In this year of television I found myself often excited by small things — some new, some new to me, perhaps having earlier escaped my notice by virtue of their very smallness. Some were small in the sense that they did not take up much time, others in that they were not conspicuously ambitious nor ambitiously conspicuous.
Many lived — continue to live — not on conventional television but on the Internet or on the server farms of great streaming services. Yet even the straight-up TV shows are not the sort you see advertised on the billboards or buses; you need to go find them. (Though sometimes, it’s true, they do find you.)
The Great Golden Second Coming of Television has seen the birth of new forms, as when galaxies collide. Not surprisingly, much attention has been paid to the bigger objects: the big dramas, painted on big canvases, perhaps with big stars from the big screen, displayed in the bigger venues. Works of capital-Q quality, like “True Detective” and “Transparent,” dominate the cultural conversation.
Ambition comes in many sizes, however. Tiny things may be bursting with concentrated energy; all the matter that exists, some say, was once packed into a dot next to which a Tic Tac would seem an Everest. Some of the best TV I saw this year lasted less than a minute.
There was nothing in 2014 more formally audacious than Casper Kelly’s “Too Many Cooks,” an 11-minute set of increasingly dissonant variations on a 1980s imaginary sitcom theme that crept into the world via a 4 a.m. slot on Adult Swim before going code-red viral on the Internet. And in a year that was phenomenally rich in quality television — they could stop making it now, and you’d still have enough good things to hold you into the next decade — no discovery was more welcome to me than that of Benjamin Apple, maker of oddball Web videos.
I first encountered Apple via “Cubed,” a spectacularly compact, deadpan office comedy presented under the auspices of Above Average, the Internet arm of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video. From there I followed the breadcrumbs to his YouTube site Channel “Ben” (721 subscribers), where he posts short works, usually in thematic weeklong sets, many of which use stock footage and computer-synthesized voices. It’s a kind of video sketchbook that lets you watch an individual comic intelligence at work.
Like Apple, Todd Bieber (YouTube channel: Documentaries by Todd Bieber, 4,549 subscribers), is associated with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. His “Gary Saves the Graveyard,” a five-part Web comedy about a graveyard caretaker and his yet-to-pass-over charges, is the last wonderful thing I’ve seen in 2014 (so far). Like his lovely pocket-sized personal documentaries — some about animal rescue, others about finding the owners of lost objects or turning a small urban dead space into a vegetable garden — it’s a story about the impulse to help, with lovely performances by actors you’ve likely never seen but should (in the cosmic justice sense) see more.
You can wait a long time for cosmic justice, though. Meanwhile, there’s a cosmos to explore, click by click, station to station, for any who care to adventure there.
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