Season Two’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was one of the best Community episodes ever. It was a perfect melding of form and theme. The episode’s gimmick was telling the entire story through a Dungeons and Dragons game. It was scored and narrated a la Lord of The Rings. But what made it perfect was its reflection of the shifting group dynamic. The episode saw the show’s highest stakes ever: convincing a character to not commit suicide. It also transitioned Pierce from nuisance to full-on villain. All of this high-stakes drama lent itself to the high-fantasy tone the show adopted.
Now apparently this show pissed off the studio, and show creator Dan Harmon was very satisfied when it became a major fan favourite. So he decided to do another, mainly as an extension of his adversarial relationship with his bosses. This is how we got Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It didn’t work as well as one would hope.
The series has returned to previous concepts before – the paintball episodes being the primary example – and it has worked well. This episode’s problem is its complete lack of depth. It’s a rare episode of Community that isn’t committed to larger character themes, and unfortunately one can’t help but compare this episode’s fluff with the first D&D episode, which is so fantastic.
The group decides to play D&D with Hickey in order to help him reconnect with his son, who’s a big fan of the game. Hickey is less worried about his son and more worried about seeing his grandson. This all feels really insignificant. We don’t know Hickey that well, and we’ve never met his son (played by guest star David Cross). None of the characters we know have any real stakes in the matter. Even Jeff, the group’s resident source of daddy issues, doesn’t seem that involved.
David Cross’s character does suss out the group’s intentions pretty quickly, mixing up the character cards and sabotaging their plans. This is pretty funny, and it effectively divides the group. Some end up helping Hickey, others help David Cross. This effectively provides some conflict, and the characters’ commitment to the theme finally makes sense. There’s a big difference between being into D&D and building a tank out of school supplies. Watching Hickey’s transition from hesitant to committed actually works well. (“I’ll imaginary sleep when I’m imaginary dead.”)
The Dean (so glad he’s showing up again) gets a nice little sub-plot where he gets too into being Jeff’s son (in the game; his name is Joseph Gordon Diehard). He composes long letters to Jeff and gets a classy masturbation joke. There are a couple of funny Hobbit jokes, including a funny song and an eagle-related burn: “The sky spiders have flown you as far as their complex religion allows.”
Joe Russo, one of the directors working on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed this episode. Given that the fight scenes consist of the characters describing themselves fighting hobgoblins (“Go find a name that’s not just another creature’s name plus ‘hob’!”), Russo’s touches provided some much needed excitement.
One light episode isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dan Harmon said this was a hard episode to write, and he wasn’t confident of its quality. This season seems to be struggling with welding theme to gimmick more than any other Harmon-run season. Even Harmon’s other current show, Rick and Morty, does a much better job of keeping strong character work at the core. Here’s hoping the last stretch of this season improves or, at least, maintains some consistency.