So-called Net show is rare for medium

Times Staff Writer

That Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the team behind “thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life” and “Once and Again,” have turned their attention to the emerging world of Web-based TV, is on the whole good news. It would be better news if their new “quarterlife” -- which began streaming Sunday over and today on the team’s own new social networking platform, at -- resembled things you have seen before on ordinary television a little less, or if it were close to the level of their earlier work. Even so, in terms of production, acting and subtlety of intention, it’s miles beyond any drama yet mounted on the Internet.

That is, of course, a small field. The Web is still a medium largely defined by its temporal limitations -- download time, the fact that its content is in many cases watched by people stealing a few minutes from work and consumed by a generation whose attention span has already been attenuated by media glut. So, it has proved to be suited to the blackout and skit rhythms of comedy and cartoons and funny-animal videos. Brevity is the soul of its wit, or what passes for it.

But drama is different -- it takes time to establish character -- and what has so far passed for that online has tended toward genre: bite-sized adventure soaps such as Michael Eisner’s “Prom Queen” and “Blair Witch"-style stunts like “lonelygirl15.” “Quarterlife” seems to be after something bigger: a Web series with feeling. Each 48-minute episode is cut into six episodes, which makes its rhythms closer to the “acts” of traditional television. (If and when “quarterlife” is repurposed to TV -- and as rumor has it, this may already be in the works -- the ads will slot right in.) And a TV show is what it is, for better and also for worse.

Apart from and the already hoary dodge of creating MySpace profiles for their fictional characters (all of whom sadly have kept “Tom” as their top friend), H&Z; have done nothing to explore or exploit the peculiarities of their new-media medium.


Young and angst-ridden

The show is named for a recently defined phenomenon: the quarter-life crisis (or QLC, not to be confused with QVC, which is another sort of affliction altogether), in which twentysomethings struggle with feelings of disappointment, longing, confusion, the sense that life is passing them by and that they will never get to do or have what they want, if they could only work out what that is.

The series continues the Herskovitz-Zwick strategy of making drama from generational malaise, but in a world in which “What About Brian” has already come and gone, and “October Road” has gone and is coming back, it’s hardly cutting edge. (The main characters of “Chuck” and “Reaper” are both textbook QLC cases, as well.) It’s the first of their series that comes off as secondhand: There is something slightly off about their take on Generation Text-Me; it feels rooted in magazine clippings rather than actual experience.

And with its cast of three boys and three girls living in close quarters, it may also seem like another remake of “Friends.”

The gang

Jed (Scott M. Foster) and Danny (David Walton) are pals from film school, trying to get work in commercials. Andy (Kevin Christy), who seems to be their assistant, works in the basement; he is the designated comic relief. Lisa (Maite Schwartz) is a bartender and aspiring actress. Debra works for her father, doing something. And Dylan (Bitsie Tulloch), who wants to be a writer, is an editorial flunky at a magazine called Women’s Attitude, where her boss steals her ideas.

Andy likes Dylan, Dylan likes Jed, Jed likes Debra, Debra likes Danny, Danny likes Debra (but as they’re in an actual relationship, they have their issues); Lisa sleeps around. The characters fall out and call each other names, but no one stays mad for long. You’ve got to have friends.

The idea behind “My So-Called Life” was to capture the tone of a teenager’s diary; “quarterlife” brings that into the 21st century by giving Dylan a blog -- posted to a website also called “quarterlife.” “Why do we blog?” Dylan asks herself. “We blog to exist, therefore we -- are idiots.” She speaks the truth: She puts embarrassing videos of and information about her friends and roommates online. And although I know that kids nowadays have an interesting notion of privacy, and that Dylan is probably supposed to be a bit of a loose cannon, this seems improbably improvident. At the same time, she’s the best realized of the bunch: The creators have lavished all their love on her; she is not quite Angela Chase grown up, but she has some of her intelligence and energy, and Tulloch, who plays her, seems destined to be better known.

Advertisement would obviously not exist except for the series, but that does not mean it might not have a life apart from it. It depends on who shows up and how well it works. (It’s prettier than MySpace but less efficient than FaceBook.) Pitched as “a new community for artists, thinkers and doers” -- philistines, dimwits and layabouts need not apply, apparently -- it reflects the particular aspirations of the characters in the series and, in a larger way, what the Web has come to represent: a place to get noticed, to break in to other, bigger, older and better-paying fields of creative endeavor -- into television, say.