Some of my absolute favorite web series come from NY; and they can actually be grouped together following three main common threads: a clear, distinct “indie feel”, a kind of theatrical aftertaste and, of course, the setting.
I know: almost all web series are independent, by definition; but here I somewhat refer to “indie” as an esthetic category (not just a budgetary one) and even, if you like, as a peculiar feeling, vibe, that immediately makes me go to a mental archive made essentially of Sundance-like movies. Low budget, yes; but the highest production values as possible, and a narrative density, a pace, a solidity that is proper of movies (the only exception, as we shall see, has a sit-com format but the approach to the narrative material is definitely “indie”).
Grouped together, they can immediately bring to mind the old and over-abused “LA/NY dichotomy” that identifies the first with Hollywood, genre movies and a more standardized concept of entertainment and the second with theater, Broadway, free creativity and higher, deeper approach to storytelling; of course, a too convenient classification; but indeed, these works, watched together, can give you the vague feel of a “school” behind them (that, like it or not, has for sure its bonds with theatre).
So here they are. A handful of outstanding works Made in NY, all of them deserving attention and respect way beyond the boundaries of media. Because we’re talking about damn good independent filmmaking. And a distinction between movies, television and web just doesn’t make much sense.
Oh, Inverted World
I love this one. It’s my absolute favorite web series so far (and I’m sure it’ll be for a long time), and one of the works that definitely convinced me that this format was worth attention.
13 episodes, launched in 2008, shot on Long Island, Oh, Inverted World is written by Terence Krey (Amityville native but New York based), produced and directed together with Daniel Fox and Jacob Cohen, under the flag of MovieFilm Productions. Krey has been producing shorts since 2003 (often releasing them on-line) and his company (first called Wowie Kazowie Productions) works like a little creative factory, when it’s not unusual to see recurring names and faces (here’s their Vimeo channel).
Oh, Inverted World is practically a sliced movie (a re-cut full feature version is screening this days at special events and should be the one distributed on DVD) that blends together an existential tale with genres like science fiction, horror and fantasy (not in their pure form, though: in a sort of poetic, personal reinvention where I see echoes of Tim Burton and Philip Dick but, I’m sure, you could find more and more). The tag line says: “Its about your mid-twenties, and the moon falling into the Earth”. And believe me: there’s more than that. This is one of the cases in which the whole is just not the sum of its parts.
Surprising, clever, fresh, funny, lively, melancholic… are only few adjectives you can use to describe this little masterpiece that I really don’t want to spoil in details, because the continuous twists between genres, their free re-invention and the fluid transitions between situations that everywhere else would appear inconsistent are what make this series/movie so special and unique; and they deserve to be discovered ad tasted one by one (if you already didn’t).
This is just independent filmmaking at his best. Talking about a classic indie theme (the feeling of being in a still and pointless moment of your life; here, specifically, experienced by four graduated students coming back home) but within a frame of free narrative and visual invention and immersed in an almost surreal, fairytale-like atmosphere. Making the best out of what you have: your fellow actors (especially the marvelous Pamela Bell: why didn’t I see her elsewhere?); a strategic (and metaphorical) black & white photography, that at the same time makes everything arty and easy (allows quicker and simpler digital color correction); indie music (famous or not) that immediately sets the mood.
Watch it on the official site or on Vimeo (it deserves the best HD you can get). And, as an appetizer, you may want to check out the miniseries Loss: A Horror Anthology, which came out some months before and seems, at traits, almost a general rehearsal of the glories to come (on Vimeo, again).
Nothing, in the web space, did struck me like Oh, Inverted World. Nevertheless, nothing went as close to it a Gray Matters did.
This 2011 web series is created by Alexis Fedor and co-written/directed by Kevin T. Collins, two NY artists mainly active in theater. Both declare to be interested in telling compelling stories able to move you and make you reflect through new perspectives. If you ask me, they did.
Gray Matters is small and independent; and it has all the beauty of what’s honest, true, devoted and consistent; and all the irresistible charm of what’s delicate, discreet an unexpected. And it’s well done. Extremely well, with an aesthetic quality you certainly don’t see everyday on the web, a convincing and deep writing and, especially, committed and perfect acting and directing (I have just a couple of issues about editing and some minor characters, but they’re humbug).
Again, it’s much similar, in pace, frame cut, aesthetic quality, to a movie than to everything else (and even if two more season are planned and the total footage would exceed a movie length, I still hope to see a full feature cut one day).
The series revolves around Leonarda Whilaminski, brilliant and unconventional NY architect affected by OCD. Her day is a carousel of rituals and movements between protected spaces (where gray is the soothing color – because it’s in fact lack of color); but, of course, every precarious balance is destined to be shaken. And that’s where hour story begins.
Let’s say it: Leo is adorable. And not because she’s a “true” and unusual character but because her everyday struggle is something many people can immediately relate: fears and desire of protection are not something exclusively belonging to OCD victims. And because Fedor is so good that either she’s adorable herself or she knows how to fake it in front of a camera like very few people do. In both cases, we’re quite sure she’s an artist.
Despite the theme, Grey Matters is not a drama; it’s more a dramedy (“grey comedy”, they call it, of course) that can be as light as it can go deep. It’s tender and fresh. That kind of tale you don’t see everyday but immediately after, you want more of. And that’s so confident about what it’s doing to indulge itself into a didactical and almost expressionistic use of the color (maybe, sometimes, losing control a bit).
