Writing about feminism in movies and television is a double-edged sword. There are so many ways to approach the definition of "equality", it makes speaking one's mind on the issue similar to walking a minefield. From where I'm standing, while there's obviously an overwhelming imbalance of entertainment for men vs. women, I feel like most "feminist" movies overcompensate by being so completely directed at women (women playing all the central roles, in a story that will hold little appeal to men) that they become exclusionary. Now, I admit, to a woman starved for specific entertainment, that may sound stupid, especially coming from a dude, but hear me out: instead of fighting fire with fire, I think using the point of view of just one or two women as a through-line in a story with more mass-audience potential is a better tactic. With the right mindset, these projects could easily retain the voice of women without ignoring male audiences, and through universal appeal, open more doors for other female writers and directors to make projects that everyone can see. As an example in this argument, I submit "The Guild", a flawed-but-charming and increasingly well-known webshow that has creator Felicia Day multitasking as star, sole writer and co-producer, with her friends Kim Evey and Jane Selle Morgan co-producing as well.
I'm not a World of Warcraft player; in fact, for all the time I spend at the computer, I don't play any real computer games, other than the occasional game of Yahoo! Pool. Thankfully, "The Guild" remains pretty accessible even to non-gamers despite a hefty helping of in-game slang (for which, conveniently, a glossary is included). The story follows Cyd Sherman, otherwise known as Codex, and her (partial) attempts to break away from the MMORPG (massively-multiplayer online role-playing game) that's eating up her life.
Day has a smattering of small roles peppering her resume prior to the creation of "The Guild", but this is her show all the way, and she carries it with low-key, naturalistic charm. Her performance reminds me of character actress Mary-Lynn Rajskub, whose clipped sarcasm and goofy charm have been quietly sneaking into various films while "24" pays the bills. Day's performance nails the self-effacing, train-of-thought style that dominates today's comedies, and she's good at talking to the camera, which can prove to be a challenge. Even in a world where she wasn't the writer/creator, she'd be the show's greatest asset as a bridge between audiences; it's the kind of performance that should be equally appealing to both women and men for subtly different reasons. As for her writing, it's sharply observed, with Day creating a number of wildly diverse personalities that bounce off of one another well and deftly balancing the in-jokey with the accessible.
Having seen all sorts of amateur productions aimed at geeks, it's almost sheer luck that all five of the show's other principal characters were handed to actors who can balance on a nerdy tightrope without tumbling into embarrassment. The three most prominent of the supporting roles are Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh), Vork (Jeff Lewis) and Clara (Robin Thorsen). Both seasons of "The Guild" included in this DVD set concern Zaboo's obsessive love for Codex, which he expresses by Photoshopping himself into her driver's license photo and moving into her house without warning. Codex is mildly terrified, and she tricks him into moving out by telling him he needs to gain more manly attributes. Zaboo then turns to Vork, an unemployed, obsessive-compulsive numbers man who took care of his father until the man's death. Since then, Vork has lived alone in his father's house without any electricity (stealing wifi from his Alzheimer's-afflicted neighbor), packing everything off into one room and only eating foods that can be bought in ludicrous bulk quantities. Meanwhile, Clara, a cheery, occasionally boozy mother of three tries to provide chin-up advice to Codex while she tries to cope with Zaboo's stalkerish tendencies. The trio forms a nice complement to the neuroses of Day's character, with Lewis offering the deadpan truth, Parikh remaining starry-eyed and optimistic and Thorsen simply going with the flow, perpetually pleased at almost any outcome. The other two performers, Vincent Caso and Amy Okuda, get in some good gags as the less-likable characters Bladezz and Tinkerballa (and Bladezz develops some positive aspects in Season 2 during a guy's night), but Tinkerballa's dismissive manipulation and Bladezz's jerky personality are naturally not as "fun" to watch.
Season 1 was directed by Morgan and Greg Benson, while Season 2 was directed by Sean Becker, and like everything else, the style has a shambling charm to it. For the most part, these episodes never attempt anything too directorially tricky, and while the low-budget nature of the production is obvious, it doesn't stand out as worse than any of the more popular material you see on the internet (the Angry Video Game Nerd, for instance, has a similar level of goofiness). Even within its independent confines, Season 2 takes a noticeable jump in visual quality, switching from full frame to widescreen and featuring glossier, roaming cinematography.
On the whole, "The Guild" lands about 75 to 80% of the jokes it launches, which, for the internet, is more than a respectable ratio. Since the show was initially designed as 7 to 10 minute bite-sized chunks and these DVDs present the episodes as hour-long reels, there's some repetition in the wordplay Day dreams up and the show, like every show, has its share of clunkers, but it's really pretty charming and even grew on me watching the bonus features. The best thing about "The Guild", though, is that you don't really need me to tell you whether or not you'll like the show; as a web series, it's available for free on YouTube (check it out here). Maybe you'll find yourself stampeding out to buy this DVD, maybe you'll be fine with the YouTube versions (or any number of other online outlets where it's available), or maybe you just won't like it, but to me, it represents an ideal example of progressive entertainment. "The Guild" and its growing popularity marks a massive success for independent female filmmakers without ever feeling the need to rub it in people's faces, and it really is refreshing. This is a show made on the fringes, by, for and about people some might call social outcasts, and yet, it never forgets to let anyone join in.
The episodes break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Wake Up Call", "Zaboo'd", "The Macro Problem", "Cheesybeards", "Rather Be Raiding", "Total Wipe", "Home Invasion", "Tipping Point", "Owning Bladezz", "Boss Fight!!".
