Last year, I was reading an article on the Writers Guild website about a new web series that had just premiered on the Yahoo! Comedy Channel. I'd never sat down to watch a web series -- just an occasional episode here and there -- but the thing sounded intriguing, so I checked it out. I ended up watching all three of the first 9-minute episodes that had been posted thus far, and in a word it's utterly hilarious.
(Yes, I know that that's two words. But I decided that it deserves more than one.)
I spent the next half hour emailing friends the show, about how wonderful it was. And happily stuck through the whole series. But I've realized I should take that appreciation wider, and wrote a Huffington Post love-letter about it. It seemed appropriate to mention it here now, since Season Two has recently arrived. And because Season One was actually picked up to air on the E! Channel. (It's so nice to be ahead of the curve...)
The web series is a joyful parody of TV programs like The Bachelor, in this case called Burning Love. The series creator, Erica Oyama, who wrote all 14 episodes of Season One (and I will assume the follow-up), got addicted to those "finding true love" reality series after she gave birth and needed something to watch while she was rocking her baby to sleep. All those admittedly-obsessive hours were well-spent, because the result was her desire to create this.
The show calls itself "The Most Romantic Web Series That Will Ever Be." The production, from Ben Stiller's company, is high quality all around. Stiller has a very small role in it, along with his wife, Christine Taylor. One of the "bachelorettes" is played by (God love her for always being SO self-effacing) the wonderful Kristen Bell. At the heart of the Season One story is Ken Marino, who has a long list of credits from being a semi-regular on Veronica Mars to a role in the recent feature, Wanderlust. The real-life husband of series creator Ms. Oyama, he's wonderful as a well-meaning and (of course) hunky fireman named Mark, who is a touch more clueless than he believes. Marino also directed the web series, and the look and camera shots are spot-on.
Of course, it's the menagerie of oh-so-hopeful, gorgeous ladies that keep everything swirling. We meet them all in their inevitable entrances from ever-arriving limousines. There's the bachelorette so over-sexed that she never wears pants (and, therefore, certain of her lower body regions are always electronically blurred for the camera). The homeless contestant who, when meeting the bachelor, only cares that the Burning Love mansion has heating. A blind girl who's also a professional photographer. One bachelorette shows up in a giant panda suit ("I don't want my physical appearance to distract you from the real me.") And the inevitable cougar, named Agnes, who's... well, a crusty 84-year-old. ("I was born Agnes Hirschberg," she introduces herself to Mark on the walk-up, "but at the time of the Jewish persecution we changed our name to Hall.") There are many more -- a bizarrely-high percentage of which are dental hygienists. And week by week, like the good fake-reality show it is, the would-be brides ("or at least fiancés") are trimmed down.
Among the actresses hoping to find true love (or indoor heating) are Malin Akerman and Mo Gaffney. Michael Ian Black plays the host. And there is a stream of other known actors in some of the smaller roles including Adam Scott (from Parks and Rec), Ken Jeong and even one-time "Bachelor," Jake Pavelka. And, notably, there's a hysterical Big Name cameo in the second episode which I won't give away. I never have watched any of those "finding true love" series, other than like for a minute, but it's enough to get most of the common references. Even without that, however, the show would still be a hoot, in large part because it's just so well done. The scripts by Ms. Oyama are what drive and permeate the series. They're smart, observant, and relentlessly funny -- and clearly come from the mind of someone who, no doubt to her great regret, has watched far too many of these kinds of "reality" shows.
As a web series, the program also makes good use of being online, and the video bios of the bachelorettes are as much a treat. For instance, beautiful kindergarten teacher Annie (played by Abigail Spencer) -- wistfully spread out on her bed, reading in lacy lingerie -- tells us that she loves "baking, happiness, and giving." Meanwhile, her bio explains that Annie hates "sadness, disease, and artichokes." Her favorite book is The Notebook. Her favorite movie is The Notebook. And her favorite school supply is a notebook.
The web series is also notable not necessarily as a "vision of the future of television" (that's a future much too distant and uncertain to see), but as a continuing off-shoot of the Writers Guild strike four years ago. That's when WGA members realized that because of the Internet they were no longer beholden solely to the networks and studios and could actually take control of their own work.
Subsequently, the Guild has signed signatory contracts with a variety of New Media outlets and created a range of other web series. Among them, shows like Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the award-winning The Bannen Way, Back on Topps, and Wainy Days (also created by Erica Oyama). Burning Love is just the latest, and the creative control is evident.
"We had so much freedom," Ms. Oyama told the Writers Guild reporter. "For the most part, they said, "go ahead and do what you want.' We could tell racier jokes and have the reality be a little weird. It was a great way to do a project that was totally my voice."
And what a fine voice it is.
Having said all this, the first season of the web series is no longer available to watch online, since it's now on the E! Channel. But obviously, you can check it out there. (It's been edited into seven 30-minute episodes.) But there is Season Two online now. I can't swear the second year (which focuses on one of last year's "losing" ladies, now back for a "Bachelorette"-type effort) will be up to the level of the first, but based on last season, it certainly worth giving a try. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to figure out how to embed it, for some reason, but here's the link, so you can watch for yourself.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor