Changing Channels: 10 memorable web TV series

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arts-internet-tv-392.jpg Neil Patrick Harris stars in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which received 2.2 million views in its first week online. (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)

CHANGING CHANNELS: WHAT’S UP NEXT FOR TV
Reinventing television
10 memorable made-for-web TV series
By Greig Dymond, CBC News

This past March, a cluster of Hollywood celebrities headed to an awards show. Lisa Kudrow was there; so were Neil Patrick Harris and Joss Whedon. But this wasn’t the Oscars or the Emmys; they were attending the first-ever Streamys, a night devoted to honouring “outstanding achievement for shows produced originally for broadband distribution.” Does the world need a new awards ceremony? Probably not. But the birth of the Streamys is yet another sign that made-for-web television is gaining legitimacy.

Original episodic content created specifically for the internet has been around since at least 1995, with the debut of a dramatic series called The Spot. But over the last couple of years, production has exploded in the U.S.

“There are definitely thousands of shows,” says Liz Gannes, co-editor and founder of Newteevee.com, a San Francisco website devoted to the world of internet video. “Really, it’s with the arrival of these free and globally accessible platforms for distributing content that episodic web shows have taken off. Today, when you make your show, you can have it posted it online within a few hours. I remember [pre-YouTube] some videos used to be just passed around as an email attachment. So the ability to refer people to a link that they can access on nearly any computer just really increases the viral potential for these things, and therefore the audience.”

There’s an entire alternate TV universe online, with talk shows, comedy, drama, even reality programming; most episodes run between three and 10 minutes. Granted, the production values are wildly divergent — there’s a lot of amateurish web-geek material out there, but it’s relatively easy to find some quality product, too.

Web series aren’t ready to challenge traditional television just yet – and they’ll continue to lag far behind in viewership until TV manufacturers start marketing sets with internet connections – but many of them have devoted followings. High-profile actors, directors and producers are gravitating toward the medium in greater numbers, drawn to the creative freedom, lack of network interference and short turnaround times. Here are 10 episodic shows that have made their mark during the brief history of web television.

Lonelygirl15

Back in the Jurassic era of web series – a.k.a. the summer of 2006 – lonelygirl15 caused a media sensation. It all looked fairly unassuming: a 16-year-old named Bree just sitting in her bedroom, uploading earnest confessions onto her YouTube video blog. She’d talk about her strict parents and her nascent romance with a friend named Daniel. Thousands of viewers became addicted to her perky awkwardness, but many of them also started to suspect that the lighting looked a bit too professional, that her revelations seemed a bit too rehearsed. By that September, the ruse was over. It turned out that “Bree” was a 20-year-old actor named Jessica Rose, and the whole thing was scripted. Despite the sense of betrayal they felt, many audience members stuck with the program until it ended in 2008. Bree got caught up in an ornate religious conspiracy when a cult-like group called The Order went after her “trait positive” blood.

The acting certainly wasn’t Oscar-worthy; still, lonelygirl15 demonstrated the breakthrough potential for episodic storytelling on the web. If this format continues to evolve and grow in popularity, people might look back on this as a tipping point: internet video’s equivalent of Gunsmoke or I Love Lucy.

Fred

Lucas Cruikshank is a Nebraska teenager with a quirky talent – he can talk like a six-year-old who’s inhaled way too much helium. He’s parlayed that ability into superstar status on YouTube as Fred Figglehorn, a hyperactive brat who sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Each no-budget episode in this children’s series runs about three minutes, with Cruikshank/Figglehorn addressing the camera about a specific topic: Fred Loses His Meds, Fred On Father’s Day … you get the picture.

The show also looks as if it’s edited by a six-year-old with ADHD. Although the pacing is deeply unsettling for adults, kids are lapping it up: Cruikshank’s channel holds the record for most subscribers on YouTube (over one million) and the episode Fred Goes Swimming has accumulated over 27 million views.

You Suck at Photoshop

Produced by Troy Hitch and Matt Bledsoe for MyDamnChannel.com, this is an ingenious way to spin a narrative on the web. Hitch voices the character of Donnie Hoyle, an embittered, condescending Photoshop whiz who gives a series of online tutorials about the photo-altering software. The viewer never sees Hoyle; instead, we’re watching his cursor move around the computer screen while he dispenses hateful barbs about his wife, his boss and life in general. You Suck at Photoshop reinvents the comedy shtick of Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield for the digital age. Brilliant.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

In some ways, this tongue-in-cheek musical feels like a lot of other online series. For example, the main character employs the familiar plot device of recording his thoughts on a video blog. But Dr. Horrible breaks the mould with superior production values, smarter-than-usual writing and spot-on performances. Neil Patrick Harris stars as a low-rent villain who aspires to join the Evil League of Evil. But his desire to wreak havoc gets in the way of his unrequited crush on the benevolent Penny (Felicia Day), a woman he met at the local laundromat. Dr. Horrible’s rival for her affections is a narcissistic superhero named Captain Hammer.

