TV discussion

Quarantine Entertainment & Critical Role’s ‘Narrative Telephone’

I don’t know about you folks, but I haven’t been watching much actual TV under lockdown.  In fact, I may be watching even less actual TV than before lockdown kicked off, both current live running stuff and comfort food classics.  I start shows, like ‘em well enough, then inadvertently drop them off the face of the earth because I just can’t get into the headspace required to watch a series, let alone binge them.

The one time I have been able to, running through the complete series of Happy Endings, the enjoyment of watching an extremely funny show by the halfway point was being continually chased down by this nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me that I’m wasting days alive by sitting around binging a TV show.  It’s like my masochistic mind refuses to let me relax for even a second and forget that everything’s going to slow-motion hell.

Not helping TV’s case is that much of the stuff that’s still allowed to be produced is either attempting to pretend there’s not a major problem outside (such as professional wrestling or One Show-type magazine programmes) or struggling to adapt to the tangible changes and inherent difficulties home/Zoom production brings (such as the soaps or Daily Show-type late night comedy).

Narrative Telephone – Critical Role

I’ve been consuming a lot of YouTube but, whilst my usual video essay preferences provide content just substantial enough to make my brain feel like it’s doing something productive rather than slobbing around directionless growing an actual gut, few of my creators are doing anything out-the-ordinary so, even with the odd aside to our ongoing apocalypse, their content feels very business-as-usual and a touch dry.  And, particularly after one well-done Writing on Games episode about The Last of Us Part II proceeded to complete wreck my recommendations with 27 ALL-CAPS ANGRY EXCLAMATION MARKS!! outrage videos on that miserable discourse, it can be utterly exhausting to remain in that sphere after a while.

I did begin to consider the possibility that the weight of *points to everything outside their study-room window* and my latent depression were causing me to be the problem, incapable of properly enjoying things.  But two months back, I found a series that has really been scratching this hyper-specific itch, providing the comfort and joy I’ve so desperately needed as the pandemic drew on.

It’s a series which feels like it could only have been cooked up due to the enforced creative restrictions of pandemic quarantine orders and takes full advantage, it’s fun and light whilst not feeling disconnected from the anxiety-inducing hellscape of the outside world, it’s surprisingly fulfilling for the brain rather than just being a simple distraction, and it’s just parasocial enough to work as a kind of inclusive cathartic hug for those similarly unable to see the ones they love due to *points to ever-circling void*.  That series is Critical Role’s Narrative Telephone.

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Critical Role is a YouTube and Twitch channel in which eight “nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons” (their words).  As the pandemic kicked into high gear, the gang made the decision to suspend production of all their studio content and attempted to figure out ways to work around having to produce from home.  The idea that’s fully taken off has been Narrative Telephone.

In simple terms, it’s basically socially-distant Telephone.  Each episode sees one of the cast (decided at the end of the previous one by rolling their D20s) recording themselves telling a fantastical short story of their own creation.  That person then sends off the video to the next cast member down the chain who is only allowed to watch it once and then must record themselves recounting the story to the best of their ability.  Then, that recording is sent to the next person down the chain who does the same thing and so on and so forth, before everyone gathers together on a group video call to watch back the reliably slow-motion trainwreck for themselves.

The concept itself is inherently rife with entertainment potential and the presentation isn’t gussied up all that much, aside from clever usage of stock music which changes depending on how disastrous the current person’s take is.  And even if there weren’t any additional factors which pushed the series over the top for me, it’d still be a riot to watch.

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Ashley Johnson’s continued problems with short-term memory and questionable accent-work; Sam Riegel’s chaotic neutral attitude towards the whole thing; Taliesin Jaffe’s “mind palace;” “BOUNDARIES” which, thanks to episode six, is a word that I’m probably incapable of ever taking seriously again.  The decision to structure each episode in half, running all the clips for the viewer first and then doing them again through group ‘show and tell,’ also works far better than I initially thought as the gradual collective group mortification of where things exactly went wrong and accompanying good-natured riffing adds an additional layer of hilarity.

