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Community / Office Watch: Fright Night

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Proving that there are still a vast amount of costume gags yet to be mined in the sitcom genre, both Community and The Office (and Outsourced, but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen) delivered Halloween episodes last night. Proving that the supply of said costume gags is not unlimited, both episodes featured essentially the same Lady Gaga “Poker Face” joke. Let’s look behind the mask, shall we?

Among Community fans online—the Community community?—”Epidemiology 206,” the timely zombie-movie parody episode, is already garnering rave reviews, with some suggesting that this may be the best episode the show has ever done. I laughed a lot at it, but I wouldn’t go nearly that far, partly because of how often the show has gone to the movie-parody well (so soon, for instance, after its Apollo 13 spoof) and partly because of comparison to the show’s actual best-ever episode, “Modern Warfare.”

I guess it comes down to a question: is Community a show where zany, hilarious things happen, but within the context of a believable group of students at a community college, or is it a show where any zany, hilarious things can happen in order to set up a parody? One of the charms of Community is that little things happen, and the characters invest them with the stakes and drama of action movies. A paintball contest for early registration becomes the downfall of society; a parking-lot sailing class becomes a rescue on the high seas; an old KFC promotion becomes a moonshot capsule.

But it’s a step from that to say now that, no, Community is a show where people actually eat old experimental army rations that bring on neurological disease and zombieism. (Was I the only one expecting the more mundane explanation that never came?) That kind of show can be great; it’s the kind of storyline that I’ve seen done brilliantly (and darkly) on, say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. But it’s a different kind of show from what Community’s been, a different, sci-fi plane of realism, and I guess I don’t what to see Community become whatever kind of show it needs to be to service the movie reference of the week.

A picky complaint, maybe, because I laughed like hell at so much in this episode—and a lot of the humor did come out of character and not just meta-references. It was funny to see Troy avenging all the black guys who got killed early in movies (see again “Modern Warfare”), but even funnier, I thought, was how his sweet innocence made him believe he could defeat the zombie army by wearing his own Halloween costume. (“Prepare to meet the power of imagination!”) And there were more other genius moments than I can list: Chang the “racist prover,” the mysterious non-drinking uses of whole milk, the flying cats, and, of course, “You punched a lady bee!” (Really, this was an excellent Donald Glover showcase; also loved Troy’s dismissive line that he doesn’t need to know which kind of “Dracula” he is.)

So I guess I can take this in the spirit of Halloween: Community dressing up for a week—a la Treehouse of Horror—as a different show. But I still like it best as itself. [Update: Moved temporarily to 8:30 p.m., after a Shrek special, the struggling Community had its highest rating since January, so here’s hoping at least any new viewers liked it enough to stick around.]

NBC

The “Costume Contest” episode of The Office, on the other hand, was full of Halloweeny yuks (and again, I won’t do a whole list, though you’re welcome to in the comments), but each grew out of the characters’ relationships and the small-bore stakes of office life—an old petty slight, a new one and an overvalued coupon book. It started excellently, with the “What can Stanley ignore?” pre-credits sequence (best kicker: “Bye, Stanley! Love you!”) and rolled on from there.

The costume gags were good and plenty (“Blackula!” “Dracula”), but what made the episode work as an episode was that each one—Michael’s offense at Darryl, Pam’s hurt over Danny’s old rejection, Oscar’s obsession with the coupon book and its true value—came back to the series’ core: amid the routine and boredom of office life, little things become tremendously important. (I’d compare it in that way to the “Office Olympics” episode, though I don’t think it was quite at the same level.)

That, and the episode contained a number of nice, small character beats: Andy reminiscing about “The Cornell Daily Sun, which is at Cornell”; Erin freaking out over the Ouija board and eating two whole apples while submerged in the bobbing bucket (loved the look of triumph on her face); Kevin’s guilty breakdown and “f__ you, Gabe”; and Pam’s warning to Michael about dressing as someone else—”When has that ever worked for you?”—which recalled her whole history as his assistant and protector. The Office dressed up but was still itself, and that worked for me.

But I’m still bitter that NBC has deprived us of the Parks and Recreation Halloween episode we rightly deserve. Now to drown my sorrows in some Sweetums-brand candy corn.

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