There are episodes throughout this season that have shown why Community was one of the best shows of its era, and there are episodes that have redefined the tropes that they so playfully pay homage to. Paradigms of Human Memory is one of the latter. I think, of all the tricks that shows play to pad out their network-mandated episode orders, the clip show is generally the most hated. With only a couple episodes to go in the (second!) season, it’s a bold move to make an episode not only a clip show, but a clip show that doesn’t advance the season’s major storylines.
Much like Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, the episode runs the risk of using its wacky premise for little reason beyond using a wacky premise. The backbone that runs throughout Paradigms of Human Memory is the group’s perception of each other and their reflection on the academic year. We’ve seen the storyline a couple this season in different permutations – to build the group up, you have to tear them down first – and episode writer Chris McKenna finds an ingenious way to build on that theme. What starts out as a familiar enough clip show format, including moments seen from earlier this season, quickly and bizarrely spins out of control as more and more new clips are introduced. I can specifically remember watching the episode when it first aired in 2011 and going from confused to enthralled at every new iteration of the group’s memory. Wait, when did they visit a ghost town? That didn’t actually happen during the Halloween episode, did it? If nothing else, Paradigms of Human Memory should go down in history as introducing #SixSeasonsAndAMovie to the cultural lexicon, a rallying cry for the show as its renewal status was continuously thrown into limbo.
Of course, McKenna populates the “present day” moments with all the hallmarks of a typical clip show episode, like the “remember the time we…” and “you really felt like _____ after we _______”. And then the conceit folds in on itself as we start getting flashbacks within flashbacks, and so on and so on. Each of the visions is fully realized, springing forth multiple questions about what happened before and after. It’s all capped off perfectly with a montage of Jeff’s Heartfelt Speeches that serves as the show both poking fun at itself and showing just how unbreakable the group’s bond is. And the post-credits stinger may be the best of the season so far, a layered, hilarious riff on how Dean Pelton may or may not envision the world.
Naturally, there’s less to say about Competitive Wine Tasting, but it’s not without its considerable charm. Give Dan Harmon credit for creating a world where a school can have a class where the curriculum centers around finding out who the boss was in Who’s the Boss? and nobody blinks an eye. Guest star Stephen Tobolowsky fits perfectly within the world, and his exasperated bewilderment after Abed teaches the class is a slam-dunk case of punching above his weight class (the sight gag in his final moment when he opens his desk drawer got the biggest laugh out of both episodes from me). It’s great to see Kevin Corrigan back as professor Garrity, no matter how underserved he is here. But the Troy-Britta side of the episode is too inconsequential for my liking, though Donald Glover does deliver some of the best line readings of the season.
I was unprepared when I started this season for how many episodes would feature conflicts between Jeff and Pierce, and this episode doesn’t do much to subvert that expectation. It’s still not clear whether Jeff seeks to upend Pierce’s happiness because he wants to prove his silly beliefs wrong, or because he genuinely wants to look out for him. Competitive Wine Tasting plays into Jeff’s vanity while simultaneously pitting him against Pierce. If/when I continue watching beyond season two of Community, I’ll be curious to see how much more this comes into play, and if the show could make it feel fresh. The same could be said of the constant threat of the study group coming undone, though no episode could do it in such an inventive way as what’s seen here.
Competitive Wine Tasting Grade: B-
Paradigms of Human Memory Grade: A