“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” has a high hurdle to clear for me, in that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is probably my favorite episode of the show’s run, or at least the one that I think best exemplifies the show doing everything it does well in one episode, while it was at its peak. In that sense, I doubt there’s a way for the show to top that episode for me, and the best this one could hope for was to come close.
So does it? Well… sort of. There was a lot of fun stuff in this episode, but it also struggled a bit to find a way to wrap up the story. Sometimes, a middling Community episode will save itself with a terrific ending, while other times, a promising episode will fall flat in the closing moments. “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” didn’t completely deflate when it came time to bring everything to a close, but it did feel like the story didn’t quite know how to wrap itself up. (Hell, the show even leaned on this by having Hickey tell Abed that he owed him an ending, with Abed replying that as the Dungeon Master, he only owed the world he had built veracity.) Yet “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” worked even in spite of these flaws because at this point in the show’s run, it’s just fun to hang out with the characters when they’re all in the same room. And, yes, Abed split the players into two groups fairly early in the episode (the better to introduce conflict and build out relationships), but the episode still traded heavily in the substantial chemistry the cast and guest players have with each other.
The centerpiece of this episode—the Faaaa…bulous Neil (who continues to hang around in the background sometimes) of it all, if you will—was the relationship between Hickey and his son Hank, which appears to have been sour to begin with but has only grown more so over the years. Hickey doesn’t really understand how best to approach his son, who’s a Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd, but he also resents the fact that he hasn’t been invited to the birthday party of Hank’s own son. (Hank sniffs when away from his father that his dad treats grandchildren like trophies.) Abed and the gang contrive a way to foster some sort of reconciliation via tabletop role-playing, but as soon as the game begins, Hank can smell a rat. He’s determined to break the game, to do anything other than what Abed wants him to do, and when he challenges the Dungeon Master, Abed pulls out what appears to be the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. You want to explore the surroundings? Fine. Abed has some notes on the surroundings.
Now, the original D&D episode featured an example of a “bad” tabletop RPG player—i.e., one who chooses to ignore the quest at hand and simply sow chaos—in the form of Pierce (who gets name-checked here via the Hawthorne Mountains). Yet what Hank’s doing feels somewhat different than what Pierce got up to. Pierce was just obstinate because he felt old and lonely and left out. Hank is obstinate because the last thing he wants to do is try to see things his father’s way. It’s a promising setup for an episode. Somebody ignores the quest because they’re secretly ignoring much deeper issues that they don’t want to deal with, even as the gang tries to yank that person back on the path that will lead to the emotional closure they desperately need. The problem, I think, is that the issues between Hank and Hickey feel so generic—by design, it seems—that there’s little weight to them. It’s just your standard fathers-and-sons stuff, mostly about how Buzz was never there when his son was growing up, and the episode can’t find a way to make it feel as vital as Neil potentially killing himself.
Did I mention that Hank is played by David Cross? It’s some smart casting, the kind that almost certainly would have continued to pay dividends in future seasons if Jonathan Banks had been able to stick around. As one might expect from a character played by Cross, Hank is usually at his best when he’s causing chaos all around him (and/or crooning a lovely song in some made-up language). Yet Cross is also an actor who can handle the sorts of sneakily emotional cores Community sometimes sneaks into things, so it’s a disappointment when the rift between father and son seems to have little in the way of resolution. I liked the idea that having the two of them in the same room—even if they couldn’t stand each other—talking through their issues via the proxy of the game was almost as good as an actual reconciliation. But it also felt incredibly rushed, as if the episode wanted to make sure it wrapped everything up in time.
