she said hopefully...
and while we're at it, let's change serialized storytelling back to...
2011 was a brutal year for serial drama (at least the kind of serial drama I like): Friday Night Lights, Men of a Certain Age, Life UneXpected, In Treatment, all gone. My favorite web-series, Anyone But Me, closed up shop after three seasons. ABC canceled All My Children and One Life to Live. But when I spoke on the future of serialized storytelling at the Futures of Entertainment conference last November, I was modestly optimistic: Prospect Park was gearing up to launch AMC and OLTL as web-series in January. Also in January: Switched at Birth would return for the second part of its first season and a highly-anticipated web-series, River Ridge, was scheduled to debut. And, after an extended hiatus, Mad Men would finally return in March.
That was then. Here's how things turned out (the CliffNotes version for now): Prospect Park's effort to bring the ABC soaps online imploded; Switched at Birth, which began as a small, intimate story of two families coming to grips with finding out their daughters had been switched at birth, morphed into the "shocking secrets revealed" school of storytelling that is ABC Family; River Ridge collapsed under the weight of its own hype and self-importance. Even Mad Men disappointed, leaving me yearning for past seasons when the cultural references didn't call such obvious attention to themselves, and, as Alan Sepinwall noted, the subtext was more submerged.
In late March, I was cautiously excited when ABC Family announced they were picking up Amy Sherman Palladino's new show, Bunheads. Excited because ASP had created one of my all time favorite shows, Gilmore Girls; cautious because of the shift in focus on Switched at Birth. It was inevitable, and unfair, that fans draw comparisons between Bunheads and GG. But the problem wasn't that Bunheads wasn't GG, or even network pressure, but that ASP failed to establish a strong relationship between Bunhead's core characters to anchor the show.
One more: I want to like Parenthood; this is the fourth season I have tried to like Parenthood. But notwithstanding a cast that includes alumni from some of my favorite shows of the past - Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), Peter Krause (Sports Night and Dirty Sexy Money), Sam Jaeger (Eli Stone), Sarah Ramos (American Dreams) – and former Friday Night Lights show runner, Jason Kamins, as executive producer, I just can't. The show skips from issue to issue, pathos to pathos, never plumbing the emotions roiling just below the surface, which leaves me frustrated and yearning for the show that it could be, but isn't, and likely never will be. And don't get me started on the insular, self-involved, self-important, self-indulgent, not to mention, loud, Braverman's for whom personal boundaries simply do not exist, which wouldn't be so bad if there were occasionally consequences. But there aren't, and probably won't be, so...
What happened on May 14th that's has me feeling so hopeful about the future of soap opera? That was the day the WIGS channel on YouTube went live.
WIGS (tagline: where it gets interesting) is the brainchild of filmmakers Rodrigo Garcia and Jon Avnet. And what they've created is very interesting indeed – a collection of dramatic series, short films, documentaries, all with women as the central (and titular) character. Series are made of up of 2-15 episodes each running 7-10 minutes. Given that of late, a good day of soap opera for me (and many others) is an episode anchored by scenes between two characters where the narrative ties the characters' present to their backstory; where the characters' history and memory contextualize the current plot; in other words, two characters just talking - all told, 8, maybe 10 minutes of the episode - WIGS more than fits the bill because in addition to quiet conversations that fully plumb the underlying emotions, WIGS' series leave viewers wanting to know not just what will happen in the future, but what happened in the past.
I'm surprised that the channel hasn't created more of a buzz on the soap boards. For disaffected soap opera fans - those who've left entirely and those of us who on a good day take our fingers off the FF button for but a few minutes each episode – WIGS is both a refuge and, for the future of low-concept, serialized storytelling (which is what soap opera used to be), a huge leap forward – she said hopefully.
I was in as soon as I heard Rodrigo Garcia was involved. A while back, after reading one of my frequent laments about the current (and future) state of serialized storytelling, Lana Nieves suggested I take a look at a show she described as the "closest thing we have right now, to old school, character-driven serial drama that's on more than once a week": In Treatment. I had heard of the show, but didn't know much about it; when I found out that it had been created by Garcia I ordered the DVDs and binge-watched the first season - all 43 half-hour episodes - over a weekend.
