Friday, October 31, 2014

Jenn's Pick: Top 10 Halloween Specials (Comedy/Drama)

I'm not a big fan of Halloween, but I was when I was a child. When you're a kid and Halloween inches closer, you start planning your costume. You get excited when your parents hand you those plastic jack-o-lantern buckets and flashlights. You long for the night where you can dress up and roam your neighborhood, knowing which houses give the best candy (and knowing that the big houses gave out king-sized candy bars). When you're a kid living in Pennsylvania, you trot up and down hills and whine about how your mother making you wear a jacket -- because October is actually cold when the sun sets in the northeast -- thereby ruining the effect of your Princess Jasmine costume.

But you love Halloween as a kid because it feels like YOUR night. Kids roam the streets when it's dark with parents and there's a sort of exhilaration in that fact. This holiday is your own. When you're an adult, Halloween (in my experience) has been less fun. Don't get me wrong: I still enjoy the years in college when I visited Wal-Mart last minute with my suitemates and picked out a costume. I still remember driving around West Palm Beach with friends, dressed as hippies and cats, searching for houses that were still giving out candy. I enjoyed those years, I really did. But nothing compares to Halloween as a child, in my opinion.

Most television series run holiday specials. You'd be hard-pressed to find a series, either comedy or drama, that didn't acknowledge Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween. So in the spirit of the spooky holiday, I thought I would rank some of my favorite Halloween specials of all time. A lot of these fall under the category of "childhood nostalgia," which I think is why I love them so much. Ready? Grab some candy corn (but not too much because that stuff will make you sick), your favorite sweater, and let's count down my favorite Halloween specials!

10. "Halloween" (New Girl)

What it's about: The loft gang all celebrates Halloween in this special differently. Jess, volunteering at a haunted house, has decided that she isn't okay with her casual relationship with Dr. Sam (played by the always attractive David Walton) and wants to try to move their status as bed buddies into a relationship. Meanwhile, the-one-who-got-away for Nick is in town and after a hook-up, Nick realizes that maybe she got away for a reason. Elsewhere, Winston and Shelby's relationship crumbles and Schmidt tries to get in between Cece and her boyfriend Robbie.

Why it makes my list: Man, I love this episode. New Girl usually excels at its holiday-themed episodes and this one is no exception. I mean, this is an episode that makes you laugh and then have genuine emotion once you realize that Sam doesn't want a relationship with Jess and wants to remain casual. This is an episode that reminds us that Cece deserves happiness and that Schmidt often gets in the way of that. It shows us how much Robbie cares about her and how much Schmidt is willing to walk away in order to make Cece happy. This is an episode that shows us how emotionally blinded Nick can be and how he romanticizes the past and also reminds us how deeply he cares about Jess and the lengths he's willing to go for her (he walks into a haunted house and it's metaphorical and literal). This is an episode that contains Jake Johnson's hilarious high-pitched screaming and not one but TWO pun costumes so it's definitely one of my favorites.

9. "Dark and Stormy Night" (Family Matters)

What it's about: When the entire Winslow family is stuck inside (with Steve Urkel and Waldo, too) on Halloween because of a dark and stormy night, Richie is disappointed that he'll miss trick-or-treating. To make it up to him, the entire Winslow family takes turns telling a scary story about the Duke of Urkel and his battle against a vampire family called the Von Winslows.

Why it makes my list: I loved Family Matters growing up and I clearly remember this episode. I think some of my favorite Halloween-themed episodes of television (as you may be able to tell from the list as it progresses) involve the telling of scary stories. Sure, ACTUAL scary events and trick-or-treating escapades are fun in a television show but I love when characters have the opportunity to take turns telling scary tales. And I loved that Family Matters was such a family-centric ensemble show that it made sense for them all to sit around and add onto each others' stories. It was additionally great because every character had a nuanced way that they told the story. If you're looking for a nostalgic 90s episode of television to watch this Halloween, I would definitely recommend "Dark and Stormy Night."

8. "Bewitched" (Home Improvement)

What it's about: Tim's tradition of pranking his family for Halloween comes to an end when the prankster becomes the pranked. Jill, Al, Wilson, and the boys put on an elaborate prank that makes Tim believe Wilson's new girlfriend is a witch and ends with the entire Taylor clan faking Wilson's kidnapping and death just to get back at Tim.

