2009 was a great year for the web series community, not only for the viewers but for the creators. The continued popularity of shows like The Guild, and a growing audience for short features likes those on Atom.com and Crackle.com, has encouraged filmmakers to take the Felicia Day do-it-yourself challenge.
Many of these filmmakers already had great stories, and a great cast and crew, but the video quality prevented these series from becoming mainstream hits. Now, with cinematic tools such as the RED digital camera coming down in cost, the production value of content developed for the web continues to go up, and people are definitely noticing. Web series are finally being taken seriously and, as excitement builds, the improvements are not only getting fans’ attention but potential investors’ attention. We even have an online network now, thanks to the launch of KoldCast, so we no longer have to sort through the hundreds of thousands of stupid human tricks and other low-quality, low-brow postings on sites like YouTube (which is still great for easy sharing and viewing but not easy to find new shows on unless you know what you are looking for).
While there were many great comedic web series released (O-Cast, Absolute Disaster, and Safety Geeks: SVI, for example), the dramatic productions truly made leaps this year. Not since Sanctuary has anyone successfully endeavored to produce such broadcast quality shows. Shows like the urban fantasy Lumina and the steampunk-inspired Riese have such beautiful, high-definition images that they could easily be re-edited to a longer format and broadcast on TV or released as a film, and anyone who didn’t know their web origins would never know the difference. When browsing user comments, over and over again people ask questions along the lines of, “where can I see this movie?” or “what network does this show air on?”
2010 promises to have many more high-quality web series worthy of network or cable TV and, hopefully, we shall see the return of many of our favorites. In anticipation of the great things to come in 2010, let’s take a look at five of the best new dramatic web series 2009 had to offer.
Riese is a sci-fi/fantasy series richly influenced by history, mythology, folklore and steampunk. The series follows a young woman and her companion, a wolf named Fenrir, who travel through a collapsing world trying to piece together the fragmented memories of her past while attempting to evade the dangerous religious cult that hunts her.
Since it premiered in November, Riese has garnered much deserved praise and attention, and over one million views, in a relatively short time. The series is a visual and auditory feast with great attention paid to every detail, from the stitching of the wardrobe to the background noise in the high-definition sound. While some viewers with short attention spans were turned off by the slower pace and no dialog until the end of the first episode (who’s the girl going to talk to, walking through the woods with only her wolf as a companion?), those who stuck around for the action and the dialog were quickly wowed. Familiar faces in the Vancouver sci-fi scene appeared in Chapter 1, which wrapped with Episode 5 a few weeks ago, and Chapter 2, which premieres February 1st, is adding a slew of other familiar faces.
From co-creators Ryan Copple and Kaleena Kiff (who shares directorial credits with Nicholas Humphries), Riese features sci-fi regulars such as Christine Chatelain (Sanctuary,Supernatural, The Collector), Sharon Taylor (Smallville, Stargate Atlantis, Eureka), Patrick Gilmore (Stargate Universe, Battlestar Galactica), Ben Cotton (Harper’s Island, Stargate Atlantis, Taken), Ryan Robbins (Sanctuary, Caprica, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis), Peter Kelamis (Stargate Universe, Dragon Ball Z, The X-Files), Emilie Ullerup (Sanctuary, jPod, Battlestar Galactica), Allessandro Juliani (Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Death Note), Allison Mack (Smallville, Alice & Huck), and Gina Chiarelli (The Dead Zone, Masters of Science Fiction, The Outer Limits).
In my humble opinion, Riese is setting the bar for the new standard in web series production.
Lumina is a dark fantasy-thriller that was filmed in high-definition with the RED camera on location in Hong Kong. Up until now, we’ve only seen North American offerings, with most web series coming out of LA or Vancouver. The first offering out of China is a freshman effort to be proud of. Lumina, from storyteller Jen Thym, is what I consider Urban Mythology (modern-day fairy tale), in the vein of that created in novels by Neil Gaiman and Charles De Lint.
Lumina Wong (JuJu Chan) is beautiful and works far too much; although she lives in a city of millions, she still feels lonely and isolated. Late one night, Lumina has a chance encounter with Ryder Lee (Michael Chan), a handsome young man from another world that she can only see in mirrors and darkened window reflections. She revels in the fantasy relationship until mirrorspy Eben Sanchez (Jacob Ziacan) comes into her life, warning her of the treacheries of the people of the Dark Realm. Soon Lumina must choose between the safety of the world she knows and the deadly allure of the unknown.
