I have never in my life played Dungeons & Dragons. Never came close to even thinking about playing. My knowledge of the game is slim, obtained only from that fantastic final episode of Freaks and Geeks and a few passing conversations with members of my co-hort who do enjoy the same and were rightfully excited for this episode of Community.
I think, however, it’s best that I don’t know much about the game because this episode isn’t about Dungeons & Dragons, it’s about doing the right thing and finding your place in a stressful, hateful world.
Okay, who am I kidding, this episode is clearly about Dungeons & Dragons. But it does a really nice job of keeping the references open enough for a non-fan like myself and still manages to mix in some of those “real” storytelling beats amid the greatness that is a live-action comic setpiece built around the study group playing a full game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Let’s talk about the setpiece first because well, it’s just freaking awesome. There was a good amount of discussion around “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” about what the episode would have looked like with the study group just sitting in the library acting out what we were seeing in Claymation and on a basic level, that’s what “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is all about. For the most part, this could be identified as a bottle episode in which the characters never really leave the study room and most certainly don’t leave the library after the teaser. In any event, the group decides to play a full game of D&D in hopes of cheering up Fat Neil at the behest of (shockingly) Jeff and play they do. Abed serves as the gracious but fair Dungeon Master and after a few bumps in the road in terms of figuring out the rules and regulations of the game, things get clicking at an interesting rate. Well, until Pierce shows up. See, Pierce wasn’t invited and he’s unsurprisingly angry. Tired of being excluded from the rest of the group, Pierce makes it his goal to destroy the flow of the game and also take down Neil’s already fragile psyche. You know, because Pierce is a freaking bastard like that.
What I find so great about this episode is that it appears to stick to the logistics of playing a real game of D&D while still managing to find the humor and heart within that framework. Everyone at the table is fully engrossed in the game despite their initial confusion because they want to help Neil feel better about his life and things flow naturally from that. The non-diegetic music and sound effects wonderfully add to the imagination of it all and of course having Abed serve as the Dungeon Master is most surely going to make things feel authentic to the most basic D&D games. There are so many hilarious moments that stem directly from the D&D framework like Jeff being required to seduce Abed, Shirley continuously mentioning that her hate towards Pierce is only for his character within the game as to not come off hateful Troy’s general confusion as the guy who’s just hanging out but not really interested in the game.
But perhaps just as impressive is how great this episode is at nailing how wonderful/awful it can be to sit down and play a game with your friends, no matter what that game is. Suddenly everything becomes heightened and more important, even the littlest things like the ways in which certain people play the game to the bigger things like not being invited. And in those moments and circumstances, a lot of a person’s normal traits come to light, just as they do here with Britta’s sanctimonious rants about the inequalities between the various D&D races or with Annie’s shockingly detailed and inappropriate description of sexual relations.
And of course the most obvious example of this is Pierce’s moderately extreme reactions to not being invited to the game. I can see that some might find it a bit unbelievable that he turns on the hateful rage in such a quick fashion, but I’m willing to go with it in the context of this episode for a number of reasons. First of all, his actions fit right into the stereotype of the asshole player, which is something every long-form game needs. More importantly, the group has continued to push Pierce aside this season and although I think they’re probably justified in those decisions, we certainly can’t fully fault Pierce for being upset at the people who he thinks/wishes are his friends. At his age, Pierce is never going to change and he just suspects that people will bend to his will and since it hasn’t been happening with the study group, he’s pissed. He’s still wrong for a lot of things, especially the way he acts in his treatment towards Neil, but there is definitely some validity to his rage. I am a bit concerned about Pierce as a long-term character just because he’s been just so awful on a regular basis this season that it’s hard to understand why the group would keep him around at all except for to make fun of him — and I’m not sure they really want to do that anymore either.
Jeff’s story here is also a bit perplexing, though ultimately effective. I’m a believer that Jeff has undergone a realistic transition to awful person to only-okay person, but I think the series wants to have both ways just a bit. Jeff growing up is the larger arc and I understand that the process will be long and bumpy, but just two episodes ago he was begging Rich to teach him better ways to manipulate the good in people and even if we’re going off of his own guilt for coming up with the nickname of Fat Neil here, it’s just a bit of a stretch that Jeff would care this much about a stranger when he sometimes could care less about the study group members. However, I think the thread works because Joel McHale and the rest of the cast sell the moment so well. Obviously this is a heightened experience like I discussed earlier, but when Pierce reveals Jeff’s error to Neil, Annie’s tears, Britta’s disdain and Shirley’s confusion are all so real that I was sold. Furthermore, McHale makes sure to play Jeff as apologetic, but still not fully bothered with his backwards apology and that falls more in line with his prior actions than the initial decision to help Neil.
In the end, this episode skirts away from its few problems by being so damn charming. This is an episode where the chemistry between the actors really makes all the difference because without that, the experience wouldn’t be as believable or emotionally impacting. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” isn’t as high-concept as “Epidemiology” or full of much unabashed heart as “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” but the mix of both makes for a truly wonderful episode, D&D fan or not.