I’m told that 2016 was another good year for TV. There was Black Mirror, a dystopian satire for people who think South Park is too subtle; Westworld, which introduced an inventive metaphysical conceit (robot cowboys!) and then used it to put sex and sexual assault in every episode; and Stranger Things, which, I don’t know — apparently synthesizers are scary if you grew up in the ‘80s? At any rate, it all meant zip to me because I spent the last few months of the year watching the best TV ever on my computer, hollering with laughter, and shouting “my boys, my beautiful boys!” at no-one in particular.
If that makes no sense to you then odds are you’ve never seen Car Boys, Monster Factory, or Touch The Skyrim — a trio of YouTube shows published by Polygon and featuring the voices and gibbering howls of writers Nick Robinson, Justin McElroy, and Griffin McElroy. (Disclaimer and side-note: Polygon is owned by the same company that owns The Verge, but that really is incidental; I just like Good Internet when I see it.) The three shows aren’t really related apart from shared personnel (Griffin McElroy appears on all of them; Nick on two) and what I’d tentatively label shared heart, or maybe even shared soul, if we’re happy to apply that term to goof-off YouTube vids.
Like so much digital content, watching these shows feels like relaxing with old friends. You’ve known these boys for years, drunk with them in bars and pubs, and on park benches. You call their parents “Sandra” and “Dave,” because that’s what their names are, and you’re comfortable just doing nothing in their company. You don’t get that from Game of Thrones.
The video games are just a backdrop
In Car Boys, the premise for the series is testing the limits of a game named BeamNG.drive, which is essentially just a driving sandbox with realistic physics. You pick a car, drive it into a wall, and your reward is getting to watch every ding, bump, crack and crumple appear in slow motion. Monster Factory, meanwhile, is all about playing with the character creation tools in various video games (Dark Souls 2, Fallout 4, etc) and creating the most bizarre avatar possible before sending it out in the world. In Touch The Skyrim, the boys just add mods to the fantasy RPG until they can mod no more.
Simple, but in each series, the games are just a backdrop. They’re a prompt which allow the McElroys and Robinson to bounce off one another, improvising backstories for characters and conjuring running gags out of thin air. See below for my favorite example:
All their videos are enjoyable to just dip in and out of, but they become truly great when binge-watched — Car Boys particularly. In this series there’s no plot to speak of, instead, you just watch Griffin and Nick test and then break the technical boundaries of a game that’s not even completely finished. BeamNG.drive is a title that lets you fire a cannon full of trucks at a van if you want, or take the wings off a plane to see if it can fly, and if you played video games growing up you’ll instantly recognize the instinct for creative boredom that this encourages. If you had to place Car Boys in a genre it would technically be a play-through series, but while play-through videos are shaped by a game’s built-in plot and goals, Car Boys just wanders wherever Griffin and Nick’s imaginations steer it.
It’s inventive, joyous, and relaxing — the YouTube equivalent of slumping on a sofa with your mates and chatting rubbish for an hour or two. TV shows have promised me drama, mystery, explosions, violence, nudity, and dragons, but doesn’t that just sound tiring considering the year we’ve had? In 2016 I learned it was better to just chill out and smash some cars instead.