Jim Parsons

Give a gold star — or whatever qualifies as a decent grade at Greendale Community College these days — to NBC for the smart decision to bring back Community while CBS was preoccupied with NCAA March Madness for several weeks. This allowed the very cult comedy to gain a little traction (by its own admittedly modest standards) before it had to go head-to-head once again with the behemoth that is CBS' The Big Bang Theory.

The vacation's over, and tonight at 8/7c Community has its work cut out for it, as Big Bang brings out a very big gun: a voice cameo by Star Trek's legendary Leonard Nimoy (as a Mr. Spock collectible action figure that haunts Sheldon). Fans still fondly remember the great moment from the Christmas episode of Season 2 when Penny gifted Sheldon with a napkin the actual Nimoy (never shown) had wiped his mouth on at the restaurant. "I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy?" Sheldon screamed, shaken and overcome. It's a scene that still makes me laugh, and almost cry with its geeky emotional intensity. Now he can't get the guy out of his head, and that alone should make for a memorable episode. (Returning to join it, emerging from hiatus for the umpteenth time, is Rules of Engagement at 8:30/7:30c, which after Rob feels like a comedy classic.)

To its (extra) credit, Community is the sort of underdog that never plays it safe, and while Britta might snark "Kind of repeating yourselves, aren't you?" to Troy and Abed as they plot to build the world's biggest bed-linen fort — whether it will be of pillows (Abed) or blankets (Troy) causes an unusual rift between the BFFs — the episode (the first of a two-parter) is as original as TV comedy gets. Even the ribbon-cutting for the "cafetorium's" new Subway sandwich shop (to the chagrin of Shirley and Pierce) takes egregious product placement to a far more inspired and funnier place than Chuck ever managed. Only Community would find a way to put the "Eat Fresh" slogan and George Orwell-ian dehumanization in the same heady, hilarious subplot. With Parks and Recreation still on hiatus for a few weeks, this is NBC's best Thursday sitcom by a mile.

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WAKE-UP CALL:
Speaking of underdogs, on NBC's provocative new drama Awake it was only a matter of time before someone would begin to wonder what's up with its hero, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), being able to make such incredible leaps of intuitive detection. (He lives between two "realities," or possible dream states, and cases in one world often give him uncanny insights into the case he's investigating in the other.) In tonight's typically absorbing episode (10/9c), he falls under suspicion from an FBI agent (Megan Dodds) who's none too happy that the serial killer she believes she killed after a 12-year hunt has now resurfaced under Michael's watch. She finds it hard to trust a guy who's acting "like a cop losing his marbles."

Adding to Michael's stress level: His wife Hannah (Laura Allen) has taken a shine to Portland, Oregon, where she'd like to start over to move on from the death of their son (who's still alive in his other reality, though she isn't). If he moves away to be with her, his other waking self would stay in Los Angeles with his son. Talk about your psychic commutes. Both of Michael's shrinks think the move would be a good thing, predicting that the world that isn't real will eventually fade away as all dreams do. Michael isn't so sure, and neither are we. Mainly because we're still not quite sure what's going on here. Which makes Awake one of the more fascinating new shows of the midseason.

On Fox's equally unorthodox new Touch (9/8c), Martin (Kiefer Sutherland) meets a very troubled man (Rob Benedict, in a moving guest performance) who shares little Jake's obsession with numbers, and seeing himself as an "invisible prince" out to slay a mysterious "dragon" — the meaning of which eventually becomes clear — he is on just as desperate a quest to set things right in his own world. Is there comfort to be had that Jake isn't alone in having this curse of a gift? Remains to be seen.

GOTCHA: Are we so desperate for instant nostalgia that it's already time to revive Punk'd for a new generation of pop stars? Apparently so, which explains why in tonight's premiere episode on MTV (10/9), Justin Bieber takes such delight in entrapping siren-ettes Taylor Swift and Miley Cirus in elaborate pranks that no doubt sounded funnier on paper. The voyeuristic thrill of watching the unguarded reactions of people — in this case, famous people — to outrageous situations has worked ever since Candid Camera, but I'll admit the only moment that brought me joy in the first episode is when one of Bieber's marks refuses to fall for the set-up, insisting, "Are we on Punk'd?" Take that, punk.

This leads in to the premiere of The Pauly D Project (10:30/9:30c), which I swear isn't a case of "punk"-ing the audience at home. This spinoff of Jersey Shore has possibly even less substance, as the high-haired DJ from Rhode Island gets a residency gig at a Las Vegas casino, and brings his motley crew of homeboys with him to marvel at their swank new digs. "It's like a Scarface movie," gushes Ryan, Pauly's self-described "social director/go-to wingman." This misbegotten, instantly forgotten Project had a very curious effect on me that I wouldn't have imagined was possible. It made me miss HBO's Entourage. For about a minute.

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