Why it makes my list: I grew up watching pretty much every single episode of Home Improvement because my family loved it. My dad was a fan of Tim Allen's humor and I remember sitting on our floor, watching episodes together. Home Improvement had some really good Halloween specials and holiday specials in general, but none of them quite lived up to "Bewitched," in my opinion. This was an episode that fooled both the audience and Tim. And (judging by some other episodes on my list) if you can't tell, I love episodes where the prankster gets pranked. And this episode is hilarious because everyone comes together to pull an elaborate prank over on Tim, who constantly torments his family each year. I loved that the episode was focused on Wilson because let's be honest, he was the best part of this show. And that is why "Bewitched" is definitely my favorite Halloween special in Home Improvement.

7. "Slutty Pumpkin" (How I Met Your Mother)

What it's about: It's Halloween in New York City, which means the entire gang is preparing for their annual rooftop party. Barney spends the entire night switching his costumes in order to (of course) score with the women. Robin spends the evening regrettably doing "couple things" with her new beau. Marshall and Lily are excited about their Halloween costumes. And Ted spends the entire evening waiting for the "slutty pumpkin" he met in 2001 to show up at the party.

Why it makes my list: Who didn't love the elusive slutty pumpkin (until it turned out to be Katie Holmes, #sorrynotsorry)? And who didn't love the mystery surrounding her and Ted's quest to find the girl he managed to lose all those Halloweens ago? I think what I love so much about this How I Met Your Mother special (besides the costumes) is that it exemplifies everything about Ted and his hopeless romantic, albeit hopelessly romantic wandering, ways. I love the scene between Ted and Robin because Ted has spent his entire night -- and really, he spends all Halloween nights -- hopeful that the girl he met years ago will show up some day again. Ted always believed in the magic of things: the magic of love and holidays and fateful meetings, so it's no wonder he believes so strongly in the fact that this girl will one day reappear in his life. And it's the hopefulness, not the costumes or other plots, that lands this episode on my list. (Of course, How I Met Your Mother has now also made another list -- my bad list -- but that's another post altogether.)

6. "The One With the Halloween Party" (Friends)

What it's about: Monica and Chandler decide to host a costume party for Halloween but that ends up causing all sorts of issues in this group of friends. Rachel spends the episode hilariously trying to be good with children and ends up failing pretty miserably. Meanwhile, Phoebe makes the decision to tell Ursula's new fiance Eric that Ursula has lied to him about virtually everything.

Why it makes my list: Look, when you have Monica dressed as Catwoman, Chandler as the Easter bunny, Ross as "Spudnik," Joey dressed as Chandler, and Phoebe as Supergirl, you know it's a great episode of Friends. I loved that the entire group decided who would win in a fight. I loved the story with Rachel dumping an entire bag of candy into a girl's bucket because she said she loved her. I love any episode of Friends that features Phoebe and Ursula. I love that Chandler had to be a giant pink bunny and that he and Ross arm-wrestled (the outtakes of that scene are hilarious). I love that only one person got Ross's costume and I love that the episode confirms that Ross and Chandler wouldn't beat each other in a fight because they're equally weak. Basically, I love everything about "The One With the Halloween Party."

5. "Best Lil' Haunted House in Texas" (Reba)

What it's about: Reba is excited about her annual Halloween pranks on her family but becomes disappointed when she realizes none of them will be home to prank. Cheyenne decides to go to her support group party with her attractive new sponsor, making Van jealous and the rest of the family suspicious at Cheyenne's motives. The family turns the tables on Reba when Cheyenne's "affections" for her co-sponsor escalate along with Van's jealousy and the latter nearly "murders" the sponsor. Jake, meanwhile, gleefully gets Reba's horror on video.

Why it makes my list: Reba is one of those shows that was mildly popular when it was airing, but criminally underrated, in my opinion. I've seen every single episode of this show and I laugh every time. It's such a great premise with hilarious characters and great stories. It's a go-to show for me whenever I need a laugh or a pick-me-up. And if you've never seen an episode, I highly suggest that you watch at least one (the first season starts a little shaky but gets so much better). "Best Lil' Haunted House in Texas" is such a great Halloween episode because much like Home Improvement's "Bewitched," it gets the opportunity for its characters to prank the prankster. And honestly, watching Van, Cheyenne, Jake, and Brock manage to prank Reba so realistically that she freaked out (and wasn't mad at them but was truly and genuinely thrilled they managed to pull such a big prank over on her) was hilarious. (And the best part, of course, was that the rest of the group didn't tell Barbara Jean.) This isn't a scary episode of television, really, but it's such a stellar one anyway.

