“Live Action Role Play”
July 12th, 2010
“I was myself…sort of.”
It says a lot about the current trajectory of Huge that “Live Action Role Play” is both the most “ABC Family-esque” episode of the series thus far as well as the episode which I think shows the most signs of future growth. After last week’s fairly heavy glimpse into those letters we can’t write, and those anxieties which overcome us without some form of an outlet to express them, this week’s focus on LARPing has considerably less subtlety, playing the exact notes regarding identity and performance which speak to the heart of the show’s central message that you’d expect from such a story.
However, what surprised me about the episode was how this storyline stretched our current definitions of these characters, continuing to develop and complicate existing character relationships while creating some new ones which successfully expand the series’ perspective. Where the show seems to resist notions of what I’d consider to be teen drama formula is how successfully characters move from the periphery to the margins, and how a character introduced in one context can quite successfully float into another – this isn’t to say that the show is radically reinventing itself each week, but rather that it seems comfortable with documenting the flow of life at Camp Victory rather than the moments of dramatic or comic interest within that environment.
This doesn’t mean the show is successful across the board at this stage, but it means that it collects more than enough goodwill over the course of an episode for its occasional cliches to feel earned, and often puts those cliches to good use.
The episode is structured around three events which bring the campers together as a larger group: the morning roll call, Becca’s LARPing session in the Woods, and the weekly campfire. By structured “around,” what I mean is that those moments are largely small and fleeting, less meaningful in themselves and more meaningful in terms of the stories and moments which surround them. While Becca gets a big moment at the LARPing session, every other character is developed through their actions before and after these events as opposed to what happens during them. It’s logical, really: while a camp would have those big moments, and there is power in something like taking a piece of white paper and tossing it into the fire in a symbolic gesture, what’s important is what brought these kids to this point, and what they’ll take away from it. The moments may make for a nice restatement of the premise, or a fun setpiece, but the series needs smaller glimpses of how “life” at Camp Victory plays out in order to be truly successful.
The single most important thing which happens in this episode is seemingly insignificant: George isn’t really that much more interesting of a character after we’ve seen him at work in his role as male counsellor to the cabin featuring Trent, Ian, Alastair and Piznarski. However, not only do I now remember the male characters’ names now that we’ve actually seen the inside of the central male cabin, but George is no longer simply an object of affection. Yes, there are small moments which hint towards his connection with Amber (he snaps at Trent for talking to her during Yoga, and she smiles when he arrives to the campfire), but we also see his failed attempt to be tough, and eventually his ability to step up to the plate for Alastair by taking Dr. Rand’s flack for being absent from the campfire when he could have easily explained Alastair’s situation (against his wishes) and appeared to be going above and beyond the call of duty. The character is still in the position of crushworthy counselor, but the series has started to deconstruct the trope surrounding that counselor – normally, I’d expect him to take advantage of Amber and turn out to be a horrible human being, but that was presuming the character would remain in the charming, friendly mode of seduction. Here, he is simply a kid trying to keep his bosses from yelling at him and helping the campers in his charge, a humanizing experience for the character which helps expand the series into his perspective.
The episode was similarly smart to allow us to spend more time with Alastair, and to introduce the character to the audience in ways which went beyond the potential drama surrounding his situation. While the premiere relied on big events (Will’s dance, Amber’s shorts incident) to demonstrate how characters suffer, Alastair’s ridicule is largely behind his back, that sort of lingering sense of insult which is more common but in some ways less “dramatic” for television purposes. Instead, the episode focuses on Ian’s inability to tell his cabinmate the truth despite his own anxiety over the issue, and we get small moments like Chloe realizing too late who the guys were making fun of and having that brief moment of guilt. Alastair’s struggle is inherently private, so while Becca gets a big moment at the LARP where she expresses her confidence while in character, with Alastair we get a moment entirely his own, showering in private to avoid the discomfort it causes him. The series can have a central theme to an episode without having everyone be forced into experiencing it in the exact same fashion, which is an important step moving forward.
Becca’s storyline here is what I expected out of the LARP, which is the ABC Family version of how it is presented in Role Models (which is a great little film, by the way) – she’s a different person when she plays a different person, and the promise of being able to inhabit such a person brings people to the game and gives them confidence and camaraderie that they might otherwise experience. However, what I thought was really successful was Amber’s little adventure with the tennis kids – it wasn’t particularly subtle, but the idea that she doesn’t really even need to change herself to “be someone else,” that her costume is a trendy top, is not an easy thing for her to deal with. In some ways, it almost makes her transformation even more difficult, as she doesn’t get the same support as everyone else: Chloe feels threatened by her status with the guys at the camp, and her anxieties are often dismissed by others for being frivolous or lesser than those who are more overweight. While she may be the skinniest girl at the camp, that doesn’t mean that her image issues are any less involved, and the relative ease with which she was accepted into the tennis group would be equally empowering and disheartening. There was a moment where it seemed like the show would make her choose which, as the tennis kids looked to her to see if she would follow, but the show didn’t give her a monologue defending her fellow campers, or proclaiming that she’s one of the fat kids, or anything so trite. Instead, she stood there silently, still weighing that experience and how it affects her.
Now, not everything is working on that level: Gina Torres and Paul Dooley are both quite enjoyable, but Torres’ material just isn’t as interesting as it needs to be, and her sheer anxiety over contacting the fellow camp director with whom she was once in a relationship felt like the character being forced into a teenage mode of behaviour to fit the series’ median demographic. I get that she was once one of the kids at the camp (so that they can relate with her), and I get that she would share similar problems with parents and expectations (comparisons with the former director, for example), but the relationship drama feels over the top, and is something that I think the show would be best to avoid if it doesn’t feel like a natural part of a normal day at Camp Victory.
“Live Action Role Play” succeeds because it does feel like a normal day (or two, as the case may be) at the camp, its drama happening in small pockets between major events rather than at the major events themselves, with each character taking their own journey to that final campfire. And even when it becomes about a cheesy statement of standing together and waving the white flag, we get a moment like Will pocketing the flag instead of burning it, not yet willing to give up the fight for fat which she promised to uphold in the premiere. Because the show does not position themes or moments as universally transformative, and because each character’s journey through those themes or to those moments is unique, episodes like this one end up successfully building ongoing storylines (often through looks, or small scenes) while still providing the “message” which is part of the series’ mandate – as long as this keeps up, I think the show is definitely worth following along with.
- Liked where the episode left Will and Ian’s friendship: his continued focus on Amber, and her desire for him to come right out and admit it rather than beating around the bush, didn’t explode or create any conflict, settling in a mode which is two people who just met feeling one another out.
- Neat bit in the coda with Alastair and Piznarski bonding over the rules of the LARP, at least to the point where Alastair’s weirdness (which he fully accepts) bubbles over and Piznarski leaves annoyed but free of spite or insult – kind of overstates the effect the episode would have on character dynamics, but I’ll allow it.
- Chances of one of the show’s potential couples ending up in the old shed about to collapse in that clearing and ending up in mortal and moral peril? 1000%. The show might be more subtle than you’d expect, but I don’t think they’re going to let that bit of foreshadowing go to waste.