Game Over masquerades as a family sitcom.

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March 18 2004 7:03 PM

Revenge of the Nerds

Game Over hides its video-game dorkiness under the guise of a family sitcom.

Just your typical family
Just your typical family

The best part about Game Over (UPN, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET), the new computer animated sitcom about the off-duty lives of a family of video-game characters, is the asides. In last week's premiere episode, video-game aficionados were rewarded with Crash Bandicoot on a "Got Milk?" billboard, the countdown tones from the arcade driving classic Pole Position, a quick cutaway to the iconic Nintendo 64 game controller, and a cameo by some Scrabs from Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. While out at a shopping mall with his son and daughter, family patriarch Rip Smashenburn gets sucker-punched by a character from Grand Theft Auto. "What is this, Vice City?" quips Smashenburn (voiced by Patrick Warburton), and suddenly I felt vindicated for having spent all those hours at the PlayStation.

I could watch an entire show filled with the aforementioned references, but then again, I am a video-game nerd. Game Over is aimed at a much broader audience, and as a result, the producers have decided to approach this fringe subject matter within the confines of the familiar family sitcom. Thus, even though Raquel Smashenburn (Lucy Liu) is a secret agent—and a dead ringer for Tomb Raider's Lara Croft—she still puts dinner on the table as sitcom moms have since time immemorial. Meanwhile, Rip Smashenburn, a race-car driver who's having trouble at work, feels anxious about taking his daughter, Alice (Rachel Dratch), bra shopping. Last night, Rip felt inadequate because Raquel makes more money than he does. Video-game characters routinely defy the laws of physics, but apparently they can't escape the gravitational pull of hack story lines.

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Game Over feels like it is made by video-game junkies, people who know what it's like to look up from the screen and realize that it's dark and you haven't eaten all day. The show captures the chunky, pixellated backgrounds and behavioral ticks you find in an actual video game. Whenever Shoalin Monk, the Smashenburns' next-door neighbor, exits a scene, for example, he does so by executing a rubbery back flip because that's how Shoalin Monks move around in fighting games.

But the standard plotlines make carefully observed details like this feel wasted, like visiting an exotic foreign country and having most of your meals at McDonald's. The jokes in Game Over are largely of the Flintstone variety, with video-game culture taking the place of that show's dinosaur culture. Raquel rides around in an attack helicopter that she treats like a minivan, and when she needs to cook a turkey, she whips out a plasma rifle. There are some nice moments, like when Rip shares a psychiatrist's waiting room with a jittery football player. "Why are you here?" asks Rip. The football player stands up, spikes a nearby potted plant like he just scored a touchdown, then says: "I don't know. Wife sent me." It's a funny bit, and one that hints at the existential nightmare that life as a video-game character might be—your destiny is literally in the hands of a 13-year-old boy—but most of the time, the world Game Over evokes is too similar to our own.

But it's entirely possible that a general audience isn't ready for a show that fully embraces the absurd logic of video games. Other than 1982's Tron—a film which strangely seems to get better with age—TV shows and movies about video games have been a pretty shoddy lot, from the low-budget and obscure game show Starcade to middling action movies like Mortal Kombat and embarrassments like Super Mario Bros. Hollywood has obviously seen the $10 billion video-game industry as an avenue to easy money but with little success. The producers of Game Over obviously understand that video games deserve more respect—that they aren't just a way to waste time but form a culture all their own. And someday they may even be recognized as a genuine art form. In the future, there will be a show that embraces them in all their glory, a show that isn't afraid to say it loud: I game, and I'm proud.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.