Top 10 TV Halloween Specialsposted on 10/9/14
Halloween has got to be my favorite holiday–it combines candy, costumes, drunkenness and mischief all in a neat little package, and best of all, you don’t have to fret about finding the perfect gift for any of your obnoxious loved ones. I’m also a huge TV fan–in fact, Halloween night is one of the ONLY nights when I can be tempted away from the flickering embrace of the idiot box and coaxed into the outside world. So I’m sure you can imagine my love of that staple of American broadcasting, the Halloween Special. Luckily for me, they’re rarely aired on Halloween itself–this would be a terrible decision for me to make–but instead are shown in the weeks leading up to Halloween, thus heightening my anticipation for my favorite night of the year. In my short life so far, I’ve seen more Halloween Specials than I can count. Here are ten of my favorites.
10. Home Movies – Coffins and Cradles
Home Movies, for those of you who aren’t aware, is a total diamond in the rough. In its one and only Halloween episode, “Coffins and Cradles”, Brendon (protagonist, precocious filmmaker and general procrastinator) discovers that his father’s new wife is about to give birth to a son, while his soccer coach McGuirk (voiced by the exceedingly talented H. Jon Benjamin) is at death’s door after a heart attack. Meanwhile, his best friend Jason (also H. Jon Benjamin) struggles with a debilitating addiction to candy that makes him act like a monster. The episode is impressive for how artfully it juggles such heavy themes, but I’ve always loved it for a single plot point: Brendon has been secretly working for months on a halloween cat costume, only to discover at the last minute that his teacher, Mr. Lynch, will be attending the same Halloween party, also dressed as a cat. In a panic, he throws together a truly laughable fish costume instead, and is then teased, everyone assuming that this is the costume he’s been preparing for so long in secrecy. Whew, watching this show is like growing up all over again.
9. Modern Family – Halloween
Now, I should start this by saying that I’m not the most hardcore Modern Family devotee. I like it, sure, and I get that it’s cool for its depiction of how many ways there are to make a loving family, but it’s just a little too wholesome for a single guy in his mid-twenties. Still, the Halloween episode is a stand-out in my mind, because it uses the backdrop of the calendar’s scariest holiday to focus on the real-life fears of the characters. In this Halloween special, the true spectres are not ghouls or goblins, but insecurities–Claire battles her controlling tendencies, Phil panics about the state of their relationship, Gloria is embarrassed by the thickness of her accent, and good ol’ Mitchell confronts the social faux-pas of wearing a Spiderman outfit to his high-powered law firm. Now these are fears to chill an adult audience to the bone.
8. Parks and Recreation – Greg Pikitis
Oh, how I love Amy Poehler. In my eyes, she really can do no wrong. After growing up on Upright Citizens’ Brigade, I was pretty pleased when she landed her own hit show. “Greg Pikitis” is a gem of an episode, particularly for revealing that the seemingly unflappable Leslie Knope counts a high school senior (the titular Greg Pikitis) as her “arch-nemesis”. Throughout the episode, she leans on her cop boyfriend (Louis C.K.) to go outside the bounds of the law in order to track and eventually detain Pikitis, who she suspects is planning to vandalize the town’s statue of Mayor Percy as a Halloween prank. The reason that this episode is so stunningly clever, to me at least, is that you spend most of the episode thinking that Leslie has gone off the deep-end, that she’s totally obsessing over some little punk that couldn’t care less about her. Then, in the final moments of the episode, it is revealed that Pikitis is every bit as cunning and spiteful as Leslie suspected–he hires a fake mother off Craigslist to come bail him out of trouble, dresses as a janitor and even hides for hours in a dumpster, all for the chance to vandalize the Parks Department and drive Leslie crazy.
