Web-only series? Yep. Audience?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

What’s wrong with this picture?

On the first night of November, a group of about 15 professors, graduate students and film school alumni half-filled USC’s tiny Ron Howard Theater. They came for a sneak preview of the much-anticipated Web series “quarterlife,” an event hosted by the show’s co-writer and director, Marshall Herskovitz.

“Quarterlife” is about kids a few years out of college trying to find their way in the real world. It hopes to speak to college kids, in their own language and in a medium they can relate to. The problem was it was hard to say if anyone who’d showed up for the screening actually was a college kid (USC has 16,500 of them; its film school alone has 730) -- except 19-year-old Cynthia Horiguchi, the Daily Trojan’s television reviewer. But I’d invited her myself.

“I hadn’t heard of it,” said Horiguchi, a sophomore, in a phone call afterward. “I don’t think there’s much of a buzz around it.”

That’s not strictly true -- it’s just not the show’s audience that’s buzzing about it. Most of us over 25 are familiar with the work of Herskovitz and “quarterlife” co-writer Edward Zwick, the creative team behind “thirtysomething,” the term-coiningly iconic TV series of the late 1980s, and “My So-Called Life,” which, if its status as the best teenage drama ever is not universally agreed upon, then only a handful of people need their minds changed.

Having nailed the 30s in the ‘80s and the teens in the ‘90s, Herskovitz, 55, and Zwick, also 55, have left themselves with a difficult pair of decades in which to complete their epic of growing up: the 20s, and this one.

“Quarterlife” valiantly attempts to navigate a perilous strait: On one side it’s a tale of young artist-types trying to get a handle on real-world living, and on the other it’s an ambitious exploration of a new media genre whose waters are largely uncharted: the short-form Web drama. Which means that both its characters and its medium are experiencing rapid, whirling change on the one hand and a pervasive sense of uncertainty on the other.

For his part, Herskovitz said he had become “radicalized” by what he saw as a consolidation of media power that had homogenized broadcasters’ offerings and which, as he wrote in a recent Times Op-Ed, was “literally poisoning the TV business,” having laid the groundwork for the writers strike.

Indeed, “quarterlife” has its roots in a 2005 ABC television pilot called “1/4life” that did not make it to air. So Herskovitz and Zwick decided to bypass TV altogether, re-imagining the show as an Internet original -- an endeavor Herskovitz described as “a speculative wing and a prayer.”

Starting tonight, “quarterlife” will be doled out in eight-minute “webisodes” posted twice a week, first on MySpace (Sundays and Thursdays), then a day later on the show’s proprietary platform and social network, quarterlife .com, which boasts a much larger and more eye-friendly viewing screen than the small screen on the MySpace page.

“We only care about our site,” Herskovitz said at USC. “We don’t care about MySpace, because they’re not paying us. But they’re bringing us a lot of eyeballs, so it’s worth something.”

MySpace will promote the show by serving 500 million Web pages that include ads for “quarterlife,” he added.

Widely thought to be the most expensive Web-only TV show yet, “quarterlife” is financed by a combination of venture capitalists and advertisers, according to Herskovitz, who would not offer exact budget numbers. “Quarterlife” has advertising deals with Pepsi, Target and Toyota, and it’s not a leap to guess who’s riding shotgun, given that one of the show’s main subplots has two young filmmakers making a commercial for a Toyota dealership.

Oh, to be young

Awriting teacher of mine once explained away the dearth of great novels about life’s third decade with a wave of the hand: “Nothing interesting happens in your 20s,” he said. It’s a lot of false starts, second guessing and feeling sorry for yourself. “What is the life of a writer, and am I living it?” muses the show’s main character, Dylan Krieger (Bitsie Tulloch). Part of Dylan’s angst derives from her frustrating position as a low-level editorial assistant at Women’s Attitude magazine. But when Dylan first fires up her laptop’s webcam and begins to record herself video-blogging, the constraints of old media dissipate, and so, apparently, does her social discretion. In her “vlog” entries, Dylan divulges, one by one, the wishes and weaknesses of the people closest to her.

