Community, “Epidemiology”

Apologies for the delay in this write-up, it’s been a busy couple of days. That’s unfortunate, however, because “Epidemiology” is most certainly the highlight of Community‘s young second season and one of the best episodes the series has ever done.

A few weeks ago, I wasn’t too high on “Basic Rocket Science,” the NASA-related episode and I spent most of my post detailing how the episode failed to capture any sort of connection to character amid the sea of references in the way that similarly-themed efforts like “Modern Warfare” and “Contemporary American Poultry” did. Thankfully, “Epidemiology” is more like its season one brethren than “Rocket Science,” as it is full of small character moments and one sizable thread running through the ridiculous events happening in the episode.

What’s particularly impressive about this episode is that it is clearly the biggest risk the series has taken. The previously three “theme” episodes were grounded in a kind of heightened reality that made their respective events seem reasonable enough, especially compared to other episodes of the series. On paper, zombie attack doesn’t really fit into that same playing field.

However, the events of this episode are played fairly straightforward and with enough logical set-up that it can kick in with the zombie-ing and just go from there. Sure, Dean Pelton accidentally getting some bio-warfare weapon virus mixed up in his military rationed food that he provides for the school’s Halloween party is slightly crazy. And sure, that bio-warfare weapon turning people into literal zombies within minutes is pretty ridiculous. But it ties together enough because we already know the Dean is an idiot there are some legitimate rules set up and the characters react to it as if it were real.

Of course, the episode is full of zombie genre tropes, gags and jokes, most of them which hit in a fairly successful well. There’s also some hilarious stuff here that’s completely random in the best Community ways: a crazy cat, the characters continuing to do the same things they would have anyway, even though they’re now zombies, the Dean’s ABBA playlist serving as the soundtrack to the attack and a zillion other things that are making me want to watch the episode right now as I write this up.

But most importantly, this episode succeeds because it is interested in telling a legitimate story. If you remember all the way back to the pilot and the first few episodes, Troy was something of a ladies man. He was the cool athlete guy in high school and so he didn’t even pay attention to Annie’s lust all through that time, and it started to carry over when he came to Greendale.

However, pretty early on, the series realized that Troy and Abed were such a great pair and it was too difficult to keep them apart. Thus, Troy became much more of a nerd and much less of a stud, even if he still kind of idolized Jeff for being so damn cool. That’s an actual character change that might have been slipped under the gobs of comedy, but the writers made sure to bring it back here.

So after Troy realizes that his admittedly cool Ripley costume that goes along with Abed’s alien costume doesn’t really get him any attention from the girls, he tears it off and wears a costume made out of toilet paper. Troy doesn’t want to be a nerd anymore, he wants to have sex with girls, and that change basically breaks Abed’s heart.

But in the end, they are the final two to survive and Abed sacrifices himself so that Troy can A.) save the day and B.) be the only black guy to make it to the end of a zombie story. It’s a heart-warming moment that shouldn’t really be as effective as it is, but somehow, Community always pulls these moments out of its characters. Troy then embraces his geek side, puts back on the costume and attempts to save the day. It doesn’t quite work at first, but the important thing is that he recognized that he kind of likes being a nerd.

When it’s all over, people don’t remember anything — side effect of the virus, I guess — but there’s an underlying feeling that something happened. And of course, Troy gets a voicemail from Chang that was recorded during the events that bring up one scary and interesting thought: Shirley and Chang had sex!

I’m probably not even giving this episode its due, but trust me, it’s fantastic. It’s risky, hilarious and ultimately, emotionally effective in a way that only Community can be.

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