Thursday, May 7, 2015

Recommended: Video Game High School

Variety is as necessary in entertainment as it is in diet and exercise. I'm pretty sure that a bunch of the worst jerks I've ever met watched lots of reality TV and based their behaviors on the failure-masterpieces they saw therein; similarly, watching only crime procedurals and shows about murderers (e.g., Fargo, Hannibal) probably colors one's thinking after a while. The chance to watch something silly and light-hearted was why I jumped onboard the Video Game High School train - and those qualities are why I'm recommending it to you now.

Brian D (Josh Blaylock) is a teen who lives on a very odd alternate Earth. The nameless American city he's from possesses technology 10-15 years ahead of what we have in the real world. Even more strangely, video games are massively popular there - important news is interrupted when a well-known player has a big scoring spree. This is the wonderful cold open of season 3, episode 1, and it epitomizes the creators' humor - please don't watch beyond the first two minutes:

Somehow, I respect Tony and Joel even more now.

As much as this sounds like a teenage boy's wonderland, it's not a perfect place. Brian D has no father, and his mom is completely obsessed with her TV. Bullies regularly steal Brian's gamer points and items. And not only is Brian late to his multiplayer deathmatch team, he's asked to do chores as soon as he signs in. Yet, in the first episode, it's this same mundane routine that affords Brian a priceless possibility - one through which he can achieve his greatest dreams, or fail spectacularly in public.

After beating one of the best gamers alive, Brian receives an offer straight out of Willy Wonka - a scholarship to Video Game High School, the elite institution where players go to become professional superstars. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, competing against the best of the best in a focused environment with access to great gear. This is like Harry Potter, but with imaginary guns and capture-the-flag scores...
Brian: Low profile, that's my game.
Calhoun: Really?? *Calhoun opens a window shade to reveal dozens of BrianD posters*
Calhoun: Does that game incude a mini-game about being full of crap?
Over the course of 3 seasons and 17 episodes, VGHS makes a great case for independently-produced television. The company in question, RocketJump, was founded by one of the main figures behind the show. Next, a Kickstarter campaign was held, one that snagged the $75k requested in 24 hours and built up to $273k when the month-long period elapsed. 7 months later, the series appeared, for free, on Youtube.

You can summarize the success of this show by the run times, which expanded from one season to the next: an average of 12 minutes per ep grew to 34, and the last batch of episodes clocked in at roughly 42 minutes each. In 2013, Netflix picked up the stream-for-pay rights, which caused its sort-of underground popularity to grow even larger. And, last year, I was delighted to see many subway ads for the third and final season - a closing act that blew me away with how it became much more serious while still retaining all the elements that made it so fun. Bluntly put, the showrunners have a great sense of humor that really works for me:

There are real stakes in this program - but they're stakes rooted in the tropes of a sitcom. The good news is that they feel true enough for the characters, who are people that you develop feelings for and opinions about. I think it's impossible not to like this show because it has all these elements, and because they work well. The only other thing that could save it - if the cast weren't good, if the script weren't solid, if the stories were not entertaining - would be if it offered mile-a-minute belly-laughs, and this is seldom that kind of show.

Video Game High School entertains with an engaging, weird-ass premise, a solid cast backed up by a mass of secondary characters, and funny writing that takes full advantage of its concept and its target audience. It devolves into cheesy situations and speeches or predictable territory often enough, but there's always a great joke or character moment just around the corner. The writers also have a knack for resolving predictable plots in an unpredictable way.

Part of why I wanted to write about this series was the chance to approach something very different from my recent coverage - a highly-popular web show, something light in tone, a comedy that gets "zany"... The way that jokes are folded into the fabric of the program is a big part of what makes this such cheerful viewing. At one point, VGHS competes against a team from Stars Hollow - the small CT town in Gilmore Girls. The school dean, Calhoun (Harley Morenstein), looks like Zangief from Street Fighter 2. The school flagpole is straight out of Mario Bros, one scene is a callback to the fight gambler from my beloved Three O'Clock High, and Brian D's crush is called "Jenny Matrix" - which is the name of Alyssa Milano's role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1985 action film, Commando.

Dean Calhoun

The inspiration for humor here is vast. Many jokes are very gamer-specific, when Dean Calhoun casually talks about someone else rage quitting... Hell, even Netflix is fooled: if you're watching it on their streaming service, the subtitles turn "respawns" into "response" (as in, "first team to get 5 kills, no respawns"). Some of the humor is situation-based, or flat-out absurdist, while one minor role looks like a bizarre hero from a 1970's Japanese Godzilla pic. The pop culture jokes here can come from anywhere.

And, more than on many programs, the writers chose to ground everything in the characters as much as possible. Whatever the people do here, it stems from a place of consistency - even when the role does something we haven't seen them do before. Another distinguishing feature is that Brian, Ki, Ted, and Jenny all eventually become co-leads who get their own distinct plots which are free to intertwine or untangle at will. Even as the cast grows, VGHS only gives you a deeper look into all the people on-screen, and it always does so in a way that's entertaining.
*Drift King offers a supine Ted his hand* ”Are you wounded, Theodore?”
*Ted grasps Drift King's hand* “This doesn’t change anything.”
Ki Swan (Ellary Porterfield) is full of contradictions, a person so smart that she acts like an airhead. Confident, super-competent, and unafraid of a challenge, she has an obsessive sense of order and is so... thoughtful that she's the most versatile figure in the whole series. She cares about others a lot - which, impressively, comes from a very healthy place - yet she goes through withdrawal if she doesn't have enough homework. She's the best.

