I've been looking at a number of web series lately and have been impressed by the level of professionalism of many of them. There are series based on just about any topic or situation you can imagine, but some seem to be over-represented:
- The trials and tribulations of an aspiring actor
- The life of three or four broke twenty-somethings sharing a flat
- The dating misadventures of a twenty-something woman or man
WEB SERIES SKEW YOUNG
Is that because young people have more time and more familiarity with the medium? Probably. Is it because the likely audience also skews young? Also probably. However, the average age of YouTube viewers has been on the rise for a while, so there's nothing to say that series focused on the experiences of older characters can't work.
HUMOR WORKS WELL
A lot of series are parodies or have a sketch comedy type of format, the sort of thing that you can also see on Saturday Night Live.
A good example is Notary Publix, ia broad parody mix of soap operas and crime shows that wisely sticks to a length of about three minutes. It was co-created by and stars Kate McKinnon (right), a Saturday Night Live alumnus. The "behind the scenes" bits at the end are at least as funny as the episodes. The first episode is here.
A PROBLEM WITH ENDINGS
The biggest problem I've noticed with webisodes is that many of them don't have a satisfying ending. It's difficult to craft a story in five to ten minutes and if the series has ongoing stories each episode's ending has to make you want to see the next one, as well as giving you the feeling of some level of completion for that episode by itself.
THERE'S A FOCUS ON MOMENTS RATHER THAN STORIES
The lack of endings isn't always a fault. After all, we don't knock a short story for not being a novel. In many series, the emphasis is on sharing moments rather than telling complete stories. This seems to work better when they're funny because the humor itself is a payoff.
A dramatic example is Inhuman Condition. Each of the 33 episodes shows part of a therapy session and what makes it high-concept is that the patients all have some kind of paranormal aspect. One of them has powers with which she has inadvertently killed more than 300 people, another looks normal but has a "living dead" condition that is draining her life from the inside.
The series is well-acted and looks great, and the fact that it takes place mostly in one location, the therapist's office, is logical and doesn't detract. Overall, the theme is alienation and the difficulty of dealing with being different, even if for most of us that doesn't extend to turning into a werewolf.
However, maybe because we are so conditioned to watching stories, the ending of each episode makes you want to see what happens next--but the next episode is about a different patient. For instance, the living dead episode ends with the patient asking the therapist to help her kill herself. If you want to find out what happens after that you have to imagine it yourself.
MANY ARE TRY-OUTS FOR ANOTHER FORMAT
There are some interesting experiments in trying to figure out how to use the limitations of the web and the viewing habits of its visitors to create something different, but the majority of series still feel like their prime purpose is to get the creators a deal with a network. Several have made the transition, at which point they tend to become like traditional series in length and format.
THERE ARE INTERESTING POSSIBILITIES IN NON-FICTION AS WELL
There are quite a few mini-documentary series, interview series, and other non-fiction formats. Probably the best-known is Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Others have been about people trying to protect rainforests, what happens to prisoners after they are released, and dairy farmers.
THE BIG OPPORTUNITY--AND THE BIG CHALLENGE
The great opportunity is that you can make a web series with minimal equipment and expense. Some have been shot with the cameras on smartphones. Most are the product of a small team, but an individual can do it as well.
Nobody limits or dictates your creative choices, and the final product will--for better or worse--be what you made it. When you write screenplays, it can be years before anything is made; with a web series you can shoot an episode one day, edit it the next, and have it on YouTube or your own site the third day. It gives you a great chance to see what works and what doesn't.
When you write screenplays, it can be years before anything is made; with a web series you can shoot an episode one day, edit it the next, and have it on YouTube or your own site the third day. It gives you a great chance to see what works and what doesn't and to improve.
Also, there's no penalty for making mistakes. The main reason is also the main challenge: most likely, very few people will actually see the series.
The situation is similar to that faced by self-publishers. Now that so many people are doing it, getting attention for your project is difficult. Some web series producers have been able to get celebrities involved, which gives them an instant advantage. Friends actress Lisa Kudrow got in early, in 2008, with a series called Web Therapy. She played a therapist who conducted her sessions with a webcam. It was later picked up as a half-hour series by Showtime.
Some series do take off just because they're very good and word of mouth builds viewership. Certainly, a series that has some kind of hook, some element that people may find different enough to talk about, has the advantage.
OVER TO YOU
Are there any web series you'd recommend? Do you have any thoughts about what makes a good web series, as distinct from network series? Are you thinking about creating one yourself? Post your comments below or via email to email@example.com.
Do you have any thoughts about what makes a good web series, as distinct from network series? Are you thinking about creating one yourself? Post your comments below or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you thinking about creating one yourself? Post your comments below or via email to email@example.com.