4. "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" (Community)

What it's about: When Britta runs a test for her psychology class on the study group, she realizes, horrified, that one of the study group members shows psychopathic tendencies and she's determined to find out which one of them it is. Under the guise of Halloween, the group then takes turns telling spooky and scary stories that are laced with their own feelings toward the other members of the study group. In the end, the audience realizes that Abed (presumed most insane by everyone) is actually the most sane member of the study group while the others are each presumed to be at least a little bit insane.

Why it makes my list: When Community does Halloween, it does Halloween. And out of all of its specials, the one that I always enjoy the most is not the one focused on zombies but the one focused on stories (gee, that's a shocker coming from the writer). I get more creeped out by scary stories than I do anything else, really. It's why I couldn't watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? or read Goosebumps as a child. There's something about a scary story, when told just right, that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. But what's so great about "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" is that it's both hilarious and also tinged with that spooky factor that makes this show's special so... well, special. Each story that the study group member tells is uniquely theirs -- Britta's is hilariously bitter as she narrates horror movie cliches. Abed's is stunted, emotionally. Troy's is silly. Pierce's is creepy (not in a scary way). Shirley's is filled with judgement and wrath. Annie's is elaborate and hilariously gruesome and vengeful. Jeff's is... a cop-out. There are so many elements about "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky" steps that work: the scary gags, the cliched-turned-non-cliched scary stories the group tells, the sentimental ending, the surprise Beetlejuice. Everything about this episode screams Community, but it also harkens back to episodes like "Dark and Stormy Night," which have my nostalgic heart so perhaps that is why this episode is so special to me.

3. "This is a Dark Ride" (Pretty Little Liars)

What it's about: The Liars decide to ride the Rosewood Halloween Ghost Train. Unfortunately for them, while the other students are enjoying music, food, and drinks, the girls are learning secrets from Garrett and trying to run from a possible masked "A" aboard the train. When Aria goes missing, the girls begin to panic and race to find and save her in time. Meanwhile, Aria -- kidnapped -- tries desperately to escape from a box she was placed in (next to a dead Garrett) before the box gets pushed from the train. In flashbacks, we learn more about what happened the night Alison died, including a confrontation between Garrett, Jenna, and Alison. On the train, Noel and Toby fight and accidentally knock over an ice cooler that -- to everyone's horror -- breaks open and reveals Alison's body bag. The end of the episode flashes back to the night Alison died as a hand with Alison's bracelet on it breaks free from the ground where she was buried.

Why it makes my list: Out of all of the Halloween specials that Pretty Little Liars has done, "This is a Dark Ride" remains my favorite and it -- as you might tell -- remains one of my favorite Halloween specials, period. The episode provides us with fright, exhilaration, flashbacks, and new information in the search for the person who killed Alison. And this episode is partially a bottle episode, too, as the vast majority of it takes place on a train. I love that -- I love when stories are confined to certain places because it ups the stakes and it increases the tension and when you throw something like that onto a show like Pretty Little Liars, which is already suspenseful, you have a pretty stellar episode. This is a creepy episode, too, and it opens in Radley with Mona (Janel Parrish always managed to nail exactly the facial expressions and inflections to make Mona Vanderwaal seem like the creepiest and scariest person you've ever met) and the A-story focuses on the Liars finding Aria on the train, who has been drugged and kidnapped. There's a stellar fight scene between Spencer and a masked "A" who tries to kill her. There's a random concert by Adam Lambert. There is important information revealed to Spencer by Garrett who then shows up dead. There's a random B-story with Ted and Ashley Marin about a creepy girl who may or may not be a ghost. (Seriously, the whole less-is-more telling of that story made me jump slightly.)

Pretty Little Liars is a creepy show sometimes, but they really go all-out for their Halloween specials. "This is a Dark Ride" increases the stakes for the Liars when they're confined to a train and I absolutely loved how intense and suspenseful the episode was.

