Friday, February 4, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"

It’s really nice to discover, as we clearly have with this week’s episode of Community, that the show has become so confident in what it has to deliver and the loyalty of its viewing audience that it can do something that might be considered a television “event” and just quietly, casually set it loose without warning.  Consider what was done with such high-concept episodes earlier in the show’s run:  the paintball episode was previewed after the prior week’s episode and endlessly advertised because it was clearly a chance for the show to drudge up new viewers with a crazy concept that new viewers might just tune in for (the fact that it ended up being such a sublime homage to action movies was the reward for loyal fans).  Similarly, the holiday episode this season was previewed almost as heavily as the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” special itself (the clear inspiration for Abed’s Christmas Wonkaland, or whatever it was called).  But with this episode, there was no big lead up or extra advertising.  It aired, it amazed, and it moved on without much fanfare.  It didn’t feel like a step forward in the show’s history, since we already know how great the show is at this type of humor, but it represents a confident new stance for the show (and possibly the network):  The show is going to do big, ambitious things on a regular basis, and if you’re a fan, you’re a fan; if you aren’t, you can come find them—they aren’t advertising all of their big ideas anymore.  I like seeing it, and I hope it means that the network feels good about the viewership the show has built (as opposed to meaning that the network has given up trying to grow the fan base).  

Last night’s episode began with the ambitious—and highly successful—attempt to set up the story’s plot using the narrative voiceover framing device from “The Fellowship of the Ring”.  At first I thought they were just going to use a similarly breathy female voice and the stilted language of fantasy storytelling (including the hilarious and tragic “Gather close that you might hearken the story of fat Neil, born stout of heart but large of bone...”), which were good for quite a few laughs and grins by themselves.  But I should have known better than to think so little of Community’s writers, who very quickly took it to a new level—the entire structure of the episode’s opening parallels the narrative setup of the first film in the LotR series, with some clever character parallels and broader themes (with Pierce representing an evil nearly as pure as Sauron himself).  By the time the episode got down to business (and revealed itself to be largely a bottle episode in the usual study room) it already felt like a classic episode to add to the growing list. 
Probably the most racist thing I'll ever post on this site.

The episode paid off on multiple levels for fans, especially those intimately and nerdishly familiar with the source material being toyed with here (both LotR and D&D—if you had to think about either abbreviation’s meaning, this episode probably wasn’t quite as enjoyable for you).  After the opening barrage of LotR and D&D jokes and references, the show reined things in a bit as an intense and mean spirited game of D&D found a possibly suicidal fellow classmate nicknamed “Fat Neil” squaring off with Pierce, who was an unusually jealous and petty human being tonight, even by Pierce standards.  It was some heavy material, and I thought it stretched the credibility of Pierce’s character more than once to try and create a thoroughly evil villain to fit the fantasy motif of the night’s proceedings.  I know the show has become fond of doing this type of thing with characters once in a while to help these crazier episodes along, but I’m not the biggest fan of it.  However, given the eventual payoffs and the comedy in between it seemed like a transgression worthy of forgiveness tonight.

Neil’s (I can’t keep calling him “Fat Neil”, it’s so vicious) origins are heartbreaking to witness, and the show is clever in making Jeff his protector; it seems quite uncharacteristic at first, but in truly villainous style Pierce reveals the hero’s true motives late in the game:  Jeff was the one who—unintentionally—coined the cruel nickname that stuck to Neil.  Letting all of these serious troubles revolving around real world cruelty unfold through a fantasy plot devised and carefully orchestrated by Abed the Dungeon Master was a really brave move on the part of the writers.  Every moment where you wanted to wring Pierce’s neck for his cold heartedness, you were reminded that all he was really doing was rubbing a stolen imaginary sword on his imaginary character’s balls (as long as Abed’s roll of the device confirmed that he was successful at it).  It took a lot of the edge off of the real issue—Neil’s mental health—and I can’t decide whether the show ended up hitting all of the “right notes” in resolving the conflict.  But it seemed to come close enough to let me laugh guiltlessly as Pierce used one of his turns in the game to rape Neil’s character’s entire family…”again.”  The writers obviously have a lot of confidence in portraying the gang as round enough human beings to get into something heavy handed and talk (and play) their way out of it while coming out the other side still seeming sufficiently real and likable.  It’s an impressive feat even when it isn’t entirely successful (it might even be argued that the failures themselves only make us recognize the characters as being even more human). 

