“Halloween should be a day in which we honor monsters and not be mad at each other.” So says Michael Scott of The Office, and it is in that spirit (heh) I offer a perhaps uncontroversial but no less heartfelt take: Halloween episodes hands-down make some of the best themed TV out there.
Without Halloween, we would never know that Nick on New Girl has written letters as Michael Keaton providing Schmidt with emotional support for years. Without the Halloween-inspired prank of trying to get Dwight hired by another company on The Office, Pam and Jim wouldn’t have the moment of conflict that leads her to declare she’d kill herself if Jim left. (Appropriately dark!) A Halloween episode on Buffy resolves several ongoing plot points at once with the conceit of the gang’s worst fears about each other being exposed by a malevolent frat house.
There are times too, when Halloween bumps up against a TV show’s world in a pleasantly incongruent way, like monsters supposedly taking the night off at the Hellmouth on Buffy or the subtle nods to Halloween injuries and ghostly happenings juxtaposed with antiseptic hospital business on Grey’s Anatomy. In these episodes, a lot can be said with very little; Jim’s display of casual insouciance with three black circles of paper slapped onto his shirt (“I’m the three hole punch version of Jim”) on The Office creates a perfect counterpoint to Dwight’s over-the-top Sith Lord costume that no one understands but into which he’s put so much effort.
Costumes can create so many funny or emotion-pinging scenarios in this context, like when Bob and Linda on Bob’s Burgers frantically hunt down sequins to craft a costume their kids end up rejecting. Anya on Buffy shows up in a full-on bunny suit after being instructed to wear something terrifying. With the three Jokers on The Office and five Benders from The Breakfast Club on How I Met Your Mother we see a common SNAFU played to its logical conclusion: the dreaded accidental copycat! Costumes can tease out some surprisingly effective social commentary as well, like Jeff being the one called out for his strategically alluring outfits rather than a female character on Community. It’s a moment that, like Anya being terrified of bunnies, becomes a satisfying through-thread on the series.
On Community’s best Halloween episode “Epidemiology,” those small details complement the over-the-top action (there’s actual flesh-eating!). Consider that the soundtrack for the soon-to-be-zombified party is Dean Pelton’s playlist, set to loop ABBA songs and his personal voice memos. This minor detail is a humorous release valve during the high-stress horror moments to come. Simultaneously, it gives us more insight into the Dean’s character and offers cheesy pop music as the soundtrack for grisly happenings, a great choice for Halloween and a subtle homage to similar moments in horror and cult films.
Moments of irony like this are a particularly satisfying benefit of Halloween episodes. I’m thinking of Lily in the last season of HIMYM, below: she’s pregnant and wearing an adorable full-body white whale costume when she and Robin have a friendship-smashing fight. Her eyes well up with tears (sidebar: Alyson Hannigan is one of the all-time best criers on TV), and she’s standing alone in the middle of the empty room as the camera pans out, her outfit contrasting with the emotional tone of the moment. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if she weren’t wearing a costume.
Not only is the scene sublime visual irony, it’s also relatable as hell, yet another reason Halloween episodes are so great. Nearly everyone has had an emotional moment that you really, really wish you weren’t in costume for. Like Zooey Deschanel getting dumped in her “zombie hobo” costume on New Girl, or Harold Weir in Freaks and Geeks, during an all-too-familiar family fight, wearing his Dracula costume and memorably spitting out, “The last time I had this much fun I was pinned down in a foxhole by the North Koreans.” (The fact that the costume is a reference to Joe Flaherty’s “Count Floyd” character on SCTV is just gravy.)
Christmas episodes are often too sappy. Thanksgiving ones are nearly always trite and frequently racist. Valentine’s Day episodes? Excruciatingly unrealistic. But Halloween episodes occupy the same sweet spot between surprise and tradition as the holiday itself. There’s the delicious thrill of the unknown, the forbidden, the scary, the sense that anything could happen; yet every time we see those seasonal flourishes in a show’s opening credits (Bats! Skeletons! Pumpkins!) we know we’re in for some familiar sugar-high magic.
What are some of your favorite Halloween episodes?
Brooklyn Nine-Nine image via NBCUniversal Television Distribution; Buffy gif and Community image via 20th Television; Community image via Sony Pictures)
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