by Thom Yee
5×10: “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”
“A satisfying sequel is difficult to pull off. Many geniuses have defeated themselves through hubris, making this a chance to prove that I’m better than all of them. I’m in!” ~ Abed Nadir, noted computer, referring to a past episode
The original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (the episode) came at a time when Community was undoubtedly at its creative zenith, a time where wildly inventive episodes were almost the norm, a time when anything was possible and life seemed worth living. The second season of Community is when the series really became the show it was going to be, both the uproariously unpredictable half-hour of weekly genius its fans claim it to be, and the hollow, unfathomable, pop-culture-regurgitating trash its detractors would have you believe it is. Regardless of where you stood at the time (if anywhere), Community was huge in season two, and even for people who didn’t care for the show, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is frequently cited as one of the best in the show’s history.
I don’t think it was, though. But definitely top five.
Like “Geothermal Escapism”, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is an episode that benefits greatly from audience familiarity. It’s a little weird and hard-to-know for newcomers, and an episode whose format doesn’t make sense without the lessons learned from having watched its predecessor. It more or less skips over any major explanatory content and jumps straight into the meat of the episode. This time, Dungeons & Dragons is used as an excuse to reunite Hickey with his estranged son, Hank (not Furio, the gay son that he “gets”), a D&D enthusiast played by the delicious David Cross.
So lets get two things out of the way right away:
- This was a pretty good episode.
- It is nowhere near the equal of its forebear.
While I don’t hold the original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” up as the best episode of the series, it is probably one of the first I would show to people wondering, “What’s the big deal with Community?” It’s a visually glorious episode (despite taking place entirely indoors with characters who rarely get out of their seats), one of the funniest in the series, and, most importantly, had profound thematic meaning. It’s an episode that shows you everything the writers were capable of and just how much creative and emotional depth the show really has at its best. In comparison, this one just feels kind of… flaccid (something I am, otherwise, certainly not familiar with, I can assure you). Where the original had a compelling villain in Pierce, this episode has none, Cross’s Hank coming the closest in as far as representing a force of opposition. Where the original made expert use of its characters, this one almost seems to have two to three too many (I honestly don’t feel like we needed Chang or Britta around at all, the Dean’s part felt tacked on, and the moment when Shirley snapped back into her usual self after her character died was jarring mostly because of how generically everyone had been acting). Where the emotional crux of the original involved Fat Neil, a background character whose story became compelling both through the Lord-of-the-Rings-inspired opening montage and because the actor (Charley Koontz) did a pretty good job of selling the whole situation, we mostly don’t care about what was happening with Hickey and Hank. And that’s the worst part. The stakes have never been lower.
While a story where a son’s estrangement from his father causes him to keep his own son away from his grandfather would normally be right up my alley, we never get any real details of why it was so hard for Hank growing up Hickey, nor do we ever get a sense of remorse (or hard-headed righteousness) from Hickey about his role in their relationship. It’s just a case of Hank has his side of the story and Hickey is mad he doesn’t get to see his grandson. There’s no depth to the situation, the show never manages to really sell the emotionality of the situation, and even the resolution leaves little more than the two begrudgingly willing and wanting to complete their D&D quest (having never acknowledged their troubles). On the other hand, like the show concludes with its patented Winger monologue, sometimes “that’s the best most fathers and sons can do.” And that’s a remarkably canny moment that absolutely rings true.
Ultimately, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is less a story of why you can’t go home again (as most of us expected it to be), and more an above average episode of a once glorious show that clearly doesn’t have as much to say as it once did. But at least it’s funny. The Hickey interrogation scene is particularly strong, combining Danny Pudi’s natural gift for the extraordinary (or at least unusual) and leveraging our newest main character (Hickey) in a role that wouldn’t feel as natural in the hands of any of our usual characters. In retrospect, it’s almost unbelievable how good Community was so early in its run, and it’s a long shadow that makes direct comparisons like with this episode feel unfair. There is very little that can live up to those glory days and that second season, but if you can get past all that, we’ve still got a show that’s well worth watching every week. It’s just a good thing there are usually only thirteen of those weeks a season now, because I don’t know if the writers have what it takes for a full season anymore.
Community “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” final score: 8
Items of Note
-David Cross calls Abed Aziz? What kind of an insult is that? Is it supposed to be an insult?
-Fun fact: The original “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was directed by Joe Russo, one half of the Russo brothers who directed the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier! Individually, they actually directed a lot of the first three seasons.
-Am I the only who would’ve been happier if this episode was named “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition”?