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Halloween special episodes: My Pop Culture Pet Peeve

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Family Matters

Before you start pelting me with fun-size Snickers bars, let me just say: I love almost everything about Halloween.

I love the Dr. Who-themed jack-o-lanterns, the pranksters who scare off trick-or-treaters with Scary Nicholas Cage decorations, and the opportunity to humiliate tiny dogs by dressing them in Miley Cyrus gear. I’m even amused by the increasing unsexiness of “sexy” Halloween costumes, which suggest that even the most scantily-clad college girls are actually in on the joke. Might I suggest a  “sexy baby” outfit, paired with Ricky’s Slutty Wallet, which sports the festive tagline “lose your dignity, not your valuables”?

Still, there’s one thing I hate about this time of year: perfunctory Halloween-themed TV episodes. I’m not talking about the genuinely inspired moments of Samhain-fueled entertainment — say, The Simpsons‘ amazing “Treehouse of Horror” series, or the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or the elaborately costumed episodes of Community, The Office, Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, Happy EndingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and others that I’m sure you’ll remind me of in the comments. I’m talking about truly bad episodes, ones that use Halloween as a lame excuse for the writers to lose their minds, indulging in wackadoo storylines and it-was-all-just-a-dream! fake-outs, only to pretend like nothing weird happened once the cast returns the following week. Think about Blair from The Facts of Life suddenly murdering everyone. Or Angela from My So-Called Life time-traveling back to a 1960s sock hop. Or that Family Matters moment when Urkel’s ventriloquist dummy, Stevil, stole his master’s soul, effectively slaughtered the Winslow family, then competed in a dance-off with another puppet. No, I didn’t just dream that up. I nearly swallowed my wax lips just remembering this scene.

Worse yet, too many of these shows treat their supernatural subplots way too seriously, using them to plumb “deep” topics like the nature of good and evil. (Or should I say… Stevil?) Remember Touched By an Angel‘s all-too-judgmental Halloween tribute, when Tess explains to a group of lowly mortals that their faith in tarot cards has allowed Satan to rule their lives? Other shows unfairly punish their characters for baring too much cleavage. After Vampire Diaries‘ resident bad girl Vicki wore a particularly revealing vampire getup (so meta!), she got herself staked through the heart. And when poor Kelly wore her “friendly witch” outfit on 90210, Brenda warned her, “You’re looking for trouble.” (Sure enough, she narrowly escaped sexual assault by a guy who’s dressed as Marty McFly.) Gluttons don’t fare much better: recently, Super Fun Night was relentless in its fat jokes when Kimmie admitted to Halloween bingeing. Even the “Wings of a Ghost” episode of Lassie, where Ron, Dale, and their dog hero sleep in an old barn that may be haunted, feels a little heavy-handed in its moral. There’s a message in there somewhere about little boys obeying trespassing laws and not being superstitious. But the real lesson we can all learn from this episode? Pssst, Lassie! Ghosts don’t have wings.

Many of these “special episodes” also smack of cross-promotional opportunities. Back in 2009, when the cast of All My Children dressed up in costumes that included Wolverine and Mr. Fantastic, two Marvel superheroes, I could only think one thing: Disney owns Marvel, as well as ABC, the network that broadcasted All My Children at the time. This year on New Girl, much of the action focused on Jess pretending that she was really Michael Keaton in a Batman suit. Why Michael Keaton? Here’s a crazy theory: his upcoming comedy, Birdman, will be produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a sister company to 20th Century Fox, which brings us New Girl. True, I might just be extremely paranoid. (I blame the evil ventriloquist dummy who’s staring at me through the window right now.) But if subliminal advertising really exists, it feels a little bit cruel. Take The Biggest Loser‘s Halloween candy challenge from season 12, in which the host, Alison Sweeney, railed against America’s candy addiction, right before hoisting a big cauldron of sweets above the heads of the hungry contestants. The brand names were blurred out, but you could clearly tell from the packaging that there were Butterfingers and Smarties inside. Sweeney might as well have cooked up some chocolately treats on a spoon and injected them directly into our eyeballs.

I know all of this makes me sound like a total killjoy. Next thing you know, I’ll be railing against rainbows and hand-holding, or worse, rallying for other holidays to get equal representation on TV. (More Arbor Day episodes!) But I’d rather reserve my Halloween for quality entertainment, the kind that involves dancing dwarves, or earwigs that devour people’s brains. If you want to debate this further, I’ll be sitting over here with my Ricky’s Slutty Wallet. I’m storing my dignity inside.