A review of tonight's "Community" coming up just as soon as I know that the Prime Minister went to Oxford, not Cambridge...

Early in the run of "Community," Dan Harmon listed "Taxi" as one of the show's many influences, but the comparison hasn't come up much since then, in part because "Taxi" hasn't had quite the shelf life of some of its contemporaries(*), in part because "Community" quickly became so strange that it bore little resemblance to the kitchen-sink realism that was the older show's stock in trade.

(*) At the moment, the best place to watch old episodes is on CBS.com, which has an incomplete collection of "Taxi"s from the first four seasons. It's missing virtually all of my favorites, but I would strongly suggest the pilot, "Like Father, Like Daughter," which Fienberg and I discussed as part of our summer pilot rewatch.  

But I can see exactly what Harmon was getting at, not only because Abed fits the same kind of "shamanistic" archetype of Reverend Jim, but because the set-up of each show is fundamentally a sad one. Other than Alex Rieger and maybe Louie, everyone who works at Sunshine Cab does it under the delusion that it's a way to pay the bills until they get the career that they really want, but instead they stay there for years on end, muddling through and leaning on each other. And of course virtually everyone at Greendale, and our heroes in particular, wound up there because their lives didn't turn out the way they had planned. They create this new makeshift family and have crazy adventures, but only because it's their absolute last option.

Every now and then, "Community" will do an episode that reminds us of what a sad (if eternallyhopeful) bunch our heroes are, and that adopts a more low-key, realistic tone. Season 2's "Mixology Certification"(**) was a great example of this, and "Introduction to Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality" neatly fits that bill as well.

(**) And I am now very annoyed that ABC's heinous new sitcom "Mixology" has made it more difficult for me to reference the "Community" episode. 

It is, like "Mixology Certification," more dramatic than comic, with most of the jokes on the margins with Chang, Shirley and Annie. Mainly, though, it's about Britta, Duncan, Jeff, Abed and Buzz once again having to accept that this is the place where they are in their lives, and these are the people they have as their traveling companions.

It's an episode that winds up turning back the clock to the series' early days, reminding us that Jeff and Duncan are supposed to be friends, that Britta is supposed to be an anarchist, and that there are people who haven't been in this group for four-plus years who get frustrated with Abed being Abed.

As a character who, prior to this season, popped up only on the occasions when John Oliver's schedule allowed it, Duncan's never really gotten the humanizing treatment of the study group, or even Chang (on occasion) or Dean Pelton. He's a selfish, petty creep — remember, in the pilot, he tries to swindle his pal Jeff out of his car — who is funny but not sympathetic in the slightest. This episode doesn't magically change all that, but it does give us Duncan realizing both that there are moments to not be a creep, and that he's been a lousy friend to Jeff. (And note that Jeff, even after his allotted wait time is up, does not try to go after Britta out of respect for Duncan — even though he is then doing a disservice to Britta.) Duncan gives Britta good advice, he stops himself from hitting on her (and then beats up the steering wheel when she confirms that it would have worked), and he goes back to keep Jeff company. It's a very nice moment.

Duncan isn't the only one doing right by Britta, as we get another reminder that before she was The AT&T of People, she was a person who lived a life (including time in New York!), who fought for causes (even if jokes in later seasons suggested she didn't always understand them), and who had principles. The bumbling, "bag-el"-pronouncing version of Britta is a much funnier take on the character, and has given Gillian Jacobs so much to work with over the years, but the other part of her exists, too, and it was good to see her first feted by her old revolutionary buddies and then embarrassed when she discovered how much better they were doing than her.

With soulmate Troy gone, Abed is in a much sadder, lonelier place than at any point since the start of the series (or maybe the stop-motion Christmas episode), but the idea of pairing him with Buzz — whether as an ongoing thing or just an occasional idea — has a lot of promise. Troy and Abed were on the same wavelength, but Troy also indulged all of Abed's flights of fancy, and it might be healthier for a while if the magical realism of Abed got matched up with Buzz, who has lived the realest life of anyone on the Save Greendale committee. (He did, after all, watch his third wife die.) It was surprising to see Abed being quite so cruel to Buzz, but it also made sense. Abed has always shown an uncanny gift for psychoanalyzing the other members of the group, and we've never seen anyone deny Abed as unwaveringly as Buzz does here. I hope this isn't the last we've heard of their screenplay collaboration.

The Chang subplot was strange, but the episode definitely needed some comic relief ("Mixology Certification" had Pierce's struggles getting with his wheelchair), and it was so brief as to not overstay its welcome. I would have been fine with it being a more straightforward thing where Chang turns out to be a brilliant monologuist ("My mother used to tell a story about how she killed a chicken"), but this worked well, too, as did the few jokes Shirley and Annie got in their brief time onscreen (including a meta reference to how little Shirley has had to do so far this season).

This isn't a flavor of "Community" I would want to be served every week, if only because the characters and the world are too funny to be buttoned down like this forever. But when the show decides to go to this more melancholy place, it does it very, very well. This was lovely.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com