Quarantine Entertainment & Critical Role’s Narrative Telephone

How the Critical Role crew managed to stumble onto the perfect quarantine entertainment.

Note: an abbreviated version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

I don’t know about you folks, but I haven’t been watching much actual TV under lockdown.  In fact, I may be watching even less actual TV than before lockdown kicked off, both current live running stuff and comfort food classics.  I try and start shows, like ‘em well enough, then see myself inadvertently drop them off the face of the earth because I just can’t get into the headspace required to watch a series, let alone binge them.  The one time I have been able to, running through the complete series of Happy Endings (more on that soon with any luck), the enjoyment of watching an extremely funny show by the halfway point was being continually chased down by this nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me of how much of my days alive I’m wasting by sitting around binging a TV show.  It’s like my masochistic mind refuses to let me relax for even a second and forget that everything’s going to slow-motion hell in ever more mundanely absurd ways – e.g. this article is being penned hours after Kanye West announced a run for President, for fuck’s sake.

Not helping TV’s case is that the stuff which is still allowed to be produced, now with a mandate to reflect our new abnormal, has clearly been paralysed with confusion in what to do.  Professional wrestling or magazine programmes The One Show largely attempt to just go on as normal and pretend there’s not really a major problem out there; the results often alternating between kinda sad on a deep fundamental level and a near-Lynchian sense of wrongness.  Late night comedy shows, normally so adept at helping comfort viewers through the chaos of the world around them, have gone intimate and do at least address the current situation but, and this is especially true of The Daily Show, the rhythms of the writing and the joke deliveries still feel designed to cater for a studio audience which is no longer there.  I’ve heard from my mother that a few soaps, officially out of episodes filmed pre-lockdown but still obligated to fill time multiple days a week, have resorted to doing episodes set entirely around online video calls, failing to realise and account for how intrinsic the physical space and intimacy of soap opera’s theatricality is to its success as drama.  Ditto the infrequent popping up of charity show reunion specials, most notably Parks & Recreation.  Or that two-week period where fourteen different home-set live music telethons popped up at once and everyone put on their most dour and ‘tasteful’ stripped-down performances inside a successive collection of similar-looking giant-ass homes.

(That said, I am yet to try Staged, which Lee Thacker raved about over here.)

No, I’ve not been watching much TV.  Instead, I’ve been consuming a lot of YouTube videos.  Well, a lot more than the already-a-lot I was doing before the pandemic kicked into high gear.  Almost exclusively, this has been through video essays about various kinds of media since my aforementioned garbage brain gets particularly self-loathing whenever I fall down a hole of, say, reaction videos or Let’s Plays or those dang memes I’ll never fully understand.  They’re substantial enough to make my brain feel like it’s doing something productive rather than slobbing around at home directionless and growing an actual gut, whilst a lot of the ones I most especially love – Lindsay Ellis, Maggie Mae Fish, Mic the Snare – still feel in tune to the specific cultural hellscape of right now, often through the odd aside or what have you, in a manner that’s comforting without going full parasocial – a major reason I often avoid personality-driven YouTubers; this is important for later.

But with that said… none of them are doing anything they weren’t already doing pre-pandemic.  The pandemic may be upping some of their games and productivity rates, but this is content I normally consume anyway.  At least in the corners of the web that I frequent, those trying to adapt to socially-distanced lockdown entertainment are doing so through the thoroughly un-special forms of either group gaming sessions (see UpUpDownDown’s weekly UNO series which I enjoyed for a couple of months) or quizzes, neither of which are frankly all that creative.  And, particularly after one well-done Writing on Games episode about The Last of Us Part II proceeded to complete wreck my recommendations with 27 ALL-CAPS BOLD TEXT ANGRY EXCLAMATION MARKS!! outrage videos on that miserable discourse, it can be utterly exhausting to remain in that sphere after a while, most especially since negativity is the prized form of tone on the almighty algorithm hail its benevolent majesty.

After a certain point, I did begin to consider the possibility that the weight of *points to everything outside their study-room window* and my latent depression were causing me to be the problem, just kinda incapable of properly enjoying things.  (Films haven’t helped much either, frankly.)  But a few months ago, I found a series that has really been scratching this hyper-specific itch and providing the comfort and joy I’ve so desperately needed as the pandemic drew on.  It’s a series which feels like it could only have been cooked up due to the enforced creative restrictions of pandemic quarantine orders and takes full advantage, it’s fun and light whilst not feeling disconnected from the anxiety-inducing hellscape of the outside world, it’s surprisingly fulfilling for the brain rather than just being a simple distraction, and it’s just parasocial enough to work as a kind of inclusive cathartic hug for those similarly unable to see the ones they love due to *points to ever-circling void*.  That series is Critical Role’s Narrative Telephone.

Quick bit of context for those not in the know.  Critical Role is a YouTube and Twitch channel in which eight “nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons” (their words).  As the pandemic kicked into high gear, the gang made the decision to suspend production of all their studio content (including the main series) and have been attempting to figure out ways to work around having to produce from home.  The one that’s fully taken off has been Narrative Telephone.  In simple terms, it’s basically socially-distant Telephone.  Each episode sees one of the cast (decided at the end of the previous one by rolling their D20s) recording themselves telling a fantastical short story of their own creation.  That person then sends off the video to the next cast member down the chain who is only allowed to watch it once and then must record themselves recounting the story to the best of their ability.  Then, that recording is sent to the next person down the chain who does the same thing and so on and so forth, before everyone gathers together on a group video call to watch back the reliably slow-motion trainwreck for themselves.

