Monday, December 28, 2009

Love to Hate Him, Hate to Love Him

I've written a fair amount on my favorite soap females, the antiheroines. I freely admit it : I love the multi-faceted female characters that soap opera has always been so good at bringing to life. The misunderstood antiheroine. The long-suffering heroine. The shrewd bitch who harnesses her sexual power. Give me a Holly Norris, Vanessa Chamberlain, Karen Wolek, Brooke English, Heather Webber or Dorian Lord any day of the week. I do, however, enjoy a well-developed male character, as well. Keep the squeaky-clean good guys to yourself. The male characters worth watching are those who are no less complex, no less troubled, and no less ruthless than their female counterparts. Some of them are just as interesting. Submitted for your approval.....

The Bad Boys You Just Can't Help Rooting For

1. The Lovable Rake

You know him. He breezes his way into the lives of women, wreaking havoc with their emotions. Maybe he's even downright cruel and heartless in his betrayal of them, but he's full of boyish charm, and he's loads of fun. He knows how to have an honest-to-goodness good time. He's an overgrown boy, really, who'll make a halfway decent man if he ever finds his way. And, despite the way he treats women, the fact is, he adores them. He just makes the stupid mistake of believing he can adore them all at once. He's Tad "the cad" Martin dating Liza Colby, while having steamy sex with her mother, Marion, on the DL. He's Billy Abbott letting his brother assume responsibility for a pregnancy that's the result of one of his booty calls.

2. The Dangerous Guy

He's not from around here, Ma'am. He swaggers his way into town with no connections, and no one to answer to. He doesn't give a shit what you say, and doesn't care if you think he's a nice guy. He's AW's Mitch Blake, circa 1979, who shows up in Bay City with every intention of breaking up the Cory marriage and making off with the family loot. He's OLTL's Nash Brennan who doesn't want to hear that Tess is the one who has to go, and doesn't give a damn about anyone named Antonio. The source of this guy's danger? He doesn't sound or look or think like anyone else in town, and he's completely aware of the fact that his uniqueness makes him attractive.

3. The Aging Ne'er-Do-Well

If there's a way this guy could have messed things up, he's done it ten times over. He's been a lousy father, an awful husband, a terrible businessman. Everything he touches turns to shit and, truth be told, he's an irresponsible bastard who runs away when the going gets tough. He's a con man, and there's always an angle for him. He's not good-looking or young, and he never has much money but, for some reason, women flock to him. On the plus side? He's got the gift of gab. And, deep down, his conscience bothers him. Eventually, he does the right thing. He's Buzz Cooper, returning to Springfield years after abandoning his young wife and babies, demanding his cut in the family diner. He's Marco Dane, blackmailing Karen into a life of prostitution.

4. The Blackguard

You know him, because he's been around for ages. Emily Bronte named him Heathcliff. Not exactly a Byronic hero, but pretty close. The Blackguard exhibits a truly sadistic side. He's hurt people and enjoyed it. He's stolen that which he's thought he rightfully deserved. He's incapable of not leaving pain and heartbreak in his wake. His dark side goes beyond that of the Lovable Rake or the Dangerous Guy or the Ne'er-Do-Well combined: people's whole lives have been ruined - maybe even lost - at his hands. The Blackguard takes on mythical proportions by his seeming inability to be stopped. Push him off a cliff, and he'll end up with only a few bruises and broken bones. Crash his plane into the ocean and he swims to shore. The worst mistake you can make with this guy is to assume he's done the worst he can do.

The Blackguard, when well written and acted, is my favorite male soap archetype, because he is the most complex. His ability to be seemingly heartless in the pain he inflicts is coupled with a great capacity for love and devotion that borders on obsession.

Great writers and actors have created the unthinkable in the best Blackguards: villains we can't help but root for, in spite of our own better judgement, even as they perpetrate unspeakable acts. How is this accomplished?

1. Give this guy a personal tragedy: The greatest Blackguards are men who have been damaged by nightmarish childhoods/young adulthoods. Do some digging, and you'll find a little boy who lost his mother and was was abused/abandoned by his father. Roger Thorpe, Victor Newman, Todd Manning...these are the great ones, and they all have this in common. They don't know how to love the way normal human beings love because it hasn't been part of their personal experience.