For all my problems with the episode’s ending, however, the actual playing of the game was so much fun that I can’t really complain about this too much. I loved, for instance, the sequence where we got a taste of what Hickey must have been like as a cop when he pulled aside two goblins to interrogate them separately (both goblins played by Abed, of course). The device of having music and sound effects and showy camera angles stand in for the action within the game, instead of putting everybody in costume or something, wasn’t as novel this time as it was the first time around, but I still appreciated it as a different way of doing an episode like this (and director Joe Russo came up with some great shots, like the shot from the point of view of the “sky spider”). And I quite liked the device of splitting the gang up into two different groups, closing them off from each other in separate rooms so they could stew and turn against each other, ultimately resulting in out-and-out combat that leaves everybody but Hickey and Hank dead. It’s a clever structural gambit to keep everybody in the same place but still be able to focus on smaller groups of characters at a time, and I think it pays off throughout.
“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” then is just a lot of fun to watch, particularly if you can let go of your feelings about the previous episode and get into its groove. Abed says early on that sequels are always disappointing, so he’d welcome the challenge of trying to prove that logic wrong. And I don’t know if he—or the show—did, but this did manage to be an episode with enough interesting stuff going on that some of the weaknesses in the storyline and in the relationship between Hank and Buzz were easier to hang with while everything was swirling around them. It wasn’t until that massive combat sequence, which I don’t really think worked, that I felt taken out of the experience or removed from the flow of things. (And I’ll caution that I watched this one on a Slingbox, so I might be more into the battle when I get a chance to look at this in HD later.)
Finally, I can’t hate this episode too much, because the previous one played a big part in getting me into tabletop RPGs in the first place, and now that I have a better idea of what’s going on, I’m much more into some of the inside jokes and references. That’s kind of a shitty way to review an episode like this—since, ideally (and like the first one), you wouldn’t need to get the homages to enjoy it—but it’s unavoidable. The first D&D episode was much better at telling a compelling story about these characters and what they went through to save someone who wasn’t even one of their own. It was a major part of Jeff and Pierce’s character arcs, and it was incredibly funny to boot. “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” can’t reach those lofty heights, but I think it was better at capturing the feel of what it’s like to gather with friends and roll some dice, then laugh about how much fun something so silly can be. That, to a large degree, is because this is a fifth season show, instead of a second season one, now, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less pleasurable to spend time in this show’s world from week to week.
- I need to make mention of this for the benefit of my game-designing friend Mike: In a real D&D session, the players would be rolling dice to determine the results of their actions, not Abed. I understand why both D&D episodes have chosen to have Abed do all the rolling—it simplifies the game for both its players and viewers, and it allows everybody to be shouting all at once—but it’s still not how it would really happen. There you go, Mike. (And, yes, I am using this as an excuse to link you back to the first Nerd Curious column, why do you ask? And yes, I will be writing one again sometime. Soon. Hopefully.) UPDATE: Mike says I have misremembered and misrepresented his argument, which he explains in more detail in comments.
- Another leg up over the first D&D episode: I think I liked the character names better in this one, though I don’t know if any of the names came even close to “Bing Bong.”
- As soon as Hank mixed around all of the character sheets because he realized the whole game was designed to facilitate a father and son reconciliation, I knew that Jeff and the Dean were going to get the sheets designed for Hank and Buzz. That didn’t make it any less satisfying when the Dean and Jeff played out the long, sad saga of Joseph Gordon and Riggs Diehard.
- I maintain that Jeff yelling at the hobgoblins to go find some other monster that’s not just a monster with “hob” stuck onto its name is funny. My wife vehemently disagrees. Verdict?
- It took me forever to realize that the game was just taking place in Abed and Annie’s apartment. And that gets at the heart of my trouble grading this one. Story-wise, it was weak, but in terms of visuals and sheer polish, it was probably the most successful episode of the season. I enjoyed myself far more often than I didn’t, so call it a B+.
- The tag, featuring Abed playing a tabletop tea party with Annie’s stuffed animals (including Hillary Rodham Kitten), is cute. If somebody wants to design a scenario for FATE about stuffed animals having a tea party, I will gladly GM it for you.
- That’s all for a couple of weeks! The show is taking next week off to avoid the more highly rated second week of the NCAA tournament. We’ll be back on April 3 to discuss what appears to be the G.I. Joe episode. I will warn you I have absolutely no emotional attachment to G.I. Joe whatsoever, so this… could be interesting.