Former lonelygirl15 writer Mary Feuer’s With the Angels, a series exploring the diverse community of Venice, Calif., has been quietly building an audience with its offbeat subject matter, strong acting and audience-engaging interactivity. We talked with Feuer about the challenges of creating a drama for the YouTube set, learning from mistakes made on lonelygirl15, and the potential for a second season. An edited transcript follows.
NewTeeVee: So, after working on lonelygirl15, which definitely has more of a sci-fi genre bent, what’s it been like working on With the Angels, which is much more of a drama?
Feuer: I like being able to go a little deeper into characters, without having to worry so much about big plot events. A lot of the feature rewrites I get hired to do are about bringing a layer of character to the story, so I’m getting to really play to my strengths right now.
NewTeeVee: Drama is pretty underrepresented in online video, though — do you feel like there’s a reason for that?
Feuer: I guess it’s because it’s harder to write, harder to gain an audience for. It requires more investment from viewers, and it’s definitely not going to go viral.
NewTeeVee: Is there a way to do a drama that you can engage with immediately, though? Or does the essential nature of drama mean that you have to make that greater investment?
Feuer: Well, I guess you could argue that more genre-oriented pieces give some people a more immediate sense of engagement. But it depends on what you’re into. Even in the genre world, for me, it’s the characters who draw me in. So I guess compelling characters plus mysterious genre-ish plot might add up to immediate connection. Still, drama doesn’t have a punchline typically, so you’re not going to watch a five-minute episode and feel completely satisfied. You have to dig in a little more.
NewTeeVee: So in that case, the key is to really reward the people who do make the investment.
Feuer: Yeah, I’d say so.
NewTeeVee: At what point in the development process for With the Angels did you start exploring the potential for interactivity?
Feuer: It was always a given that there’d be some — the question was how much I could handle, being pretty much a one-woman band. I’m not really interested in those “you control the plot” type of interactive shows. I had definite things I wanted to say, but I knew from LG15 that interaction can bring a whole new level of depth if used correctly. Or a whole new level of artifice if used poorly.
NewTeeVee: Can you give an example of the latter?
Feuer: You sometimes see shows that invite the audience into the story in a way that feels less than genuine. It’s all about the writing, not what people are invited to do. Sometimes I’m watching something, and just when I’m suspending my disbelief, letting the story become real for me, the character does this blatant, “Hey guys, what do you think? Send your ideas to [email protected]!” thing that to me feels worse than just turning to the camera and saying “Buy this dish soap — it’s the best!” It can feel very gimmicky, worse than the most egregious product placement.
NewTeeVee: Is that something lonelygirl used very often?
Feuer: I don’t really want to get into the specifics of it, but we were definitely guilty of it at times. We also did some incredibly elegant and sophisticated interactivity. With a show creating that much content, there are going to be hits and misses.
Our audience is, I think, a mix of active and passive viewers, with the passive outweighing the active by a lot. But the things I’m most proud of have nothing to do with urging a particular way of participating. Urging people to THINK and DISCUSS and interact with each other — which has happened, for the most part, in the YouTube comments — is the most successful interactive component of this particular show.
NewTeeVee: What do they discuss?
Feuer: Faith and existentialism, among other things. I think I can safely say mine is the only show where I have seen Kierkegaard mentioned in the YouTube comments.
NewTeeVee: What was one of the first instances you incorporating out-of-series material? And how did you direct viewers to it?
Feuer: Taffy, our main character, came to LA to go to a school called the Sunshine Film Academy. We made a commercial for the Academy — kind of like a cheesy ITT technical institute for total outsiders who want to become insiders in the industry. The school has a working phone number people can call to leave messages for the school. That was one of the first things.
Another character posted a video personal ad on a real dating site; we encouraged viewers to find him dates from among the women posting on the site. Some of them ended up matching him with the plant who would eventually become his girlfriend on the show. I think we made it a little too easy for them by giving her a Venice address. If she’d been in a different part of the city it might have been harder.
NewTeeVee: Still, that’s pretty impressive.
Feuer: Well, you have to remember, these are the same people who outed LG15 by tracking an IP address. They are very good researchers — it was baby stuff to them!
NewTeeVee: When do you think you’ll know about a second season?
Feuer: Probably early January. It will be a group decision of the cast and crew, though I, of course, have some veto power.
NewTeeVee: What are the biggest obstacles right now?
Feuer: Exhaustion and money. This has been a total labor of love, really from the heart of all of us. But it’s taken a lot out of everyone. I’d put myself first on that list. We have to decide if we’re up for doing it again. We have an offer of some money should we choose to continue, but we need to decide together if it’s the right thing for us.
NewTeeVee: Is there one thing that could happen which would guarantee a second season?
Feuer: No, not really. It’s a combination of factors. But of course hearing from people who WANT us to goes a long way.
NewTeeVee: A pretty subtle hint.
Feuer: Yes, I’m big on subtlety these days.
This review, along with more details about the show, can be found at NewTeeVee Station.