TV Review: COMMUNITY 3.19 - “Curriculum Unavailable”

John Hodgman guest stars in an episode that gets mental.

“You’re a bad person.”

OK, full disclosure – this might very well be the worst episode of Community that ever aired, for all I know. Roughly 8 minutes before it began, the official word of a 13 episode fourth season hit the Internet, and thus I was too giddy to look at it or anything else objectively. But “Curriculum Unavailable” offered John Hodgman in a major role, an extended gag at the expense of Brett Ratner, and brought back Officer Cackowski, so I’m pretty confident that even when my excitement wears off I’ll still look at this as a top five entry for this third season.

There’s more than one joke about how bringing back paintball in the second season might have been pushing it, which just makes the show’s central concept even funnier – it’s another fake clip show. The group, still expelled from Greendale, has sunk into a depression and having potluck dinners to do something together and cheer up (it doesn’t work). One such meet-up is interrupted by Cackowski, who has once again found Abed (dressed as Inspector Spacetime*) prowling on Greendale and rambling about how the Dean has been replaced by an impostor. Cackowski then recommends that Abed see a shrink, as his behavior is no longer cute.

Enter Hodgman. As Dr. Heidi, he is tasked with diagnosing Abed and deciding whether or not he should be committed. The clips serve as examples, first of Abed’s pre-expulsion behavior (not much weirder, as it turns out), then another batch about how they’re all a bit weird, and finally about how Greendale itself is undoubtedly insane – I particularly liked the bit with Shirley in the library. The clips aren’t as elaborate as last year’s equally great “Paradigms Of Human Memory”, but I actually like this – there wasn’t a single moment in the episode where I was thinking “When did THIS happen?”, unlike “Paradigms” where I felt the trips to South America and Pierce’s haunted mansion were a bit too much. While some of the clips are a bit goofy (Troy riding an ATV inside the school), they’re overall more grounded, could conceivably fit into the show’s established timeline, and more importantly all take place at Greendale (we even get to see a few of its more unusual classes – I hope someone takes “Ladders” next season).

And you can’t ask for a better deadpan guest star than Hodgman, who is the sort of genius that Community fans can appreciate (I also like that he joins John Oliver as another Daily Show psychologist – let’s get Jason Jones in Season 4!). That he indulges in a bit of meta humor regarding the oft-repeated complaint that people should only go to community college for two years (Devin actually made one in his renewal article!) only sweetens his performance. I also loved Jeff’s equally meta response of how it’s normal to go for 5-7 years (heh). I sincerely hope we see more of Heidi next season (and Oliver, dammit).

But then the episode takes a turn into Shutter Island territory, when Heidi tells them that Greendale doesn’t even exist; that they were actually institutionalized in a mental hospital for those three years and created these memories out of some shared psychosis. Anyone who thinks the show is too outlandish should certainly appreciate the sentiment here, as the central points of several classic episodes are proven to be just the deranged hallucinations of seven very disturbed people (magical trampolines, epic paintball wars, etc). It even ends with one of the doctors (Garrett!) saying that he wants to see what happens when they confiscate one of their pens. It’s an in-joke fest, sure, but when they list everything that’s happened over the past three years back to back like this, Heidi’s claim is almost believable.

Of course, it’s not – Heidi is revealed to be a fraud, hired by Chang to get them off the scent after he feared that they were getting too close to discovering that he has kidnapped the real Dean. And after another batch of flashbacks where they realize how much Dean Pelton loves them and thus wouldn’t have expelled them, they spring into action – it’s time to take Greendale back from Chang and the “Doppel-Deaner”. NBC is airing three episodes next week as the season (NOT SERIES!!!) finale, so it serves as a nice cliffhanger for what will be an epic 90 minute closer that will result in my head exploding as I try to get all three recaps up in a timely manner.

Like last week, again we’re dealing with a very funny episode that doesn’t have a lot of stand-alone significance. While the show has always had more connective tissue than most sitcoms, this is bordering on a serial drama at this point – even Pierce’s descent into villain during season 2 didn’t require viewing any particular episode before or after it (especially since the group just kept putting up with him and inviting him to gatherings until the finale – it was a very loose “arc”). If you missed last week, you’d probably be pretty lost with the references to Dean being kidnapped and such, and there’s no real start-finish story to this episode besides proving that Greendale is a very special place, which has already been covered a couple times this season (but don’t mind them stressing the point – the way Greendale has become as important as Springfield is on The Simpsons is part of why I love the show so much). As a fan of serialized TV I don’t mind this approach at all, but I can see how this might be a bit of an issue for casual fans who prefer that the serialized elements are more like a background bonus (like the Subway plotline) as opposed to being the only reason for the episode to exist. Hopefully those folks aren’t turned off by it, because I assume that Dan Harmon and co. will continue this sort of approach in the short fourth season. After all, it’s almost a certainty that there won’t be a 5th (or a 6th, or a movie) unless the show’s ratings skyrocket for some reason, so they might see it as an opportunity to really build toward something (graduation, I assume).

But really, all that should matter is whether or not the show is funny and utilizing its cast well, and this episode excels at both. Even Chang gets a couple of big laughs, and Pierce is once again used perfectly as the one who’s a bit slow to catch on to things (“Since when do these three live together?”), instead of some racist jerk. And you have to love how they all rally to help Abed without getting too sappy or emotional; the writers don’t need to spell it out every time this group of friends proves that they’re friends (on that note yes, there’s another hug – but no “looking” sequences!). I find it comforting that, barring any romantic entanglements, they’re all OK with each other and backing each other up without question. And now they’re seemingly adding Dean to their circle, which means more Jim Rash – can’t argue with that.

In short, I couldn’t ask for a better episode to pair up with the renewal announcement. I trust you’re all hungover this morning, and in case my tweets weren’t enough, I want to give NBC a big round of applause for doing the right thing. As our own Film Crit Hulk said: “THE BUSINESS OF CULTURE WINS”.

*This is the best way to use Spacetime going forward, I think. Also the maximum amount of screentime it should get.