The reason I love Community so much is because it can do episodes that I find meaningful and moving, like last week's episode, and then it can turn right around and just do episodes that are a metric shit ton of fun like tonight's episode. "Epidemiology," an episode very like the tribute episodes of last season (see, also, the chicken fingers episode and "Modern Warfare"), gets everything right about this kind of episode that the outer space episode of two weeks ago messed up. It nails the pop culture gags and references, sure, but it also tells a handful of strong character stories. That's not to mention that it essentially works as a straight-up zombie movie, should you want to see it that way, or that it's filled with terrific sight gags and special bonuses for people named Kevin. If this is Community's last, best shot at becoming a big-ass hit (since it's on after the likely-to-debut well Scared Shrekless), the show certainly put its best foot forward. This is an episode both funny and scary, and I'm sure it will become a Halloween viewing staple for many a fan.
The story's simple: The Dean purchased a bunch of old army rations from a military surplus store. Mixed in with all of them was some sort of army experiment in biotechnology, one that turns otherwise ordinary living people into something very much resembling zombies. Pierce is the first to turn, but once he does, the virus spreads rapidly throughout the Halloween party. Soon enough, the only ones who aren't infected are Dean Pelton, outside, and Troy and Abed, locked in a creepy basement with the zombies approaching. And then Abed sacrifices himself to save his best friend (sniff) and Troy has to make a choice: Does he embrace what he's becoming - a nerd - or go back to the cool guy he was? For as silly as this episode is, it's grounded in Troy's journey. That journey may seem a little strange and perhaps less emotionally resonant than, say, Shirley's journey of last week, but he's doing so within a zombie movie scored entirely to Abba tunes. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?
Halloween is a holiday when sitcoms often feel the freedom to do something a little zanier than they normally would. It's doubtful that Community could get away with this episode at, say, Thanksgiving (though I doubt the show would even try), but when you air this thing in October and couch it all in the idea that this is canonical, sure, but nobody's ever going to remember it, it feels downright festive. There are a couple of small story quibbles I could make - I wanted just a moment more of Troy deciding to go back into the party to save everyone there, and I did wonder if leaving everyone with NO memory of what happened was the best idea in the world - but at the same time, I can rationalize both decisions. The story here is tight, and we always know just where we're headed. There's a thermostat. If it's turned down, the zombies will be saved. If it's not, they'll overheat, and their brains will turn to mush. Only Troy can get there.
The thing that makes Community valuable, I think, is that no other show on TV could DO an episode like this. A show like Glee could try, but that series doesn't have a consistent enough skill at small, character-based episodes to really pull it off. Most other shows just wouldn't have the room within their universes to pull this off. That Community can do many different KINDS of episodes is an immense benefit to it. You don't always know what kind of show you're going to tune in for, but you have a pretty good idea that it's going to make you laugh. You build to episodes like this with the smaller ones, the episodes where the characters are just being themselves and hanging out and saying funny stuff. I get that there are some fans who wish the show was all "Epidemiology," all the time (and I've talked to many of you), but aside from the fact that that's budgetarily impossible, it would also ultimately cripple the show.
Here's another example of what sets this apart from "Rocket Science": Like "Modern Warfare," there's a pretty significant hook-up here, and like in that episode, it's treated essentially seriously amidst all the chaos. The genius of hooking up Shirley and Chang is that the episode has been building toward this from the start, but the audience still has no idea it's coming. Everyone mistakes Shirley and Chang for people they aren't. They keep getting thrown into situations together. They're the two who keep bringing up the "end of days." And yet, when Chang leans over to kiss her at the bathroom door, the zombies pounding on the door outside, there's that moment of hesitation, that moment when you're not sure the show will go through with it (and, hell, Shirley isn't sure she'll go through with it). And then, she reciprocates, and the show takes off from there. (Another nice touch: Chang calls Troy to tell him what happened and confirm the two actually had sex, but Troy gets the voicemail days later, when all of this is a missing blank in the characters' memories.)
Or, hell, you can take the point that this is less a riff on a specific zombie movie and more a riff on ALL zombie movies. There are references to specific films if you look for them, I'm sure, but the way the show condenses most of the plot of a zombie movie into just over 20 minutes is truly impressive. Things like Troy and Abed screaming about zombies being in the room or the zombie characters doing versions of what they would normally do or the somehow both simple and exceedingly difficult goal of getting to the thermostat are all right out of a zombie movie, but they've also been thoroughly Community-ized and run through the show's set of in-jokes and its own television grammar. When Zombie Winger, still cool!, goes "MWAH!" in response to Troy trying to get to the thermostat, it's funny as a zombie parody, it's funny as absurdism, and it's funny as a moment between the characters.
Look, I could keep singing the praises of this episode, or I could just entreat you to go watch it. Unlike last week's episode, where I knew going in that my love for the episode wouldn't be shared by quite a few viewers, I'd be hard-pressed to imagine there were any hardcore or even casual fans of Community who were substantially disappointed in this episode. It kept you guessing - did YOU think Jeff and Abed would both be bitten before Troy? - and it kept you both laughing and on the edge of your seat - the moment when a surge of zombies pour into the study room, led by a giant hamster, is at once kind of terrifying and sublimely ridiculous. There's nothing quite like a good episode of Community, and this was one of their best yet, an episode that blended all of the things the show does well, then turned them up as high as they would go. Well done.
- Very fun opening credits sequence, with the redone drawings and the spider web covering the desk at the end. I like when shows do something like this to celebrate a certain occasion.
- Some of the Dean Pelton gags have been riding the line for me this season, but the fact that his playlist was all Abba and then personal reminders to himself was inspired.
- Love the choice of costumes for the characters: Shirley is again someone no one can quite pick out. Troy and Abed have a dual costume, until Troy realizes that hotties are turned off by such geeky stuff and becomes a "sexy Dracula" (which consists of wearing a toilet seat cover around his neck). Jeff is David Beckham. Britta is again somehow both shapeless and adorable. Annie tries to play the innocent. Pierce's costume is somehow both retro and a too-obvious attempt to be "hip." These are all just spot-on and put a lot of other shows with vaguely random costume choices to shame. (Though, honestly, why did every show have someone dressed up as Lady Gaga this year?)
- Full disclosure: I was on set for some of the shooting process of this episode (the interviews from my time there should turn up soon). I don't think that pre-biased me in favor of it or anything, but it was fun to see how the footage I saw being shot was fitted into the grand picture.
- "David Beckham. Dragon-turtle?"
- "He's acting like the impression of him we do behind his back."
- "I'm wearing a $6,000 suit, and you spent three days making cardboard box robot armor."
- "Just been proven racist by the racist prover."
- "I don't need to know WHICH dracula I am to be a dracula. Nerd."
- "Leonard, you better back that pumpkin ass up or I'm gonna make a pie."
- "Holy crap, Leonard's a zombie!"
- "I've been told we need a LITTLE baby quarantine until the army gets here."
- "You punched a lady bee!"
- "Add Eat, Pray, Love soundtrack to workout mix."
- "They can make us sick by biting us. The banana said so."
- "What is up with that CAT?" "Is someone throwing it?"
- "Troy, make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end."
- "That's right. Prepare to meet the power of imagination."
- "Why did he call me?"