"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" stands as one of Community's all-time greatest episodes, both stylistically impressive and narratively heartfelt. It's an immensely satisfying episode of television that forms the peak of the show's run in the heart of its second season. For the show to tackle that style again flies in the face of how the show has normally operated. The paintball sequel was a chance to make a stylistic adventure cap the emotional narrative struggle within the study group. But this is much riskier. And Abed blatantly states the meta-joke that everyone will ascribe to Dan Harmon, as the group makes the plan for a second role-playing game intervention: "A satisfying sequel is difficult to pull off. Many geniuses have defeated themselves through hubris, making this a chance to prove I'm better than all of them. I'M IN."
Community tempted fate on sequels once before with the two-part paintball assassins second season finale "A Fistful Of Paintballs" (another all-time classic) and "For A Few Paintballs More" (a good-not-great finale with a truly masterful final scene). But this is the show going to the opposite extreme in terms of one-upping a previous success. The paintball episodes went for more visual dynamism—topping the season one episode directed by Justin Lin—even more paint-based explosions, guest stars, and stylistic homages to spaghetti westerns and Star Wars. It's the biggest the show has ever gone. But "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" is the diametric opposite in terms of scope. It's probably the episode that did the most, in terms of cinematographic style and sound design, with the lowest budget, creating an entire imaginary world within the study room.
So the bar is set astronomically high going in for "Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," especially with the focus on Professor Hickey reconnecting with his son Hank with the intent of scoring an invitation to his grandson's birthday party. But Community knows itself well enough than to set up a moment like this and then let everyone get away with it. Which is why David Cross' performance as Hank is so crucial. He immediately sees through the ruse, questioning his father's interest in D&D at age 60, belittling Abed's ironfisted direction of the group when laying out the campaign scenario, and then jumbling up the character sheets to prevent the paint-by-numbers emotional catharsis the group thinks they can achieve so easily because they've done it once before.
Instead of easily dividing the group between supporting the downtrodden Neil in opposition to the villainous Pierce, this time the dispute between Hickey and Hank turns the game into a competition. In an attempt to blow up the game right at the start, Hank divides the group in two through an action that breaks a bridge and drops everyone into a rushing river. Buzz (Tiny Nuggins, a thief), Shirley (a druid), Annie (Hector the Well-Endowed, again), and Jeff (Sir Riggs Diehard) end up on one bank, while Hank, Chang (Dingleberry the troll, Britta (Fibrosis, the ranger)
The show could've had a bunch of eyeroll-inducing father/son jokes where everyone tries to contain their joy that Buzz and his son are finally interacting, but once the roles got jumbled up, it was clear that Jeff and Dean Pelton would end up with the contrived emotionally-charged character sheets. It's the masterstroke of the episode, allowing Craig to indulge in the fantasy of his character and an overly loving familial connection to Jeff—and Joel McHale's silent exasperation in response punctuates those beats better than any one-liner. That character through-line is probably the best developed bit in the episode, building toward Pelton delivering a climactic "Worth it!" that more than justifies all the overly emotive silliness.
There are a lot of scenes that equate with moments from the Neil episode, only translated to fit these characters. The most obvious example is probably the interrogation scene, where Hickey divides up two hobgoblins (taken alive, once he knows they can talk), and works some of his police magic in order to get the directions he needs. It's another opportunity for Abed to get into character, like he did with the gnome waiter back in the second season. But more importantly, it echoes Abed's earlier words that Hickey needs to at least take the game somewhat seriously and learn the rules. (His earlier obliviousness got Shirley's character killed.) Meanwhile, Hank sings to his party in a nice nod to the Lord Of The Rings element to the proceedings, and earns the loyalty of his group
And since this episode comes on the heels of one that illuminated the gaping hole Donald Glover left in the cast, it's a good thing that the Dean is along for the ride to replace him as the one-liner machine mostly there to provide moments of utter hilarity. He gets the best extended stylistic gag of the entire episode, as he continually writes letters to his father (Jeff) noting that if Joseph Gordon rubs the blade of his sword while Riggs rubs his hilt, they'll be able to find each other. It's a great sequence for Jim Rash's voiceover, Abed's disbelief at the successful roll that indicates the letter gets delivered, and the one visual effect illuminating the path between the two parties. Not quite the Lord Of The Rings voiceover sequence describing the party walking around the land in the study room, or the sex scene in the barn with Hector The Well-Endowed from the first episode. But it's still a great extension of the style that uses Abed and Annie's apartment to suggest a more magical world. Not many shows heavily rely on the imagination of viewers to connect with the comedic style of an episode, but both Dungeons & Dragons episodes of Community easily pull it off.
The Neil episode picked at a lot of the emotional threads that recurred throughout the second season, from Jeff's egotistical need to prevent Neil from harming himself, to Pierce's childish jealousy and villainous turns. And that went a long way toward complicating the darker themes of the episode—bullying, suicide—in a way that made it satisfying for the study group to prevail over Pierce in the end specifically because of Neil's D&D expertise. Over the course of the game the group works through Jeff's guilt—though there's a great reference to Jeff's progress with Neil's unfortunate nickname early on in this episode—and Neil actually manages to soften Pierce's anger toward the group leaving him out of things.
"Advanced Advanced" doesn't tie up as neatly, with nothing to parallel defeating Pierce followed by Neil's admission that the afternoon was one of the best games he's ever played. That moment felt earned and significant, a connection between a recurring player and the character that so often acted like Loki, messing everything up out of spite. Instead, the focus is on Hickey and his son, locked in an eternal search and battle, with everyone else dead and useless on the sidelines. Jeff opines that they can't stand each other but can't stand being apart either, which is an on-the-nose declaration of the "family is difficult but you need them" theme. But what sells that bow is how committed Jonathan Banks and David Cross are to their parts. Once again, I'm staggeringly impressed by how much work Banks has done in this season. He's filling the Pierce role and wearing the guest professor hat at the same time. Sure, this isn't the same power as having Pierce and Troy around, but part of what makes this D&D adventure satisfying—and allows it to sidestep the sequel curse Abed yearns to overcome—is how it allows other characters a chance to shine.
- The behind-the-scenes outtakes video that NBC posted from the episode where the cast talks about how grueling a bottle episode can be to film in one location with so many people. It's an interesting and oft-overlooked element of episodes that I'd normally assume are a breeze to shoot without all the transitions.
- That nod to how emotional breakthroughs can be difficult to cement as lasting change right at the beginning? Jeff barely saves referencing "Fa…bulous Neil," and how he's putting along in the background to this day.
- The character names are all hysterical once again, but it doesn't get better than Cross consoling Ken Jeong with, "Rise, brave, sweet Dingleberry."
[Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, this post on Community's D&D sequel episode fell through the cracks and didn't make it up until now. But it's a great half-hour, so we wanted to talk about it! A recap of tonight's G.I. Joe-themed animated episode will post tomorrow. Thanks for the patience!]