What makes Narrative Telephone sing, what’s made it the thing I didn’t realise I needed to help me through these days, is three-fold.  For starters, the cast are all giant goddamned nerds of the highest order and as such go gloriously extra with their charge in a way that’s infectiously inspiring and fun to witness as somebody who keeps wishing their own crippling sense of shame weren’t a prominent factor in their everyday life.

Each storyteller delivers their monologue as one of their D&D characters (thankfully you don’t need to know anything about Critical Role to follow along), voice and mannerisms included, which only makes the game harder for everyone else.  Impromptu dress-ups and atrocious impressions mixing with how the cast perceive those characters leads to some fantastically specific buterchings.

As the series has run on, each storyteller is deliberately finding new ways to fuck over those down the line as revenge for prior episodes – Ashley framing her story around a jewel cake recipe only to deliberately end it with “oh, I almost forgot to tell you the recipe, but you’ll figure it out;” Liam’s gratuitous German that sees a “waldhexe” turn into a “vortex” (later characterised during show-and-tell as a super-happening club); Sam tagging his story with a moral delivered in the style of a bard song which morphs into an early 90s power ballad.

The second reason is an extension of the first.  Because this is a cast of gleeful dorks incapable of doing anything half-measure, the stories have been surprisingly solid as narratives in their own right.  Marisha Ray’s, a tale of a family business having to deal with the possibility of being squeezed out of their town by disrespectful big winery (resolved via self-poisoning).  Ashley and Sam putting together classic morality tales with pleasing idiosyncrasies like jewels the size of apples or magical pince-nez.  Liam’s, a grim German folk tale.

In addition to the mini-narratives and running gags which pop up during and across the episodes – one in episode four’s show-and-tell which plays off a brief exchange about Laura Bailey’s lengthening lockdown hair is legitimately the hardest I’ve laughed in months – I find that I’m also getting solid slices of scripted entertainment of the kind that my usual outlets (namely LoadingReadyRun) have been rendered unable to provide due to the pandemic.  They’re weirdly compelling without being dense, overly-serious or time-sinks; also true of the show at large, episodes run on average just over an hour.

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And, loathe as I am to admit (for mental health reasons)… there’s a parasocial element to Narrative Telephone I can’t help but get at least partly wrapped-up in.  You can see in their collective energy just how much the group misses being able to hang out with each other, the tangible toll isolation is taking on everybody but, crucially, how momentarily freeing and uplifting getting to play together is.

There’s an unspoken acknowledgement that it’s not quite the same as being together in a studio physically, but also a comforting release and catharsis in managing to have that scheduled time every fortnight to check in and hang out like this new abnormal isn’t so terrifyingly abnormal.  There’s a sensation the series is just as much for them as it is for us.  It’s extremely relatable and comforting to have both that structure of something to regularly check in with and the knowledge that everybody is struggling through this as best they can.

Narrative Telephone, in those six episodes aired at time of writing, is a series which feels born out of this specific moment in time with the restrictions, creativity, and underlying cultural context that requires.  Which is why I’m curious and mildly worried as to how the series will end up looking now that the cast are somewhat reunited once again – having managed to finally organise the logistics for creating Critical Role in accordance with CDC guidelines.

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With this series having become so popular in the fan community that the gang have made clear it’s not going away once quarantine life came to an end, that additional semi-parasocial comfort which may have been a X factor of sorts for my infatuation with the whole thing has every chance of disappearing by virtue of circumstance.

I’m writing this piece the day that Taliesin’s episode is scheduled for Twitch airing, I believe the first one they’ll have put together after reuniting for studio CR tapings, and I guess soon I’ll find out how much of its magic so far has been down to my anxiety-riddled loneliness ascribing additional power to a fun silly light web series or how much is from the brilliance of the format and the winning charisma of the cast responsible for it. (UPDATE post-edisode: Never mind that fear.  Taliesin busted out percussive alliteration.  It was glorious.  Show’s gonna be fine.)

Most likely, this won’t really be an issue and my  mind is merely making an erupting volcano out of a molehill.  But even if something intangible does change, I’ll always be grateful for those two months of magic.  And Sam Riegel’s hysterically-terrifying valley girl Pike Trickfoot.

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