How to Build a Web Series People Will Keep Watching

Media Reviews for Media People: The Onion's A.V. Club Undercover

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At the risk of coming across like an ADD-afflicted wing-ding, here's how I consume internet video series. First, I watch the initial episode or installment. Second, I view it again and marvel at the inventiveness, the audacity, the cheek. Third, I hype it relentlessly, sounding an "If you don't check this out, you will be less culturally attractive to potential mates" clarion call to those with the poor fortune to reside within my e-loop.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform a cover of Tears for Fears' 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' on A.V. Club Undercover.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform a cover of Tears for Fears' 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' on A.V. Club Undercover.
Then I forget to come back for week two.

This likely says more about me than it does the content, though studies that may or may not be outdated by now suggest that I'm not the only premature abandonator. The bigger concern, however, is that a high percentage of these series have settled into a smug little rut.

Enough with cubicle life
As opposed to early wonders like My Damn Channel's "You Suck at Photoshop" and Stephen King's "N," at this point we're locked into workplace-set snidefests. They're all centered around selfish, attractive 20-something characters. They all speak in a voice dripping with absurdist detachment. It's like, take a circa-2006 episode of "The Office," slash the wit by 40% and the production values by 185%, and voila: a perfectly symmetrical burp of lo-fi whimsy for cubicle hostages.

That's why whenever I happen upon a web series that grabs me immediately, I pencil it in on my calendar as I would a birthday or haircut. And the coolest, most exuberant one in at least nine months (in internet time, that's pretty much the gap between "Return of the Jedi" and the prequels) comes from a most unlikely source: The Onion's A.V. Club, whose "A.V. Club Undercover" mines fresh, web-perfect diversion out of the songs of yesteryear.

I say "unlikely" only because the A.V. Club has always existed in the shadow of its droll sibling, which somehow still spits out more awesome high-minded silliness in a single workweek than most purveyors of wit or snark do in their lifetimes. Also, as consistently informed as the A.V. Club's cultural coverage has been, the site hasn't overwhelmed us with originality. Reviews and interviews, no matter how intelligently rendered, aren't exactly in short supply on the web.

But the exclusive performances of the sort found on "A.V. Club Undercover" are quirky and clever, and the way they're presented should serve as a model for web series going forward. First off, "A.V. Club Undercover" doesn't oversell its concept, which can be encapsulated thusly: musicians play, we listen. Every Tuesday, the site unveils a no-frills clip in which a performer covers one of 25 songs of varying infamy, everything from "Kokomo" and "We Built This City" to "Wish You Were Here" and "19th Nervous Breakdown." Nobody aspires to create art for the ages here; the acts simply have fun with songs that are alternately well-loved and well-known.

Better than straining for a plotline
And rather than set its schedule months in advance, "A.V. Club Undercover" maintains an air of mystery: The site has posted the list of 25 songs but not the acts that will perform them. The big reveal comes every Tuesday when the next clip goes live. This is crucial: I don't know who's going to cover Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" -- the greatest song ever put to hissy four-track tape -- but I'll check back every week to find out.

Perhaps most importantly, "A.V. Club Undercover" doesn't attempt to engage on an emotional level. Listen, it'd be great if a web series could tap into the same semi-unhinged fanaticism that bigger-screen entities like "Lost" do. It'd be wonderful if one of these web shows spurred web critics like Alan Sepinwall or Team EW.com to weigh in with immediate post-airing recaps ("This week on 'The Guild': Felicia Day awakens nerds to the possibility of romantic gratification!"). Alas, it seems unlikely that any niche-y-by-nature series will spur such loyalty. Casual, attachment-free enjoyment of the sort "A.V. Undercover" supplies seems a more realistic goal.

E-commerce please
My two teensy-tiny complaints? I could do without the pre-song tours around the A.V. Club's Chicago office, the type of meticulously hip wondercave that makes Johnny and Janey Mainstream want to slug their friendly neighborhood critic. And despite the challenge of securing all the necessary rights clearances, I wish "A.V. Club Undercover" would give me the opportunity to buy the best of the covers. I know how upset the music business would be if I attempted to track down video-to-MP3 conversion tools on my own.

As for the series' Starbucks sponsorship, well, the other day I playfully mocked a friend's iTunes library, noting that it contained great helpings of "Starbucks music." While that phrase has become a go-to dismissal/insult for self-appointed grand authoritative music poobahs like moi, it speaks to the success of the chain's music-oriented branding. To many consumers, Starbucks has more music cred than Tower Records. Whether or not that's heartbreaking to a certain (read: crusty-old) generation of music fans isn't the issue. The bottom line is that it works. Bully for them.

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