2. Acts of Heroism: Saving the life of someone in peril goes a long way towards buying a bad guy some redemption. Roger, Victor and Todd have often stepped forward to do the right thing. Heroism, though, does not always come in such grand packages. For my money, one of the most touching bits of quiet, every day heroism on the part of Roger Thorpe involved the making of a tuna sandwich.

3. The Platonic Female Ally: For the most part, The Blackguard has no friends. Business associates, ex-wives, enemies a-plenty, but no real friends....except for the Platonic Female Ally. She's the decent, law-abiding woman who understands him, doesn't judge him, and in whom he can place his trust. Roger Thorpe had Maureen Bauer. Victor Newman has Kay Chancellor. Todd Manning has his older sister, Victoria Lord. The Platonic Female Ally loves the Blackguard and, unlike most others, she isn't afraid of him. She will be brutally honest with him, but she will also defend him to others. She, alone, seems to understand that nothing is ever just black or white, and that, for the most part, The Blackguard is misunderstood.

4. His Legacy, AKA: The Kids: The Blackguard has kids, probably a few of them. Probably by more than one mother. Having suffered such a nightmarish childhood, himself, he's determined to make sure everything runs smoothly for his children. Unfortunately, he goes overboard and doesn't so much support his kids, as try to control their every move. He means well, but it rarely works out for the best. The Blackguard's history of abandonment and abuse makes him see the world in terms of people either being for him, or against him, and this is especially true of his children. As much as he adores them, if he perceives one of children as betraying him, things can get very, very ugly. In truth, though, The Blackguard would rather die than see any one of his kids come to harm.

5. The Girl of His Dreams: If Heathcliff had his Catherine, Roger had his Holly, Victor has his Nikki, and Todd has his Blair. Or is it Tea? (Honestly, these days I'm rooting for a Tea and Blair pairing, but YMMV.)

6. Surround him with Hypocritical, Self-Rightous Indignation: Let's face it, soaps are full of morally bankrupt people passing themselves off as pillars of society. Springfield's leading good guy was Ed Bauer: a sloppy alcoholic whose inability to keep it in his pants caused the tragic death of his wife, Maureen. How many times did this guy fall off the wagon and drive drunk? Ed found monogamy impossible to achieve : he had sex with Claire Ramsey mere hours after getting the false report that Maureen had been killed in Beirut! Genoa City's Paul Williams may be a good guy, now, but remember when he was the guy carelessly passing a veneral disease all over town? And don't get me started on Michael Baldwin. Llanview is teeming with "good people" who betray their spouses, have sex with their brother's wives, switch paternity tests to fool their partners, kidnap babies, and play fast and loose with legal proceedings. (How the hell is Nora still practicing law and considered a woman of good standing???)

One of the reasons The Blackguard, when written and acted well, makes us love him in spite of his despicable, deplorable behavior is the fact that he serves as a foil to the phonies. When Roger Thorpe stood before a room full of Springfield's most esteemed citizens - including Alexandra (most manipulative woman on earth), Billy (duplicitous alcoholic who married his brother's lover) Jenna (a professional crook whose chief goal in life was to steal the Chamberlain fortune), and Dylan (an ex-con and an arsonist!) - all of whom haughtily passed judgement on him, I couldn't help but be on his side. When Jack Abbott tries to make himself as the good guy to Victor's bad guy, it turns my stomach. Every time Nora and Bo are hyped up as untouchables, I like Todd a little bit more.

The Blackguard's stark contrast to those who are perceived as virtuous is a large part of his allure. It's why J.R. Ewing was the shining star of Dallas, and Bobby wasn't. It's why Magneto is so damned awesome in X-Men. It's why The Young and the Restless has been such a bore since Victor Newman has been gone.

Next: The Heir Apparent

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, 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 Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Year In Review

Patrick Erwin beat me to it, and his Best and Worst list is well worth reading, so check it out.

Snapper's best and Worst of 2009

Most shocking television plot twist, hands down:

Dexter's Rita takes a bath. Holy crap. My mouth was literally agape when this aired for the first time. I dreamt of poor Rita that night. What more is there to say?