The concept itself is inherently rife with entertainment potential and the presentation isn’t gussied up all that much, aside from clever usage of stock music which changes depending on how disastrous the current person’s take is.  And even if there weren’t any additional factors which pushed the series over the top for me, it’d still be riotously entertaining based purely on the merits of what goes down under the format.  Ashley Johnson’s continued problems with short-term memory and accent-work which seems to solely consist of fourteen variations on the New York mafia; Sam Riegel’s chaotic neutral attitude towards the whole thing; Taliesin Jaffe’s “mind palace;” “BOUNDARIES” which, thanks to episode six, is a word that I’m probably incapable of ever taking seriously again, like how Key & Peele did for “CONSEQUENCES.”  The decision to structure each episode in half, running all the clips for the viewer first and then doing them again through group “show and tell,” also works far better than I initially thought it would as the gradual collective group mortification of where things exactly went wrong and accompanying good-natured riffing adds an additional layer of hilarity on top of things.

What makes Narrative Telephone sing, what’s made it the thing I didn’t realise I needed to help me through these days, is three-fold.  For starters, the cast are all giant goddamned nerds of the highest order and as such go gloriously extra with their charge in a way that’s infectiously inspiring and fun to witness as somebody who keeps wishing their own crippling sense of shame weren’t a prominent factor in their everyday life.  Each storyteller delivers their monologue as one of their D&D characters (thankfully you don’t need to know anything about Critical Role and its world or characters to follow along), voice and character mannerisms included, which hilariously only makes the game harder for everyone else.  Impromptu dress-ups and atrocious impressions mixing with how the cast perceive those Crit Role characters leads to some fantastically specific buterchings.  As the series has run on, each storyteller is deliberately finding new ways to fuck over those down the line as revenge for prior episodes – Ashley ostensibly framing her story around a jewel cake recipe only to deliberately end it with “oh, I almost forgot to tell you the recipe, but you’ll figure it out,” Liam O’Brien’s gratuitous German that sees a “waldhexe” turn into a “vortex” (later characterised during show-and-tell as a super-happening club), Sam tagging his story with a moral delivered in the style of a bard song which morphs into an early 90s power ballad.

The second reason is rather an extension of that first one.  Because this is a cast of gleeful dorks seemingly incapable of doing anything half-measure, the stories by and large have been surprisingly solid as narratives in their own right.  Marisha Ray’s, a tale of a family business having to deal with the possibility of being squeezed out of their town by disrespectful big winery (resolved via sabotage and self-poisoning).  Ashley and Sam putting together classic morality tales with pleasing idiosyncrasies like jewels the size of apples or magical pince-nez.  Liam’s, a grim German folk tale.  In addition to the mini-narratives and running gags which pop up during and across the episodes – one in episode four’s show-and-tell which plays off a brief exchange about Laura Bailey’s hair having gotten extremely long is legitimately the hardest I’ve laughed in months – I find that I’m also getting solid slices of scripted entertainment of the kind that my usual outlets (namely LoadingReadyRun) have been rendered unable to provide due to the pandemic.  They’re weirdly compelling without being dense, overly-serious or time-sinks; also true of the show at large, episodes running on average just over an hour.

And as for that third reason… yeah, there’s a parasocial element to Narrative Telephone that I can’t help but get at least partly wrapped-up in despite my better instincts.  You can see in the energy of both their show-and-tell interactions and the recordings of each story chain just how much the group misses being able to hang out with each other, the tangible toll isolation is taking on everybody but (more crucially) how momentarily freeing and uplifting getting to play with each other is.  There’s an unspoken acknowledgement that it’s not quite the same as getting together in a studio physically, but there’s still a comforting release and catharsis in managing to have that scheduled time every fortnight to check in and hang out like this new abnormal isn’t so terrifyingly abnormal, if that makes sense?  There’s a sensation the series is just as much for them as it is for us.  It’s extremely relatable and comforting to have both that structure of something to regularly check in with and the knowledge that everybody is struggling through this as best they can, especially for when my own actual friends end up busy with their situations under lockdown and are unable to keep in regular touch – not their fault, it happens.

Narrative Telephone, in those six episodes aired at time of writing, is a series which feels born out of this specific moment in time with the restrictions, creativity, and underlying cultural context that requires.  Which is why I’m curious and mildly worried as to how the series will end up looking now that the cast are somewhat reunited once again – having managed to finally organise the logistics for creating a socially-distant Critical Role in accordance with CDC guidelines.  With the series having become so popular in the fan community that the gang have made clear it’s not going away once quarantine life came/comes to an end, that additional semi-parasocial comfort which may have been a X factor of sorts for my infatuation with the whole thing has every chance of disappearing by virtue of circumstance.  I’m writing this piece the day that Taliesin’s episode is scheduled for Twitch airing, I believe the first one they’ll have put together after reuniting for studio tapings of Critical Role, and I guess soon I’ll find out how much of its magic so far has been down to my anxiety-riddled loneliness ascribing additional power to a fun silly light web series or how much is from the brilliance of the format and the winning charisma of the cast responsible for it.

(UPDATE due to post-delays: Never mind that fear.  Taliesin busted out percussive alliteration.  It was glorious.  Show’s gonna be fine.)

Most likely, this won’t really be an issue and my garbage mind is merely making an erupting volcano out of a molehill.  But even if something intangible does change, I’ll always been grateful for those two months of magic.  And Sam Riegel’s hysterically-terrifying valley girl take on Pike Trickfoot.

Callum Petch feels like there’s something missing, maybe it’s you; is there anybody out there?

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