2. "Halloween Surprise" (Parks and Recreation)

What it's about: With Ben in Washington, D.C., Ann agrees to accompany Leslie to look at a house that she's decided to lease for herself and Ben. When Jennifer Barkley, meanwhile, proposes a job offer for Ben in Florida, he must contemplate his future with Leslie and also his future career. Back in Pawnee, it's Halloween, which means Ron is taking Diane and her daughters trick-or-treating (with Andy and April accompanying). At City Hall, Leslie, Ann, Tom, Chris, Jerry, and Donna celebrate by watching a scary movie. Unfortunately, Jerry ends up having a mini-heart attack during it. Leslie vows to raise money to help Jerry pay for his medical bills (since Pawnee healthcare is kind of horrible) and the rest of the group comes up with ways to raise money. Diane is upset, meanwhile, with how Ron handled the girls during their trick-or-treating outing, which makes Ron contemplate whether or not he's ready to move forward with Diane and embrace being a father. Leslie, meanwhile, is throwing herself into a project in order to avoid the feelings of fear and frustration as it looks more and more likely that Ben will take the job in Florida. However, at the episode's end, Ben returns to Pawnee and proposes to Leslie in their new home. Ron ends the episode by embracing the idea of life with Diane, including life with two daughters.

Why it makes my list: I love Parks and Recreation and I love "Halloween Surprise," but it's not (as you might have gathered) because of the costumes. It's because of the beautiful, tear-inducing proposal from Ben to Leslie at the end of the episode. But truly, "Halloween Surprise" is an episode that exemplifies everything that is great and wonderful about Parks and Rec as a show. It features some pretty great comedy and stories for each character (Donna's tweeting storyline is still one of the best minor stories to ever occur on this show). But more than that, this episode shows us such great character growth for Ron, Ben, and Leslie, Ron embraces the idea of becoming a father figure because being with Diane is a package deal. And for the very first time, we see Ron accepting something that is outside of his comfort zone with warmth and growth. It's such a great moment for him as a character. Meanwhile, the Ben/Leslie story is great, too -- Ben has the chance to further his career and instead, he chooses love over it. I love Ben/Leslie and I love them because they're always willing to make sacrifices for each other; one person doesn't ever make all the compromises in the relationship and I think that this is just so demonstrative of how real relationships are. (Also, if you don't cry at the proposal scene, you're a heartless robot.)

Overall, "Halloween Surprise" is definitely my favorite Parks and Rec Halloween special and it nabs the silver medal for my favorite of all time.

1. "And Then There Was Shawn" (Boy Meets World)

What it's about: When a fight between recently broken-up Topanga and Cory in class lands both them, Shawn, Angela, and Kenny all in detention, things begin to get weird when the empty school starts to resemble a horror film and students began getting picked off one-by-one. Horror movie expert Shawn decides to take charge and tell them all what they need to do in order to survive as well as identify the killer roaming the halls. Eric and Jack end up at the school, as well, and the hunt continues, following all of the stereotypical horror movie tropes. When the killer has Shawn, Cory, and Topanga cornered in the library -- the only three survivors -- Shawn unmasks the murderer and sees himself. It is then that Shawn wakes up and realizes that he's been dreaming in detention and confesses to Feeny that the fight was his fault.

Why it makes my list: And then, in first place for my favorite Halloween special of all time, there was Shawn. This episode of Boy Meets World scared me a lot as a kid (did it scare you, too?) in the best way possible. I love that it still had the humor that made it so endearing, even though it was a scary special. I love that the humor was dark and I love that it played toward certain scary movie tropes. And I additionally loved that it was so self-referential in terms of those tropes. Seriously, a good Halloween special will make you jump but a GREAT Halloween special will make you jump and think. That's what "And Then There Was Shawn" really is: it's an episode that is meant to look like a signature horror movie about teenagers, but it's really an episode that is so centrally focused on Shawn and his character development that it ends with us feeling a sense of heartbreak for him and a greater understanding of him as a character.

And in this episode, we find that Shawn is so utterly lost and angry because Cory and Topanga have broken up: they were his constant and his familiarity and he is both sad and angry because without them being together, his world doesn't really make much sense. They were the one thing he could rely on and he explains that he expressed his anger during class (and during the dream, if we're being honest) because of that. But Cory and Topanga assure Shawn that their breakup is not his fault, and that while they are not together anymore, they both still love and care about him. And that is the exactly the kind of support that Shawn needs at the end of this episode in order to feel some sort of stability moving forward. "And Then There Was Shawn" is just such a great episode because it's such a character-driven one. And also, it may or may not still scare me a teensy bit as an adult.

So there you have it, friends! I've ranked ten of my favorite Halloween specials of all time. What are some of YOUR favorites? Be sure to list them out in the comments and have a very safe and happy Halloween. :)


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