I know. On a broader view, each form of entertainment is derivative. If I remember correctly, Panofsky remarked that painters looked to other paintings, instead of nature, as a “source” and reference for their works. And despite painting being art and not entertainment (at least, according the proper definition), quite the same can be said for movies, TV and, especially, web series (that at this stage of evolution relate to both – even if not exclusively).
Looking at macro evolutions, you see cinema derive from theater and TV derive from radio and, lately, from movies themselves; we’ve also seen during years a blending and a cross-derivation between different medias, including games and comics. But a derivative process is always active inside genres themselves, partly because of classification issues (if you force the boundaries of the genre, you risk to deny it and to alienate audience expectations), partly for mere convenience reasons.
What I mean here with “derivative” is, therefore, a little more restricted. Maybe I should say “mainstream imitative” but it sounds very little practical; I refer, anyway, to a type of web series that has strong aesthetic connections with what we consider main stream cinema or TV (and genre entertainment, specifically) and that “brings to your mind” some famous work or, at least, a quite contemporary common approach to the genres themselves. Incidentally, if you have read other articles on this blog you know I sometimes refer to a “classic” approach in describing some series, not considering them “derivative”; this is clearly a contradiction (a classic is a generally established work, and refer to it or to some of its features is, technically, deriving) but it’s made on the basis that such a “classic” approach doesn’t define mainstream anymore, therefore adopting it is a kind of stylistic choice (or a budget necessity) that qualifies the author’s approach and immediately locate him into the independent realm.
So, the distinctive tract of the following genre “derivative” web series is that they don’t marry the indie aesthetic or feeling, like many of the shows I already covered in previous retrospectives, but, on the contrary, they try to blink an eye (if not two) to a more broad, mainstream, “familiar” form of entertainment. I’s quite interesting to note (at least, for me, because it clarifies my approach to web series) that while most of my favorite independent series have something in common with movies more than with TV, here the opposite happens and quite frequently these shows can be seen (for rhythm, narrative density and arc evolution) as TV pilots sliced into episodes; and sometimes the doubt arises that the “secret” purpose of the creators is not to “tell a personal story” but to be noticed by some “big guy” out there.
Finally, it’s worth noticing that most of these projects are often financially backed up by some studio and, while being relatively low budget, can’t be considered fully independent acts.
Here’s a selection of them. Once again, very personal and subjective.
It doesn’t count a list of works that are still Hollywood derivatives but with the movie model in mind (like The Bannen Way or Angel of Death by Sony, or In2ition backed by Disney or even Kiefer Sutherland’s The Confession).
I see the canadian Sanctuary as the mother of all derivative web series: there is a strange mixture of X-Files‘ mood for the unknown, Star Trek‘s multiracial discourse and Stargate‘s easy approach (and who know what else). Not by chance, the series was written by Damian Kindler (creator of Stargate SG1), with Amanda Tapping starring and producing (the latter, for free); it emerged in 2007 as the most expensive web series until then.
8 episodes, more than ten minutes each, all shot on green screen, with large story arcs that span multiple episodes, it captured the attention SyFy (then Sci-Fi Channel) and got developed into the famous TV show you know today (lasting four seasons). It’s curious to note how the “regular” TV series degenerates in its charm and solidity with respect to the original web episodes.
Behind the production of The Resistance (2010) is no other than Sam Raimi. Or rather, his production company Ghost House Pictures (together with Starz Media), attracted by motion comic shorts released online by the author, Adrian Picardi, to promote the series.
We are here in a quite usual post-apocalyptic and dystopian landscape, following a deadly epidemic and the rise of a brilliant chemist that came up with the antidote, and is now the imaginary nation of Aurodeca’s dictator, surrounded by the luxury of its capital city while everywhere else ruins, hunger and starvation dominate. You know, the usual stuff.
It showcases a pretty glossy photography and a certain movie feel, but its most interesting feature is the inclusion of the previous mentioned motion comic sequences as episode introductions, that help greatly to keep a more personal and indie feel. Small transmedia expansion (just the main character’s vlogs and fake commercials).
