and Community, The Office and 30 Rock: Halloween Comedy on NBC
October 29th, 2009
My brother, on his Twitter feed, made a comment that Halloween episodes are always the best holiday episodes. And while I understand that he, being born on Halloween and having taken the holiday as his own, has a particular affinity for the holiday, I don’t. And, perhaps it is such that I do not view Halloween as an immediate symbol of greatness in my television programming.
However, I do agree that Halloween episodes can be very good programming, and what I found interesting about the NBC comedy lineup (so interesting that I’m lumping them into one post) is how differently each show used the holiday. I won’t argue that any of the shows should be judged on whether they integrated Halloween “correctly,” but I think that the current direction of each show is inherent in how they chose to play with All Hallow’s Eve.
It resulted in one great episode which focused in on elements of the holiday which fit its characters perfectly, one very good episode that used Halloween as a variable of existing dynamics, one okay episode which evaded the holiday but for a quick joke, and one weak episode that used the holiday as a boring subplot that didn’t go anywhere, squandering its potential entirely.
The highlight of the evening was, without question, Parks and Recreation’s “Greg Pikitis.” What made the episode work was how it took a Halloween as broad as Halloween and focused it down to a single element that could then be turned into a broad comic episode. There is something inherently silly about Leslie having an arch-nemesis that’s a 16-year old high school kid, so part of the episode’s charm is how she has taken something as meaningless as a yearly Halloween prank and turned it into a personal crusade. Combine by throwing both Andy (posing as the FBI) and Dave (who continues to be an amazing addition to the cast) into the storyline, and you have both someone calm but also charmed by Leslie and someone who is more unhinged than Leslie will ever be and feels like her owes her. When we eventually learn that Leslie wasn’t wrong at all, and that Greg Pikitis really is a criminal mastermind, it reminds us that Leslie isn’t completely crazy about some things, and her serial killer-esque behaviour really wasn’t that crazy (okay, so maybe it was).
The other side of the storyline was somewhat less clever, but I thought Ann’s Halloween party was similarly well-executed. It was a broader take on the holiday, but I enjoyed that all of Ann’s doctor friends came dressed as doctors, and I also enjoyed how Tom played against type by saving rather than ruining the party. I was half concerned that the episode was going to reveal that Tom was the graffiti artist (he arrived late at the party), but the episode continued the trend from a few weeks ago (with the money he gave to the pit project) of Tom turning into a real human being. The moment where he realizes that his fake wife has no intention of staying with him once she has citizenship, and that his wife is people’s favourite thing about him, makes him pause for reasons that are part selfish (wanting the social status that comes with having a hot wife) and part genuine (enjoying how they work as a team, the companionship it offers). The party also got some fun beats from the nurses interrogating Mark, and genuinely seemed like a fun time. All in all, it was an episode where the show found a particular element of Halloween culture that fit its universe and narrowed in on it, while also acknowledging the holiday in a general fashion. Plus, it was damn funny, which is of course very important.
Community, meanwhile, delivered an episode (“Introduction to Statistics”) where Halloween was basically just an excuse for everyone to be in the same place and, more importantly, for everything to be somewhat trippier than usual. Whereas the over-the-top nature of Halloween wasn’t Parks’ focus, even if the episode ended up being a bit over-the-top, Halloween was an added variable to an existing wackiness that the new series embodies. And, because of how well the two fit together, it delivered a really engaging episode. It was nice to see Jeff having a romantic engagement that didn’t involve Britta (picking up on the thread of them being only friends that was dropped during out of order episodes), and Pierce’s drug trip was an example of Chevy Chase having a lot of fun while wearing a Beastmaster outfit so I can’t really complain about it. However, what was interesting about the episode is that it didn’t need to be about Halloween: there’s no reason that people needed to be in costumes in order for the episode to work, which means that this was less a Halloween episode and more an episode set during Halloween.
But it works because what we see in the episode is that Halloween is good for these characters. For Pierce, it made his drug spiral that much more spooky in his mind, plus it involved him wearing a Beastmaster costume. For Jeff’s conquest of the Math teacher, it forced him to embarrass himself, and self-deprecation works for Joel McHale at times. For Annie, the Halloween party was a good excuse to raise her popularity anxiety, and Allison Brie continues to make me happy in this role. And for our beloved Abed, who is usually a one-note joke character albeit in the television realm, his turn as Batman (complete with creepy Christian Bale Batman voice) was hilarious in short bursts, wonderfully interconnected as he saves Jeff and Pierce from the table fort, and gut-busting during the final monologue of sorts as he takes to the roof. The result is a very good episode of Community that bounces back from a couple of weaker ones, and Halloween was perhaps the added component that gave the show a breath of fresh air.
