Not even guest stars Matt Lucas ('Bridesmaids') and Tricia Helfer ('Battlestar Galactica') can save this bland episode of 'Community,' but Alison Brie almost can. Almost.

I've been trying to give this Dan Harmon-less season of 'Community' a fair shake -- the first episode was a mixed bag, and mostly felt like it was concocted of recycled themes and bits to reassure viewers that nothing had changed; the second episode, which aired last week, was flat, lacking in the jokes and energy and, well, spirit, that made us love 'Community' in the first place; and this third episode is even flatter than last week's, if that's possible. Oh, but it is.

You'd think an episode set entirely at an Inspector Spacetime convention (the show's fun nod to 'Doctor Who') would offer plenty of exciting visual gags and fish out of water fun for the group's non-fans, but it's sorely lacking. Maybe immersing the group in the convention is giving us too much of Inspector Spacetime, a show that, up until now, we'd only seen through the eyes of Troy and Abed.

What strikes me as most bizarre about this new version of 'Community' is that it packs the same life lessons that we'd get in Dan Harmon's version, but lacks the laughter that surrounds them. In this week's outing, Troy and Britta have been spending so much time together that Abed latches on to a British friend (who was trapped in a bank in Nigeria and needed a loan, and was actually telling the truth -- ha, ha), leading him to realize that, like Inspector Spacetime, Abed is logical, and Troy, like the Inspector's constable, is emotional, and both halves are necessary for a functioning friendship. It's a cute conceit and one that feels right at home in the 'Community' universe, but there's very little to laugh at -- even when Jeff is mistaken by a sexy female fan to be the show's most famous villain.

And still no laughs when Pierce and Shirley show up, uninvited, and are corralled into a focus group to help shape the American remake of the Inspector Spacetime show, leading Pierce to pitch in ideas like getting rid of space and time and hiring a sexy blonde with a tennis racket as the Inspector's companion.

The most laughs tonight come from Annie, who's excited to be on her first adult vacation at a hotel that doesn't have a number in the title. Staying in Jeff's room, Annie puts on a big show about being his wife, ordering room service and various accommodations, and eventually taking the act too far when an attendant tells her that Jeff might be "cheating" on her in the lobby. The will they/won't they of Jeff and Annie surprisingly never gets old because their relationship is so nebulous and ill-defined -- and sort of inappropriate -- that we all know the possibility of that relationship functioning isn't very likely to happen, but their chemistry is undeniable and fun to watch.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the episode feels like a lead-in to a punchline, confirmed with the final scene, in which Jeff has his friends take video while he rips his shirt open and quotes his villain doppelganger's catchphrase, "Bow down before Thoraxis," made even funnier when the convention attendees actually bow down. But that's not enough. The entire episode wasn't building up to one punchline, it was building up to two: the second is the stinger, in which we see the American version of Inspector Spacetime, starring Luke Perry and Jennie Garth of 'Beverly Hills 90210.' Both sequences are plenty funny, but do the ends justify the means?

It pains me to write such a negative review, but the structure of this new 'Community' is starting to become uncomfortably clear: the episodes are mostly flat, cardboard cut-out replicas of the series we know and love, and the pacing reflects the set-up for a joke -- wait for it, wait for it... in the last five minutes of each episode, we get the punchline. And it's getting old already.

More From ScreenCrush