A Community Notification For This: S2E06, “Epidemiology”

“Epidemiology” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 28, 2010

Zombies were goddamned everywhere back in 2010. The Walking Dead premiered that year1, to the highest ratings an AMC original series had ever seen. Movies like Zombieland, Shaun Of The Dead, and the Dawn Of The Dead remake had dominated the genre all through the previous decade, along with the O.G. zombie auteur, George A. Romero, continuing to apply his brand of social commentary to a very different media environment than the one in which he had birthed this somehow-still-relevant construction. Even books like World War Z were bestsellers. There was never going to be a better time in the zeitgeist for Community to do a zombie episode. But this also turned out to be the perfect time in Community’s lifespan for this episode. If you were a fan who felt let down by “Basic Rocket Science”, left wondering whether they’d ever be able to pull off another “Modern Warfare”, “Epidemiology”2 might very well have gone a long way toward putting your fears to rest.

Zombies were also the perfect choice for Community to start making the push toward bigger and better concepts. Having proven they can do cinematic action on a TV sitcom scale, the logical next step is to take on some kind of action-hybrid genre3. A lot of the popular zombie movies of the time weren’t strictly “just” horror, but also some variation on action, comedy or even romance. While the filmmaking isn’t quite as kinetic as someone of Justin Lin’s caliber, it’s still focused on delivering real zombie-movie scares, the same way “Modern Warfare” was committed to providing real action movie thrills. It’s not such a big leap to make, because the difference between these styles is mostly a matter of tone. Anyone who’s seen Assault On Precinct 13 has noticed how spiritually similar these genres can be. The popularity of zombies can largely be attributed to their malleability — as movie monsters, they can stand in for just about anything. Unencubmered by any thematic baggage they may have once held, they’re as faceless a threat as you’ll ever find, which means they can slot comfortably into whatever storytelling mode captures your interest. Parody relies on cliché, and in 2010, once you’ve already done action and gangsters, you’re hard-pressed to find something more clichéd than zombies.

This episode also follows the “Modern Warfare” template in that it starts with every character in the mix, then as they each get “killed” one by one, the theme of the episode, personified by its attendant character pairing, gradually comes to the forefront. In “Modern Warfare” it came down to Jeff and Britta disagreeing on who should ultimately get priority registration, while exploring their attraction to each other. In this episode, we get the first signs of tension between the BFFs Troy and Abed, as one longs to begin real adulthood, and the other flat-out refuses to grow up4. In both episodes, Pierce drops out first, while more genre-savvy characters like Jeff and Abed manage to hang on largely by respecting story convention. Troy represents the perfect bridge between them, not a grown-up, but not yet a manchild. You can be cool and avoid getting your expensive suit dirty, but all that’ll get you is a good mauling as you scream at another man for stretching the shoulders in your jacket. On the other hand, you can be a nerd that commits5 to an awesome costume, which just ends up getting torn to pieces anyway. Neither approach is sustainable, so Troy finds the middle ground, stepping into the lead role of his own action movie where every one-liner is some variation on “in yo FACE!”, and it’s a truly delightful piece of character growth that is only slighty undercut by the episode’s eventual memory-wipe resolution.

Jeff himself gets maybe the first half of an arc accompanied by the return of Rich (Greg Comer), from season one’s “Beginner Pottery”. As ever, the premise is that Jeff just can’t stand this guy, only this time his implicit mistrust is proven right. This episode and “Asian Population Studies” both seem to position Rich as a romantic rival coming between Annie and Jeff, the same way that Vaughn interfered with his pursuit of Britta. But there’s never really any follow-through on that, and it’s unclear if the writer’s room ever had a long-term plan for him. Still, this episode is probably my favorite use of Rich, since every zombie movie should have a doctor, and as the odd man out he’s the perfect choice for the secretly-infected6 member of the party whose belief in his own specialness ultimately betrays everyone. His zombified delivery of the line “SLURRRRED SPEEEECH” caps off the gag beautifully as the episode rushes into its next setpiece.

As great as it is, all this stuff is just window dressing. We all know what we’re really here for, the one stroke of pure genius in the episode, the piece de resistance that makes this situation a real waking nightmare– the fact that all this violent zombie mayhem and carnage is scored a fully diegetic succession of songs by Swedish pop group ABBA7. How you feel about this episode may well hinge on how much you enjoy their music, but as far as i’m concerned the likes of “Waterloo”, “SOS”, “Dancing Queen”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)”, “Mamma Mia” and “Fernando” are always welcome, so for me this is a match made in heaven. ABBA, zombies. Zombies, ABBA. It’s such a demonstrably brilliant juxtaposition that i don’t even feel the need to elaborate.

