22. "Epidemiology," Community (2010)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Abed: (to Troy) Make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end.
Funny and perfectly structured, "Epidemiology" fills two sitcom niches: the sci-fi/supernatural story and the parody. And it does so without shortchanging either.
Sci-fi and fantasy make up my biggest potential blind spot as a critic. I'm more interested in the Twilight Zone end of the continuum (that is, stories that take place in a world close to our own, but with one big thing out of whack) than in mythology-heavy tales like Lord of the Rings. This might be because I'm fascinated by fiction that causes its audience to ponder how they would behave in similar situations, an effect that can get lost if too much attention goes to remembering the minutia of characters' origin stories.
"Epidemiology" takes place at Greendale Community College's Halloween party, which begins in standard sitcom fashion by getting laughs out of costume choices (Jeff as David Beckham, thanks to a soccer ball and a $5000 suit; Dean Pelton as Lady Gaga; Shirley as something but definitely not Miss Piggy). Then some of the partygoers have a bad reaction to the "taco meat" Pelton bought from a military surplus store: They turn into zombies, attacking and infecting everyone in the school library, which the cowardly Pelton quickly padlocks from the outside.
Shirley: It's the End of Days!
Doctor in Banana Costume: It's not the End of Days. It seems to be a rabies-related pathogen affecting the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, causing hyper-aggression. It could take years for it to take over the world.
Annie: How many years?
Doctor: One, one and a half...
It's a great self-contained story, and it passes my Tremors test in setting up some clear ground rules and sticking to them. The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff praised the episode as such on the night of its premiere:
The story here is tight, and we always know just where we're headed. There's a thermostat. If it's turned down, the zombies will be [cured]. If it's not, they'll overheat, and their brains will turn to mush. Only Troy can get there.
So "Epidemiology" works as straight sci-fi: It's exciting, and I got genuinely choked up when Abed inevitably turns on best friend Troy in a moment reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which Community later aped more directly in "Regional Holiday Music.")
Amazingly, it also works as a parody of zombie movies. I considered parody sitcoms — notably Get Smart and Police Squad! — when compiling this list, but spoofs rarely work within the confines of a half-hour TV show. They tend to be most effective in short sketches (SCTV, Mr. Show) or feature-length films (the big-screen Police Squad!); in both cases, they can simply last for however long they're funny, then just come to a stop.
Perhaps because the parody elements are a side dish to a story that can stand on its own, they seem just right in "Epidemiology." See, for example, the scene embedded below, which uses the stock horror-film device of a jumpy cat that keeps startling Jeff, Troy, and Abed as they try to escape the zombies. ("Is someone throwing it?" asks Troy.) Also: the Wilhelm scream that kicks off the orgy of stereotypical zombie behavior as Troy re-enters the library. The in-jokes are all funny, but it never slows down the story.
Sinister, Armed Man in Black: Are you the only witness?
Dean Pelton/Lady Gaga: (with great pride and a little bow) I am!
• The all-Abba soundtrack is brilliant, from the zombies chomping on arms and the study group fleeing in terror to "Dancing Queen" (which has a special meaning for me) to the "Fernando" lyric "there was something in the air that night" over shot of the all-important thermostat.
• Troy is right: Jeff is "still cool as a zombie." And Annie is still adorable as Little Red Riding Zombie.