But all of this is making the episode sound like a sequel to “28 Grams” when really it was a laugh-filled 30 minutes of television with some great moments that worked within the story’s own premise:  D&D is a game where people sit around and talk each other through a story (or in Annie’s case talk each other off —a moment that would have been hotter if her character’s name weren’t “Hector the Well Endowed”) and here we basically watched the show’s characters (Troy the Obtuse, Abed the Undiagnosable, etc) talk their way through their real problem via the game with their characters (including a dragon predictably named “Draconis”) within Abed’s plot.  It was all sharply conceived and never felt contrived in dealing with the nature of the real problem, save for the cursory moment of healing between Neil and Pierce in the episode’s final moments.  Jeff’s concern for Neil was palpable, and the rest of the gang wasn’t far behind him, which lent a nice sense of anxiousness to the proceedings. 

Meanwhile, Chang dresses in the elvish equivalent of blackface and dies a most extravagant death (master stroke:  he disappears as he walks out of the room in defeat), Britta takes it upon herself to seek equality for the inferior gnome race, and everyone else seems to find one way or another to become themselves inside the fantasy realm.  Cleverness overflowed throughout the episode, to the point where I’ll forgive it for running out of steam before getting to Abed and Troy’s final moment together, which is normally a highlight of any episode.  Here it felt flat, but my stomach hurt so deeply from laughing that it almost came as a relief.  We’ll see what the ratings look like for this show by the end of the season, but I have to say that episodes like this provide ample opportunities for fans of the show to hit play on the DVR and drag new viewers in without much effort or convincing—if you show this episode to anyone you know and they don’t set their DVRs for next week’s episode after viewing it, you might want to rethink the type of gnomes and ogres you’re spending your time with (apologies to Britta and all inferior races).
Overall Rating:  9.6/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

The opening tonight was more spot on than I gave it credit for above:  the camera tracing over the map, the soaring camera passing over characters, it was all spot-on in recreating the feel of the famous opening monologue of “Fellowship of the Ring”.  Well directed.

I like that they went to the extra effort of creating special opening credits animation for this episode—have they done this before and I missed it? 

Troy and Abed’s forced smiles and then the cut to Chang in his blackface elf makeup might be the funniest trio of sight gags this show has ever done.  I had pause the episode to catch my breath.

Troy attempting to understand D&D:  Shouldn’t there be a board or some pieces or something to jenga?

Annie is great as Hector the Well Endowed (especially her pantomimes which go into graphic detail of how s/he ravishes the barmaid) but Abed points out that he designed Hector with Troy in mind.  “I’ll bet you did” Shirley replies suspiciously.

Troy to Britta:  You’re the AT&T of people.

Jeff:  What am I NOT good at?
Britta:  Sex.  (love the continued tension between these two)

Pierce:  I can’t hear you over the sound of me rubbing the sword on my balls.  
Abed (rolling dice):  You have…successfully rubbed the sword on your balls. 

Neil:  “That sword was forged by my ancestors.”
Pierce:  “I hump it.”

Chevy Chase does a great job delivering lines like “Stop giving me that look like I can’t get an erection” with such a deadpan grace that you almost never see them coming.

Three cheers for Abed for pluralizing “Pegasus” as “Pegasi”.  It might be wrong, but the –i plural ending is my favorite grammar rule.  Don’t judge me.

Annie’s conclusion to ravishing the barmaid:  “I spoon her for the appropriate time before leaving. 
Troy (looking up from the diligent notes he’s taking):  How long is that?

I love the sound effects in the background—the eagle cry when Kyle the gnome dies, and more others than I could keep track of.  Funny little touches that played nicely into the spirit of the episode.

Even though I thought it was beyond the height of cruelty, I laughed out loud at Pierce taunting Neil to “Baste your chubby cheeks in tears of gravy.”

Even though it was overly simple, having Neil enjoy the game and return to mental health through Pierce while Pierce “learn(s) very, very little” is probably the right conclusion for an isolated episode like this.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite part was that Abed picked the most terrible names for the characters. He seems like such a creative guy (he sees TV show plots in everything the study group does) yet he can't come up with cool names? A great flaw to have.

    I also noticed the "pegasi" line. I often pluralize things this way, even if it isn't correct in context.