[25 March 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
Perhaps the single greatest thing about the Internet is that it has provided a conduit for individual creativity for those who have been unable or unwilling to work through mainstream media outlets. People have evaded the gatekeepers by essentially becoming their own gatekeepers. This openness of the Internet has made public things as wonderful and as varied as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (which was released gradually on the Internet before it was released by Random House in book form) and Lily Allen (who released several of her songs on her MySpace page before releasing her first CD) and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (who also released their songs on the Internet before self-releasing their first CD) and great online journalist sites like Talking Points Memo and DailyKos, and online events like the Whedon combine’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
The Internet has also given us The Guild.This series was born when Felicia Day, a dedicated online gamer, unsuccessfully pitched the idea of a TV series to a studio about the offline adventures of the members of an online gaming guild, the game pretty transparently being World of Warcraft. Instead of giving up after studio disinterest, she decided to bypass the Hollywood TV system and with friends do the show herself as an online series.
In the finest Hey-let’s-put-on-a-show! tradition, The Guild has emerged as arguably the best known and most celebrated Internet series, so much so that they get their own panel at Comic-Con, complete with enthusiastic fans. DVDs for Seasons One and Two are available both separately and collected in a set, while Season Three is currently available as an Amazon.com exclusive, with a general release of the DVD scheduled for May 2010. The episodes are also available on the official Guild website and on Youtube.
The show follows the real life interpersonal adventures of six members of the online gaming guild The Knights of Good. Codex, played by series creator, writer, and executive producer Felicia Day, is a perpetually flustered, unassertive, underachieving, but nonetheless adorable professional violinist. Vork, the guild leader, is even more of a slacker, a somewhat older guy who whose only visible means of support is cashing the social security checks of his deceased father, whose death he has never reported. He has developed frugality to the level of vice.
Tinkerballa is an Asian female medical student whose extreme cuteness is surpassed by her manipulative and bitchy personal style. Clara is a busty mother of several toddlers that she perpetually ignores in order to play her MMORPG (for nongamers, this stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). Her nonchalant disregard for the well-being of her kids provides some of the show’s funnier moments. Zaboo is a Hinjew (half-Hindu, half-Jewish) would-be wooer of Codex who has some serious boundary issues. In Season Three he is engaged in a wildly inappropriate S&M relationship with the first woman who has ever returned his affections.
The guild is rounded out by Bladezz, a teen-aged pretty boy who strives to be ϋber cool despite constantly managing to get into humiliating situations that clash with the image he is trying to build. At the beginning of Season Three, Bladezz and Tinkerballa have major unresolved issues. In Season Two he has run up some major credit card bills with the expectation that she would repay his gifts for sex. When she neither agrees to sleep with him nor return the gifts, Bladezz deletes her major in game character.
We never learn the real life names of most of the guild members, but Codex, Vork, Tinkerballa, Zaboo, Clara, and Bladezz emerge as well-rounded and highly articulated characters. Perhaps the key to the success of the series is how distinct and believable each of the characters on the show is. All of the actors, especially Jeff Lewis as Vork and Felicia Day, shine in their roles. If you have played online games, the problems they experience are all too real.
We laugh at Clara, but there really have been instances with children dying because their parents ignored them for extensive periods of time while playing some MMORPG. In 2003 a child who was left in a car in Springdale, Arkansas died while his mother played EverQuest while more in Korea in 2005 an unattended baby suffocated while its parents played World of Warcraft at an Internet café.
The crises afflicting the members of the Knights of Good will all have an aura of familiarity. Anyone who has engaged in a group quest knows how Clara felt in Season Two when she was unable to bid on an especially good piece of loot. Or more poignantly, people you spend time playing with for days can seem more real to you than people you encounter in real life. (This reviewer’s sins were Asheron’s Call and WoW.)
Another reason that gamers love this show is that it reflects the very odd alliances that really do form when you play online. If you join a guild, you might find yourself questing with people both much older than you and much younger, and certainly with people you’d never associate with in the nonvirtual world. You may simultaneously be playing with a bank assistant vice president and father of three in Nova Scotia; a 20-something clothing store clerk in Oslo, a 12-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama; a college co-ed in Wooster, Ohio; and a 50-year-old computer programmer in Sydney, Australia. The Knights of Good is unusual in that it is a local guild (meaning that the members all live in the same town, something that is actually pretty rare), but the geographical proximity is essential to their being able to interact with one another away from virtual space.
Season Three of The Guild displays far more sophistication than the first two, not least because of a slightly larger budget. It’s clearly more ambitious, with far more set ups, double the number of characters, more varied sets, and a vastly more complex storyline. Although the entire production remains several steps below low budget, it at least has ascended above no budget.
The central narrative of Season Three focuses on the Knights of Good’s conflict with the aggressive and generally unpleasant gaming guild the Axis of Anarchy, led by Fawkes (played by Wil Wheaton). When they successfully cut in front of the line that had been held by Vork and other guild members in order to be the first to get the game’s new expansion pack, it triggers a crisis in the Knights of Good, with Vork resigning and Tinkerballa leaving to join the Axis of Anarchy. Codex takes over as leader as the guild gradually falls apart due to a host of external pressures, including Zaboo’s relationship with someone perhaps best described as a dominatrix, Clara’s marital difficulties, and Bladezz having been outed as a male model. Vork, meanwhile, travels around the city in his van, trying to find Wi-Fi hotspots to play the game, since he is too cheap to pay for his own high speed internet.
In addition to all episodes of Season Three, the two-disc set comes replete with a host of extras. There are two commentary tracks, one with the cast members and another with a commentary by the crew. The second disc is all extras, including the highly successful music video “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, which has enjoyed over eight million hits on Youtube. There is also a short documentary about the genesis and filming of the video, including an interview with co-composer and video director Jed Whedon.
There has been, by the way, a surprising amount of overlap between the careers of The Guild creator, writer, and star Felicia Day, Jed Whedon, and his wife Maurissa Tancharoen. Wife and Hubby were, with Joss Whedon, the writers and composers of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which featured Ms. Day as female lead. Felicia also appeared in the most critically acclaimed Season One episode of Dollhouse, the DVD episode “Epitaph One,” which was written by Jed and Maurissa, as well as the series finale “Epitaph Two: Return.” Then the three reunited for “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” in which Maurissa appears as one of the backup dancers (she is the tall Asian dancer on the far right behind Tinkerballa and also plays the wench on the right feeding grapes to Bladezz).
Given their joint successes, one can only hope they continue to collaborate on things. (Jed and Maurissa have joined the writing staff of the so-bad-its-almost-good Spartacus: Blood and Sand; hopefully they can do something to improve this turkey of a show to something worth watching.)
The other features on the disc include the Halloween video that they made for the website, the fan videos submitted new guild applicants, a video on how to make a replica of Vork’s sword, interviews with the members of the Axis of Anarchy, a gag reel, and the scripts in PDF format. If you are a fan of the series the pair of discs will provide an extended experience of The Guild universe. If you are not a fan of the show, you shouldn’t start here. Either buy the Season One and Two DVDs, or stream the episodes off the official website and then watch these.
The Guild is a delight on more than one level. In a world where corporate Hollywood exerts minute control over the content of the airwaves – even when the “waves” come to us via cable – it’s refreshing to see someone do an end run around the system and find success on their own terms. What makes the show even more delightful is that it truly is a wonderful comedy, with well drawn, easy-to-like characters. While The Guild may be one of the first successful series to have been spawned by the Internet, it will hardly be among the last.