Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VGHS: A Review

The series finale of Video Game High School came out this week. I've watched every episode of all three seasons, and enjoyed them all. But with the series' conclusion, I've been thinking about it as a comprehensive whole. Would I recommend it? If you're a fan of video games, absolutely. If you're not ... maybe. It is an interesting show in a lot of ways, in that it is considerably better than its constituent elements.

Let's start with something quite obvious, though. VGHS is a web series, and viewing it as vehicle primarily distributed through YouTube, it is incredible. The production values are TV-quality -- low-grade, camp TV, but still. I could write a review of VGHS taking all of that into account, and it would be gushing. But I don't get the sense that VGHS wants to be judged as King of the Little League. I'm treating it as a television show because I think that's the league it wants to play in. In a sense, the highest compliment I can pay VGHS is that I never felt the need to grade it on a curve.

Okay, that being said, let's start with the plot. It's nothing special -- indeed, in some ways it is entirely unoriginal. Other than the arc I just completed, and the overarching "boy meets girl" thing across the entire series, I don't know if I remember any of the specific happenstances in any of the episodes. With the semi-exception of one late-Season 3 entry, none of them had any serious ambition or tried to break new ground (and that one episode, incidentally, was a rare instance where one of the weaker cast members really managed to shine).

The acting is much the same. Of the core main cast, only Johanna Braddy (Jenny Matrix) could be characterized as a good actress. This makes sense, as she's the only one who has a serious acting career (I nearly flipped out when she made an appearance on Shameless). Ellary Porterfield (Ki Swan) is decent, but Josh Blaylock (BrianD), Jimmy Wong (Ted Wong), and Brian Firenzi (The Law) are mediocre at best. Blaylock plays leading man Brian as every sad-sack semi-unpopular-but-not-dweebish high school kid that starred in a 90s teen movie (he even kind of looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Ten Things I Hate About You), and adds nothing to the archetype. Jimmy Wong is awkward and wooden as Ted, and only the former is arguably part of his character. And Firenzi plays an maniacal jerk who lacks any of the qualities which make maniacal jerks interesting.

The supporting cast often was better. Sometimes that's because they were able to get a bunch of high-profile actors to make appearances, ranging from brief (Joel McHale as the President) to substantial (Cynthia Watros got main cast billing as Jenny Matrix's mother/coach). But even some of the more obscure names shone -- the breakout character of the series, for me, was Harley Morenstein as VGHS Dean Ernie Calhoun. Morenstein's prior claim to fame was the YouTube series Epic Meal Time, but every one of his appearances was a thing of beauty.

The excellent supporting cast also points to one of VGHS' greatest strengths and missed opportunities. It does a very good job of building its world. One caught glimpses of a whole bunch of characters and cliques and back stories attending the high school, all of which held great promise as vehicles for storytelling. The best shows that have this element -- think Parks and Rec or Community -- do a great job of exploring their environs: one understands that their main cast truly inhabits a larger world whose denizens themselves are rounded individuals with their own interests, talents, and personal desires. VGHS had the superstructure to pull something like that off, but it never quite got there -- when we did venture out and meet some of the other students, too often they felt like 2-D cardboard cutouts who existed to serve the main plot. Indeed, my desire to explore more of VGHS' internal workings was part of the reason why the Napalm High story arc fell somewhat flat for me -- it drew the focus away from the core of the show and instead cast the lens on an external player whose place in the overall ecosystem was never fully made clear.

All of this sounds pretty negative, and I said at the top that I really did enjoy the show. Why? VGHS -- a good but not great show -- reminds me a lot of a good but not great video game. The best video games are serious enterprises -- they believe that there is deeper meaning to their work and invite their players to explore that meaning in a robust, even literary, fashion. But there are plenty of perfectly decent games that abjure that type of seriousness in favor of just placing you in an interesting environment and letting you have fun. And that's what VGHS does. It presents an interesting world-concept -- where video games are serious business of the kind that could support an entire network of academies -- and just lets its characters play around inside. As serious as the characters take video games, the show doesn't take itself seriously at all. And for all of the cliched teen-angst romance that drives much of the plot, this is fundamentally a happy show. People do cool things! They play games! They get live inside those games! We can see that they're getting to have fun, and so we have fun with them.

I wrote a review of a restaurant the other day, a hole-in-the-wall place in Oakland that we stopped in for breakfast when the place we were actually trying to eat at had a 1 hour wait. The food was good but nothing special -- objectively, a 3/5. But the place was infused with an incredible happy energy. The owner -- a 55 year old Korean woman -- greeted every customer with a fist bump (not optional) and everybody there just seemed to be cheerfully munching on classic greasy diner fare. We loved it. We loved the feeling. So I gave it four stars instead of three, because isn't just getting to feel happy worth a star?

VGHS doesn't have the best acting, or the most innovative plot. It doesn't do everything it could have with the world it created. But is a happy show, and it makes you happy watching it. That's worth quite a bit, in my book.