I’ve almost given up on the web series format. After gamely attempting to review a few web series, I’ve limped to a halt. Most of what I see is lame at best, and not worth the bandwidth it takes to stream them. After seeing too many half-baked webcasts it seems clear that talent, time, skill, and perseverance are no less important in this new dramatic format than in any other art form.
What is less clear is the financial model that this nascent web-based medium needs to use to be successful. Despite the low cost of entry, a web series needs writing, acting, and production talent to be effective, none of which is easy to find for cheap. However, I’ve also observed that deep pockets and the availability of industry professionals doesn’t necessarily make for a better product. And the means of finding an audience is uncertain, depending almost entirely on viral marketing, which works rather uncertainly from a producer’s point of view.
Since webisodes are generally very short, what works the best is short, sharp, humorous pieces that illustrate a simple situation. Dark dramatic pieces usually need more time than a 3 to 5 minute segment can provide to build up to their proper impact, and so they tend to look overly melodramatic and lame. As for action pieces, they simply need more resources than what anybody in this business is willing to pay for. Most of the webcasts I’ve seen resemble what you could see in the early days of television, which often had shows with limited sets and stilted writing, or more simply, a man standing in front of a camera desperately ad-libbing. The most successful webcasts still feature candid events filmed accidentally and then posted on YouTube. It all adds up to nothing worth an investment of my time.
Still, regardless of what I think of drama for the “insufficiently evolved” masses, some web series become fairly popular. While I think lonelygirl15 is a deeply boring series about self-centered and vacuous teenage girls (yeah, I know it’s not real, so don’t bother to comment), hordes of horny guys are endlessly fascinated. An average of 3 million viewers enjoy each episode of The Annoying Orange with it’s sophomoric Beavis and Butthead style humor. In show business you can’t argue with popularity, although how that translates into profit is less clear to me. Yes, these shows are seen by a lot of eyeballs, but how many paychecks come through as a result?
Yet, occasionally I find series that I think have true dramatic merit. Unfortunately, it takes an awful lot of searching to find, and a person can’t be blamed if they give up before hitting any paydirt. Hence my long hiatus from comments on web series.
The Bannen Way is an exception to my made-up-on-the-spot rule about dramatic web series not working very well in webisode format. Each episode is 6 to 9 minutes on average, which is just about what you would get in between commercials on network television. The series features a handsome and charismatic low-life scumbag who wants to set his life straight, but — you guessed it — his past sins keep dragging him down. It’s written and shot in a Guy-Ritchie-ADD-style, jumping backwards and forwards, which I think suits the webisode medium rather better than it does a longer form. Obviously, this complex story-telling style isn’t for everybody; unsophisticated viewers might find all this jumping around and lack of clear heroic character confusing, but I enjoy the complex stories. As a neat side feature, Robert Forster has a small but important role. I watched the first episode for about a minute before deciding to spring for the $9.99 to see the entire one-and-a-half hour video at Amazon. (Hey, I’ve wasted more money than this on stuff that was complete and utter crap.)
For comedy, there’s always the venerable (by web standards, that is) Ask A Ninja, which has a ninja warrior answering various questions sent in by viewers. It seems like a recipe for lameness, but the comic wit flies fast, and it’s accompanied by enough subtext to make a typical Bugs Bunny cartoon look like a quiet day at Pismo Beach. The duo behind this production has slowed down since this year began, but there are plenty of episodes from the past 3+ years to keep you entertained for quite a while. My only caution is that a little goes a long way, and I find Mr. Ninja is best when sampled in small doses.
The most interesting series I’ve seen is Odd Job Nation, which has parleyed four exceptional web episodes into a web community — and a development deal with Fox. (Sadly, the development deal isn’t for a TV series, but a web series. Instead, this lame blog concept got the TV series development deal.) Each of the short episodes carry a full story arc featuring unique and interesting characters with actors that are well cast. Not only are these stories sharply observant about their subjects, but also show subtext and character development. I was left wanting to see more, and wishing that there were more comedies this good on TV.
From RedLetterMedia comes an insightful seven (SEVEN!) part video review of The Phantom Menace which accurately details exactly why that episode of the Star Wars saga is an utter and complete failure. Along the way, you learn a lot about what the elements are that make up a good movie. It’s as good as a film class, and costs you nothing but about 70 minutes of your time. (RedLetterMedia also created a good video review of Avatar.)