How Not To Write Online
In creating my own online drama I took an in-depth look at other series– Why did they succeed or why did they fail. Here are my observations about a very spectacular public failure: Quarterlife. These are the take-aways from my analysis of the web series created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the creators of television’s Thirtysomething and Once and Again and producers of My So-Called Life. You can watch the series here: Quarterlife on MySpace
Without Authenticity and Urgency the Audience Disengages
The series, Quarterlife, is named for the phenomena of the “Quarterlife Crisis.” This is the emotional angst and anxiety that hits around age 25 – 29, when college grads wonder: “What am I doing with my life? Why am I broke, bored and/or stalled in my career?” The iconic television series, Friends, explored the same territory in a comedy.
There is a sense of entitlement and astonishment among the Quarterlife characters summed up by Dylan Krieger (Bitsie Tulloch), the protagonist: “A sad truth about my generation is that we were all geniuses in elementary school but apparently the people who deal with us (now) never got our transcripts because they don’t seem to be aware of this.”
This sense of entitlement and astonishment seemed to also accompany the series’ failure. What went wrong? Don’t you all know we’re television geniuses?
Quarterlife lacked the necessary authenticity and urgency to engage its core web audience. The producers didn’t fully understand their audience and the series felt too much like a cynical ploy. The Friends characters took themselves much less seriously. Quarterlife simply can’t sustain all the self-important angst.
New Media Ploys Annoy the Audience
Quarterlife was originally conceived as a broadcast series but didn’t get picked up by a major network. Herskovitz and Zwick broke the series down into 8-minute segments. They independently financed the show and created special channels for the series on MySpace and YouTube.
Rather than creating content specifically for this new medium and this particular audience, the creators recycled a conventional series and distributed it in smaller chunks. Their goal seems to have been to get back on broadcast television as quickly as possible.
Despite the social networking aspects of the Quarterlife website, it seems the creators did not fully embrace (or fully understand) their audience and this new storytelling medium. After a much-hyped launch, viewership dropped precipitously.
“Podcasting News, for example, gleefully pronounced the web series a bomb in December, running a chart of each episode’s views on YouTube that looked like a graph of Ron Paul’s 2009 delegate count, noting that the show was getting fewer web views than ‘sleeping kitties, graffiti videos or even a clip of Sims in labor’,’” wrote Los Angeles Times media columnist Patrick Goldstein.
Goldstein also suggests that Quarterlife served as a magnet for web devotees’ scorn for all the Old Media Titans who’ve been invading their turf, hoping to turn the new medium into another profit center.
Herskowitz didn’t help matters when he wrote in Slate: “Most of it (web entertainment) is simply incompetence and ignorance masquerading as an ‘Internet style.’ And until now no one had tried anything that would actually engage the emotions of an audience.”
It’s ironic that Quarterlife doesn’t engage the emotions of their audience in a way that is authentic or that rings true.
Emotions Not Experienced Directly Distance the Audience
Protagonist Dylan Krieger narrates the series via her video blog. She is a would-be writer stuck in an assistant’s job at a woman’s magazine, working for a boss who tries to steal her ideas.
The creators assume that video-blogging is the same thing as writing. The key difference, as a commentator on New TeeVee pointed out, is: “A writer wants an audience for her ideas and observations; a video blogger wants an audience for herself.”
This personal performance aspect is the narcissism of “Watch me – Look at me – I am what’s important here.”
In her video-blog, Dylan says that her “curse” is to see what people are thinking and feeling. In the visual language of storytelling, that is the reaction shot that shows the audience a character’s thoughts and feelings writ large on the actor’s face.
When Dylan narrates, as video blog performer, she prevents the audience from experiencing these emotions, thoughts and feelings directly with the characters. Her performance distances us from the characters and is a classic violation of the “show don’t tell” rule of storytelling. Her narration tells us what we’ve already seen or should have already seen ourselves.
If, however, personal narration directly contradicts what we have seen (or will see) then that shows us something new and interesting about the narrator and/or the other characters. This counterpoint works wonderfully in the classic Herskovitz and Zwick produced series (created by Winnie Holtzman), My So-Called Life.
That show’s high school protagonist, Angela Chase (Claire Danes), is hopelessly infatuated with Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). She remarks romantically that he is always closing his eyes as if it hurts to look at things. Later, we see him dousing his eyes to get the stoner-dude red out with Visine.
There is no such ironic or poignant counterpoint in Dylan’s narration. She tells us what we should see for ourselves or repeats what we already know.
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) muses publicly about personal concerns via her newspaper column in Sex and the City. The opening image vividly shows the contrast between the public and the private in Carrie’s life when she is splashed with dirty water as a bus plastered with her glamorous billboard image roars past. Sex and the City uses humor and irony to illuminate the disappointments, anxieties and dissatisfactions of a slightly older age group than Quarterlife. Carrie, the wry witty writer, is not the self-conscious performer that Dylan is as a video-blogger. The Friends characters also took themselves much less seriously. Quarterlife simply can’t sustain the self-important angst.
