"A satisfying sequel is difficult to pull off. Many geniuses have defeated themselves through hubris, making this a chance to prove that I AM BETTER THAN ALL OF THEM!”
A surprising amount of this season of Community seems to be designed to re-do episodes that didn’t work during last year’s Dan Harmon-less Fourth Season. That’s given this (very strong) season something of an identity crisis. When you spend all your time looking back, you just aren’t able to move forward. So it’s equally exciting and frustrating to see the show treading familiar ground again by going back to Dungeons & Dragons. The Community that last entered the realms of wizards and goblins and necromancers was a very different series. The episode that resulted was a series highlight, perfectly integrating high concept and character building.
The episode doesn’t waste time getting to the game, which is smart because it’s filled—maybe overfilled—with plot. In the cold open Hickey gets an email (which he happens to be reading right at the group table) telling him that his grandson is having a birthday party. The ladies of the group can barely “awww” before Hickey grumbles that he’s not been invited, because his estranged son doesn’t want him there. When Hickey mentions that his son is a D & D player, Annie suggests that they play a game of D & D to help reunite father and son.
This is one of the more sitcommy plots that Community has ever done. It’s a far stretch that the group would actually think their plan would work—or that it’s any of their business. The Fat Neil plot worked because, ultimately, Jeff’s own guilt is what prompted him to suggest the game. The group may like Hickey, but what exactly are they getting out of this? It’s Annie’s suggestion to play the game, which makes sense, because Annie’s a busybody. But that never comes up again, as Annie very quickly disappears the way that she has this entire season.
Hickey’s son, Hank (played by the always enjoyably prickly David Cross), is skeptical from the jump (“what is it about Dungeons & Dragons that suddenly leapt out at you at age 60?” “Dungeons. It’d be the dungeons.”). Hank realizes that the game is designed to force him to work with his father, so he blows it up, swapping character sheets and literally burning a bridge to split the groups apart.
The group that splits off with Hank comes to sympathize with him, but it’s never entirely clear why. We see shots of the group, especially the enraptured Chang, being impressed with his love of D & D, and we hear Hank complain that Hickey “sees grandchildren like trophies”, but there’s really not a lot of reason for Britta and Chang to abandon Hickey, except to set up a climactic battle in front of the castle of a wicked necromancer—a set piece that is far and away the best part of the episode.
That the episode never comes down on Hickey or Hank’s side is at once a strength and a weakness. As in real life family squabbles, each side has a valid point, at least from their perspective. A crusty control freak like Hickey would have been hard to have as a parent, but Hank also may just not be willing to face how much of his father’s traits he has—underlined by their mutual need to continue their game even when the battle allows the necromancer to escape (and also by the fact that Hank shares his father’s general confusion at the concept of fist-bumps).
As the rest of the group (all dead from the battle) leave the two men (and Dungeon Master Abed, of course) to work out their differences, Jeff says, “They can’t stand being in the same room, I also think they couldn’t handle being apart. I think they just found a way to avoid doing either, and that’s the best most fathers and sons can do,” an appropriately bittersweet, very Community moral. It’s also—unfortunately—as close as Harmon will ever get to tackling father and son issues with Jeff Winger, a major through-line for the character that he didn’t get to handle last season.
The episode, as directed by Joe Russo, is brisk and entertaining. Aside from the great work from Banks and Cross, Jim Rash is in magnificent form, making you wonder why Dean Pelton wasn’t a part of the first D & D episode. Ken Jeong is brilliant, as he has been all season long, and Danny Pudi excels in a scene that finds Hickey putting two captured goblins under the hot lights, police interrogation-style.
The episode may be less expansive than the last D & D episode, but it has a charm (and a skill) all its own.