Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Reconsidering "quarterlife"

I touched on “quarterlife,” NBC’s new aimless-twentysomethings drama a couple of days ago, but I think the series is important enough that it deserves more than passing attention – unlike the Farrelly brothers first and hopefully last segue into television, “Unhitched,” one of the worst comedy pilots I have ever witnessed (do you know who their idea of a celebrity cameo is? I kid you not, Ryan Gomes).

“Quarterlife” is not important because it is good, because it is not good. It is not bad, certainly – it’s intriguing in its uniqueness, intriguing in its indie-movie casting, intriguing for its distinctive path to broadcast television, intriguing in its utter disdain for typical television dialogue. It’s similar to "My So-Called Life,” both in the sense that it rotates around characters self-absorbed and petulant, and in the fact that it is unquestionably doomed to fail. The monumentally talented Ed Zwick was involved in both, proving himself to be one of the most stubbornly creative people in television, which doesn’t bode well for him because TV doesn’t like creative people, it likes successful people, and “quarterlife” is no one’s gravy train.

I’ve been too hard on the show in the first two paragraphs, let me back off. I enjoyed the show’s low-budget pilot, mostly because it is quite clearly the little-show-that-could, about to be the little show that didn’t. It will enjoy no ratings bonanza, will never break into the national consciousness, will disappear without leaving a trace, and it knows it. It is a show that swings for the fences, tries new things, and after it fails it will be referred to as “ahead of its time” and “too good for television.” Both of these things are wrong – “quarterlife” is exactly of its time, and is not too good for television, but merely completely wrong for it. It is a show about twenty-somethings who still think they are meant to change the world, and it structures its show as if that is in fact what it plans to do itself. The only question is if the show or its characters will realize first that they are all just tilting at windmills.

A little history, quickly. “Quarterlife” was originally designed and produced as an internet-only show, not the first of its kind by any stretch, but the most successful. The show is about a female blogger (a luminous Bitsie Tulloch, formerly of internet fad “lonelygirl15,” and far too talented to remain a web-only actress a moment longer), who leaves astonishingly well-formulated stream-of-consciousness video posts on her website, mostly about the romantic and emotional ups-and-downs of her mixed bag of indie hipster friends. They are, as follows: steady, down-to-earth earthy roommate (Michelle Lombardo), who is foolishly dating a cocky and undeserving jockish fellow (David Walton) instead of his artistic, pining best friend (Mike Faoila), while their brittle, troubled actress friend (Maite Schwartz) bounces from tryst to tryst, and their unnecessary extra friend (Kevin Christy) provides weak comic relief and occasional plot points. Follow?

You’ll note I didn’t toss out any story details in that last paragraph, because there are none to tell. The characters spend their days fighting with each other, pining for each other, telling each other intimate secrets that they’d never told anyone before, then spreading said intimate secrets across the internet like true friends do. And, scene. After moderate internet success (internet-only shows are such a new medium that they reap almost no financial remuneration, so it’s still very hard to gauge accurately what “success” is), the show has made its way off the smallest screen and onto the small screen.

I think there’s a sense that a blogger like myself ridiculing “quarterlife,” a show that seeks to add credibility and artistic merit to blogging is itself an act of treason against one’s own people. Eating one’s own offspring, as it were. But blogging is justifiably knocked, for it is a medium that has no standards. It is self-publishing, self-referencing, and generally self-indulgent. Never in the history of human discourse have we ever created a method of communication so completely without checks and balances. Even the most heinous and vicious of communication in the past had some recourse – a wrong-headed speaker can be heckled, an uncareful writer sells no books, an unqualified director is given no opportunities by an studio. Certainly things break through, one way or another, but not at the rate that blogging does, a medium so forgiving that one doesn’t even need a name.

The blogger in “quarterlife” is a step above: a girl of literary acumen, possessed with a keen ear for phrases and a heartbreakingly quiet way of saying them. For some reason when Tulloch is sitting quietly and musing over her life, little bon mots like “a sad truth about my generation is that we were all geniuses in elementary school but apparently the people who deal with us never got our transcripts because they don't seem to be aware of it” seem to somehow carry a ring of truth to them, much more so because Tulloch is so good at conveying irony rather than self-pity than because the writing is anything other than ninnyhammering nonsense.

I’m not opposed to emotionalism and self-awareness, but the characters in the show don’t seem to be aware of anyone other than themselves. They even seem only dimly aware of their friends as anything more than foils for themselves. And my problem with this is not that it isn’t accurate but merely that it isn’t interesting. I know full well what self-absorption looks and feels like, and I think there’s drama to be mined there, but there’s nothing cathartic about “quarterlife,” indeed catharsis would be antithetical to the show’s entire premise. Most pilots find characters taking steps outside themselves into new territory, at the end of the show the characters have taken a new job or moved back to their hometown, maybe they’ve broken up with their longtime girlfriend or they’ve started dating someone new. The pilot is supposed to launch a new beginning, a new adventure.

These characters don’t want a new adventure, they don’t want a new job or a new girlfriend or a new life. They want their lives to change themselves. They want the world to change for them.

So do I, in fact. I would be thrilled if life would adapt itself around me, sweeping in a pack of charismatic new friends, attractive prospective girlfriends, and employment opportunities with wealthy, generous, and possibly sinister businessmen. And it’s my prerogative if I want to sit around and wait for it, or seek it out myself, and too often I choose to sit around and wait for it. And I’m fine with that.

But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit around and watch someone else make the same decision.

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