One of Victorious‘s biggest themes is fame: the acquisition of it and the effect it has on the people in its immediate glow. The pilot, after all, is about Tori getting into a prestigious Californian high school for the arts after wowing a crowd she wasn’t even supposed to perform for. The show as initially pitched, with Tori as the protagonist, thus defines each character by their reactions to her both as an outstanding performer and as the new kid in school. Victorious hasn’t been that show in a while, of course, not since it began developing better purposes for its main cast, plus coming up with new situations to place the main cast so that they’ll be forced to work together in order to accomplish a goal. But occasionally, the original DNA of the show’s pilot peeks out from its hiding spot, if only to draw a line between where the show was when it started in 2009 and where the show is now, with all of its developments intact.
The first act of “Brain Squeezers” is built very much with that DNA in mind: Tori is chosen to be the team captain of a new game show called Brain Squeezers, which instantly puts her friends into a tailspin of nice behaviors in hopes of becoming her teammates for the show. The antics start simple and get more elaborate, matching the characteristics of each person: Cat gets a PearPad app that helps her learn things (you know, in case she might need that knowledge for something, WINK WINK), Robbie cleans her locker, Beck acts totally cool about it even though he desperately wants to be on her team, and so on. The final straw is a double attack by Trina and Jade. Jade comes to Tori’s house with a fake sob story about her aunt Susan, while Trina inserts herself into Tori’s life as per usual by stitching together two teams out of the available people, one of which doesn’t even have Tori on it. This one-two punch finally pushes Tori to choose her team via tweet, and the antics end… for a bit. The act one twist is that when Tori gets to the studio, someone else has already signed in as Tori — predictably, it’s Jade, who claims Tori’s team for her own. Tori gets to go on-stage as the opposing team, which she makes up from the remaining people (Sinjin, Cat, Trina). At this point, I had come up with two possible ways for the episode to unfold. In scenario A, the episode becomes a predictable-but-reliable Tori vs. Jade battle as they wage war for game points and their eternal souls (or something to that effect). In scenario B, the show continues the teammate antics by exploring the characters’ feelings about what went down as the game show pressed on with itself around them.
So naturally, just when I think I’ve got Victorious figured out, it chooses scenario C, in which everyone regrets ever wanting to be on Brain Squeezers. In a surreal sort of way, the sadistic nature of the punishments for wrong answers on the game show as a response to the characters’ desire to be on the show is a metaphor for life. You spend your whole life wanting to grow up, only to find out that it’s a lot like getting whacked in the gut with a bowling ball (which, believe it or not, was the tamest punishment that happened to a character, aside from aping Nickelodeon’s classic slime tactic from its popular game shows like Figure It Out!). So brutal is the game itself that even the win is hollow: Cat gets the final question correct as a book-end to the knowledge she learned from her PearPad app, but Tori has to actually grab the cash her team won while being pinned down by a strong, muscular, wrestling-type guy who appears to be an assistant on the show.
And yet, while I won’t be calling this one of the best episodes of the show, it was undeniably in touch with the show’s surreal quality. Victorious often seems too much like a live-action cartoon, but it is very good at being a live-action cartoon, and the level of consistency in executing its often insane ideas is very noteworthy. The second act of “Brain Squeezers” fits in very well with “April Fools Blank” or “Locked Up” in that it forges ahead with crafting its own version of reality, complete with rules that dictate the behavior of characters in unusual situations. That same craftsmanship has also allowed for the character-building that has taken place over the past few seasons, which is probably why the show opted out of a Tori/Jade conflict.
All told, the episode’s enthusiasm for its own ideas eventually wore me out. Still, “Brain Squeezers” was born from the show’s unconscious desires, which is simultaneously impressive and disturbing. But it’s comforting that, with only a few episodes to go, the show has retained its DNA so far into the game. We’ll only be making it shine for a little while longer.