Fan service can be tricky, and there seems to be a pretty thin line between doing it right and doing it very, very wrong. I’ve heard a few people refer to Community’s fourth season as a Pet Sematary version of the show, which I think is apt; it’s going through familiar motions, but there’s a different soul in there. I think showrunners Port and Guarascio were trying to do too much fan service, or what Dan Harmon called “The Comic-Con version” in his recent interview with Alan Sepinwall. And can you blame them? They were walking into a show that had a rabid fan base with an encyclopedic knowledge, and while it certainly would have been interesting to watch a season of Community with Happy Endings’ soul, that version of the show would have alienated the small but ferocious fans the show already had.
“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was fan service that seemed to tread that thin line, but it fell more on the successful side. From a broad perspective, it’s a similar setup to the first go ‘round with depressed Neil — who got a nice nod tonight, milling around in the background — from season two, in that D&D is essentially serving as proxy therapy. This time, it’s to hopefully mend fences between Hickey and his estranged son Hank, played by David Cross (always a welcome addition). Unfortunately, this is a common trope, and it didn’t give the episode’s core the same weight (sorry, poor word choice) as the potentially suicidal Fa…bulous Neil from the first D&D game, even though Hank calls the situation out for what it is early on. By episode’s end, even though Hickey demands an ending, what we get is more a vague continuation than anything else. But given what we know of Hickey and Hank’s relationship, at least it’s a start, maybe? I mean, they do continue playing the game together, so that’s got to be good, right? Or perhaps they’re just briefly united over a common Dungeon Master enemy, only to return to estrangement once their adventure is over. I suppose we may never find out.
Harmon has said he thinks this episode was his biggest misstep this season, and while I don’t totally agree, it isn’t the season’s strongest, nor is it its weakest. The original D&D episode ranks highly among the show’s best — or at least a fan favorite — so going back to that well was maybe a bit of a miscalculation, and despite the special effects and a number of funny gags, it’s hard not to have a nagging voice in your head, saying “fan service” in the style of one of Abed’s turncoat hobgoblins.
I’ve stopped expecting this show to make me belly laugh every week, because as many have already observed, Community has transcended the sitcom genre and become its own thing, and what that thing is doesn’t need to go for gut chuckles to remain highly entertaining. But I still actually laughed out loud a number of times during “Advanced Advanced” and wore a grin throughout most of it.
It was nice to have the actual D&D game set off-campus, and having the Dean involved this time was a delight because Jim Rash really commits. Just having the whole group together in one place for an entire episode (well, okay: Shirley’s Crouton gets the ax early on) is a treat, as they’ve been pretty fractured of late. Abed’s flowery prose as dungeon master is hilarious, and the names … Joseph Gordon Die Hard? Tristram Steelheart? Awesome. Plus, just hearing Jonathan Banks utter the phrase “Tiny Nuggins” was enough to make me chortle. Annie, of course, gets Hector the well-endowed again, and Jeff and the Dean, naturally, are playing father and son (Riggs and Joseph Gordon Die Hard, respectively), which seems fitting. Hank, clearly not wanting to play along because he subconsciously wants this whole plan to fail so he can avoid any reconciliation with his father, decides he wants to go off the grid: “If I walk too far South, do I fall off your graph paper, there?” It’s a shame Hank immediately starts fighting with Hickey at this point, because the massive binder of “details” that Abed prepared just for this instance would have probably garnered his respect. Shortly thereafter, events in the game (namely Tristram’s fire incantation against Hector leading to a goblin-built bridge collapse) lead the groups to be separated by the Abed, which prompts Hickey to make it more interesting with a wager: If he wins, he sees the grandkid more; if not, he bails on certain holidays.
As Abed says in the beginning, “A satisfying sequel is difficult to pull off.” But once I put aside the idea of it being a sequel, I was able to actually enjoy quite a bit about “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” Finally being able to see Hickey be the kind of natural police I always expected he was (even if he’s interrogating imaginary hobgoblins both played by Abed) was easily one of the highlights of the episode, especially with Annie standing behind him, arms folded like any number of NCIS:CSI:SUV:IBM female sidekicks. The sound design, score, and camera work all did wonders in terms of putting me right in the game without forgetting that we were still just in Abed and Annie’s apartment (I’m assuming they haven’t found a roommate yet).
Was it as good as the original? No, but that’s an unfair comparison. Taken on its own, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” was, despite some unevenness, highly enjoyable, and another winner in a season full of them.
Some other highlights:
• Shirley got some good one-liners tonight, both pre- and post-Crouton’s demise: “I can make S'mores out of horsemeat and ... s'more horsemeat?” "Just remember, whenever the wind whispers through the woods: you got me killed."
• “I’ll imaginary sleep when I’m imaginary dead!”
• Abed's description of Hobgoblins as "larger, stronger, and worth more in Scrabble than regular goblins" really got me.
• What is with Hickey's obsession with punching people in the heart? He must have uttered that phrase at least four times during the game.
• "You know where he was for most of my birthdays? A little place that rhymes with Not There." "Times Square?" Chang!
• Hank's song was random and awesome. Britta's responding face of wonder was too much, as were all the fake key light and gaussian blur.
• "How many game days since the Skull River ripped us apart? How many real hours since I've gone pee?" Joseph Gordon’s entire note to Riggs is actually pretty amazing, and while the sword rubbing thing could have been a cheap gag, Jim Rash is unsurprisingly up to the task of not only selling it, but making it laugh-out-loud hysterical. Also: The whole simultaneous rubbing-of-the-swords was intended for Hickey and son, which is kind of disturbing.
• "The Sky Spiders have flown you as far as their complex religion allows."