Community: Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Review

Review Joe Matar 3/21/2014 at 12:01AM

Community's Save Greendale Initiative makes a magical journey to the land of Dungeons and Dragons. But is it as magical as Season 2?

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.

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To be fair, how could anything live up tithe original D&D? Also, what "stakes" would you have te writers create, as what is really comparable to a possible suicide, other than murder? So unless we made Hickey's son suicidal or
Homicidal, the stakes aren't going to be the same as they were in S2. If you want to go a step further, you could say that the stakes in S2 were a mistake simply because it made it impossible that a follow-up could ever get close to it. Example: MW's prize of priority registration compared to AFOP/FAFPM's prize of 100 grand. Perhaps the sequel paintball wasn't as good in many people's eyes; it was a sequel after all...but the stakes were certainly raised. As for the visual effects, other than the fire in Hank's eyes and the sword's beam of light, I didn't notice anything. I don't know...I really enjoyed this episode, and though it's not as good as the first (what would be?) I thought it was great.

I see what you're saying. But I don't think it's that they had to one-up themselves with something more dire than suicide. It was more about how they invested us in the first D&D by showing this clear event in which Jeff created the "Fat Neil" nickname. It made the issue feel real since we saw it visualized. I was ready to go along with the Buzz and his son thing, but it was just vague, general dysfunctional father and son stuff.

I don't exactly know what it needed, but I feel like if we had something more clear to work with regarding their relationship--like if we learned about a specific event that caused them to be mad at each other like they are now--maybe it would have provided something more clear to latch onto and care about. What really matters is tying the events to the characters in a clear way. I do like the first paintball better (maybe a big part of that is just because it was a completely new experience), but I was still invested in the second one because they both had really great character stuff at their core, with the first one about Britta and Jeff's relationship and the second one about Pierce's place in the group and Greendale. Although, yes, you're right, the stakes were raised there too. But, still, it was about losing all of Greendale, which we of course have a connection to.

Overall, what I'm trying to say is that it was less about Neil committing suicide because we didn't really know the guy. It was about how that event affected the characters, namely Jeff and Pierce, who really tests everyone and comes out of it the loser. I just needed deeper character junk in this new one. Because I didn't even feel like the guy whose story it was supposed to be (Buzz) went through any truly major emotional stuff (again, maybe because I just felt there was little there to cling to).

The visual effects were very minimal, yes. It just felt like a deliberate decision to avoid them in the first one and I thought it worked well then. It's weird to me they wouldn't stick to that. They could still do the little flourishes to separate this one from the original, like the soft focus voice over part with the Dean writing his letters.

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I found it basically okay, but I have to say disappointing and a bit underwhelming. I guess if we can't expect it to be as good or better than the original, I'd rather see totally new concepts rather than sequels.

I wrote a whole thing, about the good points and the flaws, with the main point being that I liked it, but not as much as the original, and that I liked it more than you. But I kind of think you're right when I think about. There were parts I really liked, but it just was weaker than the original in every aspect.

I also agree with you about the problems between Hickey and his son being too undefined btw.

About Shirley, it's a bit of a point for me through out the whole series, either you like how Yvette Nicole Brown plays her or you don't, but I try to not look at her when she has a reaction to something, because she constantly goes from histericaly laughing, to looking angry, to looking extremely surprised, in a second.
I sometimes like it when that creates conflict, or when people acknowledge how annoying it is, but most of the time I just think it's genuinely annoying. There is a interview in the 'Pillow and Blankets' episode which somehow I feel is very typical of how Shirley is being played: Yvette Nicole-Brown says 'I didn't understand it at first, is this supposed to be funny or serious', and the director said well you are in a war, and than she got it. And this is my point, the director shouldn't have had to explain it to her in the first pace. Character comedy always works best if you portray it like you're dead serious. I don't know, maybe that example isn't very good, and I'm projecting, but I really don't like how she plays the character most of the time.

About the episode, I agree with most of your points, altough I thought the special effects weren't distracting . But it's a difficult episode for me to have a opinion about, at moments I thought it was awesome, and at other moments I thought it was weak. The ending is supposed to be subtle, but it was spelled out by Jeff and the music suggested it was a heart warming moment. It makes a subtle intended ending in to a forced mess. Perhaps it would have been better if it just ended with Jeff saying well it's better than nothing, or something in that line. In stead of this phony belony speach.
Another thing I thought was bad, was the Hank joke, I've got something between my teeth. Is it me or was that quite obviously not working? Cut it out of the episode!

I'm a bit pissed about the episode, because it could have been a lot better if they would've just fixed some flaws that were pretty obvious. With the episode of the previous week I wouldn't know where to begin, besides Dean's great rap I didn't thought any of it was very good. But imo this episode had at least 10 minutes of greatness, so I cannot say I think it's a bad episode.

Oh sorry you mentioned the teeth moment in your review. I don't know I thought it was a forced joke. For me it felt like, we don't have enough jokes throw one in. And it didn't work imo. I'm pretty fascinated with jokes working or not working for me, so forgive me this analysis. I think it didn't work for me because the joke was that in a epic moment he had trouble with something between his teeth thus breaking the epic illusion. But he already said his epic line, therefore it was just some trivial thing he said, after which be repeated the epic line to point out the joke. I think it is (inspired by a remark of you I agree with) a sscrubs joke. I get the intention but it doesn't work for me.

Yeah, Jeff spelling out the ending was pretty cheese. And the popcorn thing wasn't all that funny either. I don't think I laughed at it. I just mentioned it because it felt like one of the only times, aside from the song, that David Cross got a chance to try and be funny in the episode.

