Community is almost a miracle show at this point. The show seemed like a sure bet for cancellation during a hiatus in Season 3, and hit new lows in Season 4 after the firing of creator Dan Harmon and the departure of Chevy Chase, but now is back (along with Harmon) for a fifth season that has seen the departure of another major character. Although it has handled its second (third?) wind admirably, there’s no denying the show is considerably different. For one, the tone is far darker than the last seasons. Part of it is undoubtably due to the cast changes, which have gone more smoothly than I would have thought. Troy’s departure left an impact on all of them, since he was by far the most playful one of the bunch, and his absence is still felt in between the spaces. Watch carefully and you’ll notice small hints of the former cast favourite, his life still clinging to those he has left behind.
Something else has been haunting Greendale, however, something far more sinister and it’s difficult to put a finger on. Last week’s episode, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” hit a low point for this season, both in terms of tone and in terms of quality.
The episode is a rehash of the first “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and fans may have been excited to revisit one of the show’s best episodes, but this episode is an almost total misfire, hitting every beat exactly the same as before but missing the grounding that made Community relatable – a quality that used to be the show’s greatest strength, putting characters in ridiculous stories but still allowing us to connect with them on a personal level. While overused in previous seasons, the trademark “Winger speeches” did tap into that human quality that attracted fans in the first place.
“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” however, only hits the surface level, missing out on the human connection entirely.
The plot is simple. Professor Hickey’s estranged son, Hank is in town and did not invite Hickey to his grandson’s birthday party. This prompts the study group to host another Dungeons & Dragons game, specifically designed to promote group bonding, because of course that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is all about. The story follows all the required beats for a typical sitcom episode, but especially rings false as it follows exactly in the footsteps of Community’s prior D&D adventure.
This is again an opportunity for Abed to really shine, returning to his old role as dungeon master. He leads the group through their specially designed adventure, simultaneously following the plan of the study group while allowing for Hank’s curveballs to throw everyone off course, and in the end, calling the shots when confrontations get heated. Jim Rash is magnificent in his role, but unfortunately his character has very little purpose. I’m not even sure why he’s here other than to provide more awkward subtly homoerotic father-son fodder for his “relationship” with Jeff. Rash is hilarious with the material he has, but I wish there was a purpose for him.
Really, I wish there was a purpose for the episode at all. In the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons episode, the group rallied around saving Fat Neil (sorry Neil, but the name has stuck, you’ve overcome it and made it your own though, and for that I salute you), which provided a very clear grounding for the absurdity that followed. There were real stakes, the wellbeing of Fat Neil, that affected everyone else. Community has always been at its finest when the characters did things because they cared about each other. Remember the great bottle episode, “Cooperative Calligraphy” when Annie loses a pen and what keeps everyone from walking out is simply the fact that they care about her. The same held true for Fat Neil’s shining episode, but unfortunately is gone this time. There’s no reason for the group to help Hickey. Yes, they like him, although that does seem a bit forced this season so far, but really, there’s nothing in it for them. At no point is there any compulsive reason for anyone to keep playing. They could call it quits and nothing would have changed. Hickey seems to care more about his grandson then his son, which I guess works, but even so, he could just go talk to Hank instead of turning the game into a heated wager that pits him against his family.
Still, there are plenty of gags and many of them work on their own. I really missed when Chang was the funniest character and he has lots of moments here, as does Annie as she gives in to her compulsive intensity, and it’s nice to see the callbacks to the first D&D episode. However, as a whole, they don’t amount to much. There’s no backbone to this story, which ultimately makes it ring hollow in the canon of Community’s fine run.
A little tip to you aspiring writers out there, you should never add voice over in the middle of a story. I don’t know who’s idea it was to have the Dean suddenly start narrating his inner turmoil, but they should know better. Start with voice over at the beginning if you want, it can add wonders to a well-written script, but don’t pick it up for no reason in the middle and then drop it again.
So I was disappointed by an episode I wanted to love. This season has been failing on almost all of its high concept episodes, but let’s be honest, as fun as they are, it’s really the heartfelt character-driven episodes that Community really shines on, not the big budget show-stoppers. I am enjoying the new direction the show is moving in, and I’m glad to have Harmon back, but I’d like to see the characters continue to develop more than I’d like another reference dropping reminder of when the show used to be the best sitcom on TV.
Also, what’s up with the tags this season? They’ve been increasingly disturbing. I kind of love how dark they are, but I’m getting concerned. Anyone else agree?