The show’s opening sequence starts with a woman in a black bodysuit facing off against a hulking monster. When she finishes him off with a jump-kick, the music swells and the words “Game Over” come up. “Did you ever wonder what happens after the game ends?” a voice reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne intones. “Welcome to the other side.”
The woman looks at her watch, says, “Shoot, I’m late for dinner,” and runs off to her waiting helicopter, unlocking it remotely with the familiar “squark” sound and the headlight flash. It was a subtle touch, one I didn’t notice until the opening sequence of the fifth episode — and by then it was too late.
I got hooked on UPN’s Game Over the first episode I saw. Admittedly, I expected it to suck, presumed it would be a cheap cash-in on videogame hype with a dysfunctional family à la The Simpsons, which one of its producers wrote for. But despite the similarities with that most esteemed clan, the family in Game Over doesn’t come off as derivative. The mother, Raquel, has just gone back to work now that her kids are teenagers — she’s a professional tomb raider, essentially. The dad, Rip, a generic race-car driver, has to cope with the fact that his wife is more successful and better paid than he is.
It’s this standard family sitcom stuff contrasting with the fantastical videogame world that creates most of the humour and narrative drive. Their neighbours are Shaolin monks who work from home, battling ninjas on their rooftop. Rip returns from a hard day on the racetrack to have the father monk backflip into his yard and remind him that city law prohibits the hedge from being higher than six feet. “It’s obstructing my vision when I’m backing the wagon out,” he says. “Plus, it makes us a lot more vulnerable to sneak attacks. It’s kind of freaking out Dark Princess.” He gestures to his wife dispatching attackers on the roof.
It’s a sharp depiction of a passive-aggressive neighbourly interaction that manages to mix the real and ridiculous. And the attention to detail — the grey stubble shading the monk’s head, his saying thank-you in Mandarin (xie xie) — shows an admirable familiarity with the cultures being lampooned. Billy, as a trend-obsessed 13-year-old, drops real hip-hop slang — when he receives a trophy for going to the store, he pumps his fist and crows, “This is for all the haters who thought I couldn’t go to the store!” When his socially conscious sister, Alice, calls her mother and finds out that she’s hanging from the roof in the middle of trying to grab a golden monkey from a crypt, Alice is indignant: “Mummies have a right to their cultural heritage, too!”
And thankfully, they’re intimately familiar with the games themselves. The sound of Rip’s races begin with the beeps of Pole Position. Alice’s phys-ed class is beach volleyball with a bunch of bimbos inspired by Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Billy’s puppy love for an anime exchange student who trails rainbows as she flies is cut short — she must return to Japan, for her family needs her: “It’s Godzilla season!” Her big eyes narrow. “We must kill him, many times.”
It’s this knowledge of what they’re mocking that gives the 2-D satire a third dimension. But it may also be the 3-D models. The computer-generated animation, done by Toronto’s DKP Effects, is very well done — it pays more attention to raised eyebrows than it does to conventional CG obsessions like perfecting reflective surfaces or skin texture. In an interview on UnderGroundOnline, Justin Kupka of DKP said, “One of the big assets we have are the videotapes of the actors recording their lines. They aren’t just reading them but acting them out. They do it 10 or 20 different ways. We see their gestures and use them in the show. It helps bring it up a level.”
The voice acting brings it to the next level after that, with Lucy Liu’s voice as the mom, SNL‘s Rachel Dratch as the daughter and Patrick Warburton (the guy who played Puddy on Seinfeld) as the dad.
Perhaps the whole enterprise was too high-level — after premiering in March it was pulled in April. The pundits predictably reported that it was game over for Game Over.
But is it really? For someone like me and the growing number of people who get most of their TV via Bit Torrent and other file-sharing methods, I’d rather have five episodes done right than 50 episodes done half-right. Heck, five 22-minute episodes is over a hundred minutes — a movie’s worth — of entertainment.
There’s a term for games that haven’t been sold for years, but still have an avid fanbase of players: abandonware. Either the company went under or just decided it wasn’t profitable enough to keep selling these games, so sites like the-underdogs.org distribute them for free just to keep these worthy titles alive. Maybe this is the fate of Game Over. Just because it couldn’t survive in the strange climate of network television doesn’t mean it won’t have a second life as a download, and perhaps as a DVD after that.
A show like Game Over deserves at least the standard three lives.