It's been twelve years since a zombie-like sickness spread through Greendale in Community, as well as the beginning of THAT Shirley and Chang plotline...
Whilst the characters made a swift recovery by the end of the episode, it got us thinking - is Community fever still all the rage? We had three of our writers watch Halloween episode 'Epidemiology' of this fan-favourite series and tell us their thoughts!
Community was a real comfort show during my late school years. It was probably the first sitcom I felt was above other comedies in terms of meaningful character arcs and creative genre-play. I haven’t watched much Community since, so going into this episode, I hoped it would, at the least, offer that sixth form nostalgia I was looking for.
The episode is set during a Halloween party at Greendale, with everyone in fitting garb: Dean Pelton as Poker Face-era Lady Gaga, Troy and Abed in makeshift cosplay from Aliens and Jeff, never one to risk looking uncool, wears a suit and holds a ball to become David Beckham. It’s not long into the episode before the very localised zombie apocalypse happens, reminding me of how much I enjoyed Community’s attention to detail in parody. However, having suffered through a lot of meta-heavy media in the past few years, there’s a lot in Dan Harmon’s writing that would send me packing if I tried watching this show for the first time now. Saying that, when the opening theme kicked in, that nostalgia I was seeking hit me like a tonne of bricks.
If I listed my favourite Community episodes, the one through-line would probably be Chevy Chase as Pierce, who annoyingly wasn’t really present much this episode. Honestly looking back, Pierce and some of the minor Greendale characters like Garrett are the only ones who’ve consistently made me a laugh. One of the main plot lines in this episode involves Troy and Abed. Conflict arises when Troy wants to prioritise his social credibility instead of embarrassing himself dressing up with Abed.
The standard affair of Abed providing postmodern commentary and re-enacting cult movie scenes isn’t too egregious in this episode, however, Chang dressed as figure skater Peggy Fleming is an odd joke I feel is evident of Dan Harmon’s ‘the more verbose and more culturally niche, the funnier it’ll be’ technique. I’ve also been content not seeing Ken Jeong in anything since.
The episode pokes fun at zombie and horror tropes throughout, the best one being the fake-out scare of a cat running past the camera, or in this case, the same cat leaping across the frame every other second. After this scene, Troy escapes the zombie hoard, with Abed staying behind who makes fun of another trope, telling Troy to be “the first black man to get to the end”. This is then followed by a weirdly out of place Star Wars joke which isn’t the first nor the last one in the show.
First thing I asked myself when planning this retrospective was ‘did I laugh?’. Kind of. I think the written jokes are well executed in the show from a technical point (cinematography, lighting, editing) and for the most part, are well performed. I do have some gripes with Dan Harmon’s comedy. Things like the cool, self insert vibe of Jeff, the weird on-off ‘we don’t sexualise Annie’ joke and Abed’s barrage of Reddit-level observational humour. That being said, I think Dan Harmon is talented, I just think he chooses to focus on things I find less funny, Rick and Morty being a more clear-cut example. This episode really showcases Dan Harmon’s love of film homage which, whilst not always a hit, I can still appreciate the craft of the parody and clearly it’s resonated enough with audiences as these are far and above the most beloved episodes of the show.
Critiques aside, I’ve come this far, I will watch the movie if it ever comes out.
It seems impossible to believe that season two of Community came out twelve years ago. So
much has changed since 2010, and with it is a new appreciation for Community, which was
criminally underrated when it was airing. So much so, in fact, that a Community movie has
recently been announced. But what is it about this show that appeals to us over a decade later? And why is this episode in particular still so beloved?
In 'Epidemiology', Dean Pelton hosts a Halloween party, with suspicious meat from an army
surplus store. Before long, the contaminated food starts turning the party goers into zombie-like
creatures, with the study group left to reverse the effects before the military turns up. What made Community stand out from other sitcoms was its ability to parody other genres. The paintball episodes are obvious favourites for most fans, as well as 'Contemporary American Poultry' (a mafia movie parody about chicken fingers) and 'Basic Rocket Science' (a play on the Apollo 13 movie, where the study group are trapped in a KFC-sponsored space simulation.)
While many TV shows also do parody/spoof episodes, especially for Halloween, Community
manages to balance genre conventions whilst also remaining true to the show’s canon, so that
episodes like this never felt out of place.
