diorama together.

That thematic fanfare tells us the show is going to be even more self-conscious than usual. Indeed: A monkey comes into the room, steals a spoon, and runs into an AC vent. We remember the monkey from "Calligraphy"; we know that it had stolen Annie's pen, too. (The monkey belongs to Troy and is named "Annie's Boobs," incidentally.) Chang strips down, unappetizingly (and unnecessarily) coats himself with Vaseline, and follows the monkey into the duct to investigate. He finds a storehouse of objects the creature had stolen from the group, which, once recovered, are used so the characters can reminisce about their past together, starting with Annie's pens.

So now the show has announced its intentions, and, as I noted above, made its connection to the bottle episode clear. Next comes a reminder of how bruised the group's relationships are. It doesn't take long for Abed to sense that Jeff and Britta have been hooking up without telling the group. We see a brief flurry of flashbacks that establish the affair, but also sense something off about the flashbacks. They are not scenes from the actual show, but rather, outtakes from previous episodes. That's fair, and to viewers they "read" as part of the possible narratives. But one makes a reference to an "exciting St. Patrick's Day episode" in which we see Abed in an orange life vest and a green St. Patrick's day bowler. Now, I knew that show had never been aired, but the episode kept moving and I didn't have time to process what it meant.

Indeed, the revelation that Jeff and Britta had been secretly boffing creates a general sense of outrage and sets a tone of discord among the characters that will persist through the rest of the episode. The group then starts remembering different ways they'd all been mean to each other, with a dozen more flashbacks piling up, some of them creating the same feeling of offness that the St. Patrick's reference did.

Then someone picks up a sheriff's badge, and Jeff takes the show down a rabbit hole.

"Oh, the deputy's badge from when we spent the day in that old ghost town," he says. This is a key moment, because we're sure the group never did spend a day in a ghost town in any of the previous episodes, and it didn't plausibly happen in any case. But we then see Abed and Troy chased out of a saloon by a crotchety Western character-actor-type firing a shotgun at them. "That was one of the best days of the whole year, and I almost totally forgot about it," Jeff marvels. Here and throughout the episode at such moments, a few other characters say, "Oh, right," but their tone is somewhat tentative; their confidence in the existence of the memory seems doubtful.

The rest of the show is based on a slow trickle and then a full firehose of such scenes, some of them, again, "real"—i.e., scenes we've seen or scenes that seem to be legitimate outtakes from previous episodes—but most of them patently absurd, like one that finds the group being held at gunpoint by South American drug lords. By the end of the show, the scenes flit by at a rapid clip, all culminating in a rambling and then dissociative monologue from Jeff patterned over an ultimately dizzying series of rococo scenes.

The first time you see the episode it's hard to take in; the second time you try to figure out how much work went into it. Each scene, remember, had to be conceived, budgeted, built, staged, costumed, and filmed, just for a few seconds of airtime, in addition to the two or three dozen other brief flashback scenes that were staged in the show's regular sets but still needed to be written and filmed.

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