I think it’s time I come clean: I am a TV addict. I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve watched it all. From the greats like “Arrested Development” and “The West Wing” to the worst like “Ally McBeal” and “2 Broke Girls,” I watch it. And I don’t just watch it when it comes on, I torrent it, I Netflix it, I Hulu it, I do whatever it takes to get my fix. I am a junkie, and the internet is my enabler.
Last year, I reviewed a new kind of television series for WEEKEND: original online programming. Yalies have forayed into this new form of entertainment, and not just drama graduates as was the case with the reviewed “Backwash” and “stalkTALK.” Last Spring, Yale undergraduates put together an online television series, “Connections,” which included two separate scripted efforts. The first was “Survive,” a series about a medical school student who also wants to be an artist and has problems with a girl. The second was “Never Do Business with Friends,” which was a scripted effort centering around the production of “Survive” (I assume it was also fictional). All of these online efforts suffered from various mishaps. These problems are not unique to online programming, but detract from the viewing experience.
The problems with “Backwash” and “stalkTALK” were identified in their reviews: the jokes fell flat, the writing was unoriginal and the acting was subpar. “Survive” suffered from an overly-cliche plot, mediocre acting and inconsistent writing. “Never Do Business with Friends,” on the other hand, was delightfully original but slow-moving and had characters who were too animated. The camerawork was so hyperbolic at points that it felt detached from any realism. All of these series suffered from a problem that is my biggest pet peeve in entertainment: a lack of original characters with any sort of development.
Now this problem isn’t something that only exists in Yale’s online programming. It exists mostly with female characters who are so pidgeon-holed that they must play their stereotypes to the extreme, especially in recent programming. In “Never Do Business with Friends” the video editor Julia suffered from “Zooey Deschanel” syndrome. Her character falls into the category of female characters that complain about not being pretty and feminine enough. You know the type: she wears flannel because she’s so unique, makes weird faces and wears her hair up because she doesn’t care what people think about her. This is a public service announcement: no girl is like that. That too cutsey thing doesn’t actually exist. Women will never be endlessly bouncy and happy. We have hormones, stress and self-respect. Bottling up anxiety in the name of big bows, puppy dog eyes and Mary Jane shoes is just unhealthy. I mean, it was exhausting enough pretending to be cute for my four hours dressed up as a doll for halloween. The “Zooey” has devolved from being whimsical to just stupid. If you fall out of your heels and think that it’s a good idea to wear stilettos with overalls to a dinner date, you’re an idiot, not cute. Just a side note, nobody wants to watch a pretty girl complain about how she can’t get a date.
The next kind of female stereotype is the “Megan Fox” character. Typically brunette, this sort-of sexed-up character is present in “Survive,” “Never Do Business with Friends” and “stalkTALK.” She is also in “2 Broke Girls,” “Archie,” “Breaking In,” “Whitney” and “Parenthood.” Chances are she’s super cool and does edgy things like listen to rock music and play pool really well. She is also one-dimensional and only serves as some kind of ideal for a typically nerdy character.
Next is the overly feminine, somewhat innocent blonde girl. This girl is also in “stalkTALK,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Whitney” (oh hey, whaddup — two Whitney Cummings shows with underdeveloped stereotypical characters. A topic for another day and another 1,000 words). Chances are, she will break a nail and she will wear matching underwear. She also doesn’t exist in real life. Blonde girls are just like every other girl (trust me, I tried being blonde for a little bit). Breaking nails will hurt for a girl (or guy) of any hair color, matching undergarments are expensive and require a lot of effort and I even know a blonde girl that plays hockey. She’s much cooler than Caroline, the equestrian in “2 Broke Girls” who keeps her horse in the backyard of her Williamsburg apartment building (again, another angry topic for another time).
These trends of underdeveloped female characters are symptomatic of a larger problem in television that is reflected in these original online programs. All new shows look for an audience, and they cater to this imagined audience as a part of their development. In order to appeal to as many people as possible they try to create characters that are familiar and easy to write into any sort of plot. As a substitute for real creativity and quality, television shows this season seem to use gimmicks and jokes about genitalia. As hard as it is to garner mass appeal, the fact that these shows are getting an audience represents a vicious cycle in entertainment. If people give these shows ratings (admittedly, by watching this I guess I am contributing to these ratings) it perpetuates the idea that writing these kind of static characters is not only okay but desirable. The characters written for ratings make watching these shows unbearable and demean great television by comparison.
The internet should provide television with an escape from the shackles of ratings. It’s enabled “Arrested Development” to increase its viewers exponentially, for viewers to watch shows post-airing and discover cancelled shows. Just last week, I was able to watch all 11 seasons of “Fraiser” because of Netflix. The ability to individually produce and showcase television shows opens up a realm of possibility to create series that would never be picked up by networks. Many websites have capitalized on this: College Humor and Funny or Die being the most prominent.
These websites have produced segments that would never get on network or even cable television, because of both their size and content, but nonetheless gain popularity. “Very Mary Kate” and “Chloe” are gags of famous celebrities that are running segments on College Humor amd Funny or Die respectively. “Jake and Amir” is the most popular College Humor series that features two coworkers that are so overly animated and unrealistic that it’s obvious that they parody the idea of an “annoying coworker” that has long been established by television. The show follows lovable but insane Amir who is unlike any character I’ve ever seen and his seemingly normal coworker Jake. In a lot of ways Jake’s character is more smartly-written than Amir’s because he’s someone who I’ve met before. The theory behind his character is that he wants badly to be cool, but he isn’t in reality. This isn’t like the stereotypical restaurant owner Han Lee in “2 Broke Girls” who installs a karaoke machine, attempts to be ironic and is a lively, gesticulating and unrealistic portrayal of a fresh-faced immigrant who wants to fit in. Jake’s desire only comes out every few episodes and is masked behind defending a pointless piece of clothing or vocal frustration with his Angry Birds failures. He’s someone that we all know at Yale and the realism makes the humor resonate.
Unfortunately, just because there are shining beacons of hope in “Jake and Amir”-esque productions, the internet has widely enabled a culture of supbar entertainment. This trend forecasts a troubling future for original programming. Flooding television-watching sources from YouTube to Netflix with mediocre shows will make it that much harder to find a quality show like “Breaking Bad” without any kind of significant hype. Hopefully, the mysterious people of the internet, and even Yalies, can learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others and produce real, quality programming that capitalizes on the freedom that the internet gives them. The internet enables our laziness in so many ways. Join me in trying to overcome that drug.