Obviously, the problem for this Community is that it will be measured against the original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” from Season 2 and while this might seem unfair—well, no, it’s totally fair. It’s not like this is a casual nod to that episode; it’s an unabashed redux, taking the same basic premise of having the characters sit around and play a D&D game that happens to be a framework for healing real emotional issues.
In the first D&D episode, it was about cheering up Fat Neil (lately more commonly known as “Neil”) out of a fear that he might be planning to off himself. This time around, it’s about mending the relationship between Buzz Hickey and his son Hank (played by David Cross). I’m afraid it doesn’t work out nearly as well, and there are a few reasons for that.
1. The stakes feel lower.
When the game was being played for Fat Neil, it was obviously a very grave situation: Neil might be suicidal. Furthermore, it was tied heavily back to one of our main characters, Jeff, who inadvertently coined the “Fat Neil” nickname and therefore felt tangentially responsible for Neil’s suicidal tendencies. The trouble with Neil was introduced in the episode in such a way that it felt like this D&D game was an absolute necessity to avert a tragedy. Here, the group just forces the game into being when they learn that Hank is into Dungeons & Dragons. To use a Home Aloneanalogy (proven to be the most effective of all analogy types), it’s like how in the first Home Alone, Kevin had no choice but to protect his house, but in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, he went out of his way to lure the robbers into a house of traps. The premise is shoehorned into working rather than organically feeling like the right thing to do.
The episode does try to make us care later by having the D&D game ride on whether or not Buzz is allowed to spend time with his grandson in the future. But this doesn’t work all that well because it’s a pretty weird bargain. Basically, Buzz is saying that if he completes the quest first, he’s going to force his way back into his son and grandson’s life. I mean, even if he were to win, and Hank would let him into his son’s life under duress, how could it ever go well?
It also doesn’t quite work because the problems between Hank and Buzz feel vague and undefined, and stay that way. Some dialogue here and there gives us glimpses into whatever made their relationship go sour (Buzz wasn’t around much when Hank was a kid, Hank didn’t invite his dad to his grandson’s birthday party), but it isn’t enough. There’s not a huge emotional investment, because the negativity in their history is so shapeless.
2. The characters don’t feel very well defined.
The characters, of course, all get assigned roleplaying characters to play as during the game. In the original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” this really gave everybody in the study group a chance to shine because their traits came through in the way they played the game. Britta, for example, tried to be her usual liberal self, caring about the working conditions of imaginary gnomes while Annie used her strangely encyclopedic sexual knowledge to woo and bed an elf maiden.
This time, except for Buzz and the Dean, the group is largely in the background. Shirley gets a funny moment, but it’s when she’s killed in the game, removing her from the bulk of the episode. Abed, as he did last time, gets to do some funny overacting, portraying the characters in the campaign he’s crafted. But mostly the episode is about Buzz getting acclimated to playing D&D, rather than dismissing it outright (something he sort of just does a 180 on, rather than builds toward), with the obvious highlight being when he gets to use his skills as an ex-cop to interrogate Abed as two different hobgoblins.
What’s really odd to me is how underused David Cross is. He gets a silly little song and one very Crossian (if we’re at the point where I’m allowed to do that with his name) bit about having a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth, but beyond that, he’s understated and underutilized. Admittedly, Neil also sort of ended up being a background character to his own story, but, well, Neil wasn’t played by David Cross. I just don’t get why you’d get David Cross and then not saturate your episode with David Cross being David Cross.
Weirdly, the Dean ends up being the most notable star of the proceedings because he throws himself so ridiculously headlong into them. He gets a great monologue, featuring some very Tobias Fünke-esque lines (again, weird, since David Cross is sitting right there), and his death scene is almost irrefutably the best bit of the episode. The Dean is just a lot of over-the-top fun throughout, and I’m only grading this episode higher than last week’s because of Jim Rash’s standout performance. Speaking of standout performances…
3. There’s no villain.
Everybody always hated on Pierce during Season 2 when he was at the height of his dickishness, but I absolutely loved how well the character functioned as a villain, and his role in the original D&D episode was a lynchpin in how awesome that episode ended up being. Of course, it’s both wise and completely necessary that “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” doesn’t have the same exact setup. There’s no clear villain and, almost from the start, everyone’s divided into two factions and two separate rooms.
I admire the episode for changing up the format, but, for reasons already discussed, the new premise ultimately doesn’t carry a lot of dramatic heft with it and, well, what can I say? The best moments in this episode are never going to stand up to Pierce towering over Fat Neil and declaring, “Baste your chubby cheeks in tears of gravy.”
4. Visual effects.
You’re welcome to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m nearly positive there were no visual effects in the original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and it was one of the reasons I respected that episode so highly. Take an activity that a good number of people probably find alien, stupid, and/or boring (that’s a big “yes” for me on all three), and then just visually showing them what’s being said feels like the easy way out. It’s like admitting that D&D is inherently lame and boring because it’s just nerds sitting around saying imaginary crap, so we need some pictures to make it work for normal people. This is pretty much failing the whole point of the premise.
True, the visual effects here were minimal, but, even so, it just felt like a breach of concept. The original episode went no further than having a fantasy score and some audio effects, along with some dynamic camerawork and editing. This one had that stuff too, but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t resist lobbing a few graphics in there. I know it seems like a minor difference, but I feel it’s one that damaged the premise, however subtly.
In the end, there were some good moments in this Community’s “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and the Dean was loads of fun, but the episode came nowhere near achieving the heights of its predecessor. There were very funny bits and lines (“Nobody feels that we almost caused a suicide?”), but the premise kind of fell flat to the point that even the ending, though logical and unexpected, felt less like an ending and more just like an abrupt abort of everything (followed by a pretty lame Abed tag).
Dan Harmon himself admitted in a recently-published interview that people seem to find the show sucks most when he tries to plan ahead (as he did, for example, with the character arcs in Season 3) and that his determination to do another Dungeons & Dragons episode this season resulted in this, which ended up being the hardest episode of Season 5 to write.
Well, this didn’t suck, but it wasn’t so great either.