Doomed islands, self-discoveries, supernatural detectives: when web series dig into mystery

Mystery is quite a loose genre, relying on the vague premise of something untold that engages a discovery process; apart from that, it can blend with anything else. But on the other hand, its loose frame allows more liberty and variety compared to what other stricter genres can do, so that the overall output is quite variegated in itself.
Now, web series creators, generally, love freedom. Even if this freedom means referring deliberately to preexistent works and following their path without anyone breathing down their necks. So it’s no surprise that mystery is well represented on the web. Interesting enough, the more convincing examples in the genre came out quite recently: mystery needs a certain breath, to work properly; the one you cannot obtain following the dogma of short video. Dogma that, fortunately, is being ignored more and more in recent times.
Here are, as usual, my favorites. And among the best stuff you can find on the web.

Ragged Isle

Ragged Isle (2011, ongoing) is a mystery story provided with supernatural flavor, and openly influenced by works such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Dark Shadows.
Produced by independent, Maine based company The Entertainment Experiment, written and directed by Barry and Karen Dodd, it premiered in 2011, re-launched on SFN and went solo again lately. The second of three seasons is currently ongoing.
The Twin Peaks feel is immediately perceptible into a small and secret packed community we are introduced to, through the eyes of a young journalist starting a new job just in time to see a strange strain of deaths happening.
The structure is quite atypical: the first season of 10 episodes (more than two hours overall), takes place in several days; but the following two (six episodes apiece) will cover one day each. The change of pacing is justified, anyway, by the revolutionary twist in Season’s One finale.
Ragged Isle is one of the few web series able to successfully manage a tv-like rhythm (at least, that I know of); and to do that, it relies on “long” episodes spanning from 8 to 15 minutes, it’s not afraid of smooth, slow pacing and it cares more about the whole evolution than the single episode autonomy (some say this is “bad” in web video; as a viewer, I don’t. And actually the series gains a lot, out of it). The show could be probably re-cut as a “regular” TV miniseries, and this ability to transcend the media shows the material’s validity.
You can watch it on the Official Site, on Blip and on YouTube.

Once You Leave

Once You Leave (2011, ongoing) is mainly a duo effort from Nate Locklear and Kayla Olson, who co-created it and serve as, respectively, writer-director-producer-editor and lead actress.
It’s more an existential drama than anything else; but the fact that it starts showing a dead body and that the main character is someway “searching for the truth” is enough to qualify it as a mystery. And the fact that this search is, as well, a path of self discovery taken by a deranged soul doesn’t hurt at all.
The series is part of a transmedia narrative that includes a comic book and a blog. I strongly recommend you to read the full blog before watching the show (the comic book is on his way): it’s a capturing read in itself, very well done, and sets important backgrounds for the main story.
The show follows the indie cliché of the road trip (in its early conception, it was an improvised low budget road series), with, as said, all the metaphorical implications of the case. The lead comes back from an abroad experience just to find out that “once you leave, you can never go home” and that the few reference points she thought she had are gone. Her best friend (and probably more) is dead. And like many of us in this mortal life, she really doesn’t belong anywhere, anymore. She’s a stray, lost and broken girl, that needs to move because she has nothing else left.
What saves it from being the same old abused indie story is the execution. Olson is just stunning and able to sustain long moments of pure silence, filling them with almost touchable emotions; and the camera (later helped by the editing) is always there, like a silent companion, never intruding and at the same time underlying every single detail of expression. At the point that the show is never so catching and captivating like when she’s alone. Each other character simply doesn’t stand her strength.
Once again, size does matter, in drama as well as in mystery. The 7 (out of 12) episodes released so far are around 20 minutes, each; this allowing the necessary breath and time to let this story flow without constraints.
Worth of notice is the use of existing music from indie artists and YouTube musicians.
Watch it on the main site, on Vimeo or on YouTube (warning: some censored passages, here).

