You don’t need to know your Azeroth from your elbow to enjoy this gut-bustingly funny new show
A feudal empire in chaos. Evil magic on the march. Far-flung warriors gathering their strength for an ultimate reckoning. That might sound like hype for the final season of Game of Thrones but it also describes Kingdom Scrolls, the massive multiplayer video game at the heart of Dead Pixels. This wickedly entertaining new sitcom starring Alexa Davies from Raised by Wolves may have been inspired by the massive success of online games like World of Warcraft but, thankfully, you are not required to know your Azeroth from your elbow to enjoy it.
For rudderless twentysomethings Meg (Davies) and Nicky (Will Merrick), the online world of randy paladins and talking cat-people in Kingdom Scrolls offers up the tantalising fantasy of becoming a champion in control of their own destiny. The reality is rather more prosaic. In common with most online fantasy games, their heroic journey requires repeating mindless tasks to rack up experience points in the pursuit of some distant endgame. These are realms full of trolls, both the creatures of yore and their obnoxious human equivalents, roaming the game looking to ruin people’s fun.
When we first meet them, Meg and Nicky have already poured two years of blood, sweat and discount energy drinks into Kingdom Scrolls, sleepwalking through their Northampton office drone jobs and committing every spare second to the game. It is an addiction that overrides any social, professional or romantic impulse to the extent that they are rarely glimpsed on-screen without a gaming headset wedged on. Fellow veteran gamer Usman (Sargon Yelda) chips in over voice chat from the US, cheerfully ignoring his wife and young daughters in favour of hanging out with Meg and Nicky’s gaming avatars (a broad-shouldered hunchback and a spell-casting caped adventurer, respectively).
Meg may insist to her exasperated flatmate Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) that devoting so much time to Kingdom Scrolls is “playing, connecting, myth-making” but that elevated rhetoric fails to match up with the game we see on-screen, which mostly seems to involve avatars wandering around and listlessly slaughtering livestock. Instead, the appeal is clearly having a copper-bottomed excuse for bailing on social commitments – “Our castle is on fire!” – and experiencing a place where personal growth is quantifiable, even if it is just increasing the health stats of a belligerent virtual hunchback.
For a nominal shut-in, Meg is blazingly vocal when it comes to calling out perceived slights, arguing her self-obsessed point of view or – when good-looking doofus Russell (David Mumemi) joins the office – expressing her sudden horniness. She is an unstoppable spitfire in slobby loungewear. Nicky is similarly maladjusted, a self-loathing sadsack with more than a hint of Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Their prickly dynamic of constant sniping and tragic co-dependency – emphasised by seeing them both barking into their headsets in split-screen – is played to the hilt and gives Dead Pixels an energised pulse at odds with its often sedentary setting.
Dead Pixels continues this week on E4, but the entire first season is already available on All 4 and binge-watching all six episodes actually echoes the life experience of the characters. Meg and Nicky have previously tackled marathon Kingdom Skulls missions with a stockpile of Tunnock’s teacakes and other treats on hand (just don’t ask about the bucket in the corner). Watching Dead Pixels in quick succession also brings some of the subtler plot points seeded throughout the season into focus, hinting at a tight structure disguised by the filthy verbal fireworks.
Building a sitcom around an online game – and going to the effort of creating an animated version of Kingdom Scrolls, complete with pleasingly grotesque avatars for the main characters – must have seemed a little risky for Channel 4 commissioners, despite what feels like a 15-year bombardment of trend pieces insisting that both games and geeks are now cool. Creator Jon Brown – a writing veteran of Fresh Meat and Peep Show – is clearly well-versed in gaming culture, skewering gaming tropes with lacerating accuracy and dropping in a musical callback to the venerable Amiga shoot-em-up Xenon 2: Megablast over the end credits. The result is probably the truest representation of gaming on-screen since Channel 4’s cult review show GamesMaster. Certainly, both get a lot of bawdy mileage out of the idea of waggling joysticks. But even without the video game trappings, Dead Pixels is gut-bustingly funny, the sharpest new sitcom of 2019. Hopefully E4 will press continue on a second series.
Dead Pixels is on Thursdays at 9.30pm on E4. The first season is available on All 4.