Most ridiculously joyful moment, night time television:

This one is a tie, and it all belongs to Mad Men's Joan Holloway: between
Joan bashing her obnoxious husband over the head with a vase, and her triumphant return to the world of advertising in the season finale, this character brought me more pure, giddy joy than any other in my recollection. I cheered both times. Literally cheered.

Most lovable dark horse:

Edie Falco's Nurse Jackie. She's an adulteress, a drug addict, an habitual liar, a bitch on wheels. And I couldn't love her more than I already do.

Most unlikley agent of pure evil:

John Lithgow, Dexter. Who the hell knew John Lithgow had it in him? His Trinity Killer is pure, unadulterated evil of the creepiest variety. The man sends chills up and down my spine. Can this really, truly be Roberta, the lovable transexual from The World According to Garp? This bit of casting was inspired, and Lithgow is nothing short of brilliant.

Most frustrating test of patience:

The wait for season 4 of Big Love. I know it's coming in January, but it's been one hell of a wait.

Best Web Series:

Compulsions. You probably haven't seen this. Chances are, you haven't heard of it. Well, now you have no excuse. If you like Dexter...if you think Profit was just too damned good to survive network television...if you enjoy the finger-cutting scene in Bound...if you just love the idea of people leading double lives.... Compulsions is for you. I'm serious. This series is free to view, and everything about it is good: great scripts, fine acting, great camera work. These guys make each 4-6 minute episode feel as complete and jam-packed as an hour of traditional television.

Most effective promotion of a web series:

Crystal Chappell, Venice: The Series. Long before even one second had been filmed, people were chomping at the bit to see this. The hype was over-the-top. Chappell shrewdly flooded not only the soap press, but managed to cross over to mainstream, with an appearence on CNN. Unfortunately the product, itself, is pure crap and there seems to be no technical know-how connected to the production - inexcusable in this medium. Too bad the end-product didn't live up to the hype but, really, what could have lived up to such a build-up?

Most shocking casting coup:

James Franco, General Hospital. Nuff said.

Best performance by a female, daytime:

Beth Maitland, The Young and the Restless. Everyone I talk to who watched that fateful week of Y&R either loved it or hated it, but we all agree on one thing: Beth Maitland was superb. I never realized how much I missed her until she came back and, boy, did she come back with the goods. I'm not forgetting that 2009 was the year that Crystal Chappell knocked it out of the park with the graveyard scene (and so many other scenes), but big is often easier to play than little. Beth Maitland's Traci was, during this stint, a small miracle. She's quietly brilliant, and quiet brilliance is so freaking difficult to pull off.

Best performance by a male, daytime:

Grant Aleksander, Guiding Light. There was a lot of buzz when Grant returned to the role of Philip Spaulding in 2008. Most of us thought he was brought back to help save the show, In reality he returned to make sure Philip came full circle as Guiding Light ended. While he didn't always have the greatest or most believable stuff to work with, Grant reminded me of why so many of us love him.

Best off-screen drama:

Eric Braeden's Mexican stand-off with Y&R. I love you, Eric Braeden. No one at CBS or Sony thought you'd break the unwritten rule and open your mouth about the way these companies seem to think contract negotiations ought to be run (ultimatums sent via email???) but, God love you, you did. You talked and talked and talked, and reminded the world that Y&R is Victor's show. While you did end up taking a significant pay cut in the end, the damage was already done, and TPTB will think twice the next time they pull this kind of stunt with anyone who really matters. And Y&R? Virtually unwatchable since you've been gone. I'm looking forward to your return.

Biggest waste of talent:

Maureen Garrett, Guiding Light. Guiding Light had one hell of an opportunity to do something interesting and challenging with one of the best actors daytime has ever seen. They had her on the set for only one day, true, but they wasted that day. It was nice seeing Holly, again, but what did it achieve? More than anything, the wasted opportunity made me sad.

Best trend spurred on by the cancelation of television's longest-running drama:

Invested fans of Guiding Light hitting the web and making their voices heard. Who better to cover the end of an era, than those who actually followed along for years? The demise of GL brought about dozens of blogs, podcasts, forums, and events - all home-grown by actual fans. Some of this stuff was awful, some of it was great. Either way, it didn't matter - it's now clear that there are a substantial number of bright, articulate people to whom serial drama matters, and they are just as qualified- if not more so - to discuss and critique the genre than some guy at The Wall Street Journal who has never watched a serial drama in his life.