7. King of the Hill – Hilloween
King of the Hill is so down-to-earth it can be unnerving. Even its Halloween special–when most shows take a little extra license in suspending the usual rules of the sitcom universe–could be part of a documentary about life in the Bible Belt. The episode centers on Hank’s battle with Junie Harper, an outspoken stick-in-the-mud at the local church. She decries Halloween as a “Satanic ritual”, and makes such a stink that local officials bend to pressure and decide to enforce a curfew on Halloween night. As usual, Hank is the sole voice of reason, but in a fun twist, this time it involves him dressing up in an ill-fitting devil costume from his childhood and leading a protest march down Rainey Street, chanting “Trick! Or! Treat!” like a rallying cry. It’s always so fun to see him out of his element, especially when it involves him breaking the law.
6. South Park – Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery
This might be my favorite South Park episode of all time. A pitch-perfect Scooby Doo parody, this delightful Halloween special features actual guest appearances by nu-metal icons, Korn, who play versions of themselves as a gang of mystery-solvers. On their way to play South Park’s annual Halloween Haunt, they are scared off the road by the sudden apparition of a Pirate Ghost (not to be confused with a Ghost Pirate, as they discuss at length throughout the episode). Convinced that there’s a mystery afoot, Korn and the kids set about to get to the bottom of all the spooky goings-on. In typical Scooby Doo fashion, it’s revealed that Priest Maxi was behind the entire affair, trying to scare people away from the Halloween Haunt because Halloween is a sinful holiday. Definitely the best moment in the entire episode comes when the members of Korn explain how Priest Maxi created the illusion of the Pirate Ghosts using only simple everyday items.
5. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelpia – Who Got Dee Pregnant?
For this Halloween special, the Always Sunny crew really steps their storytelling game up. Told Rashomon-style, the revelation that Dee is pregnant–and that the father is one of the gang–forces Dennis, Charlie, Mac, Frank and Artemis to piece together the events of the night from the sum of their hazy recollections. The resulting story involves a lot of twists and turns, costume-swaps and mis-rememberings, before the gang is finally left with no option but to turn to the hated McPoyles, whose odd predilection for drinking milk meant that they were sober while everyone else was “brown-out” drunk. This episode is especially clever because it works so well with the characters–each new account is tainted hilariously by the narrator’s self-perception, with virtually the only constant being that Dee, who was dressed as an angel, is remembered as progressively more birdlike (finally being replaced with an actual ostrich). In the end, it is revealed that none of the gang are the father, and that Dee just said that to get their attention–at which point they predictably lose all interest in her, and no longer care who the real father is. Priceless.
4. Futurama – The Honking
The original run of Futurama (five seasons aired, four DVD volumes) are, without question, some of my favorite television of all time. Loaded with tiny jokes and subtle cultural references, a devoted fan can spend numerous re-watches fishing out new little gems. Case in point, The Honking: I’ve seen this episode more times than I can count, but when I read up on it for a brief refresher, I discovered that there were still gags that I had missed on all of my previous views. Anyway, The Honking deftly weaves together elements from a number of horror classics, including Dracula, Christine, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and The Shining to create a hilarious and spooky Halloween sci-fi tale. The episode sees Bender run over by a mysterious car that “creeps on the ground on four rubbery feet, like a wolf”. Soon after, he begins experiencing periods of lost time, waking up in strange locations. It is revealed that he is a “were-car”, and that he is destined to escalate his violence until he eventually runs down his best friend, unless the gang can find the original were-car and plug its tailpipe with a silver potato. This leads to a final climactic fight in the “Anti-Chrysler” warehouse, with the transformed Bender trying to run down Fry (who is elated at this proof that he’s Bender’s best friend). Definitely the highlight of his episode, for me at least, is the description of the original were-car (Project Satan) being made up of the most evil parts of the most evil cars in history–including the steering wheel from Hitler’s Mercedes, the left-turn signal from the Manson Family’s VW, the motor from Ed Begley’s electric car (“the most evil propulsion system ever conceived”) and the windshield wipers from TV’s Knight Rider–which were apparently evil, even though it “didn’t come up much in the show”.
