Ah, yes. The “RPG Episode.” A staple of a television comedy. The cast of characters take a break from their everyday lives to play an RPG (or MMORPG). It’s entirely meta – characters playing characters – and it almost always has at least one shout-out to Dragon Quest. These episodes are inherently awesome. For one thing, it’s an actor playing a character who is playing a different character. You can get some subtle, dynamic interactions between the cast as they explore different sides of themselves.
For another, it’s comedy gold. There’s usually always one character who’s really, really unexpectedly good at the game for what seems like no reason. With a roleplaying game, there are near-infinite possibilities for misunderstandings, anger, and wacky hijinks. Here are some examples of the RPG episode, complete with clips, quips, and commentary.
Community – “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”
Yep, this one is the gold standard. To me, this episode ranks right up there with “Modern Warfare” and “Remedial Chaos Theory” as one of the all-time greats. What’s amazing is that in this episode, all the characters do, basically, is sit around a table and talk to each other. And it works. It’s one of the strengths of the show. The ensemble has so much chemistry that even the suggestion of action and no action itself makes for some hilarious, memorable moments. And it shows off the fun part of roleplaying games, too. Even if the action occurs solely in your mind, that doesn’t make it less thrilling or exciting. Add that to the fact that instead of the game being used as a diversion or something to pass the time, they’re actively trying to use it to help someone.
South Park – “Make Love, Not Warcraft”
It seems like South Park can make pretty much any topic funny, and with the inherent nerdiness of MMORPGs, they were certainly working with some excellent raw material. They even got Blizzard to help out with the in-game animation, which was pretty cool of them when you consider that more than half the jokes in this episode, indeed the basic premise of the episode, was that people who play World of Warcraft have no life. Having played my fair share of EverQuest back in the day, I definitely let out a snort of laughter at the end of the episode when they finally accomplish their goal, and Kyle asks, “well, what now?” Cartman replies, “What do you mean? Now we can play the game.” The constant repetition and never-ending advancement in these games is cleverly skewered in this terrific episode.
Freaks and Geeks – “Discos and Dragons”
The last episode of the canceled-too-soon show Freaks and Geeks, the Geeks play D&D with James Franco. Yeah, there’s some stuff about disco in there, but the real heart of the episode is the game. Seeing Franco’s character gradually come around on the concept of the game and actually have fun in the end is awkward and painful and heartwarming. Plus, Carlos the Dwarf. It’s probably the most realistic portrayal of the game I’ve seen on TV, too. The DM as a fastidious, knowledgeable control freak and the players arguing amongst themselves almost as much as they cooperate. Definitely has an air of believability. And, at the end of the scene, poses the age-old question: if you get a cool kid to do something nerdy with you, does that make him a nerd, or you cool? It’s the first one. Sorry.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “Charlie Rules the World”
Perfect fodder for an It’s Always Sunny episode, this one really gets into the “RPG Episode” trope of one usually clueless person being suddenly good at the game. In this case, it’s Charlie, who despite being illiterate and functionally retarded, basically takes over the (fake) Facebook game in about a day. Everyone’s character gets exposed by the intricacies of the game. Creating an avatar exposes their flaws. Dee is a younger and more attractive version of herself who nonetheless finds little success. Mac is a physically imposing beefcake who loses every fight he starts because he doesn’t understand anything about fighting. Frank has no morals, so he plays a female character (who looks disturbingly like him) and whores himself out for items. And Dennis – well, Dennis is too absorbed in his own virtual reality (his ego) to play the game. Instead, he discovers what he all along assumed – that he is the God of his own universe.
The Simpsons – Marge Gamer
The depiction of MMORPGs here last less to do with actual gameplay and more to do with how we portray ourselves online. Interestingly enough, all the Simpsons characters seem to be a caricature of their real-life selves. The relationship between Marge and Bart’s Shadow Knight is the cornerstone of the episode, and while there are no overarching lessons or morals, the way that the whole town turns on Bart after he’s weakened himself to resurrect Marge’s character is definitely true to life. In basically all online games, there’s an “eat or be eaten” mentality that barely constrains even your own teammates from killing you and taking your items. Also, seeing the town dance around the corpse of the Shadow Knight and using his intestines as a maypole has got to be one of the more gruesome and hilarious images on the show.
This One Doesn’t Count: From what I understand, Big Bang Theory has multiple RPG episodes. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been able to get through more than 90 seconds of that show without turning it off; I find it completely asinine. Maybe they’re somehow good and someone will clue me in in the comments.