I think the greatest flaw in this episode was just that it needed to feel more character-driven. It felt pretty messy to me, kind of like they were working so hard to get the D&D campaign to work in the episode that they forgot to make it about their characters, which is odd because the story being told in the game wasn't particularly coherent either. It was just bits and pieces of the proceedings with only a few parts that really mattered, which would be fine if there was more cohesive character stuff, but there kind of wasn't.

All in all, the more I think about it, the Dean was the main draw of this episode. Not only in how he was really funny, but also the way his getting far too into the game actually ended up being integral to them completing the quest.

Yeah I agree with you.

Yeah I agree about Jeff. I think it's a bit of a flaw btw they never show him teaching or at least show some of the consequenses of him being a authority figure. They really got me exited about the new situation and than they dropped the whole thing and I don't think it's coming back this season. I know we are now suppose to focus on the save Greendale commity but some update on how the whole teaching thing is going would have been nice. But perhaps it plays a more important part in some of the next episodes. Harmon is usually pretty good with continuity.
Another really small thing. They should leave the opening tune in it (and change the music for the concept) or make something that looks great imo This opening title and of the lava world looks like someone figured out how to use paint imo. But this is a very small point.

I find the Jeff thing really weird. He's gotten so pushed out of the picture for almost the whole season. It's odd. And, yeah, I wanted to see him do more teaching. In general I actually really like when we're reminded that Greendale is a college and not just a place for madcap adventures.

It's been quite an uneven season. Considering the whole "reboot" concept, I expected it to be more grounded and more about Greendale. I really enjoyed the one about Duncan trying to get with Britta as it was the most grounded one of the season. I think they could benefit from scaling stuff back and making it a little more like Season 1, which Harmon kind of claimed to be aiming for, but I guess they got off track (he sort of admitted that in that interview I linked to in my review).

Also, hah, yeah, the new titles aren't that impressive.

Agreed. There is another thing missing I think. That's the feeling these people really like each other. I know you don't' really like the Troy and Abed stuff, I do, but I just thought about this. I think now Abed is on it's own, it would only make sense that the remaining members of the studygroup tried to hang out with him more and do Troy stuff with him (and probably not very good). In a couple of these episodes I think it's not very clear anymore that Jeff, Shirley Britta and Abed actually like each other more than they like Chang for instance.

I don't know perhaps 2 of the main characters leaving, and the story that Jeff formed a bond with the studygroup being told in S1-S3 has made it impossible to make it as good as it was. It has some great ideas, but maybe the story has been told. It's a bit of a depressing conclusion but perhaps it's the only honest one.
I talked to a friend about this who introduced me in to community, and he said a smilar thing. He said, it just doesn't feel like there is any progress or point to it anymore. (He didn't see S4 btw, because he immediately gave gave up after 5 minutes of the first episode). I'm affraid he's right and I didn't really want to acknowledge it. :(

But perhaps I'm just in a bad mood :)

Your point about how they don't obviously like each other more than Chang is a very good one. I still find it weird that he's just kind of there, especially after he got introduced as a math teacher in the Repilot and sounded like his old self with the "I teach it. You do it" line.

I have honestly always had a feeling like the show maybe needed to stop after Season 3. I know it's standard for US sitcoms to just go on forever as long as someone's watching them and there's supposed to be a point where you can't expect everything to be exciting and new but more about checking in with these people you like and hanging out with them, but I've never been a fan of that. I feel like shows need to get in and out while they're still fresh.

I think it's especially hard for this show. Something like Seinfeld was able to be fresh for 9 seasons because it already, like most sitcoms, had a pretty casual premise (although they did shake it up some like with the storylines Jerry and George were making a pilot) so it didn't feel like it had to do something totally new every week. The problem with Community is the standard was set so high so quickly. It was SO ambitious and so about challenging itself and the viewer so early in its life that it really feels like it needs to be doing that from episode to episode or else it's pointless. It's a sitcom that rejected the normal sitcom concept that things should just remain the same with the characters getting into casual, kooky adventures from episode to episode. So when it starts getting stagnant, it's noticeable.

One sad thing is that, if the show had been run by Harmon the whole time and Season 4 hadn't happened the way it did, by this point he was planning to move the characters off-campus, but Season 4 made him feel like he had to bring it back to what it was before. I understand that, but it's too bad his original plan didn't happen. Who knows how well it would've worked, but I've always maintained that this show is about aiming for the rafters and taking it almost entirely out of Greendale definitely would've done that.

Harmon's apparently up for keeping it going as long as possible, but I'd be okay with letting it go. I was kind of ready to do that a long time ago. I mean, notice how much more exciting Rick and Morty has been. It's clearly the REAL project where he's been able to restart and recharge. Season 5 was supposed to be a reboot, but it's got too much history and baggage behind it for that to really work out.

But, well, at least there are still occasional episodes I like quite a bit. I don't hate it the way I did Season 4, not even close. Plus, I think the first two seasons made me so excited to tune in all the time that I wanted the show to end earlier just so things wouldn't get boring and it wouldn't mess up the show's legacy. Now that all this stuff has happened to it, I'm actually not that upset about it still going and just staying the course. But I have to admit it's basically because my standards for Community have gradually lowered.

I'm always in a bad mood!!!

haha!

Agreed with everything you said, and yeah I wouldn't mind it ending after this season either.

Well I'm excited again, that's how easy I am http://www.bleedingcool.com/20..., and after reading this I think I would mind if it was canceled. But I think Donald Glover was a more vital show for me than I initially thought, so I would be a lot more excited if he would come back.

Yep, yep. Thanks. I saw this news getting passed around. I wrote a thing about it with some of my own feelings on it. Should be up at some point.

In advance I'll say that I should hope Donald comes back for a movie at least, should it happen. And the final season doesn't excite me that much, but the movie sure does.