Finding Acceptance and Honesty in ‘Community’s D&D-Centered Bottle Episode

‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“You can all hang out in your suspended humiliation and think about what you learned today. One, don’t screw with me. Two, invite me to your crap.”

“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is a lofty episode of Community. Not only is it a bottle episode in a show that’s turned out some of their best work using the form, but it’s also largely regarded as the series’ best episode. Not only could it easily be Community’s best episode, but it’s also one of the most inventive, polished twists on the bottle episode format.

Like Community’s previous stellar bottle job, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” this episode is all about the dynamics of their study group and the feeling of inclusion. It’s again another absolute love letter to the characters, as practically everything else is stripped away. Once again we’re left with this group of people sitting around a table for twenty minutes and change and you’re left marveling at just how fun and exhilarating it all was.

How “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” differs from “Cooperative Calligraphy” and manages to up the game considerably, is that it’s not just a bottle episode. It’s also a concept episode that successfully serves up the fantasy genre, while also more or less introducing us to the character of Fat Neil, whose become a mainstay on the show ever since. We’ve seen before that this group of outsiders can be poisonous to each other, especially when they’re trapped and forced to ricochet off one another like so many twenty-sided die. Bringing Fat Neil, an actual outsider, into the mix is a good starting point for the episode and a fresh axis to spin the group off of.

When the group finds out that Fat Neil is desperately depressed (possibly suicidal, in fact), they turn to what they know to be one of his few comforts, “Dungeons & Dragons,” in a bid to make him feel accepted. Community has certainly tried some crazy episodes in its life, but there’s something very special about stumbling upon the realization that this is just going be everyone sitting at a table playing “D&D” the whole time. Other shows have certainly attempted such a thing, sometimes even fairly well (Freaks and Geeks’ “Dungeons and Disco” comes to mind), but this episode blows them all away. It’s like it has a 99+ in its “Passion” category on its character sheet, you know what I mean? As far as bottle episodes go, it’s simultaneously super simple yet deeply complicated (all while being one of the series’ funniest instalments, too). Very much to the episode’s credit and Andrew Guest’s strong script, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” doesn’t feel like a lesson on rules, is hypnotically engaging the entire time, and even manages to make the game feel like it’s a lot of fun.

It feels this way due to one of the episode’s strongest assets, its ability to authentically replicate what it feels like to play games with your friends all night long. You can watch just a few minutes of Community and realize how well its cast works together and what a machine they are, but this episode pulls you in through the outsider perspective of Fat Neil and has you just spending a lazy day in a fantasy world with them. And that works so well because we’re kept in the study room for the duration of the episode. We don’t need to go anywhere else. We don’t want to go anywhere else. Literally everything we need is right here, and the episode never fails to prove that.

Joe Russo’s brilliant direction here is more indicative of this than anything else. With the Russo Brothers becoming Marvel goldenboys and now being primed to direct the biggest action movies of all time (no hyperbole), this sort of visual flair should be no surprise. In 2011 these two were almost exclusively known for comedies like this and Arrested Development, so watching their acumen build in pieces of television like this is doubly exciting.

For instance, the episode has a number of action sequences and straight-up battles in it as the gang plays through their “Cavern of Draconis” mission. Again, the group is stranded in the well-lit room of a community college, but through quick camerawork that apes the style of a fight with sound effects augmenting the experience, it feels like you’re transported there.

That’s what makes this entry of Community even more of a success, because not only does it work as an exceptional bottle episode, it effortlessly and faithfully recreates the experience of playing “Dungeons & Dragons” (or really any role-playing game), too. Role-playing games are all about taking you to a new world inside of your mind, so the episode is quite brilliant to let all of this action happen in both the characters’ and our heads, rather than using a big budget to take us to an actual fantasy land to complete the thought. Confining everyone with a bottle episode might seem like a counter-intuitive, unusual strategy for this sort of production, but it’s really, really perfect when you take all of this into consideration.

It’s exactly why the show and the Russos would return to everything here in the fifth season’s, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” The series knew that they could use “D&D” as a conduit for acceptance and emotional breakthroughs, yet these dynamics and the filming style are totally different the second time around. Even the characters are aware of this too, with the role-playing game being what they turn to when a member of their group must repair things with his son.

Pierce has always filled an unstable role on Community, in part due to what Chevy Chase was bringing to the production as well the character being a more difficult one to peg in the first place. That being said, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is without a doubt one of the best applications of Pierce Hawthorne – if not the best – and it uses the character how he is at his most effective, as a villain. In the episode’s only “cheat,” Pierce is banished from the study room as he goes too far with Fat Neil and seizes command of Draconis. Pierce doesn’t spend his time roaming the halls or spreading word of his legend throughout the school. Instead he’s confined to a second bottle. His vilification here sends him to a prison that happens to be even smaller and loneliner. None of this is gratuitous either, with Pierce’s motivations and doubts that are built here carrying through the rest of the season.

As a result of Pierce embracing his villain status here, the episode goes to some reasonably dark and emotional places accordingly (as we’ve learned that bottle episodes can be prone to do). Community’s second season in general has a particularly honest, fractured throughline coursing through it, with this episode just being another fine example of it. Fat Neil is truly knocked down by Pierce, but by the end of it he’s learned how to rise above it all. The isolation that he and us just went through has made getting there possible.

Community has always been a show that’s about accepting differences and making these niche, seemingly insular experiences feel communal and validated. I know many people have found their “D&D” justified so to speak, as well as others taking an interest in the game and starting it up as a result of this episode. That’s a triumph in itself, that this episode can not only use “D&D” and the bottle episode structure to make people feel better and have a support line, but actually cause them to go out and do the same thing in the real world. It’s taking more and more people and putting them in bottles all over the place, and that’s kind of insane and beautiful.

Who’s playing as Marrrrr this week?

Finding Acceptance and Honesty in ‘Community’s […]