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“Success is the new failure”
(from Easy to Assemble)

Fine. I admit it. The next two posts will be a pretty lazy output. Branded web series are in fact enough talked about in themselves (together with celebrity driven ones), because branding is marketing, and marketing is hot. And many people like to write about it. So, a new article about them is probably not so needed.
In my defense, I’m not giving any marketing lesson here. I don’t have enough knowledge about it and, frankly, I don’t give a damn. What I do care about, at least here, is the audience’s perspective. And that’s why I want to put together a selection of branded web series that, while carrying on their “service” nature, or even despite of it, manage to keep a great creative autonomy and a validity as stories. Meaning: they’re worth watching, no matter who’s paying them and why.
I’m pretty sure you already know about “branding”. It’s one of the hot concepts on the web today. But just in case you don’t, here’s a quick catch up. A “branded” web series is a show sponsored by a brand, that use it as a promotional vehicle. Because pundits say it works. But unlike a simple “brought to you by” approach typical of classic sponsorship, the brand here asks something more, like product placement or, most importantly, product integration: the brand itself, or the product, needs to be somehow included in the story. Not necessarily in a direct way, though: the series may have some elements of interest to make it appealing to the same supposed brand’s target, or convey some concepts (e.g. a certain vision of lifestyle) considered compatible with it. And here’s the fun part: if the brand is clever enough to understand the process, and the creators enough talented to create a good show, the balance between story and advertising weighs down towards the first, and we’re given a web series like the ones we like: independent, original, possibly niche oriented and, hopefully, different.
It doesn’t happen frequently, though. And some brands (e.g. the fashion or cosmetic ones) may prefer a back-stage format against a scripted one. Sometimes, you end up with some curious acts like My Secret Sexy, sponsored by an online store of sex toys and centered on a sex toy (secret) reviewer; other times, what’s called a “web series” is in fact a long advertisement cut down in short episodes (like the clever A Geek’s Guide To Get Girls, produced by Sony, where a silent movie approach is used to convey an almost surreal story, whose plot’s main twist matches the introduction of the new toy this “series” is advertising). But there are cases in which the branding is so clever and thoughtful that allows the story to grow and flow free and, as I said, to be enjoyed in itself (if you like, knowing about the branding process gives you an additional, more intellectual filter to enjoy the show through).
As usual, the selection criterion is subjective: I cannot talk about shows I don’t enjoy myself (and to be completely true, no one of these make it to my top ten list. But some are close). Plus, almost all of them happen to be job/office comedies, with only one drama and a dramedy; and even worse, they happen to have been made by almost the same guys: the SXM digital studio and the production/marketing company CJP Digital. But if they are the best in the field, not my fault.
In this first part, I’ll present two interesting SXM productions.

Easy To Assemble

Cornerstone of the branded “genre” and Webby Awards winner (in branded and comedy areas), Easy To Assemble is created, written and interpreted by Hollywood veteran Illeana Douglas (among the first established players to realize the creative potential of the web serial format). It’s produced by SXM (and also distributed by CJP).
Started in 2008, it today consists of a small franchise, counting three official seasons, a miniseries (season “2.5”) and the mockumentary-style spinoff Sparhusen, dedicated to the “almost great band of Sweden”, whose music is also featured into the main series soundtrack (the singer is Douglas herself; the manager is Wallace Langham, known for CSI); and we can also include Illeanarama – Supermarket of the stars, to which Easy To Assemble is basically a sequel.
The main concept is (here and in Illeanarama) Douglas’s desire to give up her acting career (following the motto “Success Is The New Failure”) and find a “normal” job in a supermarket, at5 first, and in the local IKEA store, lately. I think you can guess who’s the brand, here.
The series consists of short but continuative episodes; each season is filmed like a movie and cut down in bits later and explores different ideas (2.5 is set to board a plane; the third in Sweden, describing a semi-serious pilgrimage to the parent company) with a visible, progressive growth in narrative, almost touching the morality tale in the last one.
Another interesting feature is the rich presence of cameos into this “franchise” (thanks to Douglas’ connections and friendships), like Jeff Goldblum, Justine Bateman, Keanu Reeves, Craig Beirko (another constant face in this branded works) and many others.
Easy to Assemble is a great example of branded fiction because, as we said, it builds a “stand-alone” story around a brand, even allowing itself an ironic perspective (that probably ends up making the brand’s image more friendly).
A last note: in full cross-media style, Sparhusen is treated like a real band, has its own MySpace and Twitter profiles and an official anthology CD put on the market.
A fourth and last season is currently in production.

Ctrl

“Fantasy comedy office” is probably the best tag do describe Ctrl; which is also, from the format perspective, an interesting hybrid melting the premises and logical developments typical of the short film, the brief episodic structure of a web series and the visuals/settings (reminding) of the mainstream TV office comedy series (that is what the series is, if you take away the fantastic element).
Not surprisingly, it’s actually an extension of an original short film by the same writer and director, Robert Kirbyson (the 2008 Sundance winner Ctrl Z) and it’s been commissioned by a major network, NBC (being the first original web series launched by TV station). It’s produced, as said, by SXM.
The main game here is a lightweight “meta” approach than now it’s become a little cliché in itself: the eruption of typical dynamics of the computing environment into the real world (specifically, here we have a keyboard that, through the commands CTRL + [something], can change the course of events).
The series, released in 2009, is branded Nestea but pays the toll only through an “old school” product placement, so blatant and explicit that make you think to an intentional parody. That apart, it appears to be a pleasant comedy, whose only weakness is some conventionality in characters interactions, dynamics and goals (after all, an office comedy can’t escape from its clichés; it is made out of them); but the story is carried on quite fluidly, with good performances and no smudging, and just compelling and satisfying as it needs to be.
At the moment it’s available only on Hulu (even shed a few episodes on YouTube).

(Stay tuned for part two, next Tuesday. For other web series retrospectives, look here)


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