Monday, May 9, 2016

Legend of the Lich Lord

So I was up till 3:30 this morning (um...that would be Thursday morning, actually, though I'm probably posting this Friday or Saturday) watching the entire series of Legend of the Lich Lord, the latest YouTube series from Spencer Estabrooks and the One Hit Die folks.

[EDIT: yeah, this is getting posted even later. Sorry about that!]
Some ambitious D&D-style
(web) TV from Canada.

As usual, I'm a little late to the party, seeing as how this was released back in October...though I did mention its imminent release back in September. Even so, I want to talk about it a bit.

There's a lot that I don't like in this series. I want to start with that. I know, I know...I'm O So Mean. Keep in mind that I did spend my time (and precious hours of my time) watching the thing. There's enough substance there that (for me) makes it worth watching. There are some genuinely funny bits. There's some fair acting. It's D&D...really, it is. And it's independent filmmaking which, of course, I want to support and promote. Art, etc., etc.

Plus, it's compelling. I mean, each episode made me want to watch the next episode, which should be a goal of every good series (TV or internet). Case in point: TV crack like Game of Thrones.

For me, OHD is compelling...but not, perhaps, in the way the filmmakers are hoping. It piques my curiosity...I genuinely want to see where the show is going. I'm interested in the destination of the plot. However, the journey to that destination isn't always fun...or, at least, not as fun as it could be.

That's the thing I'm trying to figure out...right now, as I type this. There is some disappointment for me with the second series of OHD, and not just because the show displays some amateurish filmmaking (I realize this is a low-budget internet production, so of course I cut it some's the film equivalent of your neighborhood theater group). I'm not sure, but I'd guess my dislike stems from  either my sensibilities as a gamer and/or as a film watcher...OR it comes from some disappointed expectations. Right or wrong, I feel like the latest OHD series is a missed opportunity.

Okay, now I'm going to write out some specific critiques, but they will probably contain SPOILERS so if you want to watch the show first (and draw your own opinions), you probably don't want to read the following notes just yet.

By The Way: I DO think folks should watch and support the show, and I would very much like to see a third season. I think there's potential there that hasn't been mined...I truly feel like the show has yet to "hit its stride." gripes (in no particular order):

I think OHD suffers from wanting to adhere too much to its "mockumentary" style. There's a fairly obvious influence from shows like The Office and Parks & Rec. I think it's important to understand why those shows are successful with this style of filmmaking: 1) the writing is spectacular (and I will address OHD's writing in a moment), 2) much of the humor comes from the ho-hum setting. The idea of spending time and resources to make a seriously thorough documentary about the scrub office workers of a smalltime paper company (The Office) or a small government department of a small town (Parks & Rec) is ridiculously absurd...and yet through the lens of the filmmaker we see how their small-time, non-Earth-shaking concerns can still hold drama in the lives of the characters, with big emotional stakes, even (or despite) the silliness of their mundane, daily lives. Petty politics, office romances, infighting and bullying...these are things that a lot of people can relate to from their daily lives, and even we can acknowledge the ridiculousness of it when viewed from a large enough frame of reference. And yet, there's humanity to it as well, which makes all the ridiculous characters lovable in their own silly ways.

[another show in the same style, VEEP, takes a slightly different tact by taking the sacred cow of the American White House, and boiling it down to its most mundane bits and pieces, showing it as just another workplace full of shmucks, rather than some group of lofty power brokers...but it's still the ridiculousness inherent in the daily grind that is on display]

OHD, though, isn't about the "real world." It's not about LARPers dressed in RenFair costumes, even if the first season often sounded like it was (talking about the Out-Of-Character needs to gain experience points and level up, etc.). Instead, it's a show about fantasy characters in a fantasy world going on fantasy adventures. There's certainly things in OHD that gamers will identify with (not exactly broad appeal that), but there's little "real world" humor and humanity. To me, the little asides (the 4th wall-breaking talking heads) feel jarring given the hyper-reality of the show's setting. Consider another television show, 30 Rock, which people often associate with the (aforementioned) mockumentary shows. 30 Rock is NOT a "mockumentary;" it is hand-held, slice-of-life filmmaking of a deliberately absurd hyper-reality. There are no side interviews, no panning to the (fake) documentarian. The musical score/soundtrack is played throughout the show (not just briefly between scenes) to accentuate the fact that this is a fictional piece, created for slapstick humor about some extremely over-the-top nut jobs.  Maybe that style would be more suitable to what OHD is trying to do, especially considering some of the slapstick touches OHD regularly adds to its scenes.

Personally, though, I think the subject matter is far more suitable for a different style of show altogether: something akin to the live-action fantasies of Sid & Marty Krofft...just written for adults rather than children. It has all the elements needed for that kind of crazy...things like The Bugaloos, or Dr. Shrinker, or Land of the Lost...right down to the guys in the rubber-faced, monster outfits (and a very sexy necromancer...necromantress? an updated "Witchie-Poo"). If OHD was to take its cues from the Krofft brothers...well, I think we'd see a style of medium eminently suitable to the production.

Of course, OHD doesn't have the sound studios (mores the pity), which I would guess is due to budgetary constraints. But dammit, that's another major gripe I have! Much as I love some of the forest scenes (the Elvish king was a highpoint for me...I shall henceforth portray all elves in similar fashion), I get tired of watching the characters tramp through the outdoors. A D&D-inspired show should have more "dungeon" to it...and necromancers and undead should not be hanging out in broad daylight just because it's cheaper to light. Isn't there some local set designer that could cobble together something modular in way of a "dungeon set" that could be shifted around as needed to represent different  chambers and whatnot? I mean, isn't it kind of a running gag of D&D that all dungeons are composed of perfect 10' wide corridors? Couldn't that be built into the show as part of the commentary/humor/satire of the thing?

Anyway, I've known some pretty creative set designers who were good at coming up with all sorts of clever ideas on the cheap (one of the reasons they got paid before the actors). Maybe no one was to be found among the back alleys and neighborhood theaters of Alberta, but I have a tough time believing it. I'd like to see OHD scrounge something up for season three.

Let's see; what else? I disliked the "beating-the-dead-horse-into-the-ground" brand of humor. A lot of time, it seemed that one-note-joke scenes ran overlong, filling far too many empty minutes (how many mummy heads need to fly before one gets the point? how many times do we have to explain the Lich Lord's "orb" isn't his eye?)...but perhaps that's a stylistic choice, or perhaps I am just an un-funny person. For me, it felt like the script could have used an extra set of eyes to say, "hey man, hit it  and quit it" and move on to the next clever/funny bit. The actors...especially the returned ones from last season...seemed competent enough to deserve some better writing.

But OTHER THAN ALL THAT...yeah, I just threw up a few thousand words of negativity, but I still think One Hit Die is a fun project, worth watching/supporting and certainly worth continuing. I think it's ambitious (in a good way), and can see the possibility of the show being pretty cool with a little tweaking to the writing and production; certainly, it could be a vehicle for communicating useful commentary on both the game and gaming...the scene where the thief gets stuck in the girdle of masculinity/femininity and turns into a "sexy pirate" was both amusing and (dare I say) pertinent ('Why are your shoulders suddenly bare?"). Even the whole "teamwork" thing was a nice coda to the season, if a little primary school in tone...but then, didn't I say the thing would be better suited to the old Saturday Morning Krofft shtick?

[and oh, the druid. Loved the druid. Need to get him reincarnated]

So watch the series, recommend it, support it, and hope that One Hit Die will continue to grow and evolve. That's what I intend to do. Hell, in all honesty, I wish I could get in on the certainly looks like they're having fun with it.
: )

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