I'm a child of the Internet age, but until recently I hadn't given much though to web series as a serious medium for video-based storytelling.
Yet there's something wonderful about web series. They're typically shorter than the 30- or 60-minute show, meaning it's less of a time commitment and each episode centers around not even a story, but an anecdote. That means many web series feel like a patchwork of significant moments, lending a full season or series a simplicity that TV shows, with their need to fill specific periods of time, can't always do.
That separation from the demands of a particular medium mean that there's also a lot of flexibility for web series directors and producers to shape the content around budget and story beats (individual episodes can be as long or short as the creative team wants). And it's a great medium for budding storytellers and filmmakers to hone their skills in a low-stakes way. No pitching, no network executives, no biting your nails about whether your pilot will get picked up; a modest budget and some simple equipment, and off you go.
Moving-image-based storytelling is getting more and more innovative—read Matt Zoller Seitz's wonderful piece on bespoke TV series—and innovative transmedia series are prompting changes across more mainstream mediums (the New York Film Festival held two days of high-profile activities on transmedia this year, for starters). So as web series move into the mainstream, I can only imagine that the quality of web series will rise. That's an exciting prospect for lovers of screen-based stories.
With that in mind, I wanted to point you to two web series I've run across lately that I liked—both about ministers.
First, check out the comedic mockumentary series Plant, which follows a flawed but lovable bunch of church planters who are trying to start a congregation in the big city. Following the tradition of Christopher Guest (Best in Show) and The Office or Parks & Recreation, Plant is gentle satire of a strange little subculture populated by larger-than-life characters who nonetheless are rooted in very real characters.
It's also completely delightful. Full disclosure: the director and writer of the series, Andrew Nielson, was my student, and a couple episodes are actually shot in the college where I teach (the bulk of the rest of the series is shot at Lamb's Church, a Nazarene church in midtown Manhattan). I knew he'd worked on it, but with my typical web series inertia, I hadn't watched it yet. But last week I was very sick, and while marooned on my couch with a pile of tissues I binge-watched Plant. And I laughed aloud. Some of the episodes are steadier than others, but the production quality is surprisingly high, the actors are terrific—particularly Liz Days, who plays Tammy, the fireball preacher's wife—and though the series sometimes skewers church culture, it does it lovingly. (If you, like me, have ever worked in worship ministry at a volunteer-driven church, then you, like me, will collapse into giggles watching the church try to gently tell Tammy she shouldn't be singing at the front.)
Then I'd also recommend checking out the dramatic series Leaving Eden follows a small Lutheran parish, particularly its ministers, through the ins and outs of parish life. I haven't watched the entire series yet, but I enjoyed what I saw—simple, compelling stories with complex characters. There's the pastor Ben, who is sometimes too busy to spend time with his family; his wife, Jill (portrayed by Jennifer Batiansila, whose real-life husband Greg is the show's creator and director), who is longsuffering, wise, and not above complaining; and the young new vicar Lucas, who is eager to do the Lord's work but has a lot to learn.
Leaving Eden's production quality is certainly low-budget (Plant feels a bit more polished), but it's also very heartfelt, and though I'm not related to any ministers, I had the feeling I was watching something very true and real. There are great moments of comedy, too.
Both of these series have been recognized in the mainstream web series world: in 2014, Plant was a selection at the Web Festivals in Los Angeles (where it was nominated for a whole battery of awards), Austin, Miami, and Atlanta, and in 2013 Leaving Eden was an official selection in the dramatic web series category of the Independent Television and Film Festival.
And I'll be keeping my eye out for other great web storytelling, too.
Which have you been watching? What do you like?
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