'Video Game High School' Season One was one of my favorite media moments of 2012, a confident and specialized web series that proved that independent internet creators were finally ready to create professional-grade content that could compete with mainstream television while still retaining its nerdy 4-Chan bred roots. After a successful large-scale Kickstarter drive, everything about Season Two is designed to expand, from its million-dollar plus budget to its extra hour of run-time. With the remaining installments to be released over the next few weeks, the first half-hour went live this Friday. Did Rocket Jump Studios' ambition pay off? The premiere starts surprisingly abruptly, with no expository recap for those who didn't do the assigned homework of watching Season One. Brian D. and gang's life hasn't skipped a beat since the dramatic defeat of The Law, back to the debatably mundane day-to-day of school routine at VGHS. Things seem to be looking up for Brian, who has both The Law out of his life and Jenny Matrix becoming a bigger part of it. Ted Wong is where he belongs in Drift class but finds his scatter-brained personality interfering with his studies. Ki Swan's problems seem to be the most abnormal, being targeted by her professor, who punishes her compulsive academic nature by not assigning her homework. Life for Brian is complicated by the appearance of Jenny's mom as the new FPS coach, putting new stresses on his burgeoning relationship.
Immediately the polished edges and scale of the budget is made apparent, with extensive CGI, more varied locations, and a new traditional title sequence, complete with video montage and theme song. The extended runtime also grants a more balanced approach to the characters, with Ted and Ki getting bumped up from their subplots in Season One to a more featured role.
In Ki's case this is definitely appreciated, as her character felt severely underwritten in Season One, with her arc largely being just a feature of Ted's. I'm excited to see Ellary Porterfield get more time to expand Ki, but her torment at the hands of Professor Freddie Wong seems to be quickly and tidily resolved in the first episode leaving the nature of her season arc a mystery. This similarly goes for Ted, as his story in the pilot seems largely self-contained; relying heavily on the great comedic chemistry he shares with Rocky Collins. Ellary is particularly fun to watch play tightly compressed manic, but both Ki and Ted will apparently have to wait till the next episode to begin their season long arcs.
Brian by comparison gets a bit more of an introductory chapter, focusing on his awkward wooing of the largely comfortably wooed Jenny. Josh Blaycock and Johanna Braddy both sell the relationship well, and the script does a good job of balancing stress and affection in a way that doesn't feel like the plot-centric obstacles are forced or artificial. Suffice to say this pair of Power Star-crossed lovers won't find love any easier than in Season One, but rather than the eye-rolling chore that thwarting the obvious couple tends to be, the cast and crew seem to apply the intelligence required to make the bumpy romance engaging.
At the center of it all, VGHS's reputation is on the line as The Law is found guilty of the virtual equivalent of doping, invalidating his considerable gaming record and by extension the school's. Enter Mary Matrix, Jenny's tough-as-nails mom and new VGHS FPS coach. Obviously set to be a major focus for the rest of the school year, it's difficult to get a bead on Cynthia Watros's Mary, besides the obvious tension she brings to Jenny's life. Instead of coming off as intimidating or edgy, Watros often just looks strangely, almost painfully, exhausted. It's hard to gauge her role going forward as we can't tell yet if she is an antagonist or a curmudgeony ally. All I know is I hope Zachary Levi isn't so busy that he can't pop in for a quick hello at some point. FPS ain't the same without Ace.
The action has expanded potential with the new budget, shown off dramatically in the sniper-centric match at the end of the episode. Gone is the single faux-Iraq location from Season One; enter Forest Zone complete with CGI tank. Being considerably more ambitious, the effects show their edges a bit more than Season One, but the new range of possibilities is a welcome extension, especially necessary early on when a Big Bad has yet to be identified.
The episode ends on a nice tease of next episode goodies, but it's hard to say what we actually know going forward. For a premiere “The Date” is all but self-contained save for Brian and Jenny's arc, but still sets the tone and flexes its muscles appropriately to show off the new grander scope. While perhaps a bit clumsy in setting up the new season's narrative, it's undoubtedly good to be back at VGHS. Grab a can of pizza and enjoy.