Review: Thank a wireless world for quality shows like ‘Embeds,’ ‘555’ and ‘Bravest Warriors’
When people count the many hundreds of series that make up this Age of Too Much Television, they tend to refer only to the obvious places – broadcast, cable and the big-deal streamers Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But the land spreads out far and wide from there, into the many nooks and crannies of the wired and wireless world.
As in “Westworld,” the farther you go from the center, the stranger things can get; but as expertise and money infiltrate the fringes, what you find there can look totally pro.
These outliers take many forms, on many platforms. Let’s consider some recent examples. “Embeds,” a six-episode comedy about reporters following a political campaign, was created for Verizon’s phone-based Go90 “mobile TV network.” “555,” an anthology series from and featuring comedians Kate Berlant and John Early, is available on demand from Vimeo as of Jan. 31 for a cheap-at-twice-the-price of $3.99. And “Bravest Warriors,” a cartoon that began as a Web series, has for its long-awaited third season migrated to the VRV mobile app, currently available for IOS and Android phones, XBOX One and PS4.
“Embeds” has the timely bonus of having as one of its executive producers Megyn Kelly, who is on her way to NBC after a starry and controversial stint at Fox News. Another is Michael DeLuca, whose producing credits include “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Moneyball” and “The Social Network.”
Created by Vice News producer Scott Conroy, who was embedded for CBS in Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Snapchat news chief — yes, that’s a thing — Peter Hamby, who followed John McCain for CNN in the same election, it has the shape of a standard situation comedy, with beats and blackouts arranged as if to one day accommodate commercials. (Show-runner Todd Waldman has network sitcom experience.)
Set in Iowa a few months before the caucus and focused on reporters following a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination, it takes some cues from “Veep” and some from “The Newsroom,” with maybe a little of Robert Altman’s “Tanner ’88,” though it is less ambitious than any of them. Ideologically noncommittal – the candidate is a moderate – and not really satirical, it’s a workplace road comedy in which the workplace is a bus and a succession of hotel rooms, hotel bars, truck stops and photo ops; with a little fiddling, it could be the story of a touring rock band. (I can tell you from that experience, it gets the dislocation right.)
The central characters are young, some just out of college – this is a phone-based network, after all, and not surprisingly they spend a lot of time on their phones. They are hipper or unhip, crafty or naive (Older people – including the cornball candidate, a sleazeball TV personality of the sort Kelly has lately written, and a grizzled old reporter who carries a battered cassette recorder – occupy the edges of the action, sometimes grumbling, occasionally lobbing in a truth bomb.) It’s sweet and appealing and a little bit romantic, in its semi-caustic way, and as much as the characters have been created as Contrasting Types, the actors sit comfortably inside them.
Politics and journalism are secondary to the camaraderie and competition, the hook-ups and hangovers and looking for dinner in a town where “it’s 8:45 – everything’s closed.” Apart from suggesting that the more principled but somewhat dull primary candidate will lose to one with “backward” views on immigration and women’s rights, who “got in to massage his already over-inflated ego,” the series does not strive to suggest recent history, which is something of a relief.
“555” reunites Berlant and Early (the entitled Elliot in the TBS millennial comedy “Search Party”) with their frequent collaborator, director Andrew deYoung. Here they offer five short stories about show business – a typical enough subject for people in show business, but less typical in attitude and execution.
The stars variously play partners in acting class; a mother taking her son (with Early as a little boy in the close-ups) to an audition; a disabled woman and the mall performer who stole her song; a pair of show business agents, talking a blur; and extras being made up as aliens while they pump each other up about future plans. (The stories are independent, though points of connection appear.) Each episode lasts only around 10 or 11 minutes but can cover a lot of twisty narrative ground in that time, creating worlds and characters the actors inhabit fully, and, in spite of some grotesquerie, lovingly. I don’t think this series was made to demonstrate their range, but it does – they go big, they go small, they go broad, they stay subtle.
Kristen Johnson, Jane Adams and Claudia O'Doherty lend support. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, of Tim and Eric fame, are executive producers, and some of the episodes have the disturbing, banal-gothic touch of their own work. Laughs are not always a priority; things get not just dark, but serious.
“Bravest Warriors” happily returns after an absence of 2 1/2 years. (It continued as a Boom! Studios comic for some of that hiatus.) Created by “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward and developed by Breehn Burns, who became its primary writer and director, with Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (“The Adventures of Pete & Pete”), follows a troop, or perhaps a troupe, of teenage protectors of the universe: “Adventure Time” in a sci-fi mood, which makes it the most beautiful sci-fi series on television, or telephone, as the case may be. Like “Adventure Time,” it is a product of Frederator Studios, which until now has showcased it through its Cartoon Hangover online presence.
Besides looking quite similar, the series share a love of mystery and beauty and romance; they put feelings first. Each also has an idiosyncratic, vernacular approach to language, and a poetic regard for everything else. (Fan theories notwithstanding, the shows don’t cross over.) Though he has co-written the long-arc six-episode season, Burns has handed over the direction to Tom King, whose credits run through “Sanjay & Craig,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack”; but it is all in the old spirit.
As year three begins, Bravest Warrior Chris is still separated from Bravest Warriors Danny, Beth and Wallow, having tumbled back in time to where Danny is still a nerdy fat kid bullied by the Hacker Pack of New Miami, “the most dangerous city on Mars.” In the season’s second episode, we catch up with the rest of the crew (plus Plum and Impossibear) as they deliver a gender-fluid jelly-creature to be royally married on a seemingly Edenic planet, where the cladding is scanty and the natives are all about the “sassy num-nums.” (That is racy talk, “Bravest Warriors"-style.)
The episodes run about twice as long as in preceding seasons – 11 minutes, standard cartoon length – and a partnership between Frederator, VRV and the Canadian animation house Nelvana is bankrolling a bounteous 52 new episodes. Heart swells, brain explodes.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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