‘Dead Pixels’ Review: Brit Comedy Takes a Sneakily Smart Look at Gamer Culture

     August 18, 2020

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In June, we learned The CW had scooped up British export Dead Pixels as part of a push to add new series to its summer line-up. Created by Jon Brown (Succession, Avenue 5Misfits), Dead Pixels debuted in Old Blighty earlier in 2020 and is finally here for U.S. eyeballs. If you tuned in for Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet — a show with similar narrative DNA — or you happen to love video games, comedy shows with jokes about Vince Vaughn, or all of the above, then you’ll want to check out Dead Pixels, a show which serves up a cheeky, smart look at the world of gaming and the people who devote their lives to it.

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Image via The CW

Dead Pixels features a small but solid cast including Alexa Davies (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), Will Merrick (Skins), Charlotte Ritchie (Call the Midwife), Sargon Yelda (Spectre), and David Mumeni (Hobbs & Shaw). The series centers on a group of gamers with varying degrees of devotion to a fantasy RPG video game called Kingdom Scrolls. Our protagonist is Meg (Davies), a 20-something gamer who devotes more waking hours to playing Kingdom Scrolls than literally anything else in her life. It’s clear from the jump she’s addicted and alarmingly ready to ditch any other responsibilities or sense of commitment to anything other than the game at the drop of a hat. Meg’s love of and dependency on Kingdom Scrolls is shared by her two friends, Nicky (Merrick) and Usman (Yelda), with whom she stays connected via headset throughout the day. Together, they enable one another’s obsession with the game and let it dominate their lives. Things get interesting, though, when Meg’s new co-worker, the lovably goofy Russel (Mumeni), enters into the group as a newbie gamer who manages to irk everyone right off the bat before quickly making himself a part of the team.

The show’s energy takes some getting used to: Meg, Nicky, and Usman speak frankly and honestly with one another about everything, with any social graces or inhibitions completely removed between them. This is the first of many subtle storytelling moves Dead Pixels pulls off in an effort to explain to the audience just how many hours the trio have spent gaming together and how far down the rabbit hole they’ve fallen together. If you can get past the very masculine vibes inherent to the show (this is all about gamer culture, after all), then you’ll be in for a good time.

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Image via The CW

And if you make it through the pilot, you’ll be rewarded with a very fun second episode, “Tanadaal.” The A-plot of the episode is built around Meg, Nicky, and Usman’s despair that Vince Vaughn has been cast in the movie adaptation of Kingdom Scrolls. The pall cast over the group allows for some cracking jokes about the tricky business of video game movies and the necessity for good casting because otherwise, it all goes to pot. At one point, Meg and Nicky discuss what kind of action they could take to get Vaughn off the project, with Meg casually mentioning that doxxing, an extremely insidious act, is an option on the table. Nicky completely misses the point, instead focusing on another suggestion Meg makes. The exchange is quick but the moment tells you everything you need to know about how consumed Meg and Nicky are by their love of the game and how ignorant they are when it comes to the implications of their behavior. It’s a moment that risks flying right by the viewer but illustrates just how well-written Dead Pixels is.

Despite having only seen the first two episodes of Season 1 (there are six in total, with a Season 2 on the way), it’s clear from the jump Dead Pixels is interested in unpacking toxic gamer culture without overtly ragging on it. There are some moments that are blatant, like the Episode 2 opener wherein Meg passes by another woman on the street, doubles back, and yells at her because the woman dared to wear a Metroid T-shirt and put a Pac-Man keychain on her backpack. Other moments, like a completely repellant but relatively understated running bit where Usman, a stay-at-home dad to two youngsters I’m guessing are under the age of six, is shown completely ignoring all parental duties in order to play Kingdom Scrolls, despite his kids’ gentle pleas for attention, and bemoaning his breadwinner wife’s absence during the day. (In case you couldn’t tell, I absolutely loathe Usman.) Both examples highlight Dead Pixels‘ readiness to poke at the more unsavory aspects of gamer culture.

In an even closer reading, Dead Pixels shows it has a particular interest in studying how gamer culture has warped Meg, a female gamer utterly in service of this digital world. Every aspect of Meg’s consciousness is locked onto Kingdom Scrolls, for better or for worse. This game isn’t just the center of her world; it’s her world, full stop. She has completely assimilated into and taken on the vocabulary of this male-dominated world. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the way she makes use of these learned behaviors in her life further serves the show’s interest in unpacking gamer culture.

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Image via The CW

This is all to say there’s true genius in Dead Pixels. It is biting in its critiques about gamers and the gaming world without ever taking an offensive stance towards its characters. Brown’s background lies in smartly written television which masterfully skewers perceptions, archetypes, subcultures — anything and everything is fair game. When it comes to Dead Pixels, Brown has made good use of this specific TV background in order to make this show a true delight with real bite. Even when Brown’s latest is lacerating its subjects with well-observed one-liners, there are enough surprise twists and tender moments to round out the show’s pathos and keep you hooked.

From what I’ve seen of Dead Pixels, I can assure you this is an inviting import with plenty of promise. Bawdy, incisive, timely, and inventive, Dead Pixels is exactly the kind of show we need to pep up the summer TV lineup.

Rating: B-

Dead Pixels Season 1 debuts August 18 at 8/7c on The CW. For more, check out our round-ups of the best comedy shows on Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video now streaming.

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Image via The CW

Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.

Television