Worst trend spurred by the cancelation of television's longest-running drama:

Blind, overly-invested fans of Otalia and Crystal Chappell deciding that anyone not 100% pleased with the course of the story line, or of Crystal Chappell's looks, words and actions should be considered enemies of the state. The "you're either with us or against us" mentality is a truly ugly by-product of GL's cancelation that will no doubt bite one or two people on the ass.

Biggest career boost spurred on by the cancelation of television's longest-running drama:

Tina Sloan. Many of us knew who Tina Sloan was, and how damned good an actress she was long before Guiding Light was cancelled. For a whole generation of people who only knew Tina as the too-often back-burnered Lillian Raines, though, Tina's charm, humor, intelligence and range came as a pleasant surprise. Not one to take adversity sitting down, Tina's career seems to have been ironically re-invigorated by the demise of GL - her one-woman show has been a smashing success, she's secured a publishing deal for her book (due out in 2010), she's blogging at Huffington Post, she's just wrapped up filming a movie with Natalie Portman, and she's a fan favorite on Facebook and Twitter. This is, IMO, a well-deserved career boost - those of us who have followed Tina for years did not like the idea of her sitting on the back burner for so long.

Best podcast:

Pancakes and A Valium. I find podcasts pretty tiresome and boring, as a rule, but PAAV was and is consistantly funny and amusing, not to mention smart, clever and thought-provoking. And, before you write in to say I'm only mentioning PAAV because I like Liz and Dani Pancake, flip it around, kids: I only got to know and love Liz and Dani because I stumbled on to their great podcast one day and got hooked. Is there a law against liking cool, smart, funny people?

Best comeback:

Patrick Erwin, A Thousand Other Worlds. When Patrick decided to call it a day and stop blogging, my heart sank. How psyched was I, a few weeks later, when he had a change of heart and wrote his "Never mind" entry?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Venice is NOT the "Great White Hope" for Lesbians

"...a series that portrays lesbians in a positive light..."

" historic event for lesbians..."

"....has the guts to show what network television never has..."

"...accurate depictions of lesbian characters..."

These are all comments that have been made about Venice: The Series, the first five minute installment of which has all but been declared the Sapphic Holy Grail by a fan base that is far from objective. Readers of this blog won't be surprised to find that I disagree with the party line that Venice is groundbreaking, and that it's portraying lesbian relationships in a positive light. Not only do I not subscribe to the belief that Venice is the best thing since sliced bread but, based on what we have to go on, I think it's actually pretty awful for lesbians.

What We have To Go On

First off, any declaration that Venice is important or significant in a big picture way is premature, plain and simple. No one has seen more than maybe 8 minutes of footage, including the teaser for episode 2. There is absolutely no way anyone can know what, if any, significance this series will have on lesbian culture, entertainment aimed at lesbians, or the success of series developed for the web. This is not negativity on my part, or mean-spiritedness: it's a fact. 5-8 minutes of footage is significant if you're talking about Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech, but 5-8 minutes of a web soap is not anything earth-shattering. Nothing happened during those 5-8 minutes that hasn't happened on mainstream television before: two women kiss, sexual intimacy is alluded to, some routine relationship talk transpires. That's it. That's all any of us has seen of Venice. It's all stuff that has been on The L Word, E.R., Friends, All My Children, Queer As Folk, Anyone But Me, Exes and Ohs, and dozens of other television and web series. And before you write to call me a bitch for pointing this out, or to tell me to shut up, stop and think for a minute: what, exactly, has Venice offered so far that you haven't already seen elsewhere? If you can come up with something, I'd love to hear it.

While I refuse to even entertain the idea that 5-8 minutes of footage is enough to say that Venice is making a significant statement and a difference in lesbian history, I'm open to the idea that, given time, it certainly could have an impact...even a huge impact....on how entertainment is marketed, how lesbian characters are developed, and how lesbian relationships are viewed by the public. This is very possible.

