'Personalized TV': Why I Made a Gay Web Series

by Jon Marcus

I am a single gay man. I date, and I have sex. I'm not bipolar, or a murderer, or a drug addict, and I don't toss snappy punchlines into every conversation. For all the groundbreaking gains that gay characters have recently made on TV, I don't see myself anywhere onscreen when I go to the movies or flip through channels. Equality is about a lot of things for me, and in a time when I see proliferating ads for "quirky" or "unconventional" lead characters on TV, I would like to jump past the part where we fight for "gay" to be another quirk, right to the place where it's so normal that seeing us kiss isn't still controversial.

I didn't get beaten up as a kid, and I haven't faced a lot of overt discrimination in my life, but when I went into the entertainment industry, at some point I looked around and realized that my life had to be translated and "coded" in order to work onscreen. I have many straight comedy-writer friends who are lucky enough to have their lives serve as notepads for TV ideas: "Oh, look what my boyfriend just did!" "Listen to what my adorable baby said!" "Can you believe what my wife and I just fought about?" For a good comedy writer, life just presents itself to you, and your take on it, along with your voice, can spin it into comedy gold. But for a young gay writer, that translation is not one to one.

We are living in a golden age of Web series. There has been a convergence of inexpensive equipment to shoot high-quality video with technology allowing fast downloads, fantastic home TV screens, and an entertainment industry that is mired in sequels and remakes, unable to take risks or think outside the box. It's the perfect storm for the rise of a new form of cultural entertainment. I think of it as "personalized television."

Although the TV networks will always be best at big-budget effects and gorgeous scenery like in Lost andRevenge, there is a very narrow range of stories and characters on TV, and it has given rise to a wave of people who yearn to see characters like them onscreen and now have the tools to make it happen. I watch less and less TV and more and more content on the Web: on Hulu, Netflix, Blip, Crackle, and Funny or Die, and when I hang out with my friends now, someone is always queuing up a YouTube video. The whole landscape has changed.

Scott Zakarin created the first Web series in 1995, called The Spot, the story of a group of friends in an apartment complex in Santa Monica, sort of a blog version of Melrose Place crossed with Friends. The stories were compelling and award-winning, but it was a very different experience than TV. Flash-forward to 2012, and technology and viewing habits have caught up to the creative drive, and watching shows online is no longer unusual. So many people watch Arrested Development on Netflix that the cult hit show's creators are reviving it and making more episodes to premiere only online.

I fell in love with my first Web series a couple of years ago, watching The Guild. Felicia Day created a hilarious show around some multiplayer-online-gaming geeks who all got together in real life. Then I loved watching Lisa Kudrow give advice on Web Therapy. And I was hooked on a new form of storytelling.

I was working in TV myself when I got the bug to make an online series. There was something about the process of making network television that I was having an allergic reaction to. It's not just cars and electronics that the U.S. imports faster than we make them; it's TV ideas, too. Show after show in development at American networks is a remake of something that was on the air first in another country. What's going on? Has the industry completely lost confidence in its own ability to come up with new ideas?

The world of the Web was exciting to me. It reminded me of the '90s, when I started my career in indie film; when you could see filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Eddie Burns, Spike Lee, and Ang Lee telling unique stories with characters who hadn't been given screen time before; and when there was a reliable audience who would show up to financially support them. I think the time is right now for audiences to be able to do that through the Web, and to support an entertainment economy that takes risks and tells original stories. That's why I made Hunting Season.

I fell in love with a personal blog that my series is based on that recounted the hilarious adventures of a single gay man in his 20s, dating in New York City. I loved his voice, I loved his honesty, and most of all I loved the complete lack of shame with which he wrote about his sex life. I had gone through a similar period in my life when I was young and had many exciting options all around me, but I had never thought to be proud of my experiences, and I realized I was more than a little ashamed of them. Did having sex on the first date make me a slut? Was I a failure at dating?

I realized that these questions were not unique to me, nor to gay men, but there was a closet door around them for us. The gay movement is working very very hard to remove sex from gay identity to move us into broader social acceptance. The first thing anyone thinks about when they hear the word "gay" should not be sex. But in sanitizing our identities for the world, we have lost something of ourselves along the way. We are whole, complete people, with varied and complicated sex lives. For reasons both artistic and political, I needed to tell that story, to remind the world that just like everyone else, gay men have parts of our identity that are formed by sex and other parts that are formed without it, and seeing us as whole people is not pornographic, and we shouldn't be ashamed of that part of our experience.

