[14 October 2009]
Gamers are often pigeonholed into a specific dorky personality, but they’re quite a diverse lot. Considering the wealth of gaming options available, it’s likely the nondescript guy or girl in the cube next to you could be a fanatic.I wouldn’t call myself an addict, but I have lost many hours to endless role-playing games. It’s nearly impossible to explain games’ allure to a skeptic, but The Guild offers an entertaining peek at the culture.
Dr. Horrible star Felicia Day was addicted to World of Warcraft for several years, and that experience inspired this charming web series. She originally wrote a half-hour pilot for the networks, but it was given the dreaded “niche” label. Re-tooling the show for the Internet created a perfect outlet to connect with like-minded viewers. The first group of short webisodes drew huge audiences and paved the way for a full 10-episode season. Premiering in late 2007, the entries lasted just a few minutes each but delivered major laughs.
Day plays Cyd, known to her fellow gamers as Codex. Unemployed and single, she spends most waking hours playing an online WOW-style game as part of a Guild. Known as the “Knights of Good”, it’s comprised of a wide range of colorful characters with their own unique quirks. We never actually see the game, but it plays a pivotal role for everyone. Their leader is Vork (Jeff Lewis), a bald, 40ish guy who’s excessively organized. His opposite is the unpredictable teen Bladezz (Vincent Caso), who cares little for any rules. Other players include the dim, neglectful mom Clara (Robin Thorsen) and the openly dismissive Tinkerballa (Amy Okuda), who even uses the Ugly Betty premise to fake her background.
The plot’s driving force is the naïve Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh), who responds to Codex’s innocent online flirting by arriving at her apartment with his suitcases. His stalking intentions are fairly innocent, but the guy just can’t take a hint, even when the message is really clear. Codex is completely oblivious to why he arrived and hopelessly tries to fix the situation. Zaboo employs inept wooing attempts while spouting ridiculous statements like “our keyboard chemistry is undeniable”. The situation grows even crazier when his obsessive mom arrives, leading to a climactic boss fight.
The season’s highlight is the awkward in-person first meeting of the Guild at Cheesybeards, the lamest restaurant ever. Vork brings a hunk of cheese to save money, Tink refuses to interact and Clara leaves her kids in the car. Although effective when taking down a dungeon online, the mismatched group is less cohesive in real life. The scene hilariously depicts the diverse personalities of the gamers without turning them into caricatures. That’s no easy feat and reveals the insider’s perspective that Day brings to the table. She makes the characters relatable while we laugh at their unusual behavior.
Day’s sharp writing is the starting point, but the clever material only works if the actors truly inhabit their characters. The extensive DVD gag reels show the major improvisational skills of the cast, particularly Lewis and Parikh. These guys repeatedly crack up their costars by pushing each moment to another level. Lewis steals nearly every scene he’s in, particularly at his house in season two. Vork’s droning voice and business-like approach to everything leads to many laugh-out-loud moments. The younger actors also hold their own, even those with little on-screen experience like Okuda. The series would fall apart if any of the key players couldn’t match their counterparts.
Each episode follows a similar structure. Codex begins with a quick monologue in front of her computer summarizing the latest events. Day shines in these moments and reveals skillful comic timing. Then the plot moves forward through a few quick scenes, ending in a cliffhanger. The episodes rarely drag and include plenty of classic lines during the brief conversations. The direction is straightforward but avoids the purposely low-fi look of many indie projects. The minimal sets also have a lived-in feeling that’s not easy to create.
The second season expands the original foundation and offers a broader and even funnier show. The actors are more confident and go even further with the characters. Zaboo’s obsession with Codex remains, but it’s just one of numerous story lines depicted. Clara goes even further off the rails and skips her sister’s wedding to have a gaming weekend. Tink leads Bladezz on and manipulates him into buying her gifts, and Codex flirts with a handsome stunt man neighbor. The story culminates in a big party at her apartment offering a fistfight and some sad revelations.
The best scenes involve Zaboo living with Vork while trying to “level up” to earn Codex’s love. He curls mustard bottles to build strength while his baffled roommate watches. Vork considers women a “short-term investment” and goes crazy while Zaboo tries to behave like a real man. Their “bonding” moments are some of the series’ finest and generate huge laughs.
The Guild is easily accessible for free online, which makes memorable extras required for a DVD. Thankfully, this two-disc release goes way beyond expectations and contains a wealth of fun bonus features. Each disc (split by season) includes two commentaries, one from the cast and another with the crew. All the lead actors contribute and provide an entertaining conversation. They veer into random topics but retain the chemistry that drives the show. The first disc also has cast interviews giving an overview of the plot and characters. The actors give interesting personal details, including their gaming backgrounds.
The second season’s extras improve on the first and provide interviews with both crew members and extras. The latter offers a great look at the show\s random participants and how they became involved. There’s also another cast featurette that showcases both returning and new actors, who genuinely seem to care about the material. Keep an eye out for several Easter Eggs that are easy to access. In one silly gem, Lewis plays Vork attempting stand-up comedy at Blizzcon 2008, with hilarious results.
Although The Guild includes some broad humor, its characters still speak to a specific type of viewer, which is a refreshing approach. Watering down their addiction for the masses would just create a duller mainstream product. The numbers might be smaller than a network series, but the devotion reaches a different stratosphere. Fan donations helped to produce the first season, and a third group of episodes premiered in August. Only a keen understanding of the gaming culture could generate such a dedicated, enthusiastic audience. There appear to be few limits on the continual rise of this “niche” series.