This, in my opinion, is not a good thing.

What do we have in Venice, so far? I keep reading about Venice portraying lesbians and lesbian relationships in a positive light. I must have watched a very different episode than other people. The episode I saw featured a textbook case of co-dependence: Ani wants a real relationship and commitment. Gina wants no strings and can't or won't make a commitment. Ani has sex with Gina in the vain hope that this time things will be different, and Gina will decide to settle down and make a commitment. Gina has sex with Ani in the vain hope that this time, things will be different, and Ani will agree to be sexually intimate without expecting an emotional commitment. It's a dance they've been doing for years, a cycle they can't get out of. Even Gina's brother, Owen, knows how tired the whole routine is, and how it always leads to someone getting hurt. This, people, is not romance. It is not a positive portrayal of healthy lesbian intimacy. It's about as dysfunctional a relationship that two people can have short of one that includes physical violence.

I have a feeling that, when Ani says "I'll never give upon you", there are fans who think that's just the most romantic thing, ever. If she were saying that to a man who'd just fucked her, and then rolled out of bed to answer his cell phone, declared he couldn't be what she wanted him to be, and who'd done that sort of thing to her before, would it be romantic or sweet? Nope. Most people would think such a scenario was kind of pathetic. Because it is pathetic. It's the scenario we've all told some best friend to run from, and run fast.

Co-dependence is not cute or sweet or sexy or healthy for heterosexuals, and it isn't any of those things for homosexuals.

If there's a shortage of media depictions of homosexual relationships lacking depth and emotional maturity, I hadn't noticed. If America hasn't been exposed to the idea that same-sex relationships are totally fucked up and unhealthy, it's news to me. If what the so-called "lesbian community" wants is a show about two people who can't break free of the incredibly dysfunctional cycle they're stuck in, when it comes to love, sex and relationships, I must have been out of the country when they took that vote. Because this is what Venice, as we've seen it, is all about: two very fucked up lesbians who keep making the same mistake, over and over again.

Enter Otalia

People became interested in Venice because of their passion about Otalia. For me, the real draw of Otalia was more than the fact that it was a story about two women in love. It was the fact that it was a story about two women for whom love and relationships had never previously worked out. For both Olivia and Natalia, Otalia represented the first mature, equitable, healthy romantic relationship either one had experienced. It started out as a redemption story: Olivia Spencer's redemption story. The love of a good woman was, in and of itself, the vehicle of redemption. Now that was groundreaking television. Not a story about how fucked up lesbians and their relationships can be, but a story about how two pretty fucked up people might actually be redeemed by giving in to same-sex love. For Olivia and Natalia, pretty much everything in their lives was a mess until they found one another.

Olivia and Natalia's trials and tribulations weren't centered on their love for one another, but on outside forces: Rafe, Frank, religion. The entire story line turned to custard when the decision was made to block their intimacy by any means necessary. This wasn't just annoying because they were two hot chicks we wanted to see getting it on - it was annoying because they were two characters who, by all logic, should have been together. Their love was healthy and nurturing, and a joy to watch, until a wrench was thrown in the works. And when did it truly stop being any fun to watch? When it became completely dysfunctional...when it stopped being about two women whose love for one another was their sweet salvation, and became about two women who spent all their time hiding their love for one another, not having sex, lying about who and what they were and, eventually, about one woman being incredibly cruel and hurtful to the other.

I'm not naive enough to think that lesbian relationships are perfect, or that dysfunction doesn't exist in the LGBT world, but here's the thing: if I want to hear that homosexuality is bad or that same-sex relationships are a mess, I don't need to watch Gina and Ani dance their dysfunctional dance on Venice. If I want any of that, all I have to do is turn on the news, or evangelical television, or check out Fred Phelps' website. Entertainment geared towards lesbians that portrays lesbians as neurotic, immature, desperate and unkind to one another? That's not groundbreaking. And it's not positive.

With friends like Venice, who needs enemies?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Six Ways To Support Web-Based Programming

With all the buzz about Gotham and Venice, and questions about how these shows will be able to sustain themselves, I thought it would be worth writing about some of the ways fans can lend support and help web-based programming become viable.