I first heard of Garcia in 2005 when I read Stephen Holden's review of his film, Nine Lives ,in The New York Times. Several of Holden's observations resonated for this soap opera fan: Of the final scene, he noted, "it doesn't offer the sort of weepy closure that people go to the movies expecting to find." Holden went on to argue that the film "may be the closest movies have come to the cinematic equivalent of a collection of Chekhov short stories. The film's reward for intense concentration is a feeling of deep empathy and connection." Like I said, soap opera – the kind of soap opera for which I, and others, continue to yearn (and search) – and equally true for Garcia's earlier films, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and Ten Tiny Love Stories.
The channel launched in May with Jan (written and directed by Avnet), a twentysomething aspiring photographer whose dream job over the 15-episode arc becomes, well, not quite a nightmare, but, shall we say, very interesting, and ends with relationships begging to be explored down the road. The same with the second offering, Serena (a short film written and directed by Garcia): Will we ever know what happened between the two characters before Serena entered the priest's confessional? Probably not since this was a one-off. But the story was constructed in a way that it could easily be picked up at any point in the future, one of the characteristics of soaps that Garcia integrates into all of his storytelling.
In lesser hands, the story of Blue (also by Garcia), a single mother supplementing her accountant's income by working as an escort, could have easily have become an overwrought melodrama. Instead, viewers get to see not just a prostitute at work (and when we do, it's about far more than just graphic sex), but a fully-rounded character: a friend to a needy co-worker; daughter to a self-absorbed and inappropriate mother; prospective employee to savvy madam; and mother of a gifted and troubled son who's becoming increasingly curious about his mother's secret life.
The series currently running, Ruth and Erica (written and directed by Amy Lippman), follows a middle-aged landscape designer's journey as her aging parents begin to fail. It's a story that should resonate for many men as well as the women WIGS see as their target audience.
It's not just the kind of stories Garcia and Avnet are telling, but it's how they went about creating WIGS. Understanding how they did it is crucial, particularly in light of Prospect Park's failure to bring All My Children and One Life to Live to the Web, not to mention the dozens (if not hundreds) of web series hoping to attract soap opera fans. Garcia and Avnet began talking about WIGS three years before they launched the channel (and stayed under the radar until all the pieces were in place). They were doing what the networks, Procter & Gamble and Sony all should have been doing, (and likely would have been doing if Irna Phillips were still around to "encourage" them): thinking about not just how to use a new medium to tell stories, but how the experience of watching stories on the Web would differ from watching on television.
With that kind of lead time, Avnet and Garcia were able to secure sufficient financing (including YouTube seed money) to stockpile enough material (I really hate the word "content" used in this context; it commodifies storytelling even more than it already has been) to run for six months and allow the channel build an audience. They also created a potentially viable economic model by attracting advertisers, American Express and Unilever (whose spokesperson took a swipe at P&G, when he pointedly noted that Unilever was carrying on the soap opera tradition), and a media partner in News Corp.
Then there are the "stars:" WIGS is produced under agreement with the entertainment industry unions, SAG, WGA, DGA and IATSE, so while people aren't getting paid much (scale), they are getting paid something. The lack of money hasn't stopped too many established actors, writers and directors to list here from participating: many had previously worked with Avnet and Garcia; others were eager to. And if the behind-the-scenes interviews are any indication, all understood the importance this project holds for the future of the entertainment industry and wanted to be a part of it.
What happens down the road? Julia Stiles, who played the titular Blue, shared some thoughts:
What we're trying to do with "Blue," and what they are trying to do with whole channel, is tell a story that builds to a longer story. Each one is a brick that builds a house. A 7-minute episode is an interesting chapter in a large book. Ultimately 12 episodes amounts to the length of a movie.
Not sure about the brick buidling a house analogy; maybe threads woven together to form a tapestry? Semantics aside, Stiles' belief that these stories are intended to come together to create something larger is encouraging. But are the numbers there? The channel has almost 90,000 members who've registered email addresses with YouTube/Google. These members provide an opportunity to begin identifying potential audiences for this kind of low concept storytelling. This is crucial given the challenges these shows face on television, both on the broadcast networks and cable, as well.
As for how much revenue the channel's 17-million views since May have generated, or how those numbers fit into YouTube's long-range plans, I wouldn't hazard a guess; but if ever there was a case more being more, this is it. And the beauty of digital storytelling is that every episode of every series on the WIGS channel is available with a click of the mouse or touch of the screen. So, my advice to my fellow soap fans and critics: start paying attention to WIGS. As for Avnet and Garcia, they should begin, ASAP, courting the subset of disaffected soap opera fans for which WIGS storytelling sensibility will resonate: those who abandoned soaps because they felt their soaps had abandoned them.
© 2012 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only.
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