Yesterday I reviewed the premiere of Crystal Chappell's web series, Venice. Today I'll give the same treatment to soap veteran Martha Byrne's web series, Gotham, which actually premiered a few weeks ago.
While the Venice premiere was surrounded by months of build-up and hype (some generated by the actual production team, but much generated by fangirls who declared Venice a wonder before even one second of footage had been shot), Gotham seemed to quietly pop up. Some of us knew about it being in the works for months, but the publicity around it was nothing compared to that of Venice. This, in my opinion, is both positive and negative.
On the plus side, I found it refreshing that the Gotham team seemed to be concentrating on actually putting together a website and a product before hyping it up. When they were ready to deliver, there was a shiny product, with all the kinks ironed out, ready and waiting for an audience.
On the down side, many people I've mentioned it to have not only not seen the premiere episode but have never heard of the project. I hope blogs such as this one help get out the word about both projects, because this new medium is definitely worth checking out and supporting.
Details, details, details....
The first I heard about Gotham was either on Twitter or at We love Soaps. Shortly thereafter, an official Facebook group popped up, where information about the progress of the show was posted on a regular basis. It seemed to take quite a while for the Gotham website to be launched but, once it went up, it proved to be exactly what such a website should be.
The Gotham site contains (and has since day one), profiles of the various actors involved in the project, and of the Gotham characters. Anyone unfamiliar with the project can easily stumble upon the site and find out what it's all about, who's involved, and where they can see or read more about it. One can purchase Gotham mugs or t-shirts, and there are links to some of the music being used in the series. It's a simple and basic site which, in my opinion, is what it ought to be: informative and easy to navigate. I notice they've added a link to a Gotham forum page which is, as of yet, inactive. This is because it's a moderated forum, limited to discussion of the actual show. I like this: people shouldn't be chatting about which 3G coverage is the best on the Gotham website...they should be chatting about Gotham. Once the show is in full swing, I expect this forum to get some activity.
The only thing I'd change about the Gotham website would be to add a photo section. The Venice team has been really good about taking still photos and posting them for fans to see, as their project progressed. The Gotham webmaster might want to consider following suit - a section of publicity stills and behind-the-scenes candids would be fun and make the most of the site.
There was never any talk of a subscription charge for Gotham and, I'm happy to report, when I posted a question about this a few months ago at the Facebook group, I was given a quick and definitive answer by the group moderator: Gotham would be free to view. Personally, I'm not sure this can be maintained beyond one season without a subscription rate of some kind, but I did appreciate getting a definite answer to my question early on, and in short time. At the very least, people will be able to watch a full season of Gotham for free. If there is a subscription rate introduced later (and this is just supposition - I really have no inside info), viewers will already know if they want to see more, and if they're willing to pay for it.
Martha Byrne announced a deal with Nicole Miller Fashions, with the fashion house providing wardrobe for the series. The website lists Nicole Miller as a sponsor, and I notice there's actually a tie-in within the show: the main character, played by Byrne, is an account executive for Nicole Miller. Does this mean there's a deeper level of sponsorship? I have no idea, but it's an intriguing idea - not unlike the original radio soap opera model.
Overall, it's clear a good deal of planning has gone into this project, and there's a high level of professionalism surrounding it.
The Opening: Slick camera work and tight editing. A fast-paced succession of shots of the NYC skyline and various icons, including the Brooklyn Bridge. As a Brooklyn native I make no apology for loving shots of my home town. Visually, it's a great opening. The key-tossing shot is evocative of Mad Men.
I also like the way we're teased with little pieces of information about Richard Manning's life: post-it notes from his daughter, voice mail messages that leave me wanting more (including one very ominous message from a very familiar voice), and the slo-mo as Manning seems to lose his temper and take it out on his dashboard.
The Set: New York City may officially be the backdrop of Gotham, but the bit of action we saw in episode one was filmed at Martha Byrne's home. It's not a back lot or a temporary set, and it shows. A grand house surrounded by real woods works for me - it's the complete antithesis of what we so often see on television: a stock photo of an exterior for set-up and then footage filmed on what is obviously a set.
The Soap Moment: You know what I'm talking about...that 10-second, "OMG, what are you doing here/I thought I'd never see you, again" look that Catherine Prescott and Richard Manning share as the episode comes to a close. Some people absolutely hated this. As a lover of soap, I loved it. It was dramatic, campy and over-the-top...three things that make for good soap, and few people do this sort of thing better than Martha Byrne does.
What Doesn't Work
The Theme Song: The hard rock opening theme didn't do it for me. It was too loud, and just not a great tune.
The Sound: There's a muffled quality to the sound, especially during the outdoor shot, that I found distracting.
The Length: At under 4 minutes, I don't really feel it was fair to call this an episode. It was more of an intro, a teaser. I liked what I saw, but there wasn't enough meat to it. Perhaps an actual scene in between Richard Manning's arrival and his coming face-to-face with Catherine would have fleshed out the episode and given the viewers more to latch on to.
Where Venice's 5-6 minute premiere episode seemed to me to be just the right length for such a project (I know some people feel it was too short, but this is the direction the entire industry is going to be moving towards, as attention spans wane) , Gotham's 3 1/2 minute episode was too short.
The Future of Gotham
When I asked Gotham star and creator Martha Byrne for quote for this blog, she came through with one that really captures the whole web series phenomena in nutshell:
"The future of soaps is in the hands of the fans, where it belongs."
With less than 4 minutes of footage to go on, it's impossible to say how Gotham will flesh out. The level of professionalism surrounding the project is encouraging. So is the cast which, in addition to Martha Byrne, Michael Park and Anne Sayre includes soap veterans Maeve Kinkead, Kin Shriner, Lisa Peluso and Kurt McKinney. As a long-time fan of Lisa Brown, I'm excited about the fact that she's directing this show. Between Byrne and Brown, Doug Marland's influence promises to be all over this project.
The premiere was short, but it certainly piqued my interest and I'll definitely keep watching. With Gotham airing for free, there's nothing to lose. Martha Byrne's own words about the future of soaps tells me that she's open to constructive criticism from fans, which is a good sign.
One thing for all people interested in web-based content to keep in mind is this: these shows are not competing against one another. Unlike television, where shows air opposite one another and vie for the largest share of the same audience, there's room on the web for an almost infinite number of programs to thrive. The fact that different folks are developing vastly different projects and experimenting with different business models bodes well for the future of web-based programming, in general. The success of one web-based program increases the chances that other projects have a chance at being taken seriously, and that the web will come to be thought of as a viable medium/venue.
(For the record: I don't know Martha Byrne, personally. She was generous enough to provide me with a quote without the benefit of having read this review. All she knows about this review is that I promised I'd be fair.)