Daisy Alioto on the Golden Age of the web series.
Earlier this month, I was at a party in Manhattan Beach when I saw a girl from college. Well, I thought we went to college together–I immediately recognized her, there was a split second of nostalgia for previous interactions. Except we didn’t go to college together, I recognized her from my TikTok FYP and every “conversation” we had up until that point was a POV comedy sketch delivered by her to me and nearly a million others through our phone screens.
Her name is Delaney Rowe, and after we actually met and talked for a bit I went back to her account to scroll through the various characters she has embodied. These include: that friend who shouldn’t be allowed to go to restaurants, person who needs you to know they never get sunburnt, and the girl in every movie who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. These characters don’t recur. They don’t have plot arcs over multiple videos. The recurring character is…Delaney. And even before I met Delaney (who is incredibly nice, btw) I had been wondering, have we moved beyond the web series?
As documented by Dirt contributor Isabel Slone, the aughts are back. And the period from 2006 and 2012 didn’t just give us indie sleaze and, like, a really high bar for whether a president should be able to play basketball but this period was also the golden age of the web series. I’m thinking about Very Mary-Kate, Delusional Downtown Divas and FunnyOrDie sketches like Drunk History, the latter of which made it to network television.
Earlier this year, YouTube shut down their original programming. But the best original programming to come from the platform–like Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl, the show that became HBO’s Insecure–wasn’t commissioned by YouTube itself. In today’s current short form video landscape, where the most influential Gen Z creators are located on TikTok, it’s hard to imagine where the next great series will come from. Could Portlandia, which began as a series called ThunderAnt, be incubated in 2022?
There are a few reasons why the tides have shifted against the web series. Much like 2022 is an era of solo acts, not bands, it is also an era of solo influencers and creators. These creators use scripted vlogging rather than narrative arcs to play with characters. This offers them the ability to pivot at any time, a necessary strategy when dealing with fickle social media algorithms. Not to mention the isolation of Covid, which makes it hard to film dope shit with your friends. Comedians themselves make the jump from social media to network television (Megan Stalter to HBO’s Hacks, James Austin Johnson to SNL) but storylines do not.
TikTok and YouTube are a proving ground for individual talents, not scripted series. As of February, the length of a TikTok is 10 minutes but the content isn’t getting any more television-like. Instead, the long form adaptations that flourish are video essays delivered by one person directly to the camera, memes that eventually might become television–like Netflix’s Is It Cake? show based on a now ancient-seeming video trend–and meta series like Hype House about being a TikTok creator.
At the same time, new technologies offer another take on the short form video format. Mad Realities, which claims to be “the world's first interactive dating show” using blockchain-backed tokens, has an ongoing YouTube show called Proof of Love. Perhaps moving away from the algorithm could mean creating together again. But I would like to see the Delaneys of the world play one character for a whole season.
— Daisy Alioto