It's time for the 'Community' puppet episode, the first legitimately high-concept episode of the season, with special guest star Jason Alexander -- but does this gimmick have anything beneath the surface?

I was excited for this episode for a couple of weeks now because this season of 'Community,' up until the last few episodes, has been rather lackluster. When the show lost its show runner (and a few other writers), it also lost some of the magic that made it so great. Where are the high-concept episodes? Where are the meta elements? A joke about something being meta doesn't make it meta. But even without those things, and even though the writers seemed to be losing sight of who some of these characters had become, this new 'Community' was starting to get good. There are still some issues, namely in redundancy and the way characters seem to have to spell out the theme of the episode for us, but what new 'Community' lacks in laughs and cleverness, it makes up for in heart.

"Intro to Felt Surrogacy" has plenty of heart, no bones about it (ha, no bones -- because they're all puppets!), but it relies too heavily on the puppet gimmick to do the heavy lifting. Dean Pelton introduces puppets created in the image of the Greendale study group to help them work out some weird issue that's plaguing them and causing them not to talk to each other. The gang gets transformed into their little puppet avatars and they recount an adventure they took in a hot air balloon, and a man they met in a forest (Jason Alexander in a small, but fun role) who gave them hallucinogenic berries. Since it's a puppet episode, it's very Muppet-ish, so we get a couple of songs and guest appearances, and it's all cute and fine, but never really exceeds fine.

As it turns out, they all told each other their deepest, darkest secrets, but no one can remember the secrets told. Shirley slips up and repeats her secret to the group during puppet therapy, and Jeff decides that the only way to even the playing field is for all of them to take turns repeating their secrets to make their friend feel less embarrassed. I've gotta say, Shirley's secret is pretty shocking, given how much we know about Shirley, while everyone else's secrets are about par -- Troy set fire to Greendale in 2003 while trying to burn an ant hill, Jeff didn't like that a girlfriend had a son and broke a promise to attend the kid's little league game, Annie cheats on history tests, and although Britta postures herself as an activist, she's never voted in an election. Shirley's secret? She thought she saw her ex with another woman at the grocery store and left her kids at the checkout to follow the couple, but she wound up following them out of state, leaving her kids at the store all night. I mean... what?!

The joke is certainly jarring in the midst of a whimsical, childlike episode, and if it even is a joke, it's a very dark one. While I admire the ambition in doing a puppet episode, it feels so empty. What works about something like 'The Muppets' in any of their incarnations is that there's so much sweetness and goodness and heart underneath the colorful felt characters. It's a joy to see the puppetry, but there's so much more to enjoy beyond that -- and the comedy is always genuine and good, with something for people of all ages. I said earlier that this episode has heart, and it does, but it's such a concentrated, contained plot that, while it does have sentiment, the episode can't rest on good intention wrapped up in a puppet gimmick.

Abed and Troy get in some good jokes, Annie is as adorable as ever, and Yvette Nicole Brown once again gives us a great Shirley performance by showing us a sadder side of the character, but for all the staging and bright colors and whimsy, there's little else to go on. Either the entire episode exists as a vessel for these characters to share some secrets with us, or the secrets are an afterthought -- a way to justify a puppet adventure -- and either way, that kind of sucks.