A review of tonight's "Community" coming up just as soon as I grab this thing that's definitely not a whip...

All season long with "Community," I've squinted real hard and looked for signs of hope that the show in 2013 could still evoke the show from 2009-12. And while I've occasionally appreciated a character story like Jeff's confrontation with his dad or Pierce and Gilbert's reunion, for the most part this season has felt like a faint, significantly less funny echo of what "Community" used to be.

Thank goodness, then, for "Intro to Felt Surrogacy," which was not only the best — and by far funniest — episode of the season, but the first to feel like it could stack up with the stronger parts of the Harmon era.

For production reasons, this was actually the last episode of the season produced(*), and you can look at this as a case of the creative team — here led by Gene Hong, who wrote the script and co-wrote the songs with Sara Bareilles (who played the balloon guide) and Adam Levine — having a much better handle on the show and its characters than they did at the start. Though this is a gimmick episode, it's also the first one we've seen this season that's spent a lot of time at the study room table with the characters (whether in human or puppet form) swapping insults, observations and misunderstandings. That's always been the heart of the show, and it's been sorely missing for most of this year. Because the musical numbers took up so much time, the story ultimately didn't go that deep into how the group relates to each other, but it worked well enough, particularly given the bond between the characters (and the cast) at this point.

(*) You'll note Pierce's absence in any flesh-and-blood scene, since this came after Chevy Chase quit; he had to agree to record his voice for the puppet sequences as part of his deal to leave. I'm glad that could be worked out, if only for the payoff to the Eartha Kitt running gag from last season, delivered in a hilariously sad falsetto.

And while making the study group into singing puppets could have felt like a strained attempt at doing a Harmon-esque high-concept episode — (imagined conversation) Port: "What Gen X touchstone hasn't the show done yet?" Guarascio: "I know: Muppets!" Port: "Give me a hug, you magnificent bastard! And get me whatever NBC singing contest judges are available!" — it fit in just fine. Using the Dean as the puppet delivery system made sense, and it's not like the study group hasn't broken into song in the past. (The one disappointment is that the lyrics were pretty evenly distributed among the cast, so the better singers like Yvette Nicole Brown couldn't really go to town the way they could in their respective solos in the "Glee" spoof.)

There was just such a sense of joy to the puppet characters singing and dancing that it was hard not to get swept up in it — which then perfectly set up the moment where the group started tripping on the psychedelic berries Jason Alexander gave them. I laughed more at that sequence than I may have at the previous eight episodes combined, and it was in the midst of an episode with a bunch of fine jokes (Jeff and Britta's digs about each other's sexual habits, Troy noticing Professor Duncan's long absence or being confused by Blue Man Group). Also, using puppets allowed the show to take the characters to places it otherwise couldn't, like the balloon ride itself (which would have been ultra-cheesey and fake with the actors) or even Annie and Britta getting all touchy-feelie while under the influence. (Though the show came awfully close with those two at times in the past.)

All in all, this one made me very, very happy. No looking for silver linings here — just a smart, funny, sweet, buoyant episode of this show we love called "Community." Whatever else season 4 brings, at least it brought us this.

What did everybody else think?