Alright, now let’s talk about something that doesn’t work so well in the episode, and the main thing that keeps it from being truly top-tier — Chang hooking up with Shirley, which never feels organic no matter how many ways you rationalize it. i understand why they did it, of course. They couldn’t just keep dragging out the “Chang wants to join the group” thread from the first two episodes of the season, and they obviously wanted to do more with Shirley, whose writing almost always lacked direction. But this is no Jeff-And-Britta-At Paintball, and comes from so far out of nowhere that you almost expect it to be a fakeout even as it is actually happening. It’s not as if the show is bad at this sort of thing. This season’s finale, “For A Few Paintballs More” manages to make a brief Annie-Abed hookup feel believable, justifying their characters’ motives under a certain set of extreme circumstances. But they barely even try here, passing off a moment of “recognizing each other’s ethnically-ambiguous costumes” as a pretext for sudden sexual connection. Honestly, i’m surprised that someone as exacting and micromanagey as Dan Harmon let that one through. Overall, it feels like they threw together two characters they didn’t know what to do with just to lend this episode some sense of long-term consequence. Later developments of the season take steps to somewhat redeem or rehabilitate this decision, but in isolation it’s easily the weakest part of the episode. Otherwise, “Epidemiology” is proof positive that Community’s concept episodes can still hold their own with the best of them. That might not mean as much today, but you’ll have to trust me that at the time, this was a tremendous reassurance.

NOTES/QUOTES

⁃ End tag: Troy listens to a voicemail from Chang, who breathlessly wants to tell someone that he and Shirley did it before the zombies close in. This is actually a gag that comes back later in the series, but the most crucial thing about it here is Troy’s reaction: “Why’d he tell ME?”

⁃ After the cold open, we get our first Alternate Opening Credits gag, consisting of spooky versions of the little doodles on the cootie catcher. Joel McHale’s name is now accompanied by a vampire peering over a headstone, Gillian Jacobs is represented by zombies, Danny Pudi’s Halloween avatar is a robot, Yvette Nicole Brown’s is a mummy, Alison Brie’s is an evil rag doll, Donald Glover’s is a hockey mask/chain saw slasher, Ken Jeong’s name comes with some sombrero aliens, and finally Chevy Chase is rendered as a sexy skeleton. Plus the standard “Community” logo is replaced with a pumpkin, while the “created by Dan Harmon” credit is all decorated with spider webs. Not as elaborate as later opening credits gags would become8, but a fine introduction to the concept nonetheless

⁃ Halloween episodes are among my very favorite sitcom gimmicks, because they give costume designers free reign to inhabit the minds of the characters. Appropriately, Britta’s in another cute animal getup9, Jeff is turned out in a hot guy outfit10, Pierce is a Boomer icon, Annie’s costume reflects her sweet wholesomeness11, Shirley keeps people guessing and Troy and Abed are what we’d now consider a walking pop culture meme. Most notably, Dean Pelton’s Lady Gaga costume is the first instance of cross-dressing we’ve seen from him on the show, and it will be far from the last

⁃ There was a “Best Episode Of Community” tournament at This Here Website last year, in which this episode placed fourth overall. To which i say: Really, y’all? i do like this episode a lot, but i don’t think it’s better than “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, “Pillows And Blankets”, or “Critical Film Studies”, all of which it beat handily. Then again, my favorite episode didn’t even make the top 8. i guess this show is just stacked, with a little something for everyone

ANNIE: i don’t know what she’s supposed to be, but i do know she’s not Miss Piggy. i repeat: she is not Miss Piggy

JEFF: If you get any more sweaty and puffy, your costume’s gonna reach new levels of authenticity

CHANG: Just been proven racist, by the racist prover

BRITTA: Yeah, i wonder who’s holding…. the key to your riddle

SHIRLEY: Leonard, you better back that pumpkin ass up or i will make a pie

TROY: You punched a lady bee!

DEAN (reading grocery list): ….Whole milk, not for drinking

JEFF: Why six hours? Are they hosting the Oscars?

ABED: Troy, we have to rise to the occasion like Ripley, and kick monster butt in our undies

TROY: IS SOMEONE THROWING IT?

NARRATOR (voiceover): Hi, Kevin can’t come to the phone. He’s on a spaceship with me, George Takei