'Epidemiology' in particular has a perfect blend of horror movie tropes, like when the zombified students smash through a glass window, while also staying grounded in Community’s signature comedy, such as the Dean’s ABBA playlist mixed with his own personal voice memos, which allows it to still feel connected to the rest of the show.
It’s easy to see why this episode is still a favourite for many Community fans. There are some
great moments, such as Dean Pelton as Lady Gaga, the beginning of the Shirley/Chang plot and, of course, the Troy and Abed storyline. Troy and Abed are always a highlight in any Community episode, and this one is no exception. In 'Epidemiology', Troy struggles with seeming nerdy to girls, with Jeff telling him that the reason it’s easier for him to get girls is because he ‘reminds them less of taking their little brothers to comic-con’ This leads him to change out of his joint costume with Abed and into a sexy Dracula costume (toilet paper), causing conflict between the two of them. When the Zombie’ attack, however, Troy makes a return to nerd culture and reverses the contaminated meat’s effects, but not before an obligatory Star Wars ‘I love you’ ‘I know’ moment with Abed.
As shown by Troy and Abed, Community was very much a show by and for nerds. The
characters are all treated with a level of empathy (except Pierce, who is rightfully mocked)
unlike other shows of its time such as The Big Bang Theory, in which the characters are stock
stereotypes made to be laughed at. Instead of following the sitcom format blindly, it
experimented with it, subverting audience expectations. And while it did become more contrived as the show went on- particularly the character of Britta, who was 'flanderized' into a shallow, performative activist- the earlier seasons still remain a great example of what the sitcom format can achieve with a little imagination.
Oh, ‘Epidemiology’ is the stuff! Only on Community can a zombie-punching sequence to ‘Mamma Mia’ feel right - mix this with the concoction of character progression and crazy action scenes, and this Halloween special counts as some of Dan Harmon’s best work.
I was first watching this show as an undergrad and cannot stress enough what a reassuring space its gang of loveable weirdos provides. Community’s DNA of pop culture, meta, and movie homages remains an inspiring formula to produce some damn fine stories, be that a time-loopy ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ or a dramatic ‘Mixology Certification’. What works in these episodes and in ‘Epidemiology’: prioritising the characters and having them care about the nonsense; imbuing plots with feeling, energy, and tones; giving the world around them definition and room to evolve; and as the best sitcom entries do, ensuring everyone has time to bat their differing points of view on a shared problem.
Examining the strengths above in reverse and starting with the cast: there are such rocks on this show, and a party-turned-fight against the poisoned is a fine way to explore the individuality of these characters and the conflicts that arise from them. Jeff’s immediately searching for solutions; Britta’s a walking one-woman improv act; Annie’s too charmed by a friend from pottery (and Greg Cromer as Rich is fun here, his slurred speech the perfect cue for the real shenanigans to start); Shirley and Chang are…bonding; and Troy and Abed are soft feuding over costumes. There’s confidence - only a season and six episodes in - to dress these characters up, but goodness, what makes them tick is still clear and funny as hell – mostly because of Donald Glover, whose “holy crap, Leonard’s a zombie!” and “you punched a lady bee” are just fantastic.
For those lines to land, the surroundings need to show up for the actors - and do they just! The colours and spooks, George Takei as the narrator and an ABBA playlist forming a bizarre, kooky soup to navigate, one amounting to chaos which hilariously poaches Alison Brie through a blind while fleshing out quieter beats – Shirley seeking recognition and Troy looking for a date. These varying tones all work because Karey Dornetto’s script packs melodrama everywhere - beginning with a frantic arm-bite, and it’s scrumptious. By the time ABBA’s ‘Fernando’ plays, I was thinking how this show is kinda nuts, and impossible to explain to someone new to it.
It’s a good sign when a viewing experience has you chuckling halfway just more out of realizing how bonkers the plot is, however, and I got similar kicks from Community’s last and greatest strength: the character progression of its heroes and their friendships. Abed and Troy are still bro-goals, and the former’s frustration that his buddy switches costume to be ‘cooler’ is an earnest commentary on what it means to be that. Danny Pudi’s great, and Troy’s “I love you” and return to those sci-fi robes is just beautiful to see unfold (and Glover remains my crush.) Comedy’s most meaningful strokes live in kindness, and this plotline honours that.
Wins like it matter, and the list can go on, turning an A- paper into a solid A, my lone quibble about everyone forgetting what just happened. (The reset week-to-week *fascinates*.)
Thankfully a Community classic like this is far from leaving memories, and long may that be!
Edited by Florence Strang Boon.