DeFlip Side #130: Web Sights

DS130.mp3

Welcome everybody. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Call it a milestone in geekdom. This past Wednesday night, the cult smash web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog made its network television debut on the CW.

And for many of you listening this is probably the epitome of a non-event. Dr. Horrible has been around for years now, and most of us have seen it and loved it on iTunes or YouTube or Netflix.

For those of you who haven’t, it’s an Internet musical written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Neil Patrick Harris as aspiring supervillain Doctor Horrible, who is battling a smarmy superhero named Captain Hammer (played by Nathan Fillion) for world domination and the love of a mousy woman named Penny—played perfectly by reigning geek goddess Felicia Day. The story is funny, the music is great and the ending will kill you. It’s so good it even won an Emmy.

But for all that, most mundanes out there wouldn’t know Captain Hammer from a ham sandwich, and any buzz the series generated died out long ago, even in geek circles. So in terms of ratings and advertising, Dr. Horrible would normally be a non-starter for any network.

But Dr. Horrible isn’t normal. Everyone wants to be in the Joss Whedon business since he directed a small film called The Avengers. And both Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris are currently starring in hit network TV shows; if that isn’t enough, Dr. Horrible also features Simon Helberg, who has since catapulted to fame as Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory. That’s a lot of star power for risk-averse executives to bank on.

So while it certainly is a milestone in terms of geek crossover, The CW’s airing of Dr. Horrible is not really that chancy, and it by no means signifies the mainstream rise of independently produced Internet content. What it really signifies is that the networks are woefully late to the party.

With the proliferation of streaming video options, wireless Internet access and mobile devices—combined with systems like Apple TV that let you easily watch the Internet on your television—the long-predicted demise of the traditional network model is finally nigh. And there’s a ton of Internet content out there doing just fine without any mainstream notice whatsoever.

We need look no further than the aforementioned Felicia Day. She writes and stars in her own web series called The Guild, a comedy about the real life adventures of a group of online gamers which just began its sixth season. In fact, The Guild has become so popular that Day has used it to launch her own Internet network called Geek & Sundry.

In addition to The Guild, Geek & Sundry features weekly programs appealing to a wide range of genre interests, including Dark Horse Motion Comics, a hilarious and often surreal show called Written by A Kid, The Sword and Laser Book Club, and a gaming show called Table Top, that’s hosted by everyone’s favorite Sci-Fi whipping boy, Wil Wheaton.

But Geek & Sundry is no slap-dash Internet hob-job; it has production values equal to any traditional TV network, but it isn’t fettered by ratings or focus groups that would force it to broaden its appeal. Like Dr. Horrible, it’s a prime example of the good things that can happen when creators are given free reign.*

You have to hand it to Felicia Day, because when creating The Guild she was astute enough to exploit the web’s key attractions at the time: video blogging and gaming. And as web capabilities grew, so did the scope and popularity of her show, which she has parlayed into a burgeoning Internet empire that doesn’t need to depend on mainstream appeal.

Having the creative freedom to focus on extremely niche markets has also led to another Internet phenomenon: the rise of extremely well-produced fan-made films based on existing properties.

My good friend Thomas Dunn just turned me on to a short feature that he wrote and acted in called Enter The Freeman, based on Gordon Freeman, the main character in the Half-Life video game universe. I’m not a video game guy, so I had never heard of Freeman and had no idea what I was watching—which is a good thing, because had I known it was based on a video game, I would have been predisposed to dislike it.

But the film blew me away. Despite its short running time, Enter the Freeman presents a Science Fictional world so gritty and intriguing that I can easily see it airing as a companion series to AMC’s The Walking Dead. It has more to like in its sparse, edgy 11 minutes than an entire season of TNT’s Falling Skies.

Yet Director Ian James Duncan says the film was created over two nights for about only $3,000—mostly on a lark. And he managed to get special effects expert Steve Wang of Predator and Underworld fame to bring the video game’s iconic headcrabs to life. Not to mention a catchy original rock theme by musician Laura Duncan.

Needless to say, the rabid Half-Life fan community has eaten the film up. Enter the Freeman currently has close to 300,000 views and the response has been so positive that the creative team is going to put the project on Kickstarter to raise the money to make more. And if a fan-driven, shoe-string labor of love like Enter the Freeman can excel on so many cinematic levels, then the potential for web-created content is truly limitless.

Check these shows out, give them your support, and break free of your network TV shackles.

When it comes down to it, network TV shows exist solely as vehicles to sell advertising, and business-minded executives are the creative gatekeepers. Luckily, that paradigm is shifting and an increasing number of artists are now calling their own shots online, taking creative risks, and transforming the broadcast landscape from the bottom up, one geeky gamer girl and singing supervillan at a time—which doesn’t sound all that horrible to me.

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*For the flip side of this see: Lucas, George.