“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” did such a good job of self-criticism that it feels almost pointless mentioning the elephant in its proverbial room. The episode is a repeat (or sequel, if that’s what you want to call it), and Community, for all its strengths, doesn’t always repeat itself well. The show is about new, exciting ideas, and even when its repetitions have been solid, they haven’t captured the spark of their originals. Paintball is exciting the first time a show treats it seriously, but it’s remarkable how quickly something so different becomes routine and tired.
That being said, it really didn’t matter that we’ve seen this format before, as the sequel fully lived up to the original. This time, we learn that Buzz and his other son, one we haven’t heard about yet, are estranged and Buzz is particularly unhappy about this because he wants to see his grandchild more often. As soon as the Committee to Save Greendale hears about his son’s interest in D&D, they spring into action and decide to create a scenario to do a sort of ersatz therapy on the Hickeys, much like they did with Fat Neil in the past. However, the younger Mr. Hickey, played with wonderful restraint by David Cross, has no interest in going along with this plan and only agrees to play in order to strike a bet with his father as to who can end the campaign first.
Community thrives on this material not simply because Dan Harmon’s a big fan of D&D (his DM guest-starred last week as Annie’s brother), but because it fits the show’s format. When it comes to Community, it doesn’t really matter what the gimmick is, whether it’s paintball or pillow forts or anything else, so long as the characters are emotionally invested. Once the show has created that emotional realism, the rest of the pieces just fall into place, and every member of the group fully commits to the idea, even Buzz. Even though Cross’ character is destined to play such a small role in the future of the show, by playing up Jeff’s relationship with his father and Abed’s need for everyone to commit to whatever fiction it is he’s interested in at the moment, there was real resonance all around. The supposed objective, we hear early on, is “fun,” but enjoyment never enters the room, even when the Hickeys finally bond at the end.
Like any good sequel, “AAD&D” took what worked before and added enough twists to keep things interesting. The radically different cast played a large part in differentiating the two episodes, but a bigger part of this was the way this time out was a competition. The rules were the same, but then, other than saying things out loud and occasionally rolling dice, that’s not particularly different from any other scenario in Community. Changing the stakes really was enough to make for a completely solid, oddly fresh episode, and I have no qualms with repetition if it’s this well-done.
The strengths that the show took, on the other hand, were extremely fast dialogue and a sense of how the ridiculous can become truly important to us. That stories matter is one of the understated themes of the show, and roleplaying games are ultimately a form of communal storytelling. What also impressed me was that this was the first episode of the season where there was real pathos that didn’t result from the changing cast. Buzz has become one of the strongest characters on the show, and at this point despite all his eccentricity, he’s also the most real. Not a single character was miswritten, either. “AAD&D” was an episode where the execution never faltered, with every single member of the cast given funny lines and not a wasted second of screen-time. I’m sure more original efforts will be the fan favorites for this season, but in every other respect this episode was practically perfect.