Everyone’s a producer — or so it seems with the availability of video-making tools for just about anyone these days. With the arrival of cheaper, more compact equipment and the rapid of advance of technology in this area, it’s possible to shoot a pretty good quality video with a small digital camera or even a high-end cell phone.
Plus, some producers have gone a step further. Instead of creating one-off videos and uploading them to YouTube, they’ve taken on the more ambitious task of creating entire series of shows made specifically for viewing on the web. The phenomenon began in the mid-1990s, with one of the first web serials, The Spot, which allowed viewers to interact with the characters and intervene in the storyline. The Spot developed an ardent following, but later crashed and burned.
More recently, lonelygirl15 took off, a YouTube sensation which led viewers to believe they were watching the videoblog of a teenage girl, when in reality the whole thing was a way for the filmmakers to land a movie deal. Commercial success has mostly evaded these series when trying to make a jump like that, as was the case with Quarterlife, a web serial that debuted on NBC in February of this year but was cancelled after just one episode.
Like regular television shows, there is a wide variety of genres in the web series world, from cooking shows to soap operas to sci-fi adventures. Some have laughable production values while others rival the quality of what’s on traditional TV. But the most unique thing about these series is that they allow for creativity and niche content that isn’t commonly found on regular television. Much of the content and subject matter might be deemed too special interest or not commercial-friendly enough for television — but on the Internet, anything goes.
I checked out a whole slew of the latest Internet serials, and here is a selection of the ones that make good use of the “other small screen.”
Recent winner of a YouTube award for Best Web Series, The Guild is a sitcom about the lives of a group of young gamers who spend all of their time engaged in online gaming worlds and their relationships with one another. Even though The Guild’s creators describe it as “written for gamers, about gamers by a gamer,” I could still enjoy it as a non-gamer.
I know nothing about the jargon or the quirks of the gaming world, but the humor is accessible and pokes fun at the players’ obsession with games and how they struggle with more human interaction. This series stands out because it goes beyond the typical characters seen on television to be more inclusive of lifestyles that aren’t normally represented on TV.
Drawn by Pain
Filmmaker Jesse Cowell describes his web series as a “dramatic action packed 12-part series in a sea of comedic web content.” Indeed, most of what you online are works of comedy, and Drawn by Pain is the rare exception. Mostly real action but partly animation, Drawn by Pain has an engaging and moving storyline, solid acting in most cases and quality production values. While the fantastical storyline and the combination of live action and animation might not fly on television, the web provides a perfect platform for taking the kinds of risks this director has taken.
Some web series don’t involve acting; at least not by real live actors. This science fiction series relies on computer animation to tell the story of Russell Shoemaker, a businessman from Seattle on a business trip who wakes up in a Manhattan hotel one morning to find that the living world around him seems to have disappeared, victim of a mysterious disaster scenario called “The Fall.”
The narration by the character Russell, who tells the story in first person, is well acted. Even though it’s animated characters you’re watching, the storyline is quite evocative. Afterworld takes its web platform a step further by adding extra interactive experiences to enhance viewing, like Russell’s travel journal, which you can flip through like the pages of real book. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan but this series easily loops you in. Plus, the brevity of the episodes ensures that you won’t get bored, which is important with attention-deficient web viewers.
This isn’t a show but a web series “network” with various thematic channels, mostly focused on comedy content. The shows are hilarious and probably way too edgy for regular TV (though you never know these days). The web is the perfect place for spreading the kinds of memes that get started by the humor of shows like fake soap “Horrible People” and the spoof instructional series “You Suck at Photoshop.” The great thing about My Damn Channel that even though you’re watching 5-minute clips on your computer, it feels like you are watching your favorite comedy network on TV.
Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager
Also in the comedy category, and somewhat inactive at present, is a favorite of mine called “Chad Vader,” which follows Darth Vader’s “younger, less charismatic brother” Chad in his day-to-day work as a shift manager at a grocery store. The central idea of this series is so geeky and ridiculous that the writers would be quickly booted out of the room of a pitch session in Hollywood. But on the web, silliness works, and plot lines that seem unthinkable are widely embraced when the ideas are well-executed like they are in this web series.
Making the Jump to TV?
While some of these series may not ever see mainstream success, their creators have done a good job finding the right platform for their shows online, where they’ve found good followings and received praise for their efforts. And there are some more commercial-driven web series that look promising, including the new thriller Blood Cell= on 60frames.com (which, incidentally, stars the actress who played lonelygirl15).
Plus, there’s the comedy Knockers, which is produced by Generate, a company focused on making web series. The startup recently received $6 million in funding and has signed some “web stars” such as the creators of Chad Vader to create new shows. Social networks such as MySpace are also creating original web series such as Roommates to create more professional content for advertisers. Former Disney chief Michael Eisner has also been pushing web serials via MySpace.
With so much good content available in various web series, it’s easy to see the possibility of some of these shows making the jump to traditional TV after they get popular online. I actually hope that doesn’t happen, as the creative freedom and originality that is possible on the web — the ability to “dance like no one’s watching,” even though someone is — might be squelched by impositions from Hollywood producers and networks. While I’d love to see Chad Vader on primetime, I wouldn’t want him to lose his edge. That kind of weird humor is for the Internet, but not necessarily for the masses at home on the couch.
What do you think? Are web series the wave of the future in television or just a passing fad? Do you watch web series? Why or why not? Which web series are your favorites and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.