Ted Wong (Jimmy Wong) is a lovable moron, a sweet-hearted child in a teenager's body who gloms on to Brian immediately. Much of him seems analogous to Seinfeld's Kramer, but he's very distinct from that iconic figure. He has a more antagonistic relationship with other people, he's internally-conflicted more often, and he gets far more attention as a solo player (comparing Seinfeld's 180 eps to VGHS's 17).

Honestly, Ted annoys me beyond my ability to stand him at least 2 times per season... But the show actually does good work with him, especially in the last run of episodes. Also, he isn't written to be as funny as Kramer, which would go a long way towards making him tolerable. Ultimately, not only is Ted too sweet a guy to hold a grudge against, but it's through his role that the series makes its most impressive strides. And, what the hell, if I can give Law a pass for being funny, I'm obligated to accept Ted's needy ass, too.

Jenny Matrix (Johanna Braddy) spends a lot of time as a character that exists for the lead's sake. Some of the sting of this is lessened by the fact that she is a billion times more savvy, mature, and smart than Brian is. Season 2 improves on this by opening the role up, giving her plots that exclude Blaylock's part and making Braddy as much of an independent lead as Porterfield and Wong are.

The main reason that I like Jenny so much is that she's very sure of herself without ever acting superior to other people. She also has a pretty healthy outlook on things, and she shows a hell of a lot of perspective for a teenager. When I say that Jenny is tied to Brian for most of the first season, the other way of looking at it is that she's so far out of his league that the show naturally limits the use of her role - which makes limited interaction with Brian the only excuse to include her...

Brian is, probably, the most stereotypical role here. He has limited real-life experience, but he's gifted when it comes to games. He has a lot of insecurities and immature attitudes, but his heart's almost never in the wrong place. Over and over, Brian is put into the classic sitcom position of the "nice guy" who's dumped on - fortunately, he has just enough flaws (namely, being a bit of an idiot) that it's not too painful to watch when our lead suffers. VGHS is a crucible for Brian D, and it's fun to watch him squirm.

This quartet (although it's really a trio for season 1) gets plenty of time to not only shine, but to develop and grow. And this journey of theirs is joined by one of the best TV roles ever: series co-creator (and writer) Brian Firenzi as the Law. The Law unwittingly provides our lead with his 15 minutes of fame, but then becomes Brian's nemesis. Law is probably the most OTT element here, and he's a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
"Winners don't do drugs. But you're a loser, so go take some drugs!!" -Freddie Wong
In short, The Law is hubris personified - this super-skillful player is a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, as well as a ruthless man-child who doesn't really care about anyone except himself. The pompous guy unloads sarcasm and one-liners more quickly than anyone else in the cast - all of his lines are ridiculous yet simultaneously great. The evolution that this petty character undergoes over the course of three seasons is both highly enjoyable and terribly funny, and you will love learning to hate this guy.

The other, more peripheral, characters are given a lot to do as well, receiving far more development than you would expect. Somehow, with less screen time than most single-season, major network programs get, VGHS makes as much use of its actors and running time as a BBC work does. It almost always works well, and it's genuinely pleasing to watch the forces at work here do so well by their concept.

Diversity is a big factor, too. I always assumed Blaylock was Eurasian, but I couldn't get any information on the actor's background. And then I remembered that it doesn't matter what he actually is - he looks different from most show leads, and I think that's a very good thing. Ted, meanwhile, is of Asian ancestry, and the third main player is a woman. Even the background characters are pretty nicely spread out over genders and races. It all makes the show feel a bit more like real life, not the insane fictitious place it is.

And I'm happy all around, as guest appearances include John Ennis from the great Mr. Show, Chase Williamson from The Guest and John Dies at the End, Cynthia Watros (Lost's Libby), and Freddie Wong - the real life pro Rock Band gamer and filmmaker who started the production company that makes this show.
All these other merits aside, the special effects are pretty nice - particularly for an independent production. At times they're used sparingly, and the series alternates between showing us pure CGI graphics work and putting the actual characters onto a battlefield with some video game-style FX when people are shot, punched, or knocked out of a match. The action sequences are uniformly fun, well-choreographed, and exciting.

TV shows packed with sex and violence are plentiful these days. Barring some additional, impressive artistry, all you're likely to get are some cheap, lurid thrills - and reinforcement of whatever negative thinking you may already have. And, unless those other series treat these topics with the depth that they deserve (which virtually never happens, that's the realm of in-depth work like literature or research), you're not going to get a whole lot out of them.

Instead of seeking out cheap drama for the sake of witnessing drama - instead of inundating yourself with more rear- or above-the-waist nudity and murder - why not go with something happy? Why not choose a program that delves into the harsh realities of growing up while also maintaining a light mood? VGHS serves up a suitable amount of teenage angst, but credibly grounds it in character, works the angst into the plots, and never loses sight of the comedy that it wants to create from these situations.

Over 3 seasons, this series gives us highs and lows, successes and failures, daydreams and nightmares. It all happens in a setting where nerds rule the day, girls kick at least as much ass as boys, and intellectual achievement is rewarded as soundly as athletics would be. After all the silliness and the game-centric material, you're left with mostly-strong writing, interesting roles, and well-told stories. Different viewers react differently to this experience, but I can virtually promise that the simple joys of Video Game High School will lift your spirits and make you laugh.


  1. Nice write-up-not sure if I'm going to get into this show but might watch a couple of S1 episodes. Dig that GG reference:)

    1. Well, that's fair, lady t. I do hope you give it a shot... But be warned: the show can hook you instantly, and you may find yourself tearing through the first season in no time.

      I don't think there are any other Gilmore references (& I likely wouldn't know them, as I didn't watch it), but a variety of pop culture elements are incorporated smoothly and smartly. Little easter eggs abound for anyone who watches VGHS...


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