In my second Best Episode Ever column, I declared “Once More With Feeling” not only the Best Episode Ever of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but the Best Episode of television Ever. Tough act to follow, I know.
However, “Community”’s season three episode “Digital Estate Planning” would easily be the Best Episode of television Ever were it not for the existence of “Once More With Feeling.” This episode even got a rare perfect 10 rating from Blair Marnell when it first aired. In fact, if I ever have nights where I’m doubting the status of “Once” or “Digital,” I can simply go by quantity. “Community” is only a half hour. “Buffy” was an hour, and an elongated hour for “Once” so it was simply more of a Best Episode Ever than “Community” could offer. “Community” may have packed triple into their running time though.
“Digital Estate Planning” is the episode where the Greendale study group goes into a video game. On Thursday, May 17, 2012, Dan Harmon got NBC to put 20 minutes of Nintendo style animation on television. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how monumental that alone is. Maybe only a few million people watched it, but a Nintendo video game aired on national television. But let’s take it to the next level, like “Community” did. Nobody likes watching someone else play a video game. Yet “Digital Estate Planning” made watching this game of “Journey Into Hawkthorne” a captivating drama with impeccable comedy.
Of all the “Community” theme episodes, and there have been many, “Digital Estate Planning” actually works the most seamlessly. The late Cornelius Hawthorne (Larry Cedar) stipulated in his will that his son, Pierce (Chevy Chase) must play a video game that Cornelius commissioned in the ’80s, hence the NES style graphics and gameplay. Although Cornelius intended to pit Pierce’s closest friends against him, the gang plays the game along with Pierce, trying to help him claim his inheritance. Only Cornelius’ assistant, Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito) stands in their way… and he’s had years to master the game. The likenesses of Gilbert and the Greendale 7 are turned into video game avatars as they sit in their respective control booths.
The actors appear in a few live-action segments establishing why they must sit there for the duration of the game, or perhaps reminding more casual viewers that they haven’t stumbled onto the wrong channel. However, thanks largely to the fact that the techno-savvy core audience of “Community” knows how online gaming works, and perhaps the cultural phenomenon of Avatar, we follow the “Journey Into Hawkthorne” versions of Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Annie (Alison Brie), Shirley (Yvette Nicole-Brown), Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) into the game.
“Journey Into Hawkthorne” is also the greatest Nintendo game never created. I mean, it is ambitious to say the least. It’s got the mechanics of 2D platform gaming down perfectly, but allows far more dynamic interaction than a real Nintendo game could. The gang gets to manipulate the background environment in ways we used to joke about when playing those primitive games. We always wanted to destroy obnoxious background paintings, but real NES games wouldn’t allow it. “Community” makes it an integral plot point.
They certainly face consequences above and beyond any practical gaming details, like Pierce and Troy losing their clothes in poker. The gang travels between worlds “Legend of Zelda” style, fights some nonplayable- characters (NPCs) “Double Dragon” style and beats some hardcore bosses in side scrolling “Metroid” style. For people who know these games intimately, it was a dream and vindication against anyone who said playing those games was a waste of time. Yet you didn’t need to know anything about video games to enjoy the humor of crudely animated figures fumbling around a crazy fantasy world.
The way that each member of the study group plays “Journey Into Hawkthorne” is perfectly true to each of the characters. It’s no surprise that Abed makes the most of his time in Castle Hawkthorne. He even falls in love with a NPC girl, Hilda. Later, his manipulation of the game’s mechanics, and perhaps a nod to the classic “Lemmings” games, will save the day. They found a way to work Britta’s feminism into the puzzle solving portion of the game. Not to mention her tendency to “Britta” things.
Annie and Shirley try to play along to support their friends, leading to the hilarious misunderstanding that could never happen on the old NES. By pressing the wrong buttons, Annie accidentally kills a NPC, and Shirley makes things worse just to cover their tracks. There’s really no way this kind of open world flexibility could happen in a game of that era, no matter how rich and technically proficient Pierce’s father was. That’s why it’s great satire.
Every little detail honors “Community” and video gaming. Pierce and Jeff don’t know how to use the controllers. Lots of players accidentally kill their partners. The most skilled player has to talk the rest of the team through the sequence of moves to make it past a certain part. The commentary on Cornelius’ racist vision of stereotypes and political biases speaks to where we’ve always known Pierce comes from. And they worked the catch phrases into the game beautifully. The baby Abeds cooing “Cool cool cool” are adorable, and Troy and Abed shooting lava is pretty great.
Of course this episode has a heart too. This is all about Pierce’s relationship with his father, and ultimately a major revelation about Gilbert, and it all works. Through the format of fake video games, voiceovers and inside jokes, it makes you feel something poignant.
It’s easy to call “Digital Estate Planning” the Best Episode Ever for “Community.” It is the pinnacle of “Community’s” satire of meta culture and true exploration of its characters. It’s a little more monumental in the history of television than even the best runner up “Community” episodes are, for championing this very peculiar format in a layered way that advances both NES nostalgia and the expected meta-ness of “Community” itself.