Review: Community, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”

Halloween is a big deal for Community. Although the series was off to a solid start, “Introduction to Statistics” is the first great or borderline great episode the first season had. From Pierce’s ridiculous freak-out to Abed’s Batman costume/voice, “Statistics” nicely combined the series’ pop culture-soaked sensibilities with its thematic and character aims. Of course, last season’s “Epidemiology” turned out to be season two’s first truly tremendous episode as well and achieved an even better pop culture concept/character balance.  I know we’re only three years into things, but it already feels like Community and Halloween are tradition. And with tradition comes expectations, perhaps even higher ones that the series usually has to deal with.

The good news is that the series’ last episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” already jump-started proceedings. The somewhat bad news is that “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” has to deal with both Halloween-related expectations and face obvious structural and general quality comparisons to “Chaos Theory.” There’s no question that “Spooky Steps” isn’t as complex, thematically dense or “good” as the last episode, but I think that’s completely fine. Here’s the important thing you need to know about tonight’s effort: I laughed consistently and loudly throughout the whole thing. Sometimes, being funny as hell counts for a whole lot. And perhaps most importantly, this episode stays true to the Halloween spirit while providing that additional layer of Community sheen.

Like I said, this episode is going to be unfairly compared with “Remedial Chaos Theory” because both episodes present seven separate stories within one 22-minute package, but “Spooky Steps” explores something different enough to make the episodes feel distinctive. Whereas “Chaos Theory” honed in on the dynamics of the group once you take one of them away, tonight’s episode shifted towards analyzing how each member of the group views themselves and the others around them. The last effort was more of an objective view of the group and this one offers much more subjectivity. Obviously it used the “scary story” conceit to bring those underlying assumptions and feelings forward, but the approach still allowed the episode to address some interesting character beats.

Moreover, many of the character moments that this episode explores have already been examined and addressed in previous episodes this season, suggesting that the series is really trying to build towards something larger. Although I’m not sure what that is, I do like that Dan Harmon and his team are trying to stay connected to character development and tensions on an episode-by-episode basis.

I know that everyone’s Jeff-Annie mileage may vary, especially this season when the series seems to be hitting it particularly hard, but I thought Annie’s version of a scary story was the character highlight of the episode. It’s readily apparent by her story that she’s still very interested in Jeff and the possibility of changing him (while simultaneously helps her), she’s also very fearful of what could happen if she actually throws herself into a relationship with Jeff and still holds some resentment towards his relationship with Britta. The whole vampire/werewolf dichotomy suggested that she inherently thinks it won’t work, even though she’s still hopeful.

It seems like Shirley has become the butt of many jokes thus season, especially in regards to her relationship with religion, and that continues in her story, which might have been my favorite of the episode. I loved how she pictures Britta as literally dumping pot onto her chest – I think with the assumption that Jeff would sniff it off her? – and also assumes that all sinners listen to heavy metal and dress like they live in 1993. Shirley’s religion has been an issue, but not a major issue in the past, but the writers appear to want to bring it more to the forefront this season while also creating a conflict between Britta and Shirley. I certainly appreciate more Shirley and Britta stories, but I’m curious as to where this is headed. With Jeff and Annie, I can predict how the series might approach it, but with those two, I’m not sure what the story is. I know that the two of them are fundamentally opposed on many issues, but that’s not necessarily enough to build a major thread around. We’ll see. I am certainly intrigued, and in a good way.

“Stories” also continued to explore Jeff’s his place within the group, his commitment to it and well, basically his commitment to anything. Once things get entirely out of control after Britta announces to the group why she’s pushing them to tell scary stories (they took psych exams for her class and one of them produced alarming, psychotic results), Jeff reveals that he didn’t even read the questions and just filled in answers randomly. This only causes the group to lose their minds even more, which of course requires a lovely, calming Winger speech at the end to make things right.

Unlike “Chaos Theory,” which suggested that Jeff’s presence in the group holds it back in some way, tonight’s effort presents us a perfect circumstance for why Jeff is still an integral, if not somewhat toxic, member of the group. Although Jeff hampers fun, he also limits the crazy. Perhaps he keeps the group from jumping into extremes, whether they are good or bad? It’s no surprise that Jeff wouldn’t take any real effort into helping Britta with her just-decided and probably terribly conceived idea of being a psych major, but his story was manipulatively calming in such a way that suggests he still has no problem short-cutting the group’s seemingly valuable conversations so that he can get on with his own life. But as I’ve said a few times this season, there’s no question that Jeff’s journey to maturity, development, self-actualization, whatever you want to call it, is going to be difficult. For every one step forward, he’s probably going to take four steps back. And I’m not even sure the moment at the end of “Chaos” was a step forward.

Those three stories were the most interesting on a character level, but take nothing away from Pierce, Troy, Abed and Britta’s versions of a scary story because they were all pretty funny. Pierce’s completely unrelated tale of sexual conquest, racism and backwards heroism was a great way to invoke his constant desire to seem relevant, Troy’s sci-fi Human Centipede-ish tale was goofy funny and Abed’s stringent desire to adhere to logical character motivations and plot mechanics was pitch-perfect. I kind of want to see an Abed-Britta love affair now because that was just so awkward that it must be seen again.

Look, not every episode is going to be “Remedial Chaos Theory” or even “Epidemiology.” This episode didn’t have quite as much of a character focus as those two episodes, but it found time to hit on some relevant beats amid the very funny gags, costumes and set-ups. I like to over-analyze themes and character arcs of broadcast network sitcoms, but I also really, really like to laugh. “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” had me stitches, often. As far as I’m concerned, Community is three-for-three on Halloween episodes. The tradition lives on!

Other thoughts:

  • I am 100 percent going to start using “Britta’d” in my day-to-day conversations.
  • Speaking of Britta, Gillian Jacobs is, without a doubt, the season’s MVP-to-date. I love that the writers are giving her important things to do each week.
  • Though it wasn’t an important element of the episode, the costumes were fun. Troy and Abed’s Inspector Spacetime/Constable get-ups were glorious, but I thought Jeff’s amorphous Fast and Furious character look was hilarious too (he was clearly Vin Diesel’s Dom).
  • Good stuff in small doses for Jim Rash this weak. The opening bit with the lights made me laugh A LOT.
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