Shot in just six days, this was the brainchild of creator Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). His massive following helped make the 42-minute opus a smash when it rolled out in three installments in the summer of 2008, garnering 2.2 million views over a five-day period. Whedon told TelevisionWeek, “It did teach me that there is this no man’s land between the YouTube videos and a TV series and independent movies, that is not bound by restrictions of budget or length or structure or genre.”

The Guild

Many web series feature internet-obsessed characters. Felicia Day (of Dr. Horrible fame) is the creator, writer and star of this clever show about six people who meet through an online role-playing game (clearly inspired by World of Warcraft). Day plays Cyd Sherman (game name: Codex), a self-doubting underachiever who spends six hours a day in the virtual world – avoiding her real-life responsibilities in the process. After Zaboo (played by Sandeep Parikh) misinterprets her online flirting, he shows up at Sherman’s house, expecting a relationship. The Guild is primarily a comedy that contains some dark observations about the difference between interacting with someone online and meeting them face-to-face. And talk about audience participation: the show’s first season was largely financed by besotted fans who made donations via PayPal.

Quarterlife

Back when it aired on MySpace and Quarterlife.com in the fall of 2007, this received more media hype than any previous web series, largely due to its pedigree. Co-creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz had already struck gold with thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Here, they were launching a show online – the first time producers with such an esteemed track record were seen to embrace this new format. Quarterlife is an earnest look at a group of twentysomethings living in the same apartment complex, a la Melrose Place (which feels like Chekhov compared to this tripe). The narrator, Dylan Krieger (played by Bitsie Tulloch), is a frustrated writer forced to work in a menial job at a women’s magazine because no one recognizes her alleged genius.

Once again, the show uses the main character’s video blog as a structural device, but her online ramblings betray so many personal details about her roommates you wonder how she manages to keep them as friends. Quarterlife became the first internet show to migrate to a major American network when it debuted on NBC in early 2008. But after getting dismal ratings, it was quickly cancelled.

Sanctuary

Shot in Vancouver, this sci-fi show developed a loyal following when eight webisodes – running a total of about two hours – aired on Sanctuaryforall.com in 2007. The series stars Amanda Tapping (Stargate: SG-1) as Dr. Helen Magnus, a researcher who protects strange creatures (beasts, a caveman, a mermaid) in a secret lab. (Oh, and there’s also some kind of portal to Victorian England.) Starting out as an internet-only venture was a conscious attempt by writer/creator Damian Kindler to connect with science fiction devotees where they live and breathe. TV networks took notice; a beefed-up version of Sanctuary now airs on the Sci Fi Channel in the U.S. and The Movie Network in Canada.

Between Two Ferns

Funny or Die is a humour video site that specializes in one-off comedy shorts like Will Ferrell’s The Landlord. But one of its gems is this five-episode “talk show” featuring a simple, fern-adorned set and an even simpler premise: comedian Zach Galifianakis is unbelievably rude to his celebrity guests. In the interview with Michael Cera in the first episode, Galifianakis pretends to snore, imitates the actor’s high-pitched voice and even plays the sound of a crowd booing on a tape recorder. Like dozens of web comedy series, it’s based on one joke. Still, there’s something liberating about seeing the fake hospitality of chat shows skewered in such a straightforward way.

Diggnation

Diggnation comes across as an internet-era version of the McKenzie Brothers’ epochal The Great White North: two guys sit together on a couch and consume plenty of beer. Hosts Alex Albrecht and Kevin Rose are ostensibly there to comment on the most popular news stories on the bookmarking site Digg, but they regularly veer off into discussions of jock itch and the hippie-ish inclinations of their camera guy. If you always dreamed of listening to two guys talk about tech toys while getting slightly sloshed, this is the show for you. Rose (a co-founder of Digg) and Albrecht have a significant (and largely male) fan base, and are often hailed as heroes whenever they take their San Francisco-based show on the road in front of a live audience. Web-savvy TV host Jimmy Fallon recently had them as guests on his new late night show.

The Shatner Project

He wasn’t asked to do a cameo in the new Star Trek movie, but William Shatner can take solace in winning a Streamy award for “Best Reality Web Series.” The Shatner Project takes a behind-the-scenes look at one of pop culture’s greatest self-promoters. You can hear his open-wound musings on that J.J. Abrams movie snub, reminiscences about previous roles and even his business degree at McGill University. Most of the interviews are conducted by his daughter Lisabeth, who’s softer on her dad than Pravda was on Brezhnev. Celebrities post this kind of video material all the time, but this site is unique because the egocentric Shatner is a loose cannon – pushing 80, he says whatever he wants to, with little regard for the niceties of Hollywood.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

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