Boredom, Stasis and Frustration Aren’t Urgent
As a friend has pointed out, “there is a reason so many serial dramas are set in hospitals and police stations, these environments provide an automatic sense of urgency, conflict and high stakes to a story.”
Articulate, over-sensitive, highly-educated, middle class white kids bemoaning the lack of a “special and gifted” life track (which is their due) doesn’t provide much emotional urgency. There is little at stake if they can fall back on Mom and Dad, as one character does.
Fans watch football matches or basketball games because there is a sense that if you aren’t present or watching, cheering as hard as you can for your team, something terrible might happen. The strength of your passionate concern will somehow help to put your players over the top.
Serial drama fans need to feel the same passionate concern and personal involvement with the characters whose lives they follow. What is the worst that can happen? Why do we have to watch to prevent that terrible outcome? Why must we yell at the screen: “No, no, don’t do that!” What do we fear for our characters? Why is it urgently important that we watch?
Interpersonal relationship can have that kind of emotional tension and urgency. The stakes just have to be high enough. The conflicts have to be intense and personal enough to evoke our deepest concern. We have to be worried about the characters!
Weak Conflict Undercuts Urgency
The biggest potential conflict and most interesting social question in Quarterlife is weakened if not completely neutered.
Dylan’s friends don’t seem to care that she is violating their privacy, disclosing intimate information, betraying confidences and spewing interpersonal revelations to anyone who has access to a computer.
She names names. She distributes secretly recorded videos. She commits the emotional equivalent of a physical violation. Outside of a minor emotional hissy-fit, this potential conflict quickly passes by the wayside. Nobody really pays attention to Dylan’s video blog.
Her revelations cause little conflict within the group. They cause no conflict outside the group (no outsider causes a problem for the characters because of information learned through Dylan’s blog).
It is very startling and disconcerting when strangers know the intimate details of your life and remark on them to you. What happens when everyone knows your whereabouts and/or your personal business? How does that cause problems and create conflict for the characters?
What are the limits of personal privacy and the ethics of personal disclosures about others? All those questions are interesting opportunities for conflict that could come from who the characters are as individuals and how they might view the world (or privacy) differently.
If Dylan’s blog has no effect on the other characters, what is the dramatic point other than to show her on a web cam? This feels like the creators trying to be hip but it comes off as empty, false and inauthentic.
When It Isn’t Urgent It Has to Be Funny
The characters in Quarterlife are remarkable for their lack of humor or any wicked sense of fun. They take themselves and their lives way too seriously. The series doesn’t have a vivid appreciation of the absurd.
The classic series, Friends, mined this age group’s anxiety, boredom and frustration brilliantly. The theme song by The Rembrandts sums up the same storytelling territory:
“So no one told you life was going to be this way.
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear,
Well, it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.
I’ll be there for you… And you’ll be there for me too.”
Friends had wit, warmth and sense of the absurdity of life (and lasted many years past the characters’ “Quarterlife Crisis” because the fans weren’t willing to let the characters go). Contrast this with the previous quote:
“A sad truth about my generation is that we were all geniuses in elementary school but apparently the people who deal with us (now) never got our transcripts because they don’t seem to be aware of this.” (Poor me!)
Which show would you rather watch?
Seinfeld, originally featuring the same or slightly older age group, totally lacked urgency and was proud of it. That show was about nothing more critical than finding a parking place, making a reservation at a restaurant or buying soup at a lunch counter. The series had a wicked sense of humor; made us laugh and we were satisfied and came back for more. If it’s not emotionally dramatic then it must be laugh-out-loud funny.
What Was NBC Thinking?
Quarterlife was picked up by NBC at a time when broadcast dramas were running out of stockpiled scripts and scripted shows were shutting down all over Hollywood during the strike. It seemed like a slam-dunk opportunity. Then, just like the story concept for the series characters, reality hit and it was nothing like anyone imagined.
The show only had 3.1 million viewers in its NBC broadcast debut, the worst in-season performance in the 10 p.m. hour slot by an NBC show in at least 17 years. The series also got hammered in the adult 18 – 49 demographic, where it managed only a 1.3 rating. The show was pulled from NBC’s schedule after only one episode.
Why would NBC think that a series allegedly conceived for and widely available on the web would attract the same audience age group in a repeat on broadcast television? Everyone who was interested had seen the show already.
If viewers can watch on their own time on the web why should anyone watch the show on NBC’s time? What was new, different or added to the viewing experience during the rebroadcast? The network didn’t seem to understand the core audience either.
There is an element of condescension (or maybe contempt) in all of this exemplified by the words the creators put in Dylan’s mouth: “We blog to exist, therefore we… we are idiots.” A show on any media platform is really in trouble when the creators have contempt for or belittle their own characters.