If you're anything like me -- and I hope for any number of reasons relating to physical and emotional fitness that you're not -- you spend a goodly chunk of your waking hours trawling for pretty video things to watch on your computer. When you happen upon one such entity, you are happy. You send it to all your friends and fancy yourself an "influential"; you begin writing a Web 4.0 treatise and poof out your hair like Malcolm Gladwell's. Then you remember that nobody cares what you think and return to your solitary pursuit of elusive Springsteen footage.
At the same time, you find yourself under hourly assault from publicists trumpeting "new" "exclusive" video "series" debuting "exclusively" on "the" web. You are pleased to receive these notices, because they provide a road map for your online walkabouts. You watch the series. You die a little.
Frustrated and stupefied, you wonder why only My Damn Channel and the creative incubator Strike.TV seem to know how to create droll episodic content for the web. You decide to issue five acid-etched-in-concrete commandments for all future online-video efforts, especially those underwritten by superlatively unfunny marketers. You consider this your good deed of the day and make a note to ask the nice probation officer if it fulfills your community-service requirement.
1. Stay true to who you are. ESPN's "Mayne Street" works as well as it does because it plays off and around the ESPN brand. While less absurdist than the ongoing "This Is SportsCenter" ad campaign, "Mayne Street" feels familiar in both pacing and personality.
The scenarios into which the fictionalized version of Mayne is dropped aren't unique -- he contends with product placement, team-building exercises and tone-deaf bosses -- but they don't need to be. Within those familiar contexts, "Mayne Street" finds an awful lot to salute and send up. Additionally, it boasts a rare breakout character in the person of the Video Cowboy. Even those who take issue with ESPN's worldwide-leader omniscience will giggle.
2. Don't attempt to reinvent your brand on the fly. I haven't thought about the Saturn brand since 1996, when an ex bought one and subjected me to the blithe horror that was the "Saturn send-off." The dealership staff blew kazoos and whooped like rabid beavers as we drove off the lot; we blew through eight red lights attempting to distance ourselves from the asylum. So imagine my surprise when, upon viewing CBS.com's "Novel Adventures," I learned that today's Saturns are MILF-mobiles.
The four fetching book-club buddies in "Novel Adventures" bond over emotive Starbucks music as they envision themselves playing out various scenes, each of which inevitably involves a Saturn. There are Saturns parked right alongside the outdoor café they frequent. They do their Secret Santa exchange in a Saturn. And get this: The series' big reveal is that the mystery husband of one of the characters turns out to be a Saturn salesman! Who has terrific hair! And isn't coked out or skeevy!
What the folks behind "Novel Adventures" fail to comprehend is this: Just because they say the brand stands for something or appeals to a certain demographic doesn't necessarily make it so. All the crinkly nosed actresses in the world can't change that.
3. Don't bury your product or brand too deep. The Lexus-backed L Studio site offers "an eclectic collection of unique perspectives meant to inspire you." There's "Web Therapy," in which a belittling psychiatrist (Lisa Kudrow) does enormous harm to her patients (Rashida Jones, Bob Balaban and Jane Lynch, among others), with whom she communicates only via iChat. There are visits with worse-for-wear musicians such as Ray Manzarek of the Doors and Jon Anderson of Yes, who come across as genial uncles as they riff on "Riders on the Storm" and regale us with "Tales From Topographic Oceans." There's a tour of a Lexus Hybrid Suite in a San Fran hotel and a sit-down with an ultramarathoner and history of the lens and a pair of animated hipster reviewers.
Lovely. But if I buy a Lexus, can I plug my iPod into it? Does it come in forest green? L Studio does a wonderful job of defining the Lexus brand as environmentally conscious and comedic, in the best post-hippie, ocular, clean-design, respect-your-inspiring-fellow-denizens-of-planet-Earth way. I'd still like to see the car.
4. Showcase your product/brand in some reasonable approximation of its natural habitat. On its surface, Chevy Aveo's "Livin' Large" has the feel of one of those sites, which I've totally only heard about from other people, in which dudes in camera-equipped vans pick up girls for light afternoon frolics. "Livin' Large," however, smartly drops the Aveo into an ideal environment: Chevy sends the cars to six U.S. universities, whereupon students are filmed as they hitch free rides across campus. The site chronicles their adventures, several of which involve singing, and asks the participants to rally their classmates to watch the videos (the winners receive a new Aveo).
It works. The series, if you want to call it that, depicts a fun, hip lifestyle and sells it nimbly. I'd buy this car if I weren't, like, choleric and 71; I imagine the generation for which it is intended will have no such reservations.
5. Leave it to the professionals. Or at least individuals who have already made a name for themselves in short-form comedy -- such as "Daily Show" vet Rob Corddry, the mind behind the riotous "Children's Hospital." TheWB.com may still mostly be a disaster, but "Children's Hospital" goes as far as any one program can to redefine a dormant brand.
A send-up of preachy, precious medical dramas -- "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" are squarely in the crosshairs -- "Children's Hospital" packs more silliness into a five-minute episode than "According to Jim" has into 29 seasons. It's funnier and more inventive than any network comedy not named "30 Rock" or "Scrubs" (since there are only something like four sitcoms on the air, that's not as much of a compliment as I intend it to be).
What "Children's Hospital" has that most "funny" web serials lack is a consistent voice. A great majority of these series alternate willy-nilly between slapstick and deadpan, punctuating every other scene with "Office"-like uncomfortable pauses. "Children's Hospital," on the other hand, simply skips from one absurd scenario (a doctor pressing for surgery on a kid with a broken arm, just in case there's some hidden plague the X-ray hasn't revealed) to the next, connecting them with dim-bulb, loopily philosophical voiceovers about "brain jelly."
When I think of the WB, I think of borderline-anorexic starlets with excellent bone structure. The triumph of "Children's Hospital" is that it opens up the brand to so much more.