Despite the look, the narrative arc of the first season is comparable to a television pilot (though with a certain pace): great introduction to a potentially immense development; but, quite likely, with zero possibilities of being actually developed, one way or another.
The series landed on TV, though: SyFy aired it in October 2010, reassembled as a full length pilot (it has been distributed through a series of platforms too, including the Playstation network).
You can see it on YouTube.
Undoubtedly, the best of the pack.
RCVR (read it “receiver”; 2011) is a super-clone of The X-Files. And this is at the same time its main quality and weakness (and I love The X-Files, just to be clear). Nevertheless, this new take on the old alien abductions theme is among the best produced stuff you can find on the web and, if the déja-vu doesn’t bother you, quite a good one. Just to let you know, “receivers” are some kind of alien-possessed guys.
Backed up and distributed by the web giant Machinima, it’s created by David van Eyssen (director of another sci-fi flick, Slipstream (2005), and involved in the production of the branded series BMW: The Hire (2001) but also executive producer of Circle Of Ei8ght, the first Paramount web series that I mentioned here); it was produced by Science To Fiction and sponsored by Motorola Mobility.
6 episodes (6 to 9 minutes each) that, again, make a television pilot if put together. But RCVR keeps his roots into the web environment through a transmedia expansion: clues and links lead to sites of fake organizations related to the extraterrestrials business as well as to anti-conspiracy group “ProjectRCVR”. I didn’t noticed it, because the clues are in the ending titles and I always skip them (d’oh!).
On YouTube, here.
NYPDM is created, written and directed by Hal Jordan (nothing worth mentioning, just a few short and second unit direction credits) and produced by Monique Yamaguchi; shot in LA but set in NY, takes the lesson of Sanctuary and transplants it into a cop/detective show, inventing a special section consists of members, so to speak, “different”. The protagonist is a neo-vampire with self-control issues, his “boss”, an undefined old woman with a sexy teen-or-something look; nothing more is known.
Not surprisingly, the 2011 series is presented as an “introduction” to a world of crime and supernatural elements. Together, the episodes form clearly a TV pilot, with a good overall technical quality and concept/characters interesting enough; it wouldn’t fit bad on TV these days, but quite likely it would end up canceled after a season or two.
On YouTube and Blip.
Run This Town
Run This Town (2011) is an action/crime movie-like series written, directed and produced by Charles Clemmons (LA based personality behind behind dozens of movies and TV shows) and distributed by the Mingle Media TV Network.
It follows a super secret group of criminals (led by a deadly hottie, of course) with the agenda of overthrowing a corrupt government. The series won three awards at the LA Web Series Festival 2011: Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Lead Actress, Outstanding Score in the dramatic category (pwersonally, though, I’m not so nuts for this one).
Needless to say, despite the full screen ratio and the cinematic look, the series still smells like a TV pilot: introduction for further development, cliffhanger and that’s-all-folks.
Bonus. Mortal Kombat: Legacy
This is a little exception but it’s worth noticing as it is the fist Machinima boombastic project (again in 2011) and still derivative of a quite trivial science-fiction/action mainstream aesthetic (and, of course, of the eponymous game): Mortal Kombat: Legacy.
The series is an extension of the short movie Mortal Combat: Rebirth, by Kevin Tancharoen (responsible for the remake of Fame, the concert film of Glee and several TV series), originally conceived as a “pitch” for Warner Bros with the intention of making a full feature film (WB rejected the idea but agreed to produce it as a web series).
It’s structured as an anthology, with pairs of episodes dedicated to different characters each time (except for the ep. 9). It doesn’t act like TV pilot but could probably being re-assembled in an episodic film.
On YouTube here.
- Prisons, prisoners and recluses. Web series that capture you (trivial pun intended)
- Good old horror flicks. In the form of web series
- Variations on the end of the world. In a fistful of web series