After creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dismissed from his role as showrunner at the end of Season 3, Community‘s loyal fans feared its departure would plunge the show into what Abed Nadir would surely call “the darkest timeline.” But despite our concerns, we hold out hope that the new showrunners and their stable of writers are able to make the best of this worst possible role of the dice. This week, we celebrated Halloween on Valentine’s Day with “Paranormal Parentage” — and it wasn’t nearly as awkward as it could have been.
Over the past few seasons, the Community horror parody Halloween special has become a minor tradition. We’ve had a zombie episode and a slasher movie riff. But this time, the inspirations were a bit gentler, and goofier.
As six of the Greendale 7 convened, in costume, for Vicki’s Halloween party. In an excellent sight gag, Jeff showed up as a boxer, expecting Annie to complete the costume as a ring girl — until she actually crawled into the room as the girl from The Ring. And then Dean Pelton showed up, actually dressed as a ring girl. (Now that he’s living next door to Jeff, he must have some kind of spy camera setup going on.)
But, despite figuring that he’s probably cooked up some scheme to punish them for hanging out without him, the study group members allow themselves to be lured to Pierce’s home, where they find he’s trapped in his own panic room. From there, “Paranormal Parentage” is a combination of Scooby-Doo and Clue, as the skeptical gang splits into pairs to explore the cartoonishly cobweb-filled, turquoise-walled mansion that is Hawthorne Manor. As in these para-horror touchstones, this gives each duo an excuse to have an illuminating adventure, with Jeff and Britta getting personal, Troy and Shirley stumbling upon “Pierce’s special gym” (a BDSM dungeon), and Abed slipping away from Annie into a control room where he can watch his friends (and Cougar Town) on multiple TV monitors.
What elevated this episode above last week’s, into the realm of something we might have seen during the Dan Harmon era, is that none of the pairs’ storylines seemed superfluous, or quirky merely for the sake of being quirky. Britta’s psychoanalysis of Jeff’s daddy issues — and his protests-too-much insistence that his problems are nothing like Pierce’s — may have been the most transparently meaningful, and they certainly yield the biggest revelation, that Jeff has found his father’s phone number. But it’s also interesting to see Shirley probe the mismatch in sexual experience between Britta and Troy, whose innocence is now verging on unbelievable. He’s a character who was never satisfyingly developed, so hopefully this is the beginning of a season-long examination (and complication) of Troy, along the line’s of last year’s Abed arc. Abed and Annie are the closest we get to a throwaway, but this week’s Abed-as-Community-viewer setup, in which he watched the same interactions we were seeing, was far more effective than last week’s showy mess. It also yielded the episode’s best self-aware, fourth-wall-busting line: “I remember when this show was about a community college.”
Before the intriguing moment when we see Jeff get home and pick up the phone, the ending is pure Community-fan candy. Everyone finally converges on Pierce, who tries to gloat about having tricked them into searching for him. “Bet you didn’t expect me to fake a haunted house to teach you a lesson,” he boasts. “That’s exactly what we expected,” is the response, and with it comes the revelation that, by now, the Greendale 7 is willing to go along with what they know is a wild Pierce chase, if only to prove they care. Still, it turns out there’s one mysterious twist that Pierce didn’t account for — the shadowy figure stalking around Hawthorne Manor. It turns out to be beloved guest star Giancarlo Esposito reprising his role as Gilbert, who apparently felt lost after Cornelius’ death and has been secretly taking care of Pierce (in the home he technically owns, no less). Apparently all the attention his friends have been showering on Pierce has softened him up a bit, and he’s moved to invite his half-brother to become his roommate.
Written by Community‘s best post-Harmon writer, Megan Ganz (who has already moved over to Modern Family, alas), “Paranormal Parentage” did much to alleviate my fear that no Season 4 episode would be in a league with even the average stuff from the first three years. It wasn’t a classic, but it was still a good, solid half hour that juggled compelling character development, smart pop-culture tributes, and jokes that actually made me laugh out loud. Ganz only contributed one more script to this season: the finale. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait until that airs to see another episode this good.