The Third

The Third (2012, ongoing) it’s not an easy one to describe. I’d label it as a low pacing supernatural mystery (with possibly a sci-fi sprinkle). At the time of this writing, only two chapters have been released and giving a definitive opinion on the show it’s not possible. But what I’ve seen makes it more than worth your attention.
Written, directed and produced (and even shot and edited, if I’m not mistaken) by NY based filmmaker and photographer Emon Hassan, it features 30 minutes long chapters (yes, 30 minutes), released initially as 5 minutes episodes and re-cut as a whole lately (choose the long ones, hands down).
The self conclusive stories centre upon an unusual investigator dealing with unconventional topics, loosely connected to the paranormal area. Don’t think about Fox Mulder or the like; we are, here, on a totally different territory, with a classic approach and a style so boldly and deliberately out of (web’s) fashion to deserve to be praised in itself.
The Third (at least, so far) it’s an atmosphere piece: it proceeds with a mysterious, almost dreamy wavering, it’s build upon silences, hypnotic music, lonely walks, an expressive (may I dare to say expressionist?) use of Manhattan locations, with an approach that reminds me of some Hitchcock’s Sixties masterpieces.
It’s not clear whether we’ll ever be given more details about the lead’s “job”. But in cases like this, probably less is better. Hints can be more intriguing than plain explanation.
Watch it on the website, and on Vimeo. It’s also on YouTube, but it deserves the best HD you’ve got.

Asylum

Asylum is a 2010 series written by Dan Williams (a screenwriter that worked with ABC in development and production) and directed by Scott Brown (an awarded digital creator also co-creator of the web series Blue Movies), independently produced in LA.
It features 6 episodes, about 8 minutes each, paired into three different stories set into a mental health institution where obviously not everything is as it should be.
Once again, it marries an overall mystery plot with a drama setting (hospital drama, here) and, as the teaser said, “constantly questions the definition of sanity in a place of ever-changing realities”.
The series clearly stands out for production values and execution, has a good story, relies on a compelling and fascinating atmosphere and the depictions of characters and situations is definitely worthwhile, smelling like good old indie stuff. But, unfortunately, this is yet another case where a compelling premise is not developed into a necessary following. The three chapters of the series stand alone, while the overall arc is only slightly hinted to; and while a successful example of web-exclusive format (this one couldn’t be re-cut into anything else), it leaves you with the bad taste of the unfinished. But until it lasts, it’s worth it.
It’s available exclusively at JTS.TV.

Just some more. As usual

If your thirst for on line mystery is not quenched yet, here are some other interesting titles.

4 Cambridge Center (2012)It’s a tale of false memories and human derangement, where the path of discovery is always on the verge of taking unexpected turns.
Very well executed and written, with a tiny-tiny Lynch-like aftertaste.
8 episodes, 60 minutes overall.
On Blip.

The Puzzle Maker’s Son (2010). Brainchild of Michael Field, who wrote, directed, co-edited and co-produced it (starring as the lead, too). Production is by Up on the Roof LLC.
It’s a mystery story where a “treasure hunt” dynamic is merged into a crime plot and the protagonist needs to unveil deep secrets by following puzzles left behind by his deceased father.
10 (too) short episodes make the first Season. A second one is apparently written, but stalled for lack of funds.
On Koldcast.

Harper’s Globe (2009). Although I have several issues with this one, due to its abuse of vlog style and found footage technique, it needs to be mentioned as a milestone social show, as well as a good mystery show in itself.
Produced by EQAL and CBS, it’s directed by Tony “BlackBoxTV” Valenzuela. Here again, we see a young journalist immersing herself in a foreign and closed community. But this time, she has secrets, too.
It’s good but be warned: it’s an introduction to the TV series Harper’s Island, so don’t expect all questions to be answered; plus, what you see now are re-edited episodes, obtained from (or hinting to) the several sources that created the original transmedia and social experience.
On YouTube.


