Spoilers for last night’s Community coming up:
You knew that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was going to be a special episode of Community, because it was structurally different (as many of its best episodes are), because it had a stripped-down (and thus budget-saving) setting and because, well, most of the episode involved a single game of Dungeons & Dragons. But none of those in the end were the reason that it was such a good episode: it was such a good episode because Community has become a strong enough and well-enough defined show that the best and funniest things its characters can do is simply talk to one another.
The driving plot of “AD&D” was not especially spectacular; there needed to be a reason for the game to play out, and it made more sense for that reason to come from a character external to the study group. (And it was probably a weak spot to ground an episode about stereotyping and bullying in a stereotype itself—namely, that the roleplaying aficionado is a lifelong fat kid driven to it as an escape from being an outcast.) Once the game began, focused by the disruptive character of Pierce, the episode became a showcase for how well Community knows its characters, so that they seemed natural and recognizable even when stepping into “characters” they were creating for themselves.
This was essentially the idea beyond “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” too, but in a way “AD&D” worked even better for me, despite, or because of, its absence of visual pyrotechnics. Staging-wise, it was little more than a table read; like a game of D&D itself, it played out on a mental stage. In fact, I’d argue that doing this episode with animation or other visual aids would have weakened it—the exception being Chang’s Drow Elf makeup, which worked because it was a horrible, hilarious exception.
Instead, it was the central group of characters playing characters but being themselves: Britta moralizing (with a touch of Hermione Granger’s house-elf liberation campaign), Abed dispassionately stage-managing, Jeff feverishly arguing and conniving to save Fat Neil’s sense of self-worth (and thus, we learned, redeem himself for coining “Fat Neil”). That their interactions and arguments took place in a context of spell-casting dragons, amulets and cloaks of windwalking made it hilarious, but didn’t make D&D experience necessary.
The one problem I had in all these character dynamics was with Pierce, who was obliviously selfish, cruel and petty in a way that would have exactly fit Eric Cartman in a D&D-themed episode of South Park. Now, you can have Cartman on South Park: it’s a certain show with a certain level of character reality and rules of relations. But Community is a show where, for all its weirdness, the character’s relationships follow recognizable rules of psychological realism. If someone likes or annoys someone else, there’s a reason. With Pierce, though—whatever gestures the show has made toward explaining him—there’s less and less reason to explain why he’s still in the study group other than that, well, Chevy Chase is in the cast.
Beyond that, though, the episode was so nimble, well-constructed and just funny that, for me, it made its saving throw. Quick hail of bullets:
* Has there been a D&D episode of South Park? I don’t recall one—though I remember the excellent WoW episode—but it feels somehow like there should have been one.
* I have to admit that at first, having Jeff of all people be the one to volunteer to do a good deed for Fat Neil seemed entirely out of character, so it was a very nice twist to reveal his motivations, which suddenly made his behavior entirely in character.
* I have sometimes criticized Community for relying too much on “This is just like a movie where…” references, so credit where due: this was an episode that could easily have loaded up on easy LOTR and other references, but didn’t, and was probably funnier for it.
* Yesterday I posted a clip from that other great TV episode about D&D, Freaks and Geeks’ “Discos and Dragons,” while noting that it’s an unfair comparison. But one place where the comparison is direct, and flattering to both shows, is: Community, like F&G, really captured the sense of what it’s like to sit down and talk through a role-playing game with friends, without getting into the weeds of arcana and rules. (It also captured effectively what the experience is like for a new group of players, as opposed to, say, the online series The Guild.)
* I will never forget hearing Annie describe that imaginary interspecies sexual encounter that we did not actually get to hear her describe.
* Tail, right? Yes, of course tail. Forget I even asked.