Last night The Big Bang Theory aired its 122nd episode, entitled “The Santa Simulation.” News that its premise hit the internet and avid television watchers everywhere began to cry what may one day become a familiar saying, “Community did it first!” Every single one of them was wrong.
A full year before “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” [one of the best episodes of Community‘s second season, in my opinion] there was “Jen the Fredo,” the first episode of British sitcom The IT Crowd‘s fourth season. Both of these episodes were some of the best of their respective shows, so I was pretty excited for what TBBT had to offer.
The thing about the D&D-centric episode is how it’s been used as a plot device. As a role-playing game the players are able to reveal aspects about themselves that might not otherwise come out, and you can see this being done with various degrees of effectiveness in each episode. Spoilers for all three episodes past this point.
The IT Crowd [S4E1]
“Jen the Fredo”
I realize that most of you have not seen, or maybe even heard of, The IT Crowd. Let me sum in up in that it is, in my ways, what The Big Bang Theory could be. It’s a show about two, well, nerds that work in the IT department of a large company and their boss, who knows nearly nothing about computers. One of the best aspects of the show is that it brings you into the nerdiness of Moss and Roy, and in watching you begin to feel like you really relate to them, becoming equally frustrated when people ask them for help with their computers.
“Jen the Fredo” is, if you’ve seen The Godfather films [which I haven’t], a clear reference to the character Fredo, whose job it was to take out of town businessman and “show them a good time.” Jen takes on the role of helping to entertain a few business partners, but ultimately fails when she takes them to see “The Vagina Monologues.”
Enter Dungeons and Dragons. Moss has been preparing to DM [Dungeon Master, can be used as a verb] and convinces Jen that it’s exactly what these gentlemen are looking for. The best part is, he succeeds [I had a great YouTube clip here but someone decided to make it private].
While the idea of entertaining [and riveting] a few rowdy businessmen with a little D&D is hilarious in and of itself, but there’s more to it than that. Moss uses the game to confront Roy about the latter’s painful breakup, something he’d been avoiding talking about for a while. The conclusion is tear-filled and, more importantly, immensely funny. You can catch it on Netflix, or here, though you didn’t hear that from me.
This episode has easily the most actual gameplay of the three, since essentially the entire episode consists of the Greendale Seven playing D&D in the library. It also treats the source material the most lovingly, complete with a voice over and fantastically appropriate score.
The game is set up due to Jeff wanting to help out “Fat Neil,” a young man planning to end his life [understated by the narration] due to his new nickname. Once everything is set up, with Abed as the DM, things really get going.
Each member of the study group essentially plays a version of themselves, with the voice over near the beginning describing them as “Troy the Obtuse,” and “Britta the Needlessly Defiant.” They react to the situations within the game as they normally would, with Jeff impatient and unwilling to put up with nonsense as usual. The best parts, however, are when you discover a little something about the character you thought you knew, well-illustrated in the following scene with Annie:
In this episode Pierce owns his most [as far as I’m concerned] unpopular role: The Villain. Incensed at being excluded from the game he steals Fat Neil’s magical sword and runs away, later using D&D manuals to cheat and garner immense power to himself.
Everything ends, as usual, with a fairly warm and fuzzy conclusion. Pierce is defeated, mostly through his friends forgiving him for his dickishness [hence his title, “Pierce the Dickish]. Neil’s spirits are lifted and he finds the motivation to keep on living.
The Big Bang Theory [S6E11]
“The Santa Situation”
A “guys’ night” is happening and the activity of choice is Dungeons and Dragons, which is territory you’d have expected these characters to have explored in-depth quite a few seasons back. Heck, as far as I can recall they spent more time playing Settlers of Catan than throwing around a 12-sided dice.
The game begins and Leonard, the DM, lets it drop that their quest is to rescue Santa Claus. Queue Sheldon’s disappointed face due to the fact that he a) loves D&D and b) hates Christmas. Also Raj gets shot in the face with a cannon in the first few minutes of the game, highlighting the fragility of life in a world that values perception checks.
Oh, and they ditch their respective girlfriends to play, which led to this scene, the last line of which was delivered excellently:
Using the structure of the game Leonard gets Sheldon to sing [all five verses of] “Good King Wenceslas” and all three remaining players to play “Jingle Bells” using, the obvious instrument of choice, bells.
Upon finding Jolly Old St. Nick in chains they move forward to rescue him, only to have Sheldon cast a paralyzing spell on his companions. He then confronts Santa [or Leonard, in this case] and tells the heartbreaking story of how he asked Father Christmas for only one thing as a child, to have his grandfather back. He then walks out, leaving the old many to die.
As far as really exploring well-established characters, Community probably succeeds the most, by virtue that it only has the one central plot that revolves around a single game of D&D. While it does feature Pierce continuing on his course to become more cartoonishly evil, Britta’s response to the beleaguered gnomes is a perfect example of how her character will react both in and out of the real world.
The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory tread the very similar ground. Moss uses the game to force Roy to come to terms with the love he lost, something that would have been impossible otherwise. Sheldon’s childhood experience with Santa Claus never would have come about without Leonard guiding him to that place where he could talk to the man who disappointed him.
My hope is that there will be a continuation of this trend, with there having being one D&D episode per year from 2010-2012. As the current DM of an ongoing gothic horror campaign I am well-aware of the storytelling capabilities of the game as well as how enjoyable it is to know people you know well deal when presented with fantastical situations. Although 2/3 of the above shows do feature “nerds” I’m sure that this could still appear in the more bizarre sitcoms, such as New Girl and Happy Endings.