The frightening popularity of websites like Facebook and Myspace proves that the internet is the main tool in the Gen-Y social skill-set. But increasingly the web is about more than communication: it's the TV, the radio and the bible all rolled into one. During the recent Writers Guild strike, YouTube replaced the boob tube and webisodes looked like the way of the future, as primetime dried up and high-profile, network-approved talent headed for the web. And why wouldn't they want to swim toward warmer waters? After all, the internet is a venue that allows quirky projects to find their audience — without fear of mid-season cancellation. (Virginia Heffernan perfectly explains the appeal, as well as the challenges, of creating a series for the web, in this week's Times Magazine.) The fact that so many web shows center on socially awkward, web-dependent hipsters is just evidence that content creators are keenly aware of their core audience.
Quarterlife, an online series by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick of My So-Called Life fame, seems to understand that web 2.0 is essential to slacker social lives. These veteran producers also understand that the internet is becoming indispensable to the distribution of episodic programming.
Quarterlife revolves around a group of internet-addicted pretty young things in Los Angeles, who frequent a social networking site called "Quarterlife." In a truly meta move, the short episodes air on quarterlife.com, which has been outfitted as an actual social networking site aimed at the demographic the show represents. Visitors to the site can record video blogs similar to the ones created by the show's protagonists. But Quarterlife is more than just a cute idea: the episodes are well-written, well-acted and aided by their compact length, with none of the fluffy filler of most hourlong network dramas.
Which is why it was a mistake when, in November 2007, NBC decided to add beefed-up episodes of Quarterlife to its Sunday night lineup. This show is about people trying and failing to connect, instead choosing to express their frustrations in blog form, and it needed its webcentric context to survive. It was quickly terminated due to poor ratings. Rather than remain an internet success story, Quarterlife took a gamble on primetime and lost. Now it's back on the web with its tail between its legs.
The âBurg also focuses on a tight-knit group of friends and their big-city foibles. This webcom follows a group of hipsters trying to navigate their quickly gentrifying Brooklyn âhood. The cool kids of The 'Burg think they're part of the solution but they simply illustrate the problem as they barhop wearing sunglasses at night. The jokes at Williamsburg's expense occasionally fall flat —after all, there are only so many ways to say that the kids who ride the L are often rich and that their pants are way too tight. But the show is saved by winningly oversized performances, a danceable pop-rock soundtrack, and charmingly low-fi production values reminiscent of Full House. There are also some genuinely touching moments as the cool kids attempt to let down their guard and form relationships both romantic and platonic.
We Need Girlfriends shares The âBurg's sitcom sensibility but will appeal to a less regional audience, specifically fans of Apatow & Co. bromance comedies. WNG focuses on a trio of dorks who have recently been dumped by their college girlfriends and must now face the unforgiving New York City dating scene. Although it delivers some genuine laughs (often at the expense of the Myspace-obsessed), WNG is a proponent of the vaguely misogynistic humor and one-dimensional female characters favored by long-running network sitcoms like The King of Queens. No wonder the show's creators recently signed a development deal with CBS: We Need Girlfriends acted as a means to a network end, and it is now poised to make the leap away from being a genre piece for a certain kind of young adult.
One show that won't be coming to CBS anytime soon is Nerve Video/IFC's Young American Bodies, a series about Chicago post-grads that could only find its audience (and its subject) in the internet age. Indie auteur Joe Swanberg, beloved for his spot-on depictions of awkward love, sex, and crippling internet addiction, perfectly utilizes the "webisode" medium. He is telling small stories that seem right at home in Firefox browser windows. Infinitely more naturalistic than the New York based webcoms (and utterly NSFW), Young American Bodies rides the line between comedy and drama with a refreshing Midwestern modesty. YAMBO, as it is referred to by its devotees, is now well into its third season.
Miss Girl Chicago is another Windy City dramedy about anxiety-ridden young lovers, but this one by a different Joe — Joe Lewis, an actor and director whose film work is too subtle and experimental to go viral. The show is a reaction to his real-life breakup with Miss Girl leading lady Austin Marie Sayre. The result is a touching and heartbreaking depiction of the free-floating angst that comes with a relationship's demise. Miss Girl may be too quiet to make a splash on TV, but its nine episodes make for a cohesive and satisfying Youtube experience.
If you're in the market for a different kind of angst all together, check out sure-to-be-a-cult-classic Dr. Horrible's Sing-along-Blog. In a twist on his Doogie Howser role, Neil Patrick Harris plays yet another precocious dude with girl problems in this miniseries by nerd-god Joss Whedon (who clearly saw the future coming and created the show as a reaction to the writer's strike). This time Harris is Dr. Horrible, a baby-faced supervillain unable to express his love for the woman he sees every Saturday at the laundromat. When he does attempt to share his feelings it's through song, and the three episodes of Dr. Horrible are full of addictive musical numbers as the titular character faces off with his cool-guy nemesis Captain Hammer. Despite its Broadway bravado, this web romcom disguised as a superhero story shares the same core concerns as its aforementioned compatriots, as it asks: Is the internet enhancing our ability to connect or increasing our level of isolation? Because, as Dr. Horrible will tell you, blogging is easy. It's love that's hard.