1. Have high standards: Some people thought my review of Venice was harsh and that I "expected too much." Ridiculous. The very people who created Venice have said, time and again, that they wanted an opportunity to do things differently, have expressive freedom, and present a realistic portrayal of women loving other women. When producing for the web, there is no network censor, no Standards and Practices committee to answer to. If web-based programming isn't going to be any different or better than what's on television, what's the point in watching it? If you can push the envelope, why wouldn't you? I have over 700 television channels to choose from, and a 42" HD screen to watch them from. If I'm going to watch a web-based program for more than a few episodes, there's got to be something new and different in it for me - something I can't get on television.

If we, as viewers, keep our expectations low, there's no incentive for the people producing this programming to strive for excellence. The web will never be taken seriously as a viable, sustainable medium for film and video unless there examples of professional-level productions. By giving any production (whether it be Venice or Gotham or whatever) a free pass to be less than professional in the way it looks, feels and is delivered, fans are basically ensuring that they'll never get anything better, and that the web as a medium, will never really come to fruition. Think about it: if you were a corporate sponsor looking to pour lots of money into a project, would you choose a project where the sound is muffled or the production team can't figure out how to get their own website working?

2. Participate in the Discussion: Crystal Chappell and Martha Byrne are both Twitter users, and they both read their email. Other people producing web-based programming probably are, too. If you like what they're doing, let them know. If you don't like it, let them know. I'm not advising anyone to be rude. Offer creative criticism. Think about it this way: if no one tells Crystal Chappell that the soundtrack to Venice is way too loud, and that it detracts from the action, she may never realize it. Martha Byrne heard complaints about the premiere episode of Gotham being too short and she immediately got online and promised subsequent episodes would be longer. Issues probably won't be addressed unless people mention them. Both Venice and Gotham have forums. Use them. Not to talk about last night's Steeler's game, but to talk to other people who are watching and to provide feedback. ABC, CBS, and NBC are probably never going to ask you what you think about their programming, but producers of original content for the web already are.

3. Check out the Sponsors: Nicole Miller is sponsoring Gotham and Venice has sponsorship from two local businesses (who, I assume, donated space and food to the production of season one.) Click on their links. Maybe even drop them a line to let them know that you checked them out after finding their link on the site of a web program you're following. Corporate sponsors back projects in an effort to drum up their own business. If there's nothing in it for them, they pull their sponsorship.

4. Pimp Away: If not for people pimping their favorite web series on blogs or Facebook or Twitter, I never would have found out about Empire or Ylse or Anyone But Me. Twitter is an incredibly good way to get out a message to lots of people at once. If you like a web series, get the word out and share it. These productions run on almost no budget and can't afford to advertise. Nelson Branco and Roger Newcomb do not have to be the only ones using the power of the internet to promote projects they want to see succeed. You're reading this blog, aren't you?

5. Watch: This may be obvious, but it bears mentioning. Someone, somewhere is keeping track of how many people actually press PLAY. If people like Crystal Chappell and Martha Byrne are going to secure significant financial backing for these projects, they need to demonstrate the ability to attract viewers. Watch the damn shows where it counts. If your friend downloads Venice and sends it to you as a file attachment or burns it on to a disk so you can watch it on your tv? That doesn't count.

To the people who thought I was being a "bitch" for pointing out the myriad of problems with the Venice website, chew on this: lots of people weren't able to watch the premiere on the Venice website. If any of those people watched, instead, by downloading the video clip from Yousendit, those views don't count. People will inevitably start downloading Venice and posting it on their own YouTube pages - just like they did with Guiding Light. Guess what? Watching the show in this way doesn't count, either. If you're not watching on a site officially sanctioned by a web series, your viewership doesn't really count.

6. Subscribe: Ok, wait. No, I haven't subscribed to Venice and, so far, I have no plans to. I really do think they should give viewers more of a chance before forcing them to decide if the show is worth paying for. I also think 9.99 is a little steep for a season, as opposed to a full year. That said, I don't think there's anything unreasonable about asking satisfied viewers to start paying after they've had a significant taste. I had mixed feelings about Venice, but a lot of people adored it. If you truly adore a show, consider paying for it.

