Monday 21 January 2013

The Guild - Season Six

Believe it or not, I only discovered The Guild just after season 5 came out. Somehow I had remained completely unaware of its existence until then. It’s odd because many of my friends apparently knew of it.

What, you’d never seen The Guild before?” they asked when I mentioned finally seeing it.
No,” I replied.
You mean we’ve never mentioned it before?”

It’s odd, too, because many websites I often visit are exactly the kinds of sites that would mention it, but if they did, I somehow missed every reference. At any rate, it was after season 5 came out that I finally started noticing mentions here and there of a web show called The Guild and starring Felicia Day. I certainly knew who Felicia Day was, so I was intrigued and checked it out, starting right at the beginning with season 1.

And I was hooked. Soon, I had not only watched the whole series, but I had also purchased the DVDs of all five seasons (to be fair, watching a whole season is about the same time commitment as watching a single movie, so it’s not that amazing a feat that I got through the whole series in about a week or so). The series was a wonderful breath of fresh air, full of funny characters who, while crazy and over-the-top, were still relatable. Here was a show about geeks and written by geeks, a show that could poke fun at the idiosyncrasies and stereotypes of geek culture whilst never hiding the fact that it was also a love letter to geek culture. Shows about geeks have gained a certain popularity in recent years with the rise of programmes like The Big Bang Theory. But that show, while about nerds, is aimed at the masses, and is clearly written by people who don’t really understand what it is to be a geek or nerd and so rely entirely on stereotypes. Felicia Day, on the other hand, is a geek of the first order, and that breathes a life and reality into The Guild that the Big Bang Theory can only dream of attaining.

I must confess that I only rarely play computer or video games. This isn’t out of any dislike for them. Quite the contrary, in fact. I don’t play them because I know that if I start, I’ll spend so much time with them that I’ll never get anything productive done (like writing reviews of all the other time-wasting stuff I do!). I certainly did play lots of video games while growing up, though. I have very fond memories of my Atari 2600 (yeah, I’m dating myself again) and later, my Sega Genesis. But not playing those sorts of games anymore did not impact in any way my ability to enjoy The Guild. Although the show has very occasionally used some specific vocabulary that I was initially unfamiliar with, on the whole, it’s hugely accessible to anyone, even non-geeks.

As always, my following review contains spoilers. However, The Guild is available for easy viewing online totally free! You can find all six seasons at Geek and Sundry, so if you haven’t watched them, go watch them now, then come back and read what I have to say. (While you’re at it, Geek and Sundry also has a ton of other great programmes, such as The Flog, TableTop, Sword and Laser, Space Janitors, Learning Town, and more!)


It’s been interesting to see The Guild grow and expand over the seasons. While still a low-budget show, that budget has quite obviously increased somewhat in recent seasons, allowing the show to move beyond just a couple locations. More than that, we have been able to see more and more of the world The Guild inhabits—it’s our world, of course, but our world inhabited almost exclusively by rather unbalanced people. It’s delightfully charming that Felicia Day’s ever-so-slightly-neurotic Codex is actually the most normal person there is. She keeps the show grounded amidst all the wackiness that ensues, allowing everyone else to be wild and over the top.

However, while it’s been great to see the wider, crazier world, I actually feel Season Five takes things a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Season Five, but it is probably my least favourite season of The Guild. The numerous cameos by popular science fiction/fantasy actors, while fun, start to become too much after a while, distracting from the heart of the series and making the season seem too self-congratulatory. Because of this, I was a bit worried that Season Five would prove to be the start of a gradual decline in the series. It’s something that’s bound to happen to any series eventually. Nothing lasts forever, after all.

I’m delighted to say, however, that Season Six restores The Guild to its former glory. While the season continues to expand the world by introducing us to the inner workings of “the Game”, it tones back the excesses of Season Five by telling a smaller-scale story that allows it to focus on the show’s greatest strength: its characters.

And I’m not exaggerating when I say the characters are The Guild’s greatest strength. One of the best things about The Guild is that it’s entirely character-driven. Most shows (at least the ones watched religiously by geeks) tend to be event-driven: while the characters actively work to resolve each episode’s problem, the set-up is generally something outside their control and they only react to it. But in The Guild, the characters are the architects of their own destinies. In general, they create their own problems that they then have to work their way out of. Only Codex is in any way a passive character (indeed, she represents that feeling that we all sometimes have—some of us more often than others—that the world is beyond our control and there is nothing we can do to change it), and even she is largely responsible for many of the problems she faces (and her friends are responsible for the others). Her passivity is one of the principal things that sets her at odds with her co-workers in Season Six. Her inability to assert herself allows Floyd to use her as a shield against the world, and her other co-workers to use her to vent their frustrations at Floyd.

To be fair, there’s not a lot of character growth in the series as a whole (although that’s not to say there isn’t any). Tink and Bladezz, for example, tend to learn important lessons each season that are mostly forgotten the next. However, within any individual season, each character has a very specific arc, and it’s the intersection of these arcs that creates the comedy and drama. This is where The Guild really excels, and so even if Tink really isn’t all that different by the end of Season Six from what she was at the beginning of Season One, I’m not all that bothered. The individual journeys are enough.

Season Six introduces us to a whole new supporting cast in the form of the people Codex now has to work with. At the end of Season Five, she was hired (in a position she has decided to call the “vice president of community creative consultancy”) by Floyd, the creator of the Game, and Season Six picks up from there. Although Floyd isn’t strictly a new character (appearing as he did in Season Five), I’m including him amongst the “new” supporting cast as he is much prominent this season. In the true spirit of The Guild, Floyd is not at a all a well-balanced individual. Right from his very first scene in episode 1, his neuroses are readily apparent as he’s already overreacting to on-line comments made about him, even though he’s still otherwise happy and in control at this moment. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that those neuroses guide his every action and decision.

