A review of tonight's "Community" coming up just as soon as I mourn the death of an imaginary waiter...

"For my turn, I feel sorry for Pierce Hawthorne." -Neil

When "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" aired, I suggested that, if time and expense were no issue, the show should produce an alternate live-action version in which we see the Polar Express trip as the other characters experienced it in the study room. "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" was essentially the idea: the study group again going on a journey of the imagination, but this time presented as they're really seeing it.

It was the flip side of the Christmas episode in another way, too: where Christmas was big on heart and fairly light on laughs, "Dungeons & Dragons" was one of the season's funniest episodes, but one where the emotional stuff was a bit iffier.

Let's get that out of the way first, because on the whole I loved this one. I really enjoyed the idea of Jeff being the one to lead the charge for the study group doing this good deed - even if he was doing it more out of guilt than altruism - because it was so unusual for the character and because his central role on the show meant there was more tension than usual when Pierce showed up to ruin things. (Ordinarily, the group is just struggling to keep Jeff interested in these sorts of things, so he couldn't play this kind of semi-heroic role.)

I had two concerns on that front. First, that Pierce was so completely, urepentantly evil - and back to back from an episode that was also about Pierce's insecurities making him be a complete ass - that it's becoming really, really hard to justify why the study group keeps him around. I get that last week the idea was that he had been ignored as a child and acted out, and even here he's doing it out of loneliness and fear, and everyone ultimately takes pity on him, but he's still a bullying ass, and it's been a very long time since he's done anything vaguely redeeming. (Even in the Christmas episode, he only stayed with Abed on the train because he felt too lonely to go home.) At this point, Chang is almost the more human - and certainly more likable - character of the two.

Second, even though the episode was only telling a single story with no subplots, the actual playing of the game took up so much time that I'm not sure that (Fat) Neil's feel-better epiphany entirely played. I like the idea that he figures out how to win the game while simultaneously recognizing that there's someone lonelier than he is, but it came very quickly after Neil mostly took a backseat to the regulars, and there's no suggestion that the others (aside from maybe Pierce himself) are going to keep hanging out with him. So it's like Jeff got the others to do something to feel better about themselves, but unless Neil is now going to appear more frequently, and/or in ways suggesting he's now pals with the group, the whole thing was mainly an excuse for one long comic set piece.

But good lord, what a brilliant comic set piece. I was never much into D&D (my particular brand of nerditry was more sci-fi-oriented than fantasy), but knowledge of the game wasn't required to appreciate the various bits of hilarity. You just needed to know that this group of very strange, clearly delinated characters were sitting around a table and pretending to be a totally different group of characters, yet bringing their own biases to them. So Britta was still insufferable in her more-politically-correct-than-thou attitude(*), Jeff was still impatient, and Annie was, as always, disturbingly eager and knowledgeable about sex, this time from the perspective of Hector the Well-Endowed. That sequence - Fienberg has already dubbed it the "Alison Brie transgendered pantomimed sex scene" - was explosively hilarious, and one of many examples of where the contrast between reality and imagination was perfectly-rendered.

(*) Two thoughts on this. First, the other characters' frustration with Britta stood in marked contrast to how they felt about Pierce. Britta's a pain in the ass but they still love her. Pierce is a bully who ruins everything, and it's unclear why he's still tolerated. And second, Troy's "You're the AT&T of people!" has already replaced "Where's your jetpack, Zuckerberg?" from last week's "The Office" as my new go-to insult.

I don't think "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" failed from a comedic standpoint, as it wasn't aiming for these kinds of laughs. It was a bittersweet holiday story with occasional jokes and a beautiful visual style. But at the same time, when you hold these two episodes up next to each other, you can see that when you make things very literal the jokes can give way to the look. This episode had its stylistic flourishes in the "Lord of the Rings"-style score and backstory sequence, but it was still our characters looking like themselves(**) while talking about dragons and gnomes and swords and whatnot, and that's what made it so funny.

(**) Well, except Chang. Horrible, weird, funny, blackface elf Chang.

How I feel about the episode's emotional side is going to depend on the fallout - whether Pierce's recent behavior is addressed, whether Neil is any more prominent - but in terms of balls-out comedy, this was one of the best "Community"s of the season. And belongs in the pantheon of D&D-related comedy episodes with the "Freaks and Geeks" finale.

What did everybody else think?