Web Series Worth Checking Out - a really short list

Empire - Good, soapy fun. Season one didn't have the greatest writing or acting, but these guys put together a whole season, with a full story arc, on a shoestring budget, with no publicity, and without the benefit of even one known actor. And they really, truly get what soap opera is all about. Chris Douros, who plays Thomas could easily be the next big thing on soaps. Empire boasts one openly gay character, and one character who is on the DL. Roger Newcomb says there are some exciting things in store for season two of this series, with a respected soap director taking the helm, and the possibility of some familiar faces joining the cast. I have high hopes for this dark horse.

Anyone but me - Ah... to be young, beautiful, and in love in New York City! Oh, yeah...and also a lesbian. Season 2 is due any day. If you check it out now, you can breeze through the entire first season just in time for the second. All the fangirls who think Venice broke ground by showing two women kissing, check this series out.

Ylse - And now for something completely different....a bilingual web series about a young, Hispanic Oprah Winfrey wannabe. This is good fun, and it takes poking fun at a gay priest in episode one, and alluding to the hypocrisy of a church that covers up sexual molestation of children. Give this one a go - it's got a lot of humor, and it's really well directed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

And so it begins part 2... Gotham:The Series

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 Content

What Works

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.)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

And so it begins...

After months of teasers, anticipation, too much talk about booze and underwear, and a whole lot of hype, Crystal Chappell's Venice premiered last night amidst much fanfare. Fangirls welcomed the first installment with predictable enthusiasm: for so many, Crystal Chappell can do no wrong. Others declared it laughable and a failure. Both the praise and the shaudenfraude are premature and, I suspect, knee-jerk reactions. People who have invested months of of their time, and God-knows-how-much money supporting this project in anticipation of it being the great white hope of the lesbian community were going to declare it a work of brilliance, no matter what. People who decided, long ago, that they were rooting for the project's failure, whether because they dislike Crystal Chappell, hated Otalia, or were turned off by unsavory behavior on Twitter were going to declare Venice the worst show, ever, no matter what.

In my opinion, it's too soon to tell, either way.

Details, details, details

Before I even talk about the episode, itself, there are other details that really do need to be addressed.

First off, Venice is a web series. Why, then, have there been serious problems with the Venice website from day one? And why have these problems never been properly addressed? It was clear, very early on, that a server capable of handling heavy traffic would be needed for this project. The Venice team has supposedly upgraded to a bigger server at least twice, now and yet, on the very day of the show's premiere, crashed yet again. Last night, the night of the show's premiere? The crashed, forcing most to view the first episode on Youtube.

All of this is irrelevant, anyhow, I guess, because the Venice website, when it was accessible, was a mess. The design is sloppy and illogical, and the site is full of stuff that simply doesn't belong there. Why, for instance, does the Venice website include community forum threads covering such topics as football, how to meet women, and Bad Girls? It's clear there has been absolutely no moderation of the community forums, and no efforts to keep the forum threads focused on Venice. Note to Crystal, Hope and Kimmy: is not a series' website. It's clearly a social networking site for lesbians. (Sorry I can't give a more concise list of irrelevant topics covered in the Venice community forum area; the site is yet again down as I write this, making it impossible for me to get a complete list)

If the Venice website includes lots of irrelevant content, there has also been some very important stuff missing. Up until last night, there was no description of the series, itself. No character profiles. No actor bios. Until two days before the premiere, the specific details of the subscription rate was not made public on the Venice website. In fact, it was through an article in an obscure Israeli magazine that many fans found out about the $9.99 subscription rate. This lack of information until the 11th hour reeks of an unprofessional project.

Much has been made of this subscription scheme. Lots of people are angry about it. While I think $9.99 per season is too steep (there will be several seasons a year, with each season consisting of approximately an hour of actual footage), I think it's perfectly reasonable for the producers of Venice to charge for a subscription to this series. It has to make money somehow, and major sponsorship has either eluded the project or not been sought. The $9.99 rate, IMO, should cover an entire year of Venice. To those who claim they never knew Venice would have a price tag attached to it, I call bullshit: there has been talk of some sort of pricing scheme for this show for months- basically since Crystal Chappell first started talking about the project. The fact that there is a subscription rate is perfectly fair and reasonable - people can choose to subscribe or not subscribe, just as we do with cable television. The fact that the specific details of this subscription scheme were kept under wraps until just a day before Venice premiered? Unprofessional and, IMO, unacceptable. Not the way to treat loyal fans.

