I have seen the future of television, and its name is Quarterlife.
Several weeks ago, NBC announced a deal to broadcast the Internet series, Quarterlife, during this strike shortened television season. For those of you unaware, Quarterlife has been streaming 11-12 minute episodes twice a week since sometime in mid-November over at MySpace and quarterlife.com. While this may seem like a major coup for some start up webcaster, the truth is that Quarterlife is the brainchild of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, whose past TV series are considered to be some of the most beloved family dramas in the past twenty years. I’m speaking about Thirtysomething, My So Called Life, and Once and Again. Additionally, Zwick has directed some of today’s most important actors in films such as Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and Blood Diamond. In other words, these guys have some clout.
Quarterlife follows a group of friends in their twenties living in Los Angeles as they embark on their professional lives and adulthood. Covering similar territory that Cameron Crowe did in Singles (but without Matt Dillon’s killer wig), the characters in Quarterlife are driven to succeed in life and love. However, all of them are without a map as they traverse this unfamiliar territory. Their lives are full of questions: How do you get ahead without compromise? How do you assert yourself without looking like a bitch? How do you find love and fulfillment in a city as vast and overwhelming as L.A.? How do you become a grown up while retaining the optimism and hope of your youth? These are some of the major themes Quarterlife has posed in a short time.
Herskovitz and Zwick have always had impeccable casting in their work, and Quarterlife is no exception. The relatively unknown actors are led by the talented, fetching Bitsie Tolluch as Dylan. Dylan is a struggling writer whose job at a women’s magazine (think Glamour) has her questioning whether she is a legitimate writer. Thing is, Dylan is full of good ideas (which she freely admits) and would like to succeed at work. This conflict between her professional world and her artistic ambitions leads Dylan to create a video blog. Her video confessionals (open to the public) are nakedly honest about herself and the lives of her friends.Dylan quickly learns that this type of truthfulness can not only hurt people, but also alienate them. Tolluch does an exceptional job at walking that fine line of earnestness and selfishness.Dylan is typical of most adults in their twenties and Tolluch does a superb job of making us root for her, yet cringe when she’s on the verge of behaving completely inappropriate.
The aforementioned friends who complete Dylan’s social circle (in essence, her family) include two roommates. Lisa (Maite Schwartz) is a stunningly beautiful actress who is so used to being judged on her outer appearance that she is trapped by the societal view of beauty. Lisa may never be short of a date or a social event, yet she’s as lonely as the rest of her friends. Schwartz captures Lisa’s confusion and internal conflicts perfectly. The second roommate is Donna (Michelle Lombardo), a daddy’s girl who has never had to fend for herself. Donna so desperately wants to break away from the security of her father and become her own person, it’s crushing her spirit. Finally, there are the two guys who live across the courtyard of the apartment complex, Jed (Scott M. Forster) and Danny (David Walton). In the opening episode, Danny and Jed, both fresh out of film school, land a TV spot for a car dealership and the dichotomy of their friendship is immediately defined. Danny’s slick, good looking and practical. He wants to establish himself and build a client base for their fledgling commercial company. On the other hand, Jed insists on being an artist and walks off the job when he can’t get the camera shot he demands. Both Foster and Walton seem extremely comfortable in their roles. At the moment, Jed appears to be a little more defined as a character; still, it takes a certain talent to portray a sympathetic two-timing ass, and Walton does it.
As with any drama of this variety, there are incestuous love triangles between all of the friends: Dylan loves Jed, who loves Donna, who has just had her heartbroken by Danny. However, unlike so many network series, there seems to be a steady flow of fresh, new actors on the show each week to simulate real life (in which you actually meet and date people outside of, say, Seattle Grace Hospital). So far, all of the actors have been written, directed and performed nicely, making Quarterlife not only addictive, but also refreshingly real. I didn’t check out this show until several episodes had been posted. Since then, I can’t wait for Thursday to roll around so I can see two in a row. Unlike many of the comedy web shows (Clark and Michael comes to mind), Quarterlife is written and executed like a prime time drama. Each episode, as they are posted, are acts in an hour-long chapter, broken up over the course of two weeks. In actuality, Quarterlife began as a pilot that was rejected by ABC. That rejection led Herskovitz and Zwick to seek independent investors, and the show was retooled. Moving it to the web has given them the freedom to create a series without the restrictions of network heads (whose sole jobs often appear to be to just give notes).
Funny how things work out. NBC, desperate for something to air during the WGA strike, signed a deal with the creators to essentially distribute Quarterlife. It premieres on February 18. It shall be interesting to see how many new viewers the show attracts on NBC. Whether or not the show succeeds on national television, Herskovitz and Zwick have pledged to continue the show online for a second season. In the coming year, I predict that more established writers and producers will migrate to the Internet to begin working on their own series. The Internet has the potential to become what the indie film scene is to many Hollywood stars: an outlet to pursue creative visions and artistic endeavors that may not fit into the mold of what is considered “mainstream.” Over time, more networks may become distributors of this new and independent content.
I’m still not sold on watching full length feature films streaming on the Internet; however, episodic TV series, especially in 12-minute increments are a natural fit for our Dells and Macs. Television producers have started looking to the Web as an incubator for new projects, and Quarterlife is leading the way.