I’ve watched this series several times now, and every time I watch it I notice something new. Great attention was put into the visuals, making use of reflective surfaces, lighting and contrast. Lumina has been referred to as a “guilty pleasure” by some online magazines, and I have to agree. Most web series, especially with sci-fi or fantasy, don’t focus on romance, but in Lumina, the love story takes center stage.
Lumina is not only putting Asian-Pacific film-makers on the map, but musicians, too. Being a contemporary setting allows the series to draw on some great music from local Hong Kong artists such as Sense of Akasha and Tim Be Told (who has been touring the US this winter). Not only is Lumina a pleasure to watch, it will change the way you look at reflective surfaces everywhere you go.
A contemporary supernatural thriller, The Vetala is the story of a college reporter who finds herself dead and then inexplicably alive again after being shot while hunting down a lead to expose the local criminal underground. Because the series drags on the mystery for a while, and I want to keep this a spoiler free zone, I won’t go into what a Vetala is, but if you are really curious, just Google it.
The Vetala is another entry from the Vancouver indie film industry and you might recognize a few faces (such as the lead, played by Candace Chase, who also appeared in a web series called The Ennead last summer). While the episodes are very brief (averaging five minutes), they get a lot of storytelling done in the seven episodes that make up Season 1.
With high-quality images and great set locations, The Vetala features a great soundtrack and some pretty fancy special effects and props. A mixture of mystery, cop show and thriller, it’s also kind of dark and creepy at times, and not only because of the supernatural elements.
The Vetala is a unique series and has a lot of room for more storytelling in the future. If you like scary movies (no, I don’t mean slasher films), check out The Vetala.
Compulsions is a thriller that explores the lives of three seemingly average people who, unlike the rest of us who try to resist our darkest urges, give in to theirs. Mark appears to be a humble office worker, but he indulges his sadistic nature as a torturer and interrogator (for hire, we assume). His partner, Justine, brings him his “work”, and voyeuristic tech support worker Cassandra accidentally peeks into the wrong life at the wrong time.
While Compulsions is not sci-fi, it is a dark fantasy, in the loosest sense of the word. It’s stylish and artsy in a Blue Velvet kind of way, and Craig Frank, who is best known for his comedy sci-fi web series The Crew, shows off just how talented he is with a touch of Denzel class and creep à la Fallen. Compulsions is still making its media rounds and is receiving due praise. Hopefully we will see a Season 2 in 2010, as I am really curious about what Mark was trying to torture out of his victim. There are some graphic scenes in Compulsions, so beware, but if you don’t mind a little bit of blood, Compulsions is a compelling and polished drama well worth the media buzz it’s getting.
The Lake is not exactly the type of show I would have expected myself to watch, let alone enjoy, but TheWB.com surprised me with this teen drama from executive producer and director Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame.
For young adults, summer is a time of reinvention, romance, rivalries and friendships. Families come to Lake Eleanor to escape their daily lives back home; but will they only find more drama?
So, why did I like this show? It’s well-written (by Meredith Lavendar and Marcie Ulin, who wrote a couple of episodes of Defying Gravity) and well-acted by a very talented group of young people. Some of these teens are better actors than many of their much older peers currently featured in film and on television. I can see them going far. As a matter of fact, no offense to Kristen Stewart, I think the series lead, Heather Ann Davis, would have made a great Bella in the Twilight adaptations. She very believably pulls off vulnerable and traumatized, and aligned more with the image of Bella that I had in my head as I read the books.
The series is well-edited and well-paced, and packs so much story into each episode, without feeling crammed, that by the end of a typical 10-12 minute episode it feels like you’ve watched an hour-long family drama. It’s like all the good parts of shows like 7th Heaven, Party of Five and Gilmore Girls, without all the sappy melodrama and overacting peppered in. I had only planned to watch an episode or two to review, but found myself staying up late to watch the whole season in one sitting.
I haven’t seen anything about a second season yet, but I’m hoping for one. If it doesn’t happen, though, viewers won’t be too disappointed since it wraps up nicely enough that the first season feels almost like an after-school special or Lifetime movie-of-the-week. Again, not sci-fi, or even geeky, unless you count the adorable Drew (played by Devin Crittenden), who embodies the everygeek who longs to be cool enough to be noticed by the new girl in town. If you are ever looking for a feel-good teen romance, check out The Lake.
So there you have it, my five favorite dramatic web series from 2009. There were many other great dramatic web series, including The Ennead, condition: human and After Judgment, but as I began to write about them, as well, I felt more like I was writing an encyclopedia than a review.
I think these five new shows set a new standard in storyline, acting and production quality. The bar has been raised, and I look forward to seeing who can meet or exceed it in 2010.