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Critic's Notebook

TV 2.0

The best Web series deliver a lot of creativity in small doses

(Maurice Vellekoop for the Boston Globe)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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It was in the middle of the bite-size episodes of “You Suck at Photoshop’’ that I recognized the great potential of Web series.

“You Suck at Photoshop’’ is a scripted Web-series classic, if such a young and untamed genre can contain such a thing as a classic. Web series - serialized video shorts made specifically to air online and not on TV - have been emerging in earnest for only a decade, with “You Suck at Photoshop’’ first hitting computer screens in 2007.

They’re out there in droves now, these fractured tales, strewn across websites big and small including YouTube, Strike.tv, Mydamnchannel.com, and network sites. They can be low-budget affairs from unknown producers, like “You Suck at Photoshop,’’ by Matt Bledsoe and Troy Hitch. And they can be the pet projects of established folks - the musical comedy “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’’ from Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris, for example, or the demented soap opera “Horrible People’’ from “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’’ writer A.D. Miles.

I see both the DIY simplicity and the compact brilliance of “You Suck at Photoshop,’’ whose episodes generally run 5-7 minutes. The series is a parody of how-to videos, with an angry, sarcastic expert named Donnie Hoyle giving us Photoshop lessons. The camera stays on the image of a desktop screen as Donnie shows us how to alter photos. But while he talks - we never see him, only his cursor - the story of his sorry life leaks into his instruction. He cuts and pastes a marriage license onto a van, and we realize that his wife has had an affair in which the back of a van was involved. He is projecting, big time. Across two seasons of 10 episodes each, Donnie’s narrative gets increasingly dramatic, psychotic, pathetic, and absurdist. It’s a kick.

The concision of this and other Web series is what most distinguishes them from TV series. Serial TV’s best attribute is unlimited time, so writers and actors can go deep over the years, while Web series are all about brevity. They’re made for viewers sitting at their computers or holding their smartphones, most likely multitasking, definitely not looking to be transported for very long. They’re built to match the pace and energy of the online and mobile environment, not for the longer attention span TV series require. Yes, compared to Web series, TV series require focus.

But don’t let the fast-attention-span aesthetic prejudice you. That’s like dismissing a short poem or the boiled-down plays of Samuel Beckett simply because of compression. Approach Web series with different expectations, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the creativity of the best of them. They are their own pop art form, like Twitter one-liners or music videos or TV commercials or video installments in galleries. They are regularly reviewed by a number of sites, including Tubefilter News and Webseriescon, and they are promoted and organized by the nonprofit International Academy of Web Television, founded in 2009.

To acknowledge and honor the creativity involved in original Web programming, the Streamy Awards were established by Webfilter Inc. in 2009, and the IAWTV is currently planning its own awards show for next year.

The Streamy Awards include categories such as best drama, best comedy, best ensemble, and best companion series - that last for Web series made to accompany TV shows such as “The Office’’ and “Dexter.’’ Another Streamy category, best ad integration in a Web series, validates an even more commercial genre, Web series that are tethered to product promotion. Last year, the winner was the amusing, star-filled “Easy to Assemble,’’ in which Illeana Douglas leaves Hollywood to work at Ikea. In 2009, “You Suck at Photoshop’’ won a Streamy for best artistic concept in a Web series.

One of the most Streamy-honored Web series - and deservedly so - is “The Guild.’’ Created and written by its star, Felicia Day, this sweet original comedy follows the lives of the participants in a multiplayer online game. The players are freaks and geeks, with Day’s Cyd Sherman (and her avatar, Codex) vlogging about the “Office’’-like wackiness and melodrama among the ensemble. “The Guild’’ is one of the most popular Web series, with “over 65 million served,’’ as the website puts it, and the cast will appear this coming week at Comic-Con in San Diego.

With its obsessed gamer characters and avatar imagery, “The Guild’’ embodies so much of what has become a familiar Web-series aesthetic. A lot of these shows are set within computer programs and games, including “You Suck at Photoshop’’ and another classic, “Red vs. Blue,’’ a sci-fi comedy made in the “machinima’’ style that redeploys imagery from real video games. Other Web series are set among people who are tethered to their computers, like the gang from “The Guild.’’ Characters in these shows will break the fourth wall to video blog - a technique that was integral to one of the seminal Web series, 2006’s “lonelygirl15,’’ about a fictional teenager and a cult called The Order.

One of the funniest Web series with an online premise is “Web Therapy,’’ from Lisa Kudrow of “Friends’’ and “The Comeback.’’ Kudrow plays Fiona Wallace, an impatient, haughty, and inept therapist who treats her clients with three-minute iChat sessions because she believes that 50 minutes are a waste of time. As her personal life leaks into her work - not unlike Donnie’s in “You Suck at Photoshop’’ - we learn about her narcissism and her bad marriage. The short episodes serve as a how-not-to for therapists, as well as a showcase for guest stars including Lily Tomlin, Courteney Cox, and Jane Lynch.

Tuesday night at 11, Showtime will begin airing “Web Therapy,’’ running a handful of Web episodes together each week in half-hour segments. Interestingly, the show doesn’t work quite as well on TV as it does on the Web, where the characters’ faces are in our face. Kudrow is hysterical on TV, as are her guest stars, but the split-screen image of Fiona and her client seems more static in a TV context. The half-hour feels on the long side. On the Web in short pieces, the form resonates with the content.

The fact that “Web Therapy’’ fits better online than on TV gets at the complicated relationship between Web series and TV series. It’s rare for a Web series to thrive when it heads to TV. “Quarterlife,’’ for example, was reaired on NBC in hourlong episodes and was canceled after one episode, and “In the Motherhood’’ was remade for ABC and failed almost as quickly. A show may find a huge audience online, but that audience may not follow it to TV. So far, only “Childrens Hospital,’’ Rob Corddry’s sharp medical-drama satire, has found a way to fit in off the Web. It’s on Adult Swim, which airs episodes of 10-15 minutes instead of stretching out the telecast to half-hour blocks. The show works with the indie vibe of Adult Swim, sick humor and all.

At their best, Web series aren’t failed TV series, or series waiting to be recruited by a TV network. They are an intriguing alternative to TV, appealing miniatures for the interstitials of your life online.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.