Since I started this process, I've become a fan of so many other gay online series, as well, like the delightful storytelling in Anyone But Me, about young girls coming to terms with same-sex relationships in high school; the broad comedy of Husbands; and the indie cred of The Outs. And the new Jenifer Lewis & Shangela really makes me laugh. There are clearly a lot of us who wanted to see characters like us onscreen and are taking matters into our own hands to do something about it.

I think everyone benefits from this new movement. The world of "personalized TV" is growing into a new, symbiotic relationship with the audience. The new model of participatory viewership requires that you find the shows that speak to you and embrace them, proselytize for them, and support them any way you can, because that's the only way these shows will survive. You'll help the world of "personalized TV" grow, and it will serve you better and better. Even if it can never directly challenge traditional TV, perhaps it will expand the playing field and increase who and what is allowed onto it.

 

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My favorite scene in the series is in Episode 5, when the four best friends are sitting around trying to decide where to go out that night, and they end up staying in. TJ and Nick get hold of a personal ad that Tommy has placed, and the night takes a quick turn for the worse.


Jon Marcus is the creator/director of the new comedy web series Hunting Season on LogoTV.com, and has produced such diverse projects as ABC's Scoundrels starring Virginia Madsen, and Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin. Marcus started his career in indie film working on movies for Ted Hope & James Schamus' Good Machine and was on staff at Killer Films for many years before he started selling network and cable TV pilots. Twitter: @OnJonsMind.  
 

This post originally ran on Huffington Post and is reblogged here by kind permission of  the author.

'Left Unsaid': Genesis of Web Series

Today's guest post is from Nelson George.  I love hearing how artists who have worked historically in traditional media have made the transition into new forms.  I asked Nelson how his new web series "Left Unsaid" came about. Last year, after a very sad break up, I moved into a roomy recently renovated apartment very close to Fort Greene Park. I had exposed brick, a downstairs living room, a staircase, a backyard with bamboo trees and lots of storage space. Instead of focusing on decorating, I thought, "I should shoot something in here." I'd directed an HBO film, Life Support, around Fort Greene/Clinton Hill in 2007 and this new place inspired me to write another script set in my hood. I've lived in the area some twentyfive years and knew, as its changed from a area known for Spike Lee movies to one synonymous with white kids in baby carriages, there tons of stories to tell.

With the break up still a fresh psychic wound I decided to write a project that would feature the many gifted but underutilized actresses I knew. I wanted to explore my feelings about women, but didn't want to impose my male view on the characters. So I recruited an eclectic group of women -- some I'd worked with in films I either directed or produced, others I knew socially, and a couple of folks weren't full time actresses, but had great personalities. I sat down with all of them and crafted roles that reflected an social issue or personal interest they were passionate about. So while only about 20 percent of Left Unsaid is improvised, much of the dialogue and subject matter emerged from these conversations. My college aged niece Leigh Amber, who worked as a PA, has a vivid imagination and contributed a couple of stories on one visit from college.

The premise is that a woman, just separated from her husband, has moved into Fort Greene. Looking to make new friends, she uses Facebook to invite a group of local women to her place for Sunday brunch. The women are as multi-cultural as the area itself. Some are long time residents, while a few are new to the area. Many are mixed race and others are recent immigrants to the United States. As they connect (and disconnect) from each other real Fort Greene hang outs like Habana Outpost restaurant, Moshood clothing store, a weekly Farmer's Market and Fort Greene Park are glimpsed or invoked. Within the dialogue are some very pointed conversations about race and class, as well as some very funny stories about life around these parts.

The tag line for the series is "What's not n your profile?" I've run into many people who are "friends" on Facebook and Twitter, and it can be be awkward. You know quite a bit about each other, so you are not total strangers, though not full one friends. It can be a strange middle ground. Its certainly possible to become real world buddies. But I've also gone home and blocked FB folks who creeped me out. So the relationship between social networking and real interpersonal contact is something I had fun exploring in Left Unsaid.

I suppose I could have shot this on DH and tried to a make it an independent feature. But this felt to me like a web series, a chance to experiment with creative a narrative that works in this emerging medium. I structured the different chapters as singing duets, where two or three voices come together for three or four minutes. So, with my friend, producer Nicole Nelch, I shot it two DV cameras on weekends June and July 2009. You can watch the chapters in order or you can jump around and enjoy it in any sequence you like. There are a couple of narrative threads that continue through Left Unsaid, but a lot of the chapters can stand on their own, making you a voyeur on a conversation that could be going on right now in Fort Greene Park.

Nelson George is a author and filmmaker based out of Brooklyn, New York. He directed the HBO film, Life Support, which starred Queen Latifah, and produced the doc Good Hair, which featured frequent collaborator Chris Rock. His latest books are City Kid, a memoir, and Thriller:The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.

A version of this post will run on The New York Times "Local" blog.