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Yes, Virginia, There Are Good Web Series

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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For such a savvy reporter, Herffernan seems woefully out of date.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.

15 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, There Are Good Web Series”

  1. Dan Welds

    There are NOT a lot of good web series, Virginia was right that since Satacracy 88, nothing really has popped online as original. I haven’t been impressed with anything since 2007’s year of 88, Prom Queen and Goodnight Burbank. Nothing since then has made an effort, and I personally don’t see anything trying now or in 2008 at all. Good luck web producers, you have your work cut out for you.

  2. I agree with the general tenor of the criticism–the article was poorly argued; there was no real attempt at categorizing new models or defining the differences between the types of video she was discussing; she got some basic facts wrong, etc.

    But I also agree with Tim that there is a fairly massive general audience that doesn’t know about or can’t find new shows as they launch. Whether VH’s arguments or solid or not, the fact that she is making at all them is a bit of a canary in the coal mine.

    The worst case scenario is that the massive wave of talent that is currently producing for the web exhausts itself before enough of them can make enough to pay their rent, and we lose their creativity to some other endeavor.

  3. Unfortunately Virginia Heffernan is right. If that’s the way she sees things then that’s the way they are to the rest of the world or worst.

    We live in an online video bubble and we need to change the way people like Virginia Heffernan think and they way they discover our shows.

    If she hasn’t heard of shows like Prom Queen, Abigail’s Teen Diaries or The Guild then we along with Mr. Michael Eisner have failed to launch.

    People outside our echo chamber have heard of YouTube but they haven’t discovered story based Internet shows yet and it’s our task to not just preach to the choir but to find new ways of promoting our shows in traditional media and at live events that will convert them to the truth the way and the light of online video.

    40 Million plus homes in the US might have broadband but are they using it to watch emotionally engaging content that we create?

    My guess is, not yet.

  4. To Virginia Heffernan, Rielle Hunter and Marshall Herskovitz CAN be classified together.

    Her main point: “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.”

    she thinks this will be what is successful. i don’t know.

    its perhaps a difficult article to understand mostly because she is viewing the whole web series world thru a very different lens than most who are writing about it.

    she knows much about many things, and maybe less about a few facts here and there, but her insights are usually worthwhile.

    she asks, “Are there really any hit Web serials?”

    its a good question.

  5. “For such a savvy reporter, Herffernan seems woefully out of date”

    The irony of Old Media “reporting” on New Media is that often they’re the least qualified to do so. I’ve seen similar Old Media coverage where the reporter will pose as someone “in the know” so he/she can let the masses in on what’s going on in New Media – but the truth of the matter is far more likely to be that the audience is probably just as knowledgeable if not more so than the reporter.

    The Emperor has no twitter account (or at least doesn’t use it).