The works of Benjamin Apple: "Cubed" (Above Average/YouTube), "Channel Ben" (YouTube). There is a feeling abroad in the land, by which I mean among people who write about television, that this network fall season is a disappointing one, offering new series that are at best good, not great; not good but not bad; not completely bad; or just bad. (Really, there are just a couple of the last, and I am looking mostly at you, "Stalker.") We will all have our exceptions; I will be commending "Jane the Virgin" to you soon. But also one feels, braving this latest onslaught, in a year now made of onslaughts, a kind of exhaustion. There is just too much television -- now, with even more filler! -- and even what we like, or or too lazy not to watch, demands too much of us, trapping us in its zone (whether we were at home or mobile) for half an hour or an hour at a time, time after time after time. It is almost seems -- nay, it is -- complicit in the end of the world, whose postponement requires human attention and human energy turned to real human problems and the problems of real humans.
And at the same time there is more TV than ever, if we regard as television everything made to watch on a personal (or family-sized) screen, instead of among strangers in a darkened theater. There is a sense, too, of having too much choice and no choice at all. We ask, "What should we watch?" We look for new shows to replace the old, instead of turning to books, or watercolors, or sitting in quiet contemplation, or quiet non-contemplation, as if, even when having no choice what to watch we had no choice not to watch.
But even as films grow long, and TV series become TV serials whose whole run you are bound to watch, where once you might drop in for an episode here and there with no sense of needing to be caught up, or to keep up, alternatives emerged. The Web comes mostly in bite-sized pieces, sometimes several to a pack, but still arranged on the candy plan. And because these offerings are not meant to have any commercial life beyond their postings, they are made to attract notice or simply because they are beautiful things their maker couldn't afford not to make (and yet could also afford to make). There is plenty -- incalculably plenty -- of bad stuff out there; but the best of it is more surprising than almost everything ordinary television has to show you, with the concentrated power of a good poem, joke, or amuse bouche. (It is also true that pictures of different kinds of animals getting along are better for your spiritual well-being than most of what the industry labors to bring you, to snare you with.)
This week, my favorite thing in the wide televerse is "Cubed," a six-episode series from Above Average, the You Tube-based Internet wing of Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video. I haven't tallied its length exactly, but given that some of the episodes last well under a minute, you can get through it all pretty quick. Or you can take your time, if you are the sort of person who can take one Milk Dud from the box and forget the rest until another day. In it, Benjamin Apple (also the writer and director) sits in a barely dressed cubicle in a nondescript office and engages with co-workers. Each bagatelle is built around a single idea; none take too long to get to the punchline, or anyway the last line, lasting exactly as long as it needs to. They remind me of the short, short, short stories of Lydia Davis, but with a Lewis Carroll logic. (Apple is the reasonable Alice.) Here's the gist of one: Cake-eating colleague: "Tim's cousin was on the news. He was on the evening news last week." Apple: "Cool, what for?" Colleague: "He was shot and killed. There's cake in the break room." And in another: Colleague: "Hey, you know that sign in the bathroom that says employees must wash hands? Is that like a law or something?" Apple: "I don't think so." Colleague: "Cool." Apple: "But everybody should wash their hands." Colleague: "I mean, in a perfect world … everyone would do a lot of different things."
Apple, who has written for and appeared on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and might play Chris O'Dowd's American younger brother should such a thing ever become necessary, also has his own YouTube channel, Channel "Ben," where he has lately posted other brief pieces with impressive regularity, five days a week. They come in series: The latest is "stock footage," offered for license, with titles like "White Man Striking Match and Holding It Until It Hurts Him" and "Bottle of Fish Capsules Spontaneously Generates." He has a fondness for computer-generated voices. (In one video, such a voice repeats the word "computer" over and over as the camera zooms in on a picture of a computer; I realize this will not be to everyone's taste.) In "Dog Sad," part of a weeklong sequence called "Important," a tiny dog is placed on the shoulder of Abraham Lincoln in a portrait that is revealed, at the end of a Ken Burns dolly out, to be part of a photograph of the Oval Office. "Chicken" zooms in on the picture of a cow, as colors change and clucking is heard. Other series include "great ideas" for TV shows "that you can buy from me if you wanted," all of which are based on puns on names ("Lazy Susan" -- she's lazy, "High Speed Chase," his name is Chase and he's good at driving fast); "Sad Full House"; and "Fake Siri Facts" ("The smallest bird in the world is the Shetland Hummingbird, which is 10 times smaller than the head of a pin"; "The last known dinosaur was a Corythosaurus by the name of 'Denver,' who was discovered in 1988 by a group of Califoria teenagers.") Many take quick disturbing twists. None will take up much of your day; but some may well improve it.