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8 thoughts on “Doomed islands, self-discoveries, supernatural detectives: when web series dig into mystery

  1. Thank you for featuring us and writing a lovely review 🙂 I’m glad you picked up on the fact that it is mystery (hence why we had the opening shot). We love Ragged Isle too. So great that your writing about the web space. Believe it or not we haven’t had much written about us at all, so thank you!! Cheers

  2. WOW! Thanks for sharing our series with your readers and for the very nice comments. I’m so glad you enjoy the pace of Ragged Isle. It was a bit of a crapshoot when we got started to pace it that way but I believe it’s one of the best ways to create the kind of atmosphere a dramatic series needs. I’m very honored to be mentioned alongside amazing shows like Asylum and Once You Leave. They are tremendous works of art. I’ve not seen The Third yet, but look forward to digging in to it this weekend. Cheers!

  3. C.S. Windmill

    Thank YOU for passing by and saying hallo :).

    This collection of shows is particularly important, to me, because the first three defy some of the most consolidated opinions about producing a web show (short length, “not boring” pace, and so on…).
    I love a web show when is nothing else than good filmmaking, and frankly I don’t care if it’s for the web, for TV, o for whatever else (and maybe some could call this opinions reactionary or something like that). But I just care it’s good, original (meaning, expressing a vision and not a marketing goal) and convincing. Which is exactly what your shows are.
    And I believe, too, that some genres require breath and rhythm, and space, to get their job done. This “make it short” obsession can be good advice for a youtuber but it’s counterproductive when it comes to drama. It just kills its potentialities. And it’s, by the way, denied by a constant growth in long video consumption. I plan to come back on this topic on a future post.

    As for lack of coverage: I believe it and I know it well. The difficulty I face in having my friends to (only) consider web shows it’s probably similar to the one you face in having entertainment journalists talking about you. You’re not “cool”, you don’t have numbers, neither a lobotomizing marketing machine at your service.
    Plus, web series are often presented as “tv shows for the web”, which is misleading since a lot of them have common traits with indie movies more than with network tv shows.
    But we know that independent filmmaking has never been a hot topic; and even worse, the web doesn’t have any real Sundance of his own, picking up, selecting the *best*, promoting and even creating a marketplace for indie web shows. For what I can see as a simple, external observer, the existing institutions are not making enough to promote the real quality in web series (and this was a topic covered by Tina Cesa Ward, too, in a blog post of some months ago).

    This is a little blog. But It’s “out there”. And, by putting together retrospectives and collections of series connected by a thread, I hope to show people that there’s a lot to discover in the space. And there’s stuff for every taste!

    And you… you keep up with your good work and your passion. 🙂

    1. Right on dude. Thanks again, and keep up with your good work too. Thoughtful write-ups are the most payment that many of us will ever receive for making these series. It’s the fuel in our tanks.

  4. Cathy Counts

    It won’t be long before more people watch tv via the internet than via cable, and become accustomed to searching on YouTube and other sites for favorite web series. Ragged Isle’s series is right up to date on YouTube. You can watch it from start, Season 1, Episode 1, to the current Season 2, Episode 14. Fabulous on the big screen!

    1. C.S. Windmill

      Internet is the future, as it is the convergence between “web” shows and “TV” shows.
      But I’m not so sure “it won’t be long”, neither that people will become more active and savvy video surfers.
      TV traditional audience is more likely to adapt to portals like Hulu, with a curated catalog, than to that messy pile of uncatalogued stuff that YouTube is (plus, YT is clearly more interested in making money through their hollow and shallow premium channels than through original, quality scripted series.
      I guess the best chance (independent) web series will have to stand out in the future will be through selective aggregators, like JTS or the SFN, or through partnerships with Hulu and (likely) Netflix themselves.
      People are just too lazy to keep on searching and searching all the time.

  5. Thanks for your lovely review of Ragged Isle. You really get it. Your description of the pacing, and your appreciation of the tone and the things that make the show special are spot on and very gratifying to hear. Like Barry mentioned, reading folks’ astute perceptions and appreciation of the atmosphere and intent is the greatest reward of all. I am of course a bit biased, but I can safely say that the remainder of the story is going to take very good care of you.

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