While promoting Good Game, a YouTubeRed sitcom, co-executive producer Michele Morrow promised its prospective paying audience that the stories of its female characters would reflect her own experience being a woman in the gaming world. It’s a promise that, in the long run, turned up hollow, even when delivering female characters that dare to be as flawed as their male counterparts.
Good Game is mainly the story of Alex Taylor (played by Dan Avidan), a former musician and current stoner whose incorruptible idealism brushes up against his barely-best-friend Ryland Tate’s (Arin Hanson) dour realism. Good Game follows Alex’s quest to form an esports team around Ryland’s incredible skills as a MMORPG player. Alex hopes to win a million dollars at a league-wide bloodmatch. Ryland, however, has been suppressing his skills for years after a video of him having a meltdown went viral. Still, Alex manages to convince Ryland to join him.
They recruit locally for their team called eSports People: Kamal (Rahul Abburi), a teenage boy who spends his spare time trolling; Lorenzo (Michael Ornstein), their manchild landlord; Sam (Jade Payton), a college-aged Olympics hopeful who’s become a whiz in the eSports field due to a sidelining injury; and finally Ash (Michele Morrow), an eSports reporter who rejects a lifetime of being ogled as piece of eye candy to publicly claim her love of gaming—and loses her job in the process.
The humor, though in a similar vein as Community and Rick and Morty (Good Game’s headwriters, Sarah Carbiener and Erica Rosbeand, are currently part of the latter’s writing staff), lacks the courage to commit completely to ugliness, nor does it allow the audience to truly emotionally bond with most of its characters. The tone is all over the place, and the editing feels like it was done with a food processor.
Yet while some jokes do land, and while it’s easy to invest in Ryland’s battle to overcome the teenage trauma that has circumscribed his life, the show delivers a lot of troublesome messages when it comes to trolling, queerness, race, and its female characters. Indeed, Sam and Ash are complex characters, yet they also manage to show off the writers’ nearsightedness and even their lack of empathy.
Sam is, on the surface, a fascinating character—a Black tennis player who’s been working her whole life to become an Olympic-tier competitor, only to have an injury ruin her promise. That injury causes her to take eSports People on as an almost cult-like secondary family, and she transfers her sense of hyper competitiveness to the world of eSports. Sadly, Sam’s character follows the angry black woman stereotype to the letter—from emotionlessly breaking a dying animal’s neck, to becoming so hypercompetitive she suffers partial paralysis from a stroke, to gleefully joining Kamal in trolling their competitors out of the competition. Furthermore, the unfortunate way the writers chose to inform the audience of Sam’s bisexuality and its point of view on how women of color should react to trolling situations are the two biggest examples of how it manages to let down female viewers, especially female viewers of color, and doesn’t make the situation outlandish enough to transcend into full parody.
The final episode, “Blood Match,” addresses Sam’s bisexuality with a throwaway plot. She mentions that she so rarely cuts loose that, when she drinks, she flirts with any and everyone who meets her fancy. That culminates in her pursuing a voice actor Lorenzo was shyly flirting with. It’s a moment that leads nowhere and doesn’t inform her character—her sexuality becomes another predatory part of her characterisation, an outgrowth of her anger and hypercompetitiveness.
The show’s fourth episode, “Don’t Cross the Streams,” is the only one that deals directly with what women in gaming face when it comes to trolling. As the team holds a livestream, Ryland learns that Sam has muted the service’s chat window because it’s filled with racist, sexist trolling and threats. He chews out the crowd on the stream—and the end result is the trolling worsening. Sam scolds Ryland that his whiteknighting isn’t helpful, and he agrees to back off, but he makes a series of jokes along the way.
It’s an ugly and unfortunately untrue moral to deliver. The idea that if you just ignore the bullies then you will triumph over their typed arrows is one that’s been handed down throughout the ages, but as multiple scandals in the eSports world can attest to, that’s not a practical or easy thing to do. In a world where women are sometimes harassed and stalked to the point of being unable to stay in their homes, let alone allowed to enjoy a hobby they love, it’s downright unsympathetic.
The show’s dichotomic point of view on trolling is embodied by its two characters of color, Kamal and Sam. While Sam benefits from completely ignoring the harassment thrown at her, Kamal benefits from creating it—and we’re meant to see him as a character to root for, even as he exposes an opponent’s eating disorder and pastes an enemy’s head on a donkey’s ass.
Yet the main villain, Streamin’, is called out for behavior that’s either as bad (faking his own swatting and pinning it on eSports People; trying to cause a distraction during a charity tournament) to not as bad (using his girlfriend to seduce Alex into joining the team; trying to humiliate Ryland on-camera while filming a documentary) as the multiple abuses Kamal perpetuates. The show seems to be suggesting that actual, visceral physical acts—taking it “one step too far” into the material world—is a worse act than perpetrating emotional abuse and cyberbullying. It dedicates its entire second episode to telling its audience that inner-team sniping—from Kamal making fun of Lorenzo’s queerness to Sam calling Kamal ‘onions’—is a better option than Lorenzo trying to micromanage everyone’s behavior into politeness. If we’re supposed to believe that harassment is ‘no big deal’ and part of gaming, and thus, should be ignored, then why does the entire plot hinge on the fact that Ryland’s seeking revenge for Streamin’ humiliating him by showing his meltdown on a big screen at a charity competition? Who’s more evil: Kamal or Streamin’?
And what of Ash? The best that can be said for her is that she is assertive. The worst is that the origin point of her rebellion—her fight against being seen as just a pretty face–is subsumed and never addressed after the pilot, and her vanity ends up becoming a defining character trait. As a gamer, she never gets to do anything interesting in the show—and when she’s given the opportunity to join an all-female eSports team, the women are all portrayed as yoga and guru-obsessed New Agers. The message is clear—Ash is Not Like the Other Girls, and is better because of it. When she goes from being a recreational drinker and stoner to a comedy alcoholic in the last two episodes, and it’s lightly implied that Ryland’s ultimate gift for defeating his demons is a romance with her, one can only marvel at the lack of forethought to the plotting.
If Ash is Ryland’s prize, then Lorenzo—the show’s major queer character—is a cardboard stereotype. Lorenzo’s sexuality is almost entirely neutered, and his sense of accomplishment revolves around his pride in being a good Gauntlet player—which is then ruined when it’s of revealed that he’s terrible at it. And despite being the “token queer,” his only attempt at romance is ruined when Sam steps in. His saving grace reveals itself when he eventually grasps the MMO’s mechanics and becomes a good healer; he is even given a triumphant moment when people show up dressed like him at the Blood Match. But this victory falls short for his character, and would have been impactful if the show had not turned him into a punching bag.
Good Game’s willingness to give us a group of unsympathetic protagonists of varying genders and colors should be lauded. But the show’s lack of wit, grace, or imagination in condemning bullies across the spectrum of experiences make it hard to laugh at.
Lisa Fernandes is a middle-aged writer with a nose for what’s happening in the media, from nerd culture to the mainstream. Formerly of Firefox.org and NextProjection’s TV Department, she’s also on staff as a reviewer at All About Romance. Inquiries for work may be set to missmelbouvier (at) gmail (dot) com.