If there’s one thing that unites our favorite sitcoms, it’s their take on the holiday episode. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day—you name it, a show has probably done some variation of it. Whether it’s in dedicating an entire episode for the occasion or just using it as a backdrop for an overarching storyline, holiday episodes have become somewhat of a television rite of passage. Yet the most popular seasonal format comes in the form of October’s darling itself: Halloween.
While most people probably celebrate the season with horror movie marathons, scaredy-cats like myself often lean towards a silly Halloween episode of TV. Not only are they simple, lighthearted ways of getting in the spooky spirit, there is also an endless amount to choose from. As a holiday in itself, Halloween is perhaps the most versatile at providing shows with an exciting playground to mess around with characters and subplots in a greater capacity than usual. In doing so, Halloween themed episodes serve as creative outlets in blending elements of the weird and the absurd with comedy.
Narratively speaking, a classic Halloween episode can be as simple as a self-contained storyline that happens to be set on or around the holiday itself, yet utilizes it as a backdrop in exploring our favorite characters in a deeper manner. Abbott Elementary is the most recent show to adopt this strategy in its first (of hopefully many!) holiday episodes. Season 2’s “Candy Zombies” embraces the silliest, most entertaining aspects of Halloween while also shedding light on individual character struggles. The cast is decked out in a variety of elaborate costumes (I see you, Wandavision and Storm!), and the episode’s A-story is dedicated to solving the mystery of the candy thief. Meanwhile, Janine (Quinta Brunson) turns down an invite to a Halloween party from an old classmate, finding the prospect of being in a new environment with people she doesn’t know particularly daunting. There’s nothing scarier than branching outside your comfort zone, and Abbott cleverly uses Halloween as a spirited setting behind confronting our biggest fears: starting over.
Successful Halloween sitcom episodes are able to reach a sweet balance between levity and complexity, finding ways to take advantage of the annual celebration to find out more about individual characters. In How I Met Your Mother’s Season 1 episode “Slutty Pumpkin,” Ted (Josh Radnor) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) arrive at the building’s annual rooftop Halloween party, and Ted is once again wearing his Hanging Chad costume. Every year, he attends the same party in the same costume in hopes of running into a woman he met there once before. While his friends all clown him for holding out such a far-fetched hope, the episode isn’t about whether or not the Slutty Pumpkin shows up (though she actually does later on in Season 7: “The Slutty Pumpkin Returns”). Rather, it’s more so introducing us to Ted’s romantic resilience—his unwavering faith and belief in love that is, while at times naive, so crucial to his character.
Though some storylines would have worked fine outside of Halloween, the spooky conditions provide sitcom writers a perfect excuse to completely delve into the oddest scenarios. In New Girl’s Season 3 episode “Keaton,” Schmidt (Max Greenfield) is still grappling with the loss of his two girlfriends, miserably wallowing around the loft while Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is trying to prepare for a Halloween party. After finding out that Nick (Jake Johnson) used to catfish Schmidt as his childhood hero Michael Keaton as a way of essentially therapizing all of his issues, Jess decides to take matters into her own hands. The episode provides a number of charms, including a drunk Jess attempting a hilariously unconvincing Michael Keaton impression while dressed in a random child’s Batman costume, and the sheer chaos surrounding the quickly unraveling pen pal fiasco is only heightened by the mere fact that it’s set on Halloween.
Perhaps the most memorable episodes are ones that completely break format, maybe even spoofing other genres in a comedic manner. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s annual Halloween heists are a great example of how writers will justify weird mayhem, as each action-packed episode became more and more intricate, elaborate, and just straight-up senseless. Boy Meets World’s Season 5 episode “And Then There Was Shawn” pays homage to the teen slasher whodunit genre as the group find themselves locked in the school with a masked killer on the loose. In Community’s Season 2 episode “Epidemiology,” Greendale falls victim to a full blown Zombie Apocalypse after Pierce (Chevy Chase) ingests some questionable “taco meat” and bites his classmate. It’s all to say that Halloween creates the perfect environment for the Bizarro Episode, which allows for a complete out-of-genre experience that normalizes the holiday’s spooky absurdities.
Halloween episodes bring out the best in sitcoms as they give writers a space to flex their creative muscles in channeling the silliest, zaniest aspects of what makes the holiday special. But not only that, there’s a heavy sense of nostalgia that’s attached with these episodes. It’s reminiscent of a time of 22-episode season arcs, bumbling fillers and one-off adventures that may not do all that much for the show’s overarching storyline, but provide a comforting appeal in allowing us to bond with the characters on screen. Halloween episodes are a way for shows to break free from their own formats and, if anything else, just have a little bit of festive fun.
Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found on Twitter @ddiannashen.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.