Codex’s other co-workers have equally strong introductions, and even though they only have very small roles in the first episode, they all have strong identifying characteristics that keep them memorable during the wait for the next episode (if you’re watching it episodically), from Theodora’s clumsiness to Donovan’s shyness. Even Sula, the community manager, who only has one line at the very end of the episode, gets a powerful entrance when she angrily exclaims, “He gave you my parking spot?” I particularly like the arc that Donovan, Theodora, Sula, and Roy have over the course of the season. While they very quickly unite against Codex and are initially just Codex’s antagonists, it soon becomes apparent that there is also a strong bond of friendship between these four. From Sula and Theodora talking casually about the benefits of wearing glasses to the revelation that all four of them leaked the Game expansion together, they become like a guild of their own. Perhaps they even do play in their own guild on their free time.

Of course, it is the Knights of Good who are the stars of the show and the ones who drive the majority of the action. Clara and Bladezz get a subplot together this season involving Bladezz’s continued attempts at internet stardom, this time capitalizing on Clara’s skills, or lack thereof, as a mother. This storyline surprisingly never really ties into the other characters’ stories. Bladezz and Clara end up back at the Game HQ at the end more because of a coincidental whim than because their activities actually bringing them there. While this is a bit of a weakness, I’m not particularly bothered by it as they get some of the funniest scenes this season. In particular, Bladezz’s attempts to “distract” Wiggly by making him rediscover his wild youth are hilarious. Wiggly’s triumphant saving of the day with his discus throwing at the end is another highlight.

The character whose story I was least interested in this season would be Tink. As I mentioned above, Tink is a character who really hasn’t changed much in the six seasons despite learning a number of lessons along the way. On the whole, this hasn’t bothered me. However, this season started to feel like just more of the same. It wasn’t egregious, but enough to make me care just a little less about her storyline.

In contrast to Tink, Zaboo has experienced much more character growth over the series, even if that growth has brought him pretty much full circle back to where he started in Season One. He has always had a tendency to manically fixate on one specific thing that he decides is everything he wants out of life. In Season One, it was Codex. In Season Six, it’s Sabina, the NPC mermaid in the underwater expansion of the Game. By the end of Season Five, Zaboo was starting to become a little less manic and a little more worldly. His obsession over Sabina this year is a regression, but not an entirely unbelievable one. Everyone takes the occasional step backwards in their progress through life. And Zaboo’s step back allows for the wonderful “in-game” scenes with Sabina, and Justine Ezarik’s brilliant performance. Ezarik nails the game-like movements and responses of the character.

I’ve already commented a little on how Codex is the character who grounds the series in a certain normalcy and reality. Being the central character, she is also the one who has had the most extensive and consistent growth over the whole series, and Season Six carries on from exactly where she was at the end of Season Five. While she still has doubts about her abilities, she’s slowly developing more ability to assert herself, first against her coworkers and then against the mob of Vork supporters who have gathered outside the Game HQ. One of the things that makes Codex’s journey so engaging and entertaining to follow is Felicia Day’s seemingly effortless performance. It’s a role that she’s undoubtedly written a lot of herself into and that allows for a completely believable journey and the presentation of the one character in the show who is actually likeable as a real person and not just as a character.

The highlight of Season Six, however, is Vork. Here is a character who truly causes all his problems, yet somehow manages to solve them all, too, and in utterly hilarious ways. His story this season starts slow, but takes off from the moment he crashes through the skylight in Floyd’s office. This moment was surprising, funny, and totally Vork. As is his declaration that he has filed “over one thousand five hundred and thirty-four complaint longs and had only one responded to!” Only Vork would use “over” and then follow it up with a precise number! But just when I thought he couldn’t top his entrance to Floyd’s office, he perches himself on a dragon statue to lead a protest against Floyd and the Game’s management—and all just to impress Madeline. I love that, even as his protest grows and he gains scores of supporters, he remains true to his personal ideals of good. When everyone else (spurred on by the aptly named Black Knight) believe that he’s encouraging them to raid the Game HQ, he admits that he was actually just thinking of drawing up a petition for everyone to sign. And, of course, it is Vork’s storyline that brings together the stories of all the Knights of Good at the end (even if this is only peripherally true in the case of Bladezz and Clara).

If I had only one true complaint about Season Six, it would be that the resolution is a little too quick and easy. I like that the protesters end up admitting that it’s their own general hang-ups and insecurities that cause them to insult Floyd online and that they actually love his work. It’s a nice commentary on online commenting even if they admit it a little too readily. However, actual online commenting can become incredibly vicious and that seemed to be personified in the Black Knight—until it is suddenly undermined at the last moment by having even him turn out to be a nice guy after all. His earlier cruel and misogynistic comments are pretty much forgotten about, and that’s a bit of a let down. I would have preferred to have seen him get more of a come-uppance. Indeed, that almost seems to happen when he calls out to Floyd, drawing his sword and Wiggly arrives to save the day. As I said earlier, it’s a great moment, but it’s marred somewhat in the next moment when the Black Knight says that all he wanted was to get Floyd’s autograph. Still, a slightly weak ending is not enough to undermine the rest of an excellent season.

Indeed, I came out of the final episode feeling very pleased and satisfied, and that’s always a good sign. Season Six is a season full of great laughs that re-establishes The Guild as the best web-series out there. Bring on future seasons!

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