‘Broad City’ and the future of web TV

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of web-TV show Broad City

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The early days of internet TV were more exciting for creators than they were for viewers. Funny or Die, a web portal for original comedy clips launched by Will Ferrell’s production company, and The Guild, a nerdy sitcom about gamers, written by its creator and star Felicia Day, both began in 2007. They showed underworked actors and writers that you didn’t need a lot of money or industry connections to get, become part of a zeitgesty new series: you just needed an idea, a few buddies and a lot of free time.

It’s not that these shows weren’t great; it’s that the supporting technology wasn’t there yet. Viewers were watching on computers and their attention spans were short: Facebook and Twitter were just a click away. Shows were typically divided into chunks of less than five minutes, which could be sneakily consumed between office chores.

A lot has changed since then. We’re watching video content on smartphones, tablets and home entertainment systems hooked up to laptops. Apple’s iTV, which will hopefully come out in the next year, will make it so easy to watch internet-only shows on something that looks like an ordinary television that it will become completely irrelevant whether we’re getting our favourite programmes through satellites or broadband.

Best Web-TV Shows

1. Burning Love
This has already made the jump to broadcast TV but it’s worth catching up with the previous few series. Director Ken Marino (pictured) is perfect as the lunkish fireman choosing a bride (including Kristen Bell, Jennifer Aniston and Ken Jeong as ‘Ballerina’) on a Bachelor-style TV show. It’s written by his wife Erica Oyama, who also plays a contestant, and Ben Stiller is full of smooth, meaningless advice as a previous bachelor. Skewers everything insane about reality TV.

2. H+
It’s a decade or so into the future; humans have had the internet uploaded directly into their brains; and, inevitably, something goes wrong. This thriller is brilliantly written, crisply shot, and has a few great performances, especially from the German actress Hannah Herzsprung (pictured) as an impulsive, mountain-climbing hacker on the run. Also notable is David Clayton Rogers as the most improbably handsome scientific genius since Cillian Murphy in ‘Sunshine’. The action jumps around from San Francisco at the moment disaster strikes, Mumbai five months before, Italy two years afterwards, and elsewhere around the globe. Episodes are only a few minutes long, but they’re packaged together into ‘chapters,’ which makes them easier to binge on.

3. I Hate Being Single
A Facebook profile being switched from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘Single’ is the first image in this low-budget show written and directed by its star, Rob Michael Hugel. Rob plays a version of himself: a flannel shirted, bed-headed Williamsburger convinced he’s not a hipster, who’s attempting to get over a failed relationship. The first episode’s mournful explanation of love as baking two pumpkin pies with your girlfriend and eating them over a period of two days is sweet, sad and funny. ‘Girls’ for boys.

4. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

“One of the things that the comedian mindset requires is laziness,” Jerry Seinfeld opines on this charmingly laid-back series in which he picks up famous friends such as Alec Baldwin, Ricky Gervais and Mel Brooks and takes them out for a beverage. The conversations that unfold are unfiltered, rambling and always funny. The episode with Seinfeld’s co-creator Larry David is particularly charming, as the two friends laugh so hard about David’s neurotic eating habits they spit out their herbal tea. “You have finally done the show about nothing,” Larry congratulates Seinfeld afterward.

5. Big Country Blues

The sweet-voiced, stubbled Jeremy McComb stars as the small-town country music singer Grayson Ricker, who is persuaded to move to Nashville to chase his dreams of stardom after his father – a musician who never made it – commits suicide. So far, only five episodes have been made of this slower, more soulful version of ABC’s Nashville, which has plenty of excellent musical interludes.

Plenty of companies are poised to cash in on this change. The streaming site Netflix signed up an extra three million subscribers in the first quarter of 2013, thanks mostly to its exclusive airing of the Kevin Spacey series House of Cards. It now has more viewers than HBO and is hoping to repeat the trick when it puts all 15 episodes of the long-awaited fourth series of Arrested Development up on the site this month.

Meanwhile, BBC’s iPlayer has commissioned a series of web -only dramas; Amazon is making 11 pilots for its Amazon Instant Video service (including Onion News Empire, a newsroom dramedy that looks fantastic), and YouTube is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into its original-content channels. These include Wigs, a female-orientated drama with lead actresses including Julia Stiles, America Ferrera and Jennifer Beals, and Jash, Sarah Silverman and Michael Cera’s comedy channel, which launched in March.

Comedy still works well in short, sharp bursts – one three-minute episode of Zach Galifianakis’s deadpan, awkward talk show Between Two Ferns on Funny or Die has been watched more than 12 million times – but it’s awkward to watch plot-driven dramas such as H+ and Electric City in such bite-sized pieces. In the future, we’ll think less about “web TV” than about “TV we happen to watch through the web”.

The internet is great for writers and performers because they can retain total creative control over their work, but – for the moment – TV is still where the real money is. That’s why the web has become a testing ground for original writing that’s later snapped up by the networks.

The couple behind the excellent The Bachelor spoof, Burning Love, are familiar with this process. Erica Oyama, who writes, and her husband Ken Marino, who stars and directs, previously worked together on the darkly funny web series Childrens Hospital, which was bought by the cable channel Adult Swim in 2009. They’ve now got their second cross-over hit.

After three internet-only seasons, Burning Love premiered on the E! network in February, demonstrating a couple of things: first, great writing will get noticed (the show received a Special Achievement prize at this year’s Webby Awards), and second, having celebrities on board doesn’t hurt (the executive co-producer is Ben Stiller, and guest stars include Jennifer Aniston, Michael Cera and Paul Rudd.)

Lisa Kudrow has also surfed this wave. The Friends star sold her internet show Web Therapy, in which she stars as a self-involved counsellor, to Showtime in 2011; it will be back later this year for a third season, with Steve Carrell, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal as guests.

And we’ll be hearing a lot more soon about Broad City, a web series about young New Yorkers that’s written by its two stars, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. It’s making the jump soon to Comedy Central, with Amy Poehler signed on to produce.

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