In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (one you should read, especially if you want another hint that Chevy didn't leave the show voluntarily), Dan Harmon admitted that "Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" was created mostly as a "fuck you" to the network, who hated the original episode in Season 2 that has gone on to become many fans' (and Harmon's!) favorite half hour of the series. It's not my #1 favorite (that would be the pen episode), but it would certainly be a contender for the top 10 - it's frequently hilarious, features some of Chevy's best ever work, and it focused on what the show often does best: simply plopping the main characters around the study room table for as often as possible. So it's no surprise that they'd try to capture that magic again now that Harmon was back (and now that D&D has become such a huge part of his other endeavors; in addition to the weekly installment at Harmontown, there will be an animated Harmonquest show based on his games), but would it be as successful?
Well, right under the "fuck you" explanation, Harmon also admits that the episode was not organic, difficult to write, and it would be all his fault if it was the worst episode ever - not the sort of thing you usually hear a showrunner say about an episode that hadn't aired yet. So I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't happy with how it turned out, since it's the first time I've been disappointed in this otherwise strong season. Unlike last week's uneven tale, there's no salvation from a lame A story with a funny B one - the whole thing focuses on this one game, with all of our characters playing together, and it never really gelled for me. It's got enough laughs to make for an OK use of your time, but even without the shadow of a terrific episode hanging over it, the episode lacks any real conflict to be concerned with and ends on a shrug - there's too much proof that they can do better than this. The best episodes of Community offer compelling narratives AND a ton of laughs - this lacks the former, which affects the potential for the latter.
Last time, the stakes were pretty high: background player "Fat" Neil (who appears in one of this episode's few inspired moments) was feeling suicidal, and since Jeff was responsible for his unfortunate nickname, the group tried to make amends by offering to play D&D with him, despite the fact that they didn't really know how. Add that to a major turning point in Pierce's antagonistic presence during that season, and you had an episode that worked on every level - a perfect combination of laughs, character development and real life drama. Here, the stakes aren't interesting at all - Hickey finds out that his estranged son Hank didn't invite him to his grandson's birthday party, and is upset about it. And since Hank (played by David Cross) is a D&D fan, the group decides that the best solution to this problem would be to invite this stranger over to Annie & Abed's and play the game (why Hank even accepts is beyond me - he hates his dad but will go over to the home of some of his friends to play a game with him? Does he really like D&D THAT much?).
As for the game itself, Abed has designed an adventure meant to bring the two men closer together, a ruse that Hank sees through instantly and opts to swap around the character sheets to make it more interesting. This pits him, Britta, Chang and Dean on one side against Hickey, Jeff, Shirley and Annie - both racing to stop a Necromancer (or Necrophile, per Hickey). If Hickey's team gets there first, he can go to his grandson's birthday. If Hank's team wins, his father can't go to the party OR Christmas at Aunt Rachel's, and also Hickey will punch of all his teammates in the heart. And while I'm sure this is a stressful situation for the Hickeys, I can't find much of a reason for us in the audience to care - we've yet to meet most of the family members of our main characters, so who cares about Hickey's son (it's not even the gay son we've heard about twice before, for the record), or who will be at a family gathering that we'll never see? Last time a supporting character's life hung in the balance - this time it's some hurt feelings. The writers (the script is not attributed to Harmon, for the record) didn't seem to care much either - the villain gets away, with the (somewhat sweet) conclusion being that while the two men were still bickering at the end, they were still playing the game together and fighting not about parties but the best way to proceed on their quest. It's a nice moment, reminiscent of the Alan Alda episode of 30 Rock*, but between a character we have zero connection to (and will likely never see again) and a supporting character who is at his best when he's just sort of muttering about how silly his new friends are.
Worse, this leaves next to zero involvement from our real heroes. Last time Jeff had to make amends, Pierce (who gets a brief nod here) had to wrestle with being excluded and the others had to basically figure out how to play this new game. This time, they clearly want Hickey to win, but that's the extent of their connection (unless you count Dean's rather annoying subplot where he takes his role as Jeff's son a bit too seriously). Plus, they all know how to play now - to me watching their confused reactions was a big part of the first one's success, but Hickey's the only one doing that this time. There's a fun bit where Hickey (once he starts figuring the game out) interrogates Abed's troll NPC, and the big showdown is kind of funny since we just see a montage of McHale, Brie, Jacobs etc making funny gestures and shouting nonsense while LOTR style music pumps over the soundtrack, but scattered moments aren't enough to overcome the fact that the episode has no reason to exist beyond "let's do D&D again." The tag has Abed playing another game with Annie's dolls, and she begs him to stop because she can't sleep without them - as dumb as it is, it's actually funnier than anything in the real part of the episode (Abed addressing each doll in his deadpan manner killed me), and I couldn't help but think that the episode might have been more involving if Annie wanted them all to leave the entire time so she could get some sleep or study or whatever.
If nothing else, the episode LOOKS good; Winter Soldier co-director Joe Russo returns to direct (as he did with the first) and gives the "battle" scenes some much needed energy, with his soaring and oft-moving camera giving us a few peeks at previously unseen areas at their apartment. And once again they give us map overlays and sound effects to sell the idea of the battles they're engaged in, plus even an Elvish song that seems to be spoofing the first Hobbit installment. But the adventure itself isn't particularly riveting; my guess would be that they wanted to draw a parallel between the bland game and the pointless fight between Hickey and his son, but if that's the case it doesn't quite land, despite the best efforts of the show's underrated sound and visual teams.
So now I fear the comments will be filled up with people who will say they loved it and think it's the best episode of the year, just as it did for the three or four others I didn't like very much since I started doing reviews. This is the 94th episode of the series, of which I've loved or really liked about 80-85 of them, but whenever I don't like one I'm suddenly the worst person in the world - it's just how it goes. If you liked it, I'm happy for you - but chew on this, and keep in mind I watched it twice to make sure it wasn't just my mood or whatever: I've always enjoyed Harmon's D&D sessions at the end of Harmontown, and I loved the first D&D episode. Something had to be broken for me to be disappointed this time around, right? Maybe explain what I clearly missed instead of jumping down my throat - I'm listening.
*I couldn't find the exact quote, but Liz basically explains to Jack that getting drunk and arguing about politics is pretty much what having a dad is all about. In other words, they're not magically best friends, but they've made progress, which is enough of a "win" to be happy.