PBS at TCA: Frankenstein, M.D. launches on August 19

FrankensteinMD

Technically speaking, Pemberley Digital’s relationship with PBS Digital Studios is not that dissimilar to their relationship with DECA, or with any other Multi-channel Network operating in the space of web video (specifically YouTube). When Frankenstein, M.D. launches on August 19 with three episodes, beginning a 24-episode run that those videos will live on YouTube through a range of different channels, and follow the Tuesday/Friday distribution model that fans of Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I’ve written about here and here) and Emma Approved will be familiar with.

At the same time, though, PBS is the first major “network” that Pemberley Digital has partnered with, in the sense that it expands beyond the digital space and into the realm of traditional television. Whereas I imagine most audiences of even The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved couldn’t describe what DECA is or what it does, PBS is a known brand entity, with certain expectations and a place within cultural discourse. It is also a public broadcaster, with public interest mandates distinct from DECA, and which have never been connected to scripted web content on this level previously.

I spoke with PBS Digital Studios senior director Matt Graham, Pemberley Digital producer Bernie Su, and series star Anna Lore (who plays Victoria Franktenstein) about Frankenstein, M.D. earlier today, and I’ll be posting that interview before the August 19 launch. In the meantime, though, here’s what we know about the webseries.

  • In the words of the press release, Frankenstein, M.D. “reimagines the title character as Victoria Frankenstein, an obsessive, eccentric prodigy determined to prove herself in the male-dominated fields of science and medicine. Her medical experiments are revisited in a modern university setting.” The specific focus on confronting women in STEM fields was presumed based on the choice to reimagine Victor as Victoria, but it is notably central to the series’ framework in the press material. She is also a Ph.D./MD student, similar to the framing of Lizzie Bennet as a Masters student in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
  • As noted, Frankenstein M.D. will run for 24 episodes, running—similar to Pemberley Digital’s other webseries—five to eight minutes each, with its final episode not-so-coincidentally scheduled for Friday, October 31st.
  • In advance of the August 19 premiere, Pemberley Digital will unveil the first two episodes of the series at LeakyCon in Orlando, which runs from July 30-August 4.
  • Anna Lore‘s Victoria will be joined by four other characters: her colleague Iggy DeLacey (played by YouTube comedian Steve Zaragoza, and the series’ take on Igor), her mentor Dr. Waldman (Kevin Rock), as well as her childhood friends Eli (Brendan Bradley) and Rory (Sarah Fletcher).
  • They’ll be part of her in-world YouTube science series, in which she will be “explaining complex biological and medical concepts to a general audience.” Su suggested during a Reddit AMA that there would be videos that exist outside of the PBS Digital Studios channel, so it would seem possible we’ll be seeing videos featuring these characters interacting outside of the context of the “formal” YouTube series that she is creating.
  • In terms of plot, I imagine our general understanding of Mary Shelley’s novel gives us a sense of where things are headed, but the press release suggests that “as Frankenstein pursues her boldest line of research yet, she makes a shocking series of discoveries that could potentially endanger not only her career, but her life and the lives of her friends.” It definitely sounds like the most high-stakes plot Pemberley Digital has taken on.
  • Joe Hanson, host of PBS Digital Studios’ It’s Okay To Be Smart, is serving as the science consultant for the series, and it’s being filmed at YouTube Space LA.
  • We’re reportedly getting our first glimpse of the series—which began production over the weekend—ahead of the panel, so there will likely be more details available later today.

Update: The footage screened was pulled from multiple episodes. It features Victoria welcoming the audience to Frankenstein, M.D. (suggesting the name of the webseries is also the name of the in-world YouTube series), and then shifts to a scene featuring Iggy hooking himself up to some sort of electrocution device. The tone is fairly comic (Iggy reminds Victoria they’re not officially doctors yet, before electrocuting himself), although the subsequent scene between Victoria and Dr. Waldman is more plot-driven, as she focuses on another Doctor who sounds like a beacon of misogyny.

Notably, for existing Pemberley Digital fans, the format is also shifting once more—there is slightly more of a sitcom-style filming energy, in which direct address is paired with a more dynamic camera style that takes an entirely different angle (versus the “second camera” that Emma Approve has used to occasionally get a second perspective).

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With FXX’s Simpsons World, A Clip Database Comes Closer to Non-Linear Reality

Photo by Michael Underwood / PictureGroup

Photo by Michael Underwood / PictureGroup

For FXX as a cable channel, the arrival of The Simpsons reruns—including a complete marathon of all 552 Simpsons episodes through season 25 starting on August 21—marks a key transition in its brand identity. But given that Simpsons reruns have been proliferate in syndication on local stations for years, and DVD box sets have allowed fans to revisit the most beloved episodes of the series whenever they’d like, the idea of being able to watch eight episodes of The Simpsons leading up to each new episode on Fox on Sunday nights is not necessarily a revelation for fans of the series.

For this reason, the bigger news out of last November’s cable syndication deal between FXX and The Simpsons was the non-linear rights. At the time, this was largely framed in terms of the most basic way we understand the meaning of “non-linear,” which is to say that the series will be available to stream at any time. If we take “linear” to mean a traditional programming schedule dictated by a network or channel, then we have historically understood “non-linear” to mean an environment where audiences can choose to watch a show on their own terms through either video on-demand (VOD) services through cable or satellite providers or streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Accordingly, headlines at the time of the announcement focused on the fact “The Simpsons Will Finally Be Available To Stream” or that “Every ‘Simpsons’ Episode Will Be Available To Stream In August,” as The Simpsons finally became part of a new era of television distribution.

And yet as I wrote at the time, although not exactly in these terms, The Simpsons has always been non-linear as a cultural artifact.

How The Simpsons Should Exist On The Web – Slate

“We don’t think about The Simpsons in terms of episodes, not in our contemporary moment. While I will be happy to revisit various Simpsons episodes in their entirety on FXX or FXNow, and I will on occasion pull out my DVDs and watch a few episodes back-to-back, how we think of and use The Simpsons on a daily basis comes in the form of jokes, bits, and memorable sequences. The Simpsons travels in these bite-sized chunks, and the value of The Simpsons in the age of online streaming should ideally reflect this.”

This is why I specifically called for a Simpsons clip database that would embrace not simply non-linear forms of television distribution, but also non-linear patterns of cultural engagement with the text in question. FXX has been relatively tight-lipped regarding details of what their Simpsons app—which was originally planned to launch alongside the series’ debut on FXX, but will now begin rolling out in October—would look like, but in January FX president of program strategy Chuck Saftler expressed his excitement at what they had planned, but made no specific assurances when I pressed him on the potential for clips to be built into the system.

This lengthy preamble is my way of working through the fact that, as demoed for critics at FX’s day at the Television Critics Association press tour, the newly unveiled Simpsons World app has fully and wholly