I’ve written many times about my favorite TV show, Critical Role, in which “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons.” I wrote about this internet phenomenon when the company staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a video project, smashing the previous record set by MST3K. I’ve written about how this group of eight best friends represents a serious challenge to the media status quo and a legitimate threat to more traditional forms of home entertainment.
But I’ve always written about the show with a bit of hesitation—not for fear of being branded a geek, mind you, and not out of concern for venturing too far from the mainstream. That’s hardly applicable, since more people watched the Campaign 2 finale of Critical Role earlier this year than watched the Season 10 finale of The Walking Dead. (Comparing the numbers directly is tough, but Critical Role got some 3.3 million views across Twitch and YouTube vs. Walking Dead‘s ~2.9 million viewers on AMC. How many of CR‘s online “views” account for multiple viewers isn’t clear.)
No, the reason it’s tough to evangelize this amazing show is that there’s just so darned much of it. If we ignore all the ancillary series and spinoffs, all the one-off specials and after shows, Critical Role has, to this point, created over 1,000 hours of content, which is about 12 times the runtime of the entire 10-season run of Friends and about 15 times the total runtime of Seinfeld.
I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve turned onto this show, only to have them utterly hooked then completely crestfallen when they realize exactly how long it would to take to catch up. And I sympathize with that. By the time Critical Role came crashing into the mainstream in 2019, the gang was already more than 200 hours into their second campaign.
And it occurs to me that I should probably stop and define what I mean by “campaign.” In D&D lingo, a campaign is an ongoing, self-contained story with a unique set of characters. When Critical Role launched in 2015, they were already halfway through a campaign they had started around their own kitchen tables some years before. They didn’t start over from scratch
and create new characters and situations, because they couldn’t conceive of anyone actually wanting to watch them play their game and only agreed to play on camera as a favor to Felicia Day. So Campaign 2, in which they did create entirely new characters and launched a whole new story guided by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, was really the audience’s first opportunity to see this group tell a tale together from the very beginning.
So why should you care about any of this? Well, as I said, Campaign 2 came to a conclusion earlier this year but a
new campaign is starting this month. New characters, new settings—a whole new beginning. Which means that if you’ve missed out on this phenomenon until now, or sat on the fear that it was all just too much, now’s your perfect opportunity
to hop on the Critical Role train.
Of course, it has to be said that there are some people who simply scoff at the notion of watching a bunch of friends sit around and play a game for three to five hours every week. For some, that crosses a line into dweeb territory. Or maybe you’re just not interested in D&D.
Whatever reservations you might have, I implore you to set them aside and give the new campaign a shot when it airs
this month because, when you get right down to it, the real draw of this show isn’t the Dungeons or the Dragons. There are plenty of live-play D&D games out there, and none of them have achieved the success of this show.
The biggest reason for that is the fact that those shows were created to sell tabletop roleplaying as a product. They had casting calls and auditions. Some cat-petting executive somewhere said, “Hey, people are watching other people play D&D on the internet—let’s get a slice of that action.”
What makes Critical Role unique is that the game they’re playing is secondary. The real draw is that we, the audience, get to watch eight best friends—who now own a corporation and small media empire together—take a break once a week, sit around a table, and give one another their full attention. They put down their phones, ignore their email inboxes, look each
other in the eye, and do their level best to entertain the heck out of each other for a few straight hours.
There is, of course, a parasocial aspect to all of this in that it’s nearly impossible to become invested in a friend group without feeling like you’re a part of said group. Watching Critical Role doesn’t feel like tuning into an episode of Loki or Squid Game. It feels like hanging out with your buds.
And that’s ultimately a crucial element of the success of this show, because Critical Role isn’t intended to be passively
consumed; it is, in many ways, a call to action. They aren’t merely saying, “Hey, come watch us have fun and love one another.” They’re saying, “Hey, you can do this, too. Go grab your own best friends or your family, sit around a table, and make each other laugh, cry, celebrate, and commiserate.” And audiences have listened. Fully half the people I know who watch Critical Role have gone on to start their own D&D campaigns and are rediscovering the joys of actual human interaction.
Call me a weirdo but I think the world needs more of that, now more than ever. It needs this weekly example of wholesome face-to-face collaboration and—more importantly—the vulnerability required to sit with the people you love most in the world and make a complete goober of yourself for their amusement.
If all of that sounds like something you could get into but you’ve held off for all the reasons listed above, here’s your chance to give this magical show a try. Campaign 3 begins on October 21, live on Twitch and YouTube, or you can wait for the VOD to hit YouTube on October 25.
Or, if you want to experience the insanity of watching Critical Role with a crowd, the first episode of the new campaign will also debut in select Cinemark cinemas around the country. As for me and my wife, we’ll opt for the comforts of our own home cinema, thank you very much. But if we had a Cinemark a little closer to home, I think we’d both be tempted to buy a ticket and skulk at the end of the theater for the first few minutes, if only to hear an auditorium full of Critters sing the show’s theme song, “Your Turn to Roll,” once again after months of anticipation.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.
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