Web series (or TV shows that are syndicated exclusively over the internet) are becoming higher in production quality. But there’s another quality that we look for in TV shows. And web series are delivering it in spades.
Something I never thought I would say came out of my mouth recently: “Thanks, but I’ve got too many shows to watch as it is.”
Like most people in their mid-twenties with little disposable income and principles that extend as far as a deeply rooted hatred for cable companies, I ditched cable. So what this really means is:
I watch more shows than ever now, and it is crippling. I’m a fat kid, and online shows are my cake. I have a Roku outfitted with Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, HBO Go, Amazon Prime and Crackle. I even have the Blockbuster On Demand app, and no idea what to do with it.
Ditching cable and focusing online is a license for accessing better quality shows. Shows that take risks networks won’t. Shows that don’t obsess over surveys and polls that hog tie it creatively before it has a chance to be weird or unique.
Here’s why you should take a chance and focus online:
1. Web Series Give You More Options
Online shows are rightfully blowing up while network suits are clutching their market research like a southern belle does pearls. Three things are for sure: audiences are evolving, the world was different when they were kids, and eventually Shonda Rimes shows will run out.
In a rare defense of networks, it wasn’t that long ago when a web series was a funny (funny odd, not funny ha-ha) project people did while waiting to get cast or pitch networks for a “real” show. The difference was as far apart as having 10 minutes on stage at the Ha Ha Hut or becoming a cast member on Saturday Night Live.
Now, because of Netflix’s success with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” having your show hosted entirely online is a totally legitimate venture.
This has been validated even further by Amazon and Hulu following suit (Yahoo! and AOL bringing up the rear, because why stop now) and creating their own exceptional online-only ventures.
2. Web Series are Weirder and Ultimately More Entertaining
Take Steve Buschemi’s web series Park Bench. While not strictly unique, it’s definitely weird in a way that makes you forget about his serious and critically-acclaimed success with Boardwalk Empire in favor of his deliciously freakish cameos in Adam Sandler movies.
A collaboration with AOL of all places, in the pilot episode of the Emmy-nominated series, he is sitting at a New York bar and sums up the thinking behind launching a web series pretty perfectly:
“Look, I’m always telling actors, ‘you have to create your own work. You can’t wait for opportunities. You’ve got to make your own opportunities.’ But the thing is, it’s so hard. To do your own TV show … you gotta pitch it. It takes money. There’s gotta be some way to do it quick, do it easy…”
Then his dad, sitting at the bar chimes in, “Well what about a web series?”
Chris Rock, sitting at the far end of the bench, then comes in with his own ideas, and there you have it — within the pilot of a show, the show itself is born. Very meta, even for a web series.
Essentially, Park Bench is Humans of New York in video format. Buscemi has celebrities like Rock, but also regular folk on the series, and they have conversations on art and life in between faux-reality show moments with Buscemi and his friends and family.
“It’s not a talk show, it’s a talking show,” as he says in the pilot.
3. Web Series can Get Away With A Lot More
A natural turn from Park Bench is Emmy-award winning Internet comedy series, Between Two Ferns from comedian Zach Galifianakis. You may be familiar with it from when President Barack Obama was a guest, a legitimizing step for online series.
That episode has had 30 million viewers. One of his first questions to the President of the United States is what we should do about North Ikea.
Galifianakis interviews all of his famous guests between the titled two ferns, asking alternately bizarre and insulting questions with a sharp seriousness that Tom Brokaw would envy. But somehow, he gets every laugh he never asks for.
The show is a classic example of why web series and online-only shows have become a haven for talented people: it started as a short film for a Fox sketch pilot that the network declined to pick up.
It was then put up as a short on the website Funny Or Die, where it found quick success.
Discussing the show on ABC News Now, Galifianakis said, “I think it’s somewhat of a fantasy interview for me to be rude to the Hollywood types, which I hold in a certain disdain … The sycophantic way that the Hollywood machine runs – it’s fun to make fun of it. That’s how ‘Between Two Ferns’ started.”
It frequently flexes a web series’ greatest strength: getting away with a lot.
Guests aren’t told what will happen in advance, according to the same interview with Galifianakis, “They agree to come. There is no discussion beforehand…It just happens, no real prep, no organization whatsoever.”
Which leads to the next reason…
4. Web Series can Attract Better Talent
Somehow, in spite of this “You jump, I jump Jack” Hollywood trust exercise, which is notoriously impossible to pull off, they do.
This mimicry of a cable access show pulls names that network television talk shows pine for, like Sean Penn, Jon Hamm, Natalie Portman and a man who knows about escaping stronger post-network television, Conan O’Brien.
Not only are these bigger names, but the actual talent is better.
Without the almighty network looming over them, an online show is a fun and free environment that allows big names to act out, instead of playing pretty, well-postured anecdote drones.
5. Web Series are Not Predictable or Formulaic
In the same vein of all the inappropriate, awkward and just plain weird online-only shows have to offer is Hulu Original Quick Draw.
In this Western spoof, over-educated John Henry Hoyle is the new sheriff in a Kansas town where his five predecessors have all died violent deaths.
I should mention now that this is a comedy, which begins when the townsfolk he’s protecting are betting on when he’s going to kick the bucket too.
Variety panned the show, essentially calling it a dud for it’s lack of a point of view.
The reviewer, Brian Lowry, makes my point for me by writing, “it’s hard to see any of the more traditional networks being drawn to something like this. Viewed that way, ‘Quick Draw’ represents a pretty conspicuous misfire, pardner.”
Exactly. No traditional network would have green-lit a show like this unless someone fell asleep on the paper with the stamp in their hand.
The show is in its second season, and thrives online. Despite the fact that Brian Lowry is right. There is no bigger picture. It just exists to be silly, irreverent, anachronistic, and deliver jokes so terrible they’ve come back around again. It entertains.
It’s clear that the typical instruction booklet for building successful television shows was plainly ignored. That gives it the similar sort of confusing quirkiness that killed Arrested Development on television, but resurrected it on Netflix.
So why are these network-failed shows finding success online?
Not everything is meant to be staged on Broadway for the Kansas City tourists. Environment and framing is powerful, and the world of online shows is a smaller venue where the stage doors are left open. People who “get it” will generally find it.
Don’t be network execs. Don’t be Brian Lowry. Be better than Lowry. Get out there, and find the online show you’re destined to watch.