3. The Office – Halloween
Now, I typically don’t think that they should remake British TV shows for American audiences. We speak the same language, after all, and the gulf between our cultures really isn’t so unbridgeable that we should have to toss out the original and start from scratch. That having been said, The Office (US) grew into something so much better than The Office (UK) that it’s really hard to find fault. And the episode “Halloween” is one of the best examples of why. As I mentioned above in my analysis of Modern Family’s Halloween episode, the cleverest Halloween specials tend to juxtapose real-life fears with the over-the-top spookiness of the holiday. The Office does this perfectly. Michael was told at the beginning of October that it was his job to fire someone by the end of the month, but due to his characteristic procrastination and distaste for making unpopular decisions. Now it’s October 31st, the day of the Halloween party, and Michael’s grim task must be completed by the end of the business day. The entire episode is tense, the black pall of his impending decision lending a black absurdity to the silly costumes that everyone is wearing. In the end, Michael ends up firing Devon, a character who has had essentially no screen time up until this point. The episode also functionally introduces the character of Creed Bratton, who goes on to be one of the most delightfully weird characters in the entire show. Thus, instead of losing a cast member, the show functionally gains one. Happy Halloween, indeed.
2. Community – Epidemiology
Anybody who’s familiar with Community knows that they come correct. Seriously, I can hardly think of a show so committed to pushing its own boundaries, creatively and stylistically. Epidemiology is remarkable for setting the comedy focus aside almost entirely (the real humor is the meta-joke of just how absurd the whole situation is), and instead making a decently compelling facsimile of a zombie horror flick. The premise of the episode is as follows: in preparation for the school’s Halloween party, Dean Pelton cut corners and bought what he thought were old rations from a military surplus store. As it turns out, however, that what he purchased was not even food, and he is ordered to quarantine the entire school immediately. As he locks the partygoers in, the “refreshments” begin to cause a high fever and zombie-like symptoms in the infected students, including erratic behavior, stumbling motion and the urge to bite (and thus infect) other students. The situation becomes more dire when it is revealed that running so high a fever could cause permanent brain injury or even death if left unattended for more than a few hours. It now falls to Troy and Abed to save the day by battling their way to the Thermostat, so that they can lower the school’s temperature and break everyone’s fever. The episode also reveals that Chang and Shirley “hooked up” in the bathroom–which foreshadows a later plot point about the paternity of Shirley’s unborn child.
1. The Simpsons – Treehouse of Horror (all of them)
Let’s be honest here, if I were going to make a REAL Top 10 list of TV Halloween specials, this would basically be a list of my ten favorite Treehouse of Horror specials. But, since nobody wants to read that, I have to take a Mulligan on this one, and just roll twenty-three years of riotous and creepy Simpsons shorts into the single glorious top spot. So instead, let’s take a moment to remember some of the most memorable Treehouse of Horror segments in Simpsons history:
The Raven – Lisa’s rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, featuring Homer as the narrator, Marge as Lenore, and Bart as the irksome raven.
The Bart Zone – a parody of the Twilight Zone story “The Good Life”, bart plays a boy with the power to bend and shape reality to his will. Homer ends up as a Jack-in-the-Box.
The Shinning – a parody of Steven King’s The Shining (also the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name), Homer loses his mind after the mansion they’re occupying has neither alcohol nor a working television. Featuring the oh-so-wonderful joke “No TV and No Beer Make Homer something something….” “…Go Crazy?” “Don’t mind if I do!”
Time and Punishment – as a result of putting metal in the toaster, Homer travels back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. Though trying not to interfere, he inadvertently kills a fly, which results in Ned Flanders becoming the supreme ruler of the world. In a series of subsequent trials, Homer runs roughshod through time and space, eventually settling on a world much like his own… except that everyone has hideous reptile tongues.
Nightmare Cafeteria – plagued by the dual problems of full detention halls and a shrinking food budget, Principal Skinner pursues the obvious solution: grind delinquent students into sloppy joe meat.
The Island of Dr. Hibbert – a parody of H. G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, the simpsons wash up on a tropical island and are received warmly by Dr. Hibbert, until they discover that he is turning people into hideous animal/human hybrids.