A few weeks back, when the study group was rocketing down a Colorado freeway trapped in a Kentucky Fried Chicken spaceship simulator, we opined that Community worked best as a live-action cartoon, when our ensemble sheds the already wobbly walls of their rubbery reality and chases the big joke, no matter where it might lead them. It must have been just this sort of thinking that led to the detailed construction of “Epidemiology,” a “Treehouse of Horror”–type digression in which biohazard government “taco meat” transforms everyone at Greendale into neck-biting zombies for six hours. And, yes, this is the sort of thing that could totally work in a cartoon. But after seeing it in the (ripped, bleeding, delicious) flesh we can safely say: Boy, did it not work here!
Look, obviously Community is a labor of love for its creator, Dan Harmon, who in his own comedic way spends just as much time obsessing over every little detail of his show as the more celebrated big boy show-runners do — your Chases, your Gilligans, your Weiners. (Ha-ha: Weiners!) Harmon, for example, paid out of pocket for the special Halloween title sequence we saw last night — not typically the behavior of a guy just in it to make a joke. So while we admire the singular vision of Community, we also have to point out its shortcomings. And “Epidemiology” just didn’t work. It tried, we think, to follow the generally familiar cultural beats of other “big joke” episodes like last year’s Mafia movie/chicken finger spoof and the Hall of Fame paintball show. But those at least maintained some sort of thread tying the plot to reality — yes, the laser tag was silly but the characters (a) really wanted to win the prize (b) acted in interesting and exciting ways in the midst of it, most important, (c) at no point did any of them bite each other to the bone or punch each other in the face. Because that sure happened a lot here. And it was kind of gross and weird, to say the least!
We’re afraid that Community is trying to have it both ways, though not in its usual pattern of meta-jokes leading to heartwarming treacle. Harmon and Co. have made it perfectly clear that they have no time or patience for the sort of slow-burn interrelationship stuff that often keeps us returning to sitcoms — witness how ruthlessly they tossed out any hint of a love triangle between Jeff, Britta, and Annie in the season premiere. But by telling us that we really shouldn’t invest in these characters as people, how are we supposed to react when we see them bite each other (in the scary, non-love-triangle way) or panic hookup (in the extremely scary, Chang-Shirley in the ladies’ room way)? And if nothing really ever has consequences — whether the army shows up with “deal with it” spray at the eleventh hour or not — why exactly are are we supposed to keep watching when the river of set-piece reference episodes runs dry?
Of course, none of this criticism should get in the way of the fact that there were still a handful of primo jokes along the way. Among them: Jeff’s consistently “accidentally handsome” costumes, the subtle moment when Annie asks a guy dressed as a doctor for medical advice (she should have asked the banana), Jeff declaring that Flava Flav was right about 911 and then ending up as a “cool” zombie, brainlessly bashing on his BlackBerry. And: How far away are we from Annie showing up to school with a monkey of her own named “Troy’s Pecs”? Still, an ambitious failure is still a failure. You’ve got balls, Community. But, like the food-poisoned zombies of Greendale, it’s the brains we sometimes worry about.