If there hadn’t been lavish Halloween and stop-motion-animated Christmas episodes of NBC’s Thursday comedy “Community,” there might actually be dragons and elaborate costumes and special effects in “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,’ airing Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
As it is, there’s not even a deck of fancy decorated game cards.
“No cards,” series creator Dan Harmon tells Zap2it, “but dice and just make-believe.”
In the episode, Jeff (Joel McHale) takes an interest in a depressed fellow student, nicknamed “Fat Neil” (Charley Koontz), who enjoys role-playing games. When Neil’s spirits seem dangerously low, the study group invites him to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons, with Abed (Danny Pudi) as the Dungeonmaster. But when Pierce (Chevy Chase) discovers he’s been excluded from the game — even though Senor Chang (Ken Jeong) is there — all hell breaks loose.
The episode takes place mainly inside the study room at the library, and while “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” translated an inner fantasy world into puppets and fantastical sets, the action in “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is more tell than show.
“It’s a good way to save some cash,” says Harmon. “[Producing studio] Sony yells at me for stuff. The budget goes up, and they go, ‘Now you’re going to have to make cheaper stuff to make us trust you again, or you’ll never get to play with your little paintball toys again.’ I say, ‘OK.'”
But Harmon doesn’t mind doing an episode that’s mostly people sitting in a room talking.
“The reason the episode I wrote first season, the first one coming out of the gate after the pilot, sucks,” he says, “is because I was already ready to do that. The A story was to have Joel and Chevy sit in a room together.
“That’s why I don’t care. The fact that doing a big thing that has some style to it, that my punishment for that is to that they have to eat lunch for 20 minutes and talk, that’s fine.”
Part of that may be Harmon’s unwavering faith that the study group members — no matter how much they fight and bicker — will always stick together.
“The assumption is that people are inherently concerned for one another,” he says. “I wouldn’t even say ‘good,’ but that we are designed to protect and help each other and not kill each other, that that’s an unnatural behavior that results in us trying to do really noble things and then breaking down. Our fear is that we’re not going to be able to do the thing that comes naturally to us, which is curl up in each others’ warmth and help each other out.
“That’s never going to be shaken in me.”
Harmon thinks this belief may have begun in childhood, saying, “I think I’m a little bit developmentally disconnected. My parents weren’t the most intimate creatures; they were a little reptilian. I have a very intellectual focus on us as a species. I think that’s what it is, that Mork from Ork, ‘Being There,’ Abed kind of thing. You covet it and value it because it’s not something that you wake up each morning with.
“There are a couple of wires that are unfortunately loose in here [he taps his head], and several therapists have told me it may have something to do with conditional love. Others have suggested that there’s more at play there, but I don’t have time to get diagnosed.”
Asked what the word “community” means to him, Harmon says, “It’s that compassion factor, that primatological impulse for cohesion. It’s the thing that separates us from the next monkey down on the evolutionary scale.
“That’s what our stories are about. There’s nothing mystical about it. The stories are about how change is absolutely vital to survival. It’s because dead genes tell no tales. As the foremost biological weapon on the assembly line, we have the most DNA reaffirming over and over again, at every stage, that the right thing to do is the weird thing.”