For The Office’s “Koi Pond”, though, you can sense that they aren’t willing to entirely give into Halloween. Perhaps it’s that the holiday would prove too distracting from its ongoing serialized storylines (here, focused on Michael and Jim’s ongoing interrelationship as co-managers), or perhaps it’s because the show did its Halloween episode (appropriately titled “Halloween”) back in the second season, but here we get only a cold open (for the second straight year, in fact, as last year’s “Employee Transfer” had only Pam’s corporate gag). That cold open is funny, of course, as Darryl is misguidedly given the role of narrator of everyone particularly abstract costumes (my favourite of which was Jim as “Bookface”) and Michael decides that Halloween, too, should have a message and hangs himself as a lesson about how suicide is never the answer. It’s ridiculous, it’s funny, and then the episode continues on as if the holiday never happened.
It’s an approach, as I note, the show did last year, and it works. The rest of the episode wasn’t particularly ingenious, but it is noteworthy for continuing the plan of having Michael become that much more sad in the eyes of the office. When he starts playing up the self-deprecatory humour, it seems like he might finally be on his way to taking control of the joke but within seconds he’s traveling back to high school and realizing just how often in his life he has fallen or been thrown into bodies of water (the fountain at the Steamtown mall and a frozen river being added to the koi pond, for a start). The story had some good laughs, the meeting about the “Do Not Mock” list offering up a couple of gems (“who’s your worm guy?” being my favourite), but it was just an example episode for how Michael and Jim’s dynamic (Jim’s concerns about being taken seriously, and Michael’s concerns about being less attactive) will operate. The sideplot of Pam and Andy’s baby had a similar note of sadness with Andy’s creepy birthcoach comparison shopping, but the jokes weren’t really hitting on the cold calls for me outside of Ed Helms’ usually great delivery. Nice to see the show trying out new pairings, but I got more of a kick out of Pam’s hilariously awkward interaction with Erin in the coda – let’s throw them into a storyline together next.
And then we come to 30 Rock’s “Stone Mountain,” which I’d say was the only real dud of the evening. While The Office didn’t do more with Halloween than was required for NBC to be able to promote every episode being about the holiday, 30 Rock didn’t do much more but unfortunately had it as a more prominent element of the episode. 30 Rock, to this point, been all over the place with holiday episodes: its Christmas episodes have been quite legitimately bad for me personally, while its previous Halloween material (like, albeit not directly related, “Werewolf Bah Mitzvah” and Kenneth’s epic TGS Halloween party that led to the amazing next morning meeting that detailed its insanity) has been quite great. That this was a dud of an episode demonstrates that using the holiday as an excuse for a lame subplot featuring Jenna (in a fairly one-dimensional mode) and the writers (who are always in a one-dimensional mode) is ultimately a waste. Halloween added nothing to the storyline or the episode, which was unfortunate since it needed something a bit extra.
I liked the Rule of Threes storyline, which featured some fun cameos by Betty White and Jimmy Fallon, but that’s just because it was basically “let’s have Tracy Morgan be paranoid” and thus is simple enough that it can’t go wrong. And, while Jeff Dunham remains unfunny, I thought Liz and Jack’s road trip had some great one-liners from Jack and continued the hilarious use of Jack McBrayer to play random background characters (including both female and moustached versions of Kenneth at the Chuckle Hut/Laugh Factor). And even Jenna’s storyline had the great moment where she read her gay entourage member’s face. But Halloween didn’t add anything to any of them, outside of the fun opening scene where Tracy noted that it was going to be the scariest Princeton Parents’ Weekend ever. The show remains clever, but its use of Halloween was anything but, and it seemed as if it was just a lame excuse to shuffle in a lame B-Plot.
At the end of the day, a Halloween episode lives and dies based on whether or not you would call it a Halloween episode. For Community, with its various costumes and the gimmicks therein, it was definitely a Halloween episode, which can be (and was) very good. For Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, it was an episode that dissected Halloween and integrated it into the show’s universe almost seamlessly, an episode which captured how its characters would act during Halloween more than the holiday itself. I ultimately prefer the latter integration, but both made for funny episodes.The Office was a bit less engaged with the holiday, but I ultimately preferred its quick and dirty opening to 30 Rock’s failed storyline featuring the holiday, which proves that just because you can use Halloween doesn’t mean it’s going to add to a mediocre episode in any way.
And that’s how four sitcoms did Halloween episodes without once attempting to be legitimately scary (which would be dangerous, should an aging celebrity less strong-willed than Betty White were watching – Rule of Threes and all).
- Note that both Parks and 30 Rock raised awareness as to the excitement that Gay Halloween can offer – I sense a trend.
- My favourite line on 30 Rock was definitely Tracy’s attempt to discern the likelihood of Betty White perishing by asking whether she planned to investigate corruption in Russia. Although I liked Tracy’s analysis that Jimmy Fallon was only a real celebrity for being a friend with Queen Latifah – being on NBC doesn’t count.
- I could say “Greg Pikitis” all day and I’d still laugh. PIKITIS! *Shakes Fist*
- Louis C.K. was amazing in this episode: I enjoyed both his continued realization soon after he says things to the camera that he shouldn’t be saying them to the camera, and his analysis of Leslie’s ability to be a cop (noting, casually, that he would not want to live where she was in charge of enforcing the law).
- Someone help me: where do I know the actress playing the Math professor on Community from?