Disc 2: "Link the Loot", "Block'd", "Quest Accepted!", "Heroic Encounter", "Sacking Up", "Blow Out", "Panic Attack", "Emergency!", "Growing Up", "Socializing Sucks", "Collision Course", "Fight".
No doubt some people reading this are thinking: "Hey, haven't I already bought 'The Guild' on DVD?" Yes, yes, you probably have, either through the show's official website (at www.watchtheguild.com) or through Amazon's burn-on-demand service. But, like Day's other claim-to-fame "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog", New Video Inc. has taken it upon themselves to produce a legitimate release of "The Guild" that can probably be found at your local brick-and-mortar store, if you're lucky. The new version of the DVD is a single-width Amaray with a flap tray, featuring some kinda-pictureless but otherwise extremely elegant artwork. As previously mentioned, there is an insert inside the case with a handy glossary of gaming terms, with a note from Felicia Day on the other side, and the disc art continues the refined tone.
The Video and Audio
Season 1's 1.33:1 and Season 2's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentations look pretty good for a transfer of web series. I didn't detect any jagged edges, which is almost shocking, although otherwise the picture is kind of digitally grainy and the clarity is soft. Audio is Dolby 2.0, and it's primarily devoted to dialogue. There's some hiss and echo from the source audio, but wonderfully, despite being a low-budget DVD, this set contains English subtitles on all 22 episodes.
As far as content goes, these two discs seem to be identical to the Amazon versions of the DVDs, so fans needn't worry they're being double-dipped.
Audio commentary is provided by on the entire season by all six members of the primary cast, and co-producer/co-director Jane Selle Morgan, co-director Greg Benson, and producer Kim Evey on separate tracks. The cast track is probably the best extra in the set. It's mostly mockery and jokes, but Felicia manages to get in plenty of information on the writing process and the rest of the cast occasionally stops laughing long enough to tell one or two of their own stories. The crew track is slightly less raucous and covers much of the same ground, but the participants are perfectly pleasant. Strangely, while selecting either commentary plays the whole season in a continuous chunk the way "Play All" does, the commentary version of the episodes includes all ten intros and closing credit reels, whereas "Play All" doesn't.
"Cast Interviews" (18:52) plays basically like a making-of featurette, with an extra-excited Felicia Day and the rest of the actors summing up their roles and cracking even more jokes (especially Parikh; it's odd that he claims he's unsure about acting, because he's very funny). Based on the commentary, I wonder if it might have been better to interview the whole group at once, since it feels kinda long, but it's worth a look, if only to prove how charming Amy Okuda is when she's not playing her character.
Caso, Thorsen and Okuda's amusing cast auditions (7:15) are next (which are incorrectly stretched to widescreen), followed by not one, not two, but three gag reels (3:24, 6:12 and 5:25). The first two are hilarious, but the third one is a little more esoteric, with coughing cuts and impossible takes. Lastly, a Christmas Carol Video (1:50) is probably the least-essential thing on the disc. This re-worked carol is full of gamer lingo and awkwardly-dubbed singing, so only the most hardcore "Guild" fans will likely watch it more than once.
If you pop the disc into your computer, the Season 1 script is also included in .pdf format.
Another pair of audio commentaries are provided for season 2, and this time, both are on more equal footing, with Day doing double-duty on both the cast and crew tracks (featuring Kim Evey and director Sean Becker). Once again, there's some overlap, and neither one is quite as good as Season 1's cast track, since Season 2 is longer and both groups have patches of silence, but there are plenty of hilarious jokes on the cast track and lots of production information on the crew track.
Season 2's interviews are more all-expansive, split into three chunks: "Meet the Cast" (15:49), "Meet the Crew" (8:38) and "Meet the Extras" (5:50). The cast featurette again runs kinda long, and this season's batch of interviews are extremely complimentary, but you do get to hear from people who aren't on the commentaries (like Fernando Chien and Michele Boyd) and see B-roll footage, which is a plus. More importantly, the clip contains the must-see sight of Felicia Day wearing a shirt with Bill Cosby's face on it. The crew featurette is a little more interesting, and it will probably appeal to those wondering how the show is produced, although again there's lots of "that scene was really fun to shoot". The "Extras" featurette is the most interesting, with a few hardcore Guild fans discussing how they became involved.
Three new gag reels are included (3:52, 4:18 and :). F-bombs are dropped in extreme quantities, card tricks are played, faces are pulled and mustard is spilled. All three of these are hilarious, especially any scene in which Parikh and Lewis try to crack each other up (which is every scene with both of them in it).
"Episode 1 Table Read" (6:35) is a pretty self-explanatory clip of the group sitting at someone's dinner table running through the first episode.
"Twas the Night Before Xmas" (2:41) is a second, considerably more appealing Christmas video with the cast performing their own version of, well, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".
Season 2's audition footage (6:01) are for newcomers Fernando Chien and Michele Boyd. They aren't as funny as Season 1's auditions, since neither of their characters is nearly as comedic as the main cast, but there's some hilarious deleted material with Parikh in the second half of Boyd's audition.
A gallery of fan art (0:44) rounds out the disc, with another .pdf of the script accessible via computer.
Once again, these discs appear to be the same as the existing releases, so the recent music video "Do You Wanna Date My Avatar" is not included, although I'm sure it will make its way onto an eventual Season 3 DVD.
I had some trepidation going in, because the internet is flooded with marginally talented people who think just because they have a camera and some jokes that make them laugh, their sensibilities will be quickly eaten up despite poor performances, technical errors and shoddy directing. Luckily, "The Guild" is not only good, but it strikes a blow for equality on both the gamer-geek and women's filmmaking fronts. Many fans will already own the content on these two discs and others won't need to pay to own what they can see for free, but for everyone else, this set gets a sold recommendation.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.