The most insanely self-referential 22 minutes in sitcom history.
I counted more than a half-dozen full outside sets the show had to work on, and another half-dozen or more smaller scenes outside the show's normal bailiwick. There's a camping trip; a visit to a cobweb-covered and seemingly haunted Civil War-era house; the Western set; the scene with the drug lords; an old timey train station; a hotel on the steps of which the group, half-undressed, is apparently trying to rid itself of bed bugs; and more.
None of it really makes any sense, perhaps because TV doesn't make any sense. "This engine runs on us," says Jeff in one scene, standing next to a steam engine in an old-fashioned engineer's outfit.
Along the way there are a couple of broadsides at contemporary bits of pop culture. The cruelest is a rip on Glee, when the group remembers having been in the glee club and winning some medals. (For this the show uses yet another set and even wrote a contemptuously nonsensical song.) Annie reminds them that's it's not a fond memory—they'd filled in for the glee club only after it had died en masse in a bus crash. "I was remembering around that part," Jeff says.
In another, Abed appears in the guise of the character the Cape, from a short-lived and utterly preposterous NBC series about a soi-disant superhero who uses his cape as a whiplike weapon. In one quick flashback, Abed sneaks up on Jeff in the lunchroom, obliterates his lunch with the cape, and then runs off. "That show's gonna last three weeks," Jeff angrily hollers after him, with retrospective prescience.
I'd like to note here that all of things I've been talking about occur in a single episode of a U.S. situation comedy running about 22 minutes.
Now, the big theme of this episode eludes me. Sure, memory is discussed, commented on, interpreted and misinterpreted. (There's even an extended sequence I haven't mentioned, whereby yet another group of a half-dozen flashbacks are shown, these being just some innocuous situations that are played and then replayed in slow motion with a romantic song in the background, allowing the characters to fight over their meaning. But of course they aren't really about memory; they are about the choices made by a producer and director on how to use production techniques to tell the story they wish to tell, their characters' inclinations be damned.)
Still, it doesn't really have anything to say about memory, unless "Paradigms" is actually a spirited but somewhat wistful homage to the thoughts and ideas and memories of the characters of TV shows, which are all of course imaginary. If Philip K. Dick had written "Paradigms," he might have called it, "Do Sitcoms Dream of Electric Shticks?"
But in the event, the group, spurred on by the revelation about Jeff and Britta, remembers a lot of fighting and carping. It climaxes with Troy, like a child dismayed at his parents' constant sniping, having a fit about the debilitating negativity. Jeff eventually goes into one of his monologues to try to soothe the group, but this one is chopped up and spit back out again by all the flashbacks.
What we're left with is … a brilliantly conceived show about nothing, really, other than how brilliant its conception is. If anything, "Paradigms of Human Memory" is about overkill. Flashbacks have been a droll staple of fast-moving shows like ArrestedDevelopment and 30 Rock. Here the flashbacks come in packs. There's never just one; there are four, five, six, often ramping up to some absurdity—a cardboard robot creating panic in the halls of the school—and then deflating down to something nonsensical, like the characters all beaming as they participate in a jump-rope class. This happens over and over again. When the dean comes in dressed as a Carnival dancer, Jeff asks him how many excuses he needs to dress up in dumb costumes. The answer, as we see from an ensuing series of shots (Tina Turner, Julius Caesar, Scarlett O'Hara …) is at least a half dozen. The Cape comes back two or three more times. That's what I meant above when I said Community already comments on itself comprehensively. "Paradigms" knows how complex it is. It's about its own complexity.
Jeff's summation: "So maybe we are caught in an endless cycle of screw-ups and a lot of hurt feelings, but I choose to think it's just the universe's way of molding us into some sort of supergroup." But a supergroup they definitely are not. A deflating reference to the Traveling Wilburys follows, and, for now, the group's anger is cooled, and they give a pass to Jeff and Britt's liaison, after which the pair quickly realize that secret sex that isn't a secret isn't very appetizing. Then Chang comes back to take his rightful place in the universe—trapped in an AC duct and being beaten over the head continuously by the monkey. We see his figurine placed solidly outside the diorama, looking in.
You can reflect that Jeff, Abed, Britta, and the rest are just caught in their character straightjackets, trapped in the rubber room that is the conventions of the contemporary American sitcom. But that, too, was one of the recurring flashback scenes in the show. You could go further and say that, in "Paradigms of Human Memory," Community has just taken everything that has ever happened on the show and shoved it up its own ass. The fact that that's just a line from the same show doesn't make it any less true. But finally, it's also true that, in its own twisted, self-referential, postmodern head-up-its-own-ass way, the episode does with an almost giddy profundity encompass multitudes, if multitudes can be understood to include television tropes, forgotten pop culture, and plushie jokes. What show on TV is as blithely, pointlessly ambitious?