The Content

What works

The set-up: Episode one of Venice is short and sweet. It does a decent job of setting things up. For anyone who knows nothing, at all, about the premise the following is made perfectly clear: Gina and Ani used to be either girlfriends or fuck-buddies. Ani wanted a serious relationship. Gina didn't. It's clearly a dance they've been doing for a while.

Jessica Leccia: Of the three actors featured in episode one, Jessica Leccia looks most comfortable in front of the camera, and is the most natural.

A realistic touch: Unlike the typical morning-after girl on television, CC's Gina wakes up looking as if she really has just woken up - no make-up, morning eyes, less than perfect hair. Refreshing.

What doesn't work

Cringe-worthy Cliches: The initial shot, panning across a floor littered with Gina and Ani's discarded clothing must have been set up and filmed by Captain Obvious. I guess some people think this shot is sexy or enticing. I think it's just an example of lazy film-making. It's a cliche that has been used to death on both daytime and nighttime television. It's a shot that we really never need to see, again.

Lack of realism: I understand that this isn't a porn film, but why are two women who we are to believe stripped off in a fit of passion, leaving their clothing strewn all over the floor, in a mad rush to have sex waking up with clothing on? Lesbians have sex with tank tops and panties on? Really?

The dialogue: I know a lot of fangirls loved the morning-after talk, but if you stop and actually think about it, it doesn't make sense. The conversation these two women have in bed about Ani having returned to town? It's a conversation they would have had the night before, not the morning after. Again, it's a cliche of bad television and filmmaking: awkward use of dialogue to recap. The most annoying thing about this is that it could have easily been avoided - dialogue that provided a smooth recap would be easy enough to write. Instead of Gina and Ani having a conversation that they obviously would have had the minute they ran into one another at the bar, why not just refer to such a conversation for the audience's sake? Gina: I cant believe you've been in town for days and never thought to call me. Good thing I ran into you, or I never would have known you were back.

Also, if there were ever a phrase that should be banned from television and the movies, it's this one: "I can't do this. We've been down this road so many times."

Note to Kimmy: If this is the great, amazing writing we've been hearing about for so long, you're in trouble.

The soundtrack: I've noticed that even some of the most ardent fangirls are making some noise about how annoying the soundtrack is. I don't like the song but, even if I did, it's too loud and it overpowers the action and the dialogue. Hopefully the complaints about this will be taken seriously by the Venice team, because the music is really over-the-top. Use it as a theme song, and tone it down for background music. No one is watching this to hear that droning voice. They're watching to see and hear the actors act and the story unfold.

Believability factor: Sorry, but I just wasn't feeling it between Gina and Ani. Where Olivia and Natalia had mad chemistry, for some odd reason the same actors playing other characters just didn't take me there and believe them as a couple. Maybe it's because the bed scene felt more like an obligatory bit of girl-on-girl action for all the Otalia fans who got ripped off than anything else. I didn't find it believable or sexy. I didn't feel as if I was watching two characters who'd just had sex and wanted to have more sex with one another; I felt I was watching two actors who were awkwardly pretending they'd just had sex.

The Future of Venice

Who can say? It's much too soon to say where this show will end up going. The fans who have decided Venice is the second coming of Christ are jumping the gun. So, however, are critics who have already written the project off.

Of all the things that I found wrong with the Venice premiere, not one thing is beyond fixing. Fans of the wonderful, edgy Santa Barbara may remember that the first few months of that innovative soap were virtually unwatchable. Knots Landing, possibly the best nighttime serial drama, ever, limped its way through the first season or two before hitting its stride.

On the other hand, these are the days when few projects of this kind get very long to catch on and find their way. It's not unusual for television shows to be cancelled after just two or three episodes, if they don't deliver viewers. This hardly seems fair. Can Venice survive to see a second season? I'm pretty sure it can. Will it be any good? That remains to be seen.

Next Up: Gotham