Of her roommate Lisa (Maite Schwartz), the sexy, tortured bartender-slash-aspiring-actress, Dylan vlogs: “She sleeps with guys and I see them leaving in the morning all, like, dazed -- and then she drinks to forget them.” In a later video, Dylan broadcasts that her own crush, Jed (Scott M. Foster, the show’s most compelling actor), “is in love with his best friend’s girlfriend -- what could be more unhappy than that?”

The storytelling possibilities for a character who blogs everyone’s dirty little secrets seem potentially titillating. But as Horiguchi from the Daily Trojan pointed out, there’s a credibility problem. “I couldn’t really see anyone I know going and putting these video blogs about their friends on the Internet,” she said.

On the call with Horiguchi was Molly Eichel, 22, the arts and entertainment editor for NYU’s Washington Square News, who said she agreed that the vlogging conceit was hard to swallow but enjoyed the story anyway, in part because of what she called “the sense of hyper-magnified melodrama” that overlays the characters’ struggle to get where they want to go, in life and in love.

“That theme is really universal across generations of aimless twentysomethings,” said Eichel, a senior in journalism and cinema studies.

Isn’t this just TV?

AFTER the screening -- which previewed the first hour of “quarterlife,” in eight-minute segments -- audience member Frank Chindamo, an adjunct lecturer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, asked Herskovitz a simple question:

“To me it looked exactly like an hour of TV with six commercial breaks in it,” Chindamo said. “Did you do that on purpose?”

Herskovitz didn’t hesitate.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he said.

“I don’t know how to create real emotion in less than an hour -- I know how to do it in two hours, I know how to do it in an hour -- I don’t know how to do it in a half-hour, and I really don’t know how to do it in eight minutes. So we made a decision to stick with what we know.”

Which pretty much sums up “quarterlife’s” crisis.

Though it does not have the advantages that “My So-Called Life” had (Winnie Holzman’s dialogue and Claire Danes), as an hourlong TV show “quarterlife” is not bad. Shore up the blog nuisance, add a few characters who aren’t white, well-to-do 25-year-olds, stick in a few symbols and ciphers for good measure, and sure, it’s just about ready for prime time.

But slice that single hour into six short segments spaced out over three weeks, and it stops mattering that the show’s writing, directing and acting are better than any other made-for-Web drama. Amid the endless stream of forgettable digital tidbits, you’re lost without some way to keep an audience coming back.

MySpace’s “Roommates,” for example, is one Web series that started well but is trailing off precipitously. The hot-babe bonanza’s first two 2 1/2 -minute episodes scored nearly half a million views each, but seven of the next nine failed to reach 100,000 -- a dismal showing on a site that boasts 110 million active users.

Herskovitz copped to a certain apprehension about the sparseness of the initial two-a-week viewing schedule.

“My fear is that they’re spaced too far apart,” he said, “not that they’re too short or too long. So if that’s true, I hope I can find it out in time not to lose viewers, because I can certainly put them out three times a week.”

Whether Herskovitz “gets it” about the Internet is hard to say. I asked him what freedoms and limitations he’d noticed working as a filmmaker in this new medium. “It’s not clear to me that it’s a new medium,” he said. “The Internet is a delivery system -- it can have anything on it.”

But, but, being “a delivery system that can have anything on it” is precisely what makes the Internet a new medium.

Still, if you excuse that comment, there is some evidence that Herskovitz and creative partner Zwick are not necessarily stuck in old-media land. The sophisticated social network they’ve built around “quarterlife,” although still in its infancy, appears to be more than a marketing accouterment some cynical executive heard would “bring eyeballs.”

The site is thematically tied to the show -- “what it means to have a passion about something,” Herskovitz said -- and is intended as a community where aspiring artists and performers can share their work. It has a streamlined, visually appealing design and a clearly stated purpose.

Herskovitz said the site would have sections for up to 50 artistic disciplines, including advice from established artists and grant and internship opportunities. There will also be software that allows users to edit video online, and by supplying original takes from the show, the site will allow users to “re-cut” “quarterlife” episodes.

In the last days leading up to the show’s premiere, very few of the promised features had been implemented on the site, which Herskovitz said wasn’t even ready for beta-testing.

Maybe, though, it’s all part of the grander theme: Don’t be afraid to have big dreams.