The reality TV genre is prone to manufacturing drama in a way that comes off as something short of reality, ironically. HBO Max‘s new video game-focused reality show, Happily Ever Avatar, certainly suffers from this problem. Despite that, it also managed to surprise me with some moments of real heart among its camera-shy cast.
Following three couples, each of whom met in the online lobbies of their favorite video games, the show examines what it means to fall in love online — but even more specifically, to fall in love in an online video game. That is a strong premise, but due to the genre’s pitfalls, it doesn’t always pay off satisfyingly.
Amadeus and Karoline met in The Elder Scrolls Online and at the time of the series had been together long-distance for three months. Jake and Chelsea met in World of Warcraft and are the longest-going couple in the series at six years, including marriage. Nick and Tony met playing League of Legends and have been together for nearly a year at the start of Happily Ever Avatar.
For Karoline and Amadeus, the dilemma is a familiar one for me. Being long-distance online is brutal. I met my wife that way, so their story is the most compelling to me. It’s only been a few months, but at the start of the show, the pair are scheduling an in-person introduction in Karoline’s Connecticut.
While virtually none of the cast come off as very charismatic, it’s Amadeus that is the most unlikely of all TV stars. His tone and demeanor are flatter than the Midwest. As a result, they stand as a testament to Happily Ever Avatar‘s predicament in following around a bunch of hardcore gamers that have a reputation for being socially awkward. Still, his and Karoline’s relationship seemed the most sincere to me, maybe just due to that relatability, but also because of the other stars’ own issues.
For Jake and Chelsea, their relationship is much older than anyone else’s, but right away Jake comes off as a jerk on camera. By that, I mean he may be a nice dude otherwise, but his hyper-awareness of the crew following him and Chelsea around seems to manifest as snide comments to his wife. Sometimes he lets his guard down, and in those moments you can more easily root for them, but more often he’s quite rude, which really hinders the show selling the pair as protagonists in the real-life drama.
For Nick and Tony, their near-year together has been riddled with near breakups due to some trust issues. Nick is an outgoing person, so he gets hit on a lot and doesn’t always push back enough to satisfy Tony’s wishes. Is the former being promiscuous or is the latter being insecure? In the end, it feels like a bit of both, but sometimes due to neither of their faults.
Instead, the show intervenes with them more than the others, seeming to manufacture drama. In one early scene, Nick leaves to get drinks and the cameras (as well as Tony and a friend) watch as Nick flirts with a stranger. As he leaves, the camera watches as the stranger quite blatantly checks out Nick’s butt. It’s silly and makes me think this stranger was a plant.
For reality TV to work, it has to feel like reality. So often, this isn’t the case. Happily Ever Avatar often feels like it’s inventing ways to stir up trouble for its cast or else have nothing to film. That’s maybe also why the whole season is just 12 15-minute episodes. As it turns out, recording the lives of six introverts (okay, five introverts and Nick) doesn’t easily provide for compelling television.
On the other hand, being an avid gamer and even someone who fell in love online, I’m still able to find the heart of the show, if only in glimpses. When Amadeus and Karoline livestream themselves sleeping so they can simulate being together, I remember how my wife and I did the same before we moved in together. Their first meeting in person was a bit awkward, but so was ours.
After all that time online, you worry you won’t live up to expectations, even as modern distance love is aided greatly by things like video chat. Tony is still in the closet with his family when the series begins, and that makes for a storyline only a villain could ignore. It’s in these most human scenes where the show shines, but it can feel like it’s fighting against itself to get there.
The greatest sin of the show is its tone. I don’t know if the series creators are video game fans themselves, but I know Happily Ever Avatar gives the impression they aren’t. For the whole show, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the show’s crew was looking in on the cast as though they were another species, learning their habits and bringing back that knowledge to an eager, similarly ignorant audience. I could imagine a Rod Serling-like narrator discussing these couples as though they’re from a strange land where people play something called video games.
In reality, we know the vast majority of adults and kids play some kind of games, many of them avidly. When the show’s pop-ups share “n00b notes” to explain something as ubiquitous as cosmetic skins in games, I can’t help but feel like the producers had just learned what those were and passed it along to the audience not knowing it’s pretty common knowledge.
For these reasons, I’d say the best audience for Happily Ever Avatar is sadly not gamers with HBO Max, but maybe their parents or friends who don’t understand their online love. In that way, the series can be a PSA for folks outside of the know. Gamers are pretty savvy and they don’t like to be talked down to, for better or worse. Happily Ever Avatar suffers from trying to teach its core audience things we already know. It then worsens that situation by manufacturing intrigue.
The premise is interesting on its own, and if the showrunners couldn’t rely on the cast’s reality to deliver a compelling show, it means they were miscast. Maybe it’s out of kinship for the awkward gamers like me of the world, but I don’t lay most of that blame at the feet of the star-crossed lovers in headsets, but rather at the cameras in a genre intent on turning reality into fiction.