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Flock of Pegasi: An Advance Review of Community's "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"

It's said that in writing, as with most things, you shouldn't break the rules until you've mastered them. That is, until you truly understand the logic behind why certain guidelines exist, you shouldn't seek to subvert them.

It's clear to me that the writing staff of Community, operating under visionary creator Dan Harmon, not only understands the rules but relishes the opportunity to throw them out the window, stomp on them, and have Leonard repeatedly run them over in the parking lot.

This is, after all, the same collective that has produced over the course of two seasons such innovative and mind-blowing installments of television such as "Modern Warfare," "Epidemiology," "Contemporary American Poultry," "Cooperative Calligraphy," "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," and "Basic Rocket Science," all of which tested the resilience and scope of the American sitcom form.

This Thursday evening, the brains behind Community are at it again with another groundbreaking genre- and format-busting episode ("Advanced Dungeons and Dragons") which tests the limits of live-action network comedy by breaking several cardinal rules of writing over the course of its twenty-odd minutes.

While not as confined as its now-legendary bottle episode ("Cooperative Calligraphy"), this week's episode has few locations other than the study room, a supply closet, and the ubiquitous Greendale hallway and very few guest stars. In fact, it's set almost entirely in the study room once again, but the magic of the episode means that it never feels claustrophobic, but instead sets the stage for an epic battle between good and evil.

Say what?

The plot's precis: Jeff (Joel McHale) feels sorry for Fat Neil (Charlie Koontz), a fellow Greendale student who is down in the dumps and who harbors a love for all things Dungeons & Dragons. Joined by Annie (Alison Brie), an ex-headcase who sees the warning signs of "doom" ahead, the two reach out to the group and concoct a plan to help Fat Neil: they'll host a game of Dungeons & Dragons in order to build up his confidence and save him from self-destruction.

The group bands together, as Abed (Danny Pudi) glides effortlessly into the role of Dungeon Master, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Troy (Donald Glover) offer their support, and Chang (Ken Jeong) just happens to have been there the whole time. But in their desire to help Neil, they exclude "Pierce the Insensitive" from their little D&D gathering, creating in the process a dangerous enemy that could destroy all of their hard work.

Into this already winning mix of elements, the writers have strewn some tantalizing and perilous details: voiceover narration, the use of a non-visual storytelling device, and empathy for a character that isn't in the study group, and therefore isn't typically contained within the narrative focus.

I don't want to say too much about this fantastic episode, lest I spoil it but I will say that it doesn't make a jot of difference to enjoying the episode whether you've played Dungeons & Dragons before or are a complete novice. The rules of the game are spelled out, multi-sided dice produced, and a nuanced and compelling mechanism unleashed in order to bring the world of D&D to life and make it gripping and exciting over the course of the installment. (No small feat, that.) Dragons, elven maidens, gnome waiters, creepy old naked men comprise the cast of this constructed universe and taverns, villages, and mystical medallions are encountered in turn.

Each of our Greendale regulars has a part to play, an Abed-created character to bring into the mission, ranging from Jeff as warrior "Marrrrrr" and Britta as "Lavernica" to Annie as, er, "Hector the Well-Endowed." Look for a painfully funny montage as Annie describes just what Hector is doing--sans words but with hand gestures--to a beautiful elf maiden as she woos her into giving the gang a flock of pegasi, and for what Shirley calls Chang's "hate crime" in the making.

But even as each has a different role to play, our beloved study group quickly reverts to form: Britta championing the gnome cause in her "needlessly defiant" manner; Jeff as cool and detached as ever; Abed once again in control of an imaginary world; Shirley cooing over the cuteness of story elements; Pierce the thorn in the side of the group, the true outsider whose thirst to belong to the collective means that he will forever spit in the (figurative) punchbowl.

(The fantastic opening sequence--complete with new title music just for this occasion--sums up the characters to full effect and with hilarious detail as it offers descriptors for each of the main characters in keeping with the warrior tradition.)

"Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" isn't just adventure for the sake of adventure; in true Community fashion, there's an underlying emotional core to the episode which manages to be sweet without cloying, touching rather than saccharine. Even as the group strives to save Fat Neil from himself, they have to save themselves as well. There's a reason why these events are unfolding the way that they are, why Pierce is so destructive and insensitive, why Neil is in the predicament that he's in.

But rather than tip the balance of the episode into sentimentalism, the revelations contained therein are true to the spirit of the series and the sense of, well, community that the show has fostered since the beginning.

With "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," the cast and crew have masterfully pulled this Herculean task off without a single hitch, resulting in an episode that's at times hysterical, at times emotional, and always magical.

Community airs Thursday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


pollyprissypant said…
I've been ridiculously excited for this episode ever since Harmon teased it months ago but after reading this, tomorrow night really can't come soon enough. Thanks for the sneak peek, Jace!
Anonymous said…
I'm soooo excited!!!!!! I know it's always a bad idea to get your hopes up for an episode because it sets it up to fail your expectations but... I LOVE D&D. And the mere fact that they're mentioning it's nerdy existence makes my face look like this --> :D
Effie said…
Oh, this sounds sooooo good! I love this show's endless creativity and their willingness to go above and beyond.
Anonymous said…
Airs, 8pm/7pm CENTRAL... but great article!!!
catherine wright said…
Hi Jace!

Thanks for the article. I work on Community - :) @ Paramount Studio - and just wanted to let you know we air @ 8pm not 9...just don't want anyone to miss out on this AMAZING episode!


catherine wright
Unknown said…
I didn't read this until after I saw the episode (even though Jace is known for not spoiling, because I'm super-spoiler-free).

This is the best episode of Community ever. I haven't laughed so much with a TV show since Better Off Ted--no mean feat.

Britta's concern for the gnomes, Abed's deadpan announcement that Pierce has "successfully rubbed the sword on his balls," and Annie's gestures and--if you can read lips--monologue while Troy takes notes were simply breathtaking scenes (because I was laughing so hard).

Kudos to the writing staff--this is simply excellent work.

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