If you ask me, this is Sundance material. And if I’m exaggerating, I don’t give a damn.
You can watch it on Fedor‘s Vimeo channel. (This one deserves HD, too).
Good People In Love
Now I’m gonna bring into play one of the best (if not the best) independent filmmakers operating in web series: Tina Cesa Ward. One of those cases in which you just have to shut up and watch.
She has a background in indie films and theatre, with many shorts, a full feature (2006 Red Molly) and a dozen of awards; and she’s also overly famous in the web space for having directed and co-written (with Susan Miller, another NY golden pen) the awarded teenage lesbian love story Anyone But Me, that recently wrapped up its third and last season.
But what I want to talk here is Good People In Love, a 2011 web series she wrote, directed and produced. It’s a 5 chapters miniseries (about forty minutes overall) that immediately smells like indie cinema, bringing to your mind classics of the genre like the over quoted Big Chill. Set in New York, the night of equal marriage bill’s approval (relevant element for the story, because two of the characters are lesbians), the series follows a dinner among friends that have buried a little too many tensions between them and where their contrasting vision of life, marriage and love will inevitably end up to crash. Sounds familiar? Yep, it does. But in these stories, it’s not about the clichés you tell, it’s about how you do it. And Good People in Love is without any doubt among the best dramas you can find online today (and not just there).
Strategically shot in tiny locations (where “you can’t escape from”), with a great cast and a typical movie pace, despite the short length this series is, again, worth movie theaters and festivals. It has growing tension, rounded characters, a kind of a dark mood and very compelling and stimulating interactions. Please note the classy touch of giving each episode a title of a section of the dinner (mirroring the story evolution, as well).
You can watch it on Blip and on YouTube.
The Burg came out in 2006 and it’s essentially an independent sit-com about hipsters. And quite likely one of the best ever made.
Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (NY), the series is the creative output from the duo Kathleen Grace & Thom Woodley and produced by their company, Dinosaur Diorama.
It’s also a curious historical case: in the same year [the-guys-subsequently-known-as] EQAL and Big Fantastic are consecrating the short, daily formula for scripted online entertainment (with LG15 and Sam Has Seven Friends), Grace and Woodley bet on a classic TV format, instead: 20 minutes per episode; and while appearing “out of times” back then, today they re-emerge as pioneers of a tendency more and more pursued (let’s just remember Hulu’s Battleground and Leap Year‘s second season).
The series plays around the condition and the self depiction of a group of twenty-something hipsters in a setting where their loved Burg happens to have fallen into a starting gentrification process; hipsters more by will than by vocations, portrayed with a mocking affection that makes them even more inoffensive, if not tender.
The series, indie “feeling” and production apart, has a classic approach, and one of its major strengths (may web integralists forgive me) is not to bend in any way to the sacred dogmas of web video (make it short, make it viral, write it with a web grammar, and so on…): the fluid and honest writing takes all the time it needs; characters emerge slowly, episode after episode, and slowly define themselves, and so does the suburban setting, which is not at all a mere, impersonal background. Showing that, even on the web, length matters: such a slow and subtle evolution would have been impossible to obtain with a shorter format (and it’s worth noticing that the sequel miniseries, Secret, with 5 minutes long episodes, doesn’t work as good as the original one). A second merit is to being able to play with clichés and stereotypes without becoming slave of them, instead taking them as a starting point to build up more rich and believable personalities.
Everything is delivered, in pure and healthy new-yorker style, by a devoted cast mainly coming from theater (and working for free).
If you want (and you should) give it a try, there’s a lot for you: the 12 official episodes of Season One, plus a couple of extras; the 9 episodes of the miniseries; the 14 shorts, again around 5 minutes each; and some special episodes, released through the years. Overall, we talk about 400 minutes worth of footage. Not bad at all, for a web show. You can find everything on the official website. And you may also want checking out the duo’s following series, the fake rockumentary The-All-For-Nots (and, incidentally, enjoy the crossovers).
Bonus: Speedie Date
I want to include in this selection of titles, as an extra, the LA produced Speedie Date (that debuted on late 2008 on Strike.tv). Partly, because is set in New York and somewhat shares the same “NY vibe”, partly because its writer and producer, Lorin Wertheimer, was born as a Big Apple’s playwright (and soap operas screenwriter, too) before moving to Hollywood for working into prime time TV (the director and co-producer, Kristiina Hackel, is californian, instead).
As the title says, the series is a dramedy focusing on the awkwardness of the speed dating; according interviews, it’s supposed to be composed of 10 episodes but on line, today, only 5 are available (I didn’t find more info about). Each episode, between 7 and 9 minutes, concentrates on a different date and has an immediate theatrical feel (not by chance: the series is the reworking of an original play), being made exclusively by dialogues, from which feelings and lives emerge as much as it takes, and where, sometimes, the untold matters as much, if not more, the spoken word.
It’s available on Strike.tv and YouTube.
You can find more web series retrospectives here.
- Prisons, prisoners and recluses. Web series that capture you (trivial pun intended) (turningmillifwindbestill.wordpress.com)
- Variations on the end of the world. In a fistful of web series. (turningmillifwindbestill.wordpress.com)