Tonight NBC goes into overdrive and hits us with three brand new episodes of 'Community' to close out the season. In "Digital Estate Planning" the gang gets video-gamed when Giancarlo Esposito ('Breaking Bad') drops in.
"Digital Estate Planning" is more than just an episode -- it's a work of art. Pierce and the group head to Hawthorne Industries, where his father has taken the video game system Pierce invested in some 30 years ago and created an old school, 16-bit game where the group are tasked with reaching the center of Hawthorne Industries. The first person to do so will win Pierce's inheritance.
The set-up provides basic multi-player game gags. Pierce is the inept one who can't even figure out how to move his player, while Abed is the logical one (of course), who suggests the group hang back from attackers and try to decipher their tactics. It's cutesy and a bit crafty, and watching Jeff and Troy's avatars randomly hit and kick each other because they can is pretty damn hilarious. It's the attention to small details that really pushes this episode over from good to great.
It's not just about using the aesthetic as a gimmick or a theme -- it's about the way we use different mediums to tell stories, like the half hour sitcom format, or in this case, an 8-bit game.
Giancarlo Esposito brings his signature cadence and brand of unsettling authority figure to the episode as Gilbert, an employee of Hawthorne who torments the group because he's the only one who really knows the game. The mission becomes one to protect Pierce and get him to the throne at the center so he can claim his inheritance from his father, who is still toying with him, even in death. It's a far better plot line than having the group squabble over who can make it to the center and claim the money first, with everyone rallying around Pierce to help him. This season has seen a softer side of Pierce and while he's still occasionally offensive, it's more enjoyable watching him function within the group's dynamic than working against it.
The game is like an RPG, reminiscent of the early Final Fantasy games. As the group approaches NPCs (non-player characters), they are given a list of options for what they can ask them. When Abed encounters a milk maiden, she offers an extensive list of topics on which she's knowledgeable, including various animals and weapon attacks. Abed responds appropriately with, "Where have you been all my life?" In the 8-bit world, characters like Abed and Troy are in their element, both personally and comically.
There are several other small touches, like notes, weapons, inventories, and potions, and even a trip to a blacksmith where the group can purchase weapons and accessories. These elements cement the feel of the 16-bit RPG in ways that are smart and attentive, but also completely nostalgic. Often, things we love nostalgically aren't necessarily good, but we're fond of them for the memories and feelings they evoke. We use these things -- movies, television, a favorite toy -- as an avatar for a certain time and place. In the context of 'Community,' a show for which we currently have no nostalgic love, but might some day, it's an interesting juxtaposition that makes us wonder how we'll view the show 10 or even 20 years from now. Will our love turn to nostalgia?
Further proof of the episode's brilliance is the meta notion of the avatar and the nostalgic 8-bit format. If we use the things we love from our childhood and adolescence as an avatar for a time and place in our lives, then we could just easily wind up using this episode as an avatar as well. An avatar filled with avatars of characters who are, for all intents and purposes, avatars. 'Community' just got 'Inception''d, y'all.
All that depth aside, the episode is just plain fun. The group wreak their typical havoc when placed in unfamiliar territory, like Annie and Shirley inadvertently killing villagers and covering their tracks. And those aforementioned 8-bit game details, including the frustrating problem of being sent back to the very beginning every time you die, or dying just before you can use a critical potion.
"Digital Estate Planning" works on levels both superficial and more ponderous; a fantastic episode that has the ability to exist as either a self-contained half hour of comedy or a brilliant piece in the fabric of the 'Community' universe. I may have to rescind my earlier assertion that "Pillows and Blankets" was the best episode of the season, but before I hand that title to "Digital Estate Planning," we have two more episodes to go.
"Even from the grave my father's got you by the short and curly salt and pepperies."
"What's that?! Kill it!" "It's a girl milking a cow, Jeff."
"This place is 20 cat turds and a Pixies poster from being your apartment."
"I thought we could count on Britta to not screw up drinking!"
"Troy and Abed shooting lava!"