I'd hate to be the episode that followed "Remedial Chaos Theory," the most recent episode of Community and possibly the series' best. Its use of multiple timelines to represent how the group functions without each character gave incredible insight into the role each one plays within the dynamic of the group. It gave each character his/her own chance to shine, and it was some of the best TV of the year.
Sound familiar? Last night's "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" attempted something very similar, but the results were way more remedial than those of "Remedial Chaos Theory." (To be fair, "Chaos" was supposed to be the season's third episode instead of its fourth, but it was moved because creator Dan Harmon thought it needed more time.) The members of the study group each took turns telling spooky stories, a Halloween TV trope used to death by comedies, and to be honest it was a little painful to see a show as smart as Community go down that path and not add anything new to the tried-and-true device. It's kind of like when you realize Halloween is only a few days away and you're not motivated to put in the effort to make a kickass costume, so you dig through your closet and go as Captain Graduate or the Jacket Bandit. I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed, as your passive-aggressive father might say.
Anyway, everything was set in motion by Britta, who had asked everyone to take personality tests a few days before the events of the episode began. The results said that one member of the group was potentially a psychopathic murderer, and Britta was intent on sniffing that person out by having everyone tell scary stories. Because that works, I guess. Especially as a way to get everyone to tell stories for the purpose of the episode.
So everyone took their turns telling character-specific scary tales: Britta's was scatter-brained, incorporated "or something" a lot, and rushed. Abed's was cinematic and way too detail-oriented, but he did manage to kill a particularly annoying horror cliché by bringing a fully charged cell phone to the story. Annie's started off romantic, had killer cleavage, and ended with an in-depth description of gore, as Annie tends to go all or nothing. Troy's was just plain silly and involved Pierce having a butt on his chest and hands where his feet should be, and vice versa—classic Troy. Pierce's yarn featured a decidedly more playboy Pierce (with hair!), lingerie-clad ladies, and Troy and Abed as racially stereotyped home invaders. Shirley's pictured the rest of the group members as druggies and drunks and saw the Rapture carrying the rest of the world away. And to ease the paranoia of the group, Jeff told a happy story because he couldn't care less about the results of Britta's test.
It's an idea that should've worked on Community, but the stories never quite reached the high bar the show has set for itself. The episode wasn't as funny as most Community episodes, and its "stunt" premise didn't quite resonate (the "stunt" itself should never be the benchmark by which we judge Community; the application of the "stunt" is what matters). There was also a bit of regression with which the characters were used. This season has gone through great pains to increase Shirley and Pierce's roles and to give everyone in the group equal amounts of screen time, but Shirley and Pierce were back-burnered this week. Heck, Shirley barely even appeared in her own story.
But the thermometer we use to gauge a comedy ultimately has to be laughter, and for most of the episode, my knees remained unslapped, my gut unbusted, and my ribs untickled. Oh, and I didn't laugh much either. For me, Season 2's zombies were nice but Community's first Halloween episode remains my favorite. Abed as Batman? Heck yeah.
– I probably should mention Annie's cleavage again so I can throw in a gratuitous screencap. Hey! Alison Brie even Tweeted about it! She's just as much of a perv about her boobs as everyone else is!
– There was one joke I liked, and it seemed like a self-referential observation about this episode not really working for the writers either. Toward the end, Britta tried to prevent the group from leaving by explaining that the results of the psych tests revealed one of them to be a homicidal maniac. A few beats passed, and then Annie said, "That's stupid."
– Cute nod to Abed being the only sane person, but we all knew that already, didn't we? And we knew that was coming, right?
– Pretty weak showing of costumes. Nothing that beat Abed's Alien, Abed's Batman, or Britta's T-Rex.
– What's your favorite Halloween episode of Community? Season 1's "Introduction to Statistics," which featured Batman Abed, Skeleton Annie, and Pierce the ecstasy'd Beastmaster? Or Season 2's zombie-o-rama, "Epidemiology"? Or last night's seven spooky stories?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom