Yes, Virginia, There Are Good Web Series

Virginia Heffernan, the normally-astute media writer for the New York Times, wrote a bewildering piece that appeared in the paper’s magazine on Sunday. “Serial Killers” took web video series to task, albeit in a pretty confusing manner. My main issues with Heffernan’s story are classification, timeliness and overall point.

She leads the story off using the John Edwards webisodes shot by Rielle Hunter as an example of a web series. Wait, huh? Edwards’ use of video may technically be a web series in that there is more than one episode, and you can watch it on the web — but classifying this bit of politicking as a web series seems misguided. This was basically an ad — or a cool way to pick up chicks, depending on your point of view. But I wouldn’t put Rielle Hunter’s work in the same story with Marshall Herskovitz’s.

She also cites webisodes for hit TV shows like The Office and Battlestar Galactica as almost tacky examples of web series. But while these may be more serial in nature, they wouldn’t exist without their TV counterparts (Why do you think studios wanted them classified as “promotion” during the writers’ strike?). As she points out, they were made to embrace viewers from the TV show — the fans. But so what? Fans get obsessive, why is the opportunity to create a bigger fictional world online so bad in and of itself?

For such a savvy reporter, Herffernan seems woefully out of date. She references Afterworld, lonelygirl15 and quarterlife as name-brand serials. Too bad all those series ended (technically, season one of Afterworld ended, but its producers have gone all Hollywood with Gemini Division and Woke Up Dead). She does reference Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but incorrectly says that iTunes is the only place to watch it (you can also sing along at Hulu). As the folks at Tilzy.TV point out, Heffernan’ post doesn’t even mention The Onion News Network, You Suck at Photoshop, Ask a Ninja or CollegeHumor’s Hardly Working.

Heffernan basically calls web serials the slower cousin of viral videos. Why she feels the two need to be exclusive of one another rather than complementary is unclear. True, Chocolate Rain is fun to pass around, but sometimes people need more substance. That’s why CBS carries both Big Brother and 60 Minutes.

Where Heffernan does make a valid point about web series is when she says that she doesn’t like to watch web serials as serials. I don’t think the web has spawned a “must-see-newteevee” show yet that has people marking their calendars either. This could be for a few reasons:

1. There is a ton of content out there, not to mention all the other media we consume, so keeping track a particular show is tougher.

2. With the three-to-five minute episode length of most web series, it’s more difficult to engage the audience as fully as you can with a half hour or hour-long drama. Plus watching web series is usually not done in a vacuum. On a PC, instant messaging, email and even other web browsing are all just a click away.

3. The content hasn’t reached a mass audience yet. Watching web video is just now becoming a more mainstream activity, and web series as an art form are really young. Give us a minute to get some decent acting and special effects, will ya?

Overall, I’m just not sure what Heffernan was going for in this article. She bounces around from political scandal to viral video to quoting Jean Cocteau about art and film. Heffernan nears the end of her piece with the following:

So where’s the true art? I’m not sure. I know I continue to prefer the strange, beautiful, comical and mysterious stuff of YouTube — the unclassifiable stuff — to the laudable efforts at nouveau serials by bona fide directors. But I still believe that, one day, another serial — not called a serial, maybe, and certainly not webisodes — will exploit the eccentricity of the virals and manage to make new and serious jokes about the truth-illusion-truth-illusion of cinéma vérité, which is what “lonelygirl15” once did. With that, the thrill of filmed “reality” will be returned to viewers, as it was in the early days of film, radio and television.

We’ve already written about why there won’t be another lonelygirl, but maybe Heffernan should just relax and enjoy the web show (I’d recommend the genius adaptation of Get Your War On), though I wouldn’t expect many more from John Edwards, anytime soon.

Update: Heffernan said in a post online that space constraints kept her from adding more web series to her rundown. She recommends series like 2/8 life, Drunk History, and Squeegees among others.