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Critic's Notebook: Web TV is just waiting to click

Online television has yet to catch on like the traditional format, but it's just barely getting started and hubs like Hulu, Crackle and Koldcast point to a wide-open future.

June 26, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Of all the emerging neo-networks — also including My Damn Channel (home to the immigration comedy "Gigi: Almost American," starring Josh Gad, Tony-nominated for "The Book of Mormon"), and Babelgum, which hosts the clever sci-fi sitcom "Date a Human" — perhaps the most compelling is Koldcast, which bills itself as "The Other TV" for the sheer volume and breadth of its offerings. Most of what I've seen there is fairly accomplished, which is to say that much of it is not derivative or artistically immature. (Many of these shows have their own websites or YouTube channels as well.) Among the interesting scenery there is "Ruby Skye P.I.," a Canadian tween mystery; "Verse," a mystery story that features cameos from several estimable poets and the New York underground legend Taylor Mead; and the popular "Anyone But Me," co-created by "thirtysomething" vet Susan Miller, a teen lesbian dramedy that makes up in sweetness and likeness to life what it sometimes lacks in polish.

The best of the straight-ahead dramas that I've seen in my trawling through cyberspace — still largely a journey of random discovery, short on comprehensive guides — is "Downsized," now in its "second season," a serio-comic collection of scenes in which seven New Yorkers deal with love in a time of economic recession, written by and costarring Daryn Strauss, whose character begins the series being fired by a sock puppet. Though there is a kind of through-line, the show, which is not especially plot-driven, plays more as variations on a theme, giving each episode a sturdy structural integrity even as they lock into the larger whole.

Still, for the moment, comedy continues to rule, in longer as well as shorter form. When it comes to storytelling, there is no Web drama I've seen as good as "The Guild," a full-service sitcom about a group of online role-playing gamers thrust into real-world social relationships. Created by and starring nerd-heroine Felicia Day (of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") and originally made on donations from fans and later with support from Microsoft, "The Guild" has four seasons under its belt and a fifth to come. Smartly written with a superb central performance, it's accessible beyond the niche-iness of its subject matter. Also marvelous is "Easy to Assemble," Illeana Douglas' Ikea-sponsored series about recovering actors working at …. Ikea. With a third season starting this year, it features an especially brilliant turn by Justine Bateman as Douglas' manipulative frenemy: "You and I were friends for weeks," she says, "before I realized you weren't Allison Janney."

After several false dawns, we are still at the beginning. Only a fraction of the people who spend time online will have watched any Web series at all, and only a fraction of those will have watched with any dedication. A successful series might have an audience in the (millions, but this is not yet a venue in which fortunes will be made.

And that's a good thing, because if the Web is going to find its own voice to shake off its status as the third-best place for a filmmaker to work, it won't be because of the industrial thinking that in 2007 created the Michael Eisner-backed teen thriller "Prom Queen" and "Quarterlife," from Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ("thirtysomething"), which streamed over MySpace and its own dedicated social networking platform and seemed to pander to a generation even as it got them wrong; when NBC reran "Quarterlife" on "actual" television, it was canceled (and moved to Bravo) after a single episode.

If there is for the moment more craft than art on display in Web drama, craft is nothing to sneeze at. To watch the Web is to be reminded how many talented actors, cinematographers and designers (and so on) there are in the world — more than there are jobs to fit them. The point about the Internet isn't simply to replace one delivery system with another but to extend the palate and the possibilities. When the art arrives, it will be something we couldn't have imagined ourselves, made by people less concerned with making a fortune than that thing that doesn't exist yet, that they just have to see.

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