Video Game High School: Pwned for the Holidays

Series producer Matthew Arnold continuously warned me that the fifth episode of Video Game High School would be a big shake-up to the established order of things. Every hint he dropped made me hope for a Christmas special because I freakin' love Christmas specials! I wasn't disappointed. They call it L33tmas, but yeah, here's the VGHS Christmas special!

The show continues to dance a very edgy line as far as web series go, and I'm not sure if it's brave or reckless. Where even shows with the clout like Arrested Development are tailoring their lengths for the ADD YouTube medium, VGHS insists on these full-length television running times. I keep expecting it to backfire on them, this stubborn adherence to the regular TV industry standards this season, but it just keeps working. There's little to no padding, and the stories that the show tells throughout the episodes grow in startling ways.

Even more daring, this episode features exactly zero gameplay footage. It takes place entirely in real life, which is a brilliant analogy for the need to step away from the controller every now and then and reconnect on a basic human level. As they have done so masterfully this season, the team behind the show explores what exactly being so immersed in games and gaming culture is doing to the next generation. As an experiment, it was dangerous, but as an art work, it's nails it!

See also: Video Game High School: Play to Learn

In one sense, this is actually the first real Brian D episode of the new season, which is weird because he's in it for less than half the scenes. We've already explored how sad Brian (And pretty much everyone else's) home life is outside of VGHS. His mother hasn't spoken to him since he enrolled, and her only communication was a note when she shipped his cat off to him. Now he's determined to connect with his new family of friends at the school by making a Thanksgiving dinner for all of them.

Side note, each student at the school has picked a different holiday to celebrate on L33tmas, everything from Easter to Opposite Day.

Brian's problem is that one bit at a time his plate has gotten to overflowing. The loss of his scholarship, the fact that he's had to keep his relationship with Jenny secret, his part-time job cleaning to pay for his school, and the load at first-person shooter have worn him down to almost nothing. As he tries desperately to have one nice, quiet night of calm celebration, all his friends around him continue manically in their own pursuits.

Eventually, Brian snaps over a tiny thing at the dinner, cursing his friends as selfish, and storming out to finish his janitorial work.

One person I've almost never mentioned in the course of reviews is Harley Morenstein as Dean Ernie Calhoun, and that's a sin because Morenstein is bloody brilliant. Like Brian Firenzi, he's the master of surrealistic moments that make him an integral part of Brian D's torment. He's always the last little twist of the knife in any given situation, and an integral part of the show that I should probably celebrate more.

Here he has his finest moment as he stands in an Easter Bunny costume looking down at Brian, who has slipped in a puddle and gone flat on his back. Seeing Brian in this position, Calhoun finally drops the "deal with it" mask, and reveals that he too knows the pain of being ostracized by family. He tells Brian that unlike his own son, he is a good kid, and that he is sure his friends will forgive him his outburst.

It's an incredibly warm moment, and so unexpected. It lays another brick in the foundation of this grand societal commentary on familial disconnected, and is just further proof that VGHS is a must-see series.

In other parts of the story, the robotic cohost of the national game show that covers the exploits of VGHS is set for shutdown because of negative commentary by fans. He manages to escape, and heads to VGHS in hopes of a big enough scoop to win back his job.

See also: Video Game High School: Parents Just Don't Understand

Disguised (barely) as a girl, Shot Bot befriends The Law, and aids him in his quest to prove he was framed for hacking by the season's new big bad, Shane Pizza. Chase Williamson has managed to bring a pretty fair level of menace to his role as Law and Ki's nemesis, but at times he still sort of feels like just a slightly less powerful version of Law himself.

Firenzi does himself no favors this episode either, coming across buffoonish. The glory of Law is the same thing that made Amber Von Tussell such a great villain in Hairspray; he's good enough to beat everyone around him fairly... it's just that he's an objectively horrible person that enjoys watching others lose in whatever way happens to be handy.

Here, he is made a fool of pretty consistently, especially when Shot Bot is revealed and Law was apparently clueless as to the robot's real identity. Even with all that, though, the moment when Law regains the evidence that he was framed, won by the fatal self-sacrifice of Shot Bot, is a powerful one.

"This was the greatest reporter who ever lived," he gasps through barely restrained exhaustion and rage. "Who will honor him?" He then hands the evidence to Shot Bot's partner before heading inside, pausing briefly to watch Brian being helped in his clean-up duties by his friends.

This episode showed that even without all the gameplay whistles and bells, VGHS is a top-quality product. It may have possibly been just a gimmick when it started way back when, but now it's literally the best show on the web, and could certainly give most things on network TV a run for their money.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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