DISCLAIMER: I love Critical Role and have nothing but respect and admiration for the producers and performers. Any analysis or opinions here are stated with love, and understanding that a show which is largely improvised cannot and should not be held to the same expectations as a show which is rehearsed and written with certain representations in mind.
For those unfamiliar, Critical Role is a webseries on (Queer Geek Queen) Felicia Day's channel Geek & Sundry, and Alpha that follows a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors playing D&D in a colorful, home-brew world concocted by erstwhile Overwatch cowboy, Matthew Mercer.
What's beautiful about the largely improvised story is that these performers are actively exploring their characters' identities live on camera. It's incredibly vulnerable and riveting. It's never going to be perfect, but that's part of the appeal. Do I wish there was more diversity in the performers? Of course I do. Whenever I see a group of mostly cis, straight, white performers weaving a more diverse story, I instinctively think: couldn't you have included some of my people too? But the show did not begin with an audience in mind, and now it has grown into something which encourages and empowers more inclusive stories and players of RPGs. So I can only be grateful for that!
To his credit, Mercer takes criticism to heart and has always preserved an open dialogue, sometimes even sharing emotional stories on camera. Open weeping by the players is a staple of the show, so even if fans don't agree with a character's actions, they are always coming from a deeply personal and genuinely well meaning place.
It must be said that the performers are making entertainment out of a format which is designed to be played in the privacy of your home. D&D is a great way to explore taboo subjects in the safety of a group of consenting friends, so bringing your home game to an audience is a risky transition.
As a queer man who is accustomed to popular shows queer-baiting or playing genderqueer characters for laughs, seeing a straight performer ape my experience or identity for fun can automatically put my shields up. However, the performers of Critical Role are having intensely emotional experiences playing their characters. The memories they make while playing pretend are not a script or the execution of a job—they are real memories. They are not aping my experience, they are attempting to truly empathize with it.
So let’s put episodes 1 and 2 of Critical Role season 2 under a queer magnifying glass!
A new campaign has just begun, with the second installment airing live on Thursday, January 18, then rebroadcast the following Monday, and there have been some remarkable changes. The new cast of characters were not rolled at home, but created knowing they would be placed in front of an audience. They are more colorful and seem a bit queerer than their predecessors. The first episode contained some heavy flirtation between a tomboyish monk named Beauregard (Marisha Ray), and a stoic circus bodyguard (Ashley Johnson).
"Can you hold me through the show?" "Five gold. These arms are worth a lot." (Source)
Beauregard isn’t the only gender role-defying name in the bunch: Taliesin Jaffe, at the time of this article the only openly LGBT member of the cast, is playing a sarcastic carnival performer named Molly. When asked, Jaffe clarified:
"Molly’s pronouns are he/him, but he doesn’t really mind if you call him something else. He’s laid back that way.” (Talks Machina S01E01)
This came to light in episode 2 (which aired January 18). Jaffe retorted perfectly when defending his character against casual gender essentialism:
"We're going in groups, boys and girls. And whatever Molly is…?"
Sam Reigel, who played a gay artificer for part of the previous series, is now playing a female goblin, marking him the only male player (aside from Mercer of course) to play a woman. Given Reigel's habit of being the class clown of the group, this would normally send up a red flag that the gender “swap” was being played for laughs, but it doesn’t appear that way so far.
Because the group of friends are accustomed to Reigel's male identity, they do misgender his character occasionally. This will almost certainly not be a problem as they continue with the show, and even now they are quick to correct themselves, both in and out of character.
"I know, I know my features aren't the most feminine for a goblin."
"You look just fine from here, darlin'."
"I can tell. Everybody can tell."
It's clear from the language they use that the cast is always striving to portray minority characters with a degree of sensitivity, even in a fantasy setting of their own creation. In the previous campaign, a gay NPC was far and away the fan favorite who played a much larger role in the show due to his popularity. It seems like going forward, the players and GM are taking that feedback to heart.
It remains to be seen just how much queer representation we can look forward to in season 2, but my hopes are high. And because Critical Role is a story which evolves live week to week, the feedback from fans can play a huge role its development.
Onward to more queer adventure...