Last spring, I defended The Tester, the first and currently only original series produced for the Sony PlayStation Network, for living up to its goal of giving an aspiring game developer the chance to work for his dream company. But having watched some of Season 2, which will be available tonight for free download to PlayStation3 owners, the show seems happy to excel at being unremarkable.
The show’s format is the same — 12 young men and women gamers, known by codenames like Samurai, War Princess and Gaymer, compete in video game-oriented challenges that will, eventually, prove their qualifications for an entry-level job as a PlayStation game tester. (For a cynical look at what being a game tester means, please enjoy Penny Arcade’s initial reaction to The Tester.)
For Season 2 (the first episode of which — up until the final elimination — was made available for press), previous judge Hal Sparks wasn’t available, and his spot on the judging panel had been taken by the first winner of America’s Next Top Model, Adrienne Curry. Curry’s presence is a major advantage for the show — while she seems a little well-medicated, she isn’t at all shy in her commentary, such as her observation, “Why is it always the cute ones who are dumb?”
Curry is so entertaining that she makes me want to keep watching, and she does bring some gamer cred to the table. But her presence, as well as that of this crop of female contestants who seem to know their way around a controller, doesn’t guarantee a feminist outlook on the part of the show.
For example, in the first episode, there’s a moment where the contestant Tripplethreat is in awe of being in the presence of God of War III director Stig Asmussen, because she admires his work as a game designer. Her reaction to seeing him, in both words and actions, is nothing but her acknowledging his talent and achievements — but the music and editing spin it as the realization of a romantic fantasy. C’mon, guys, she was talking about how much he respects him as a game creator, not how much she wants to bear his children. Not everything a girl feels has to do with being a girl.
The first episode also spends a lot of time focusing on the contestants’ reactions as they discover that their loft is filled with tons of PlayStation and Sony goodies — and while hopefully future episodes will go a little lighter on the product placement, the first few minutes of Episode 1 are tough to take (even if you’ve sat through a Dove Nutri-skin Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef).
Don’t get me wrong — the show’s production standards are strong and the collection of personalities gathered do have the potential to be entertaining. According to PlayStation Network senior director Susan Panico, with whom I spoke via phone, this season they’re incorporating feedback from viewers and not only lengthening the episodes to approximately half an hour, but emphasizing the interpersonal drama occurring inside the loft.
The Tester is currently the only original content being produced by PlayStation, though Panico says that may change in the future. “I’m not saying The Tester is The Sopranos or The Wire,” she said. “But it’s a step towards us creating shows that could be Emmy winners in time.”
But upcoming genres Panico says PlayStation might pursue would be comedy or Man Show-esque discussion series, given the network’s target audience of young gamer men. If the PlayStation Network does want to win an Emmy with its original content in the next five years, it might not want to let the lowest common denominator drive its programming decisions.
The Tester is currently on par with other competitive reality series found on network or cable television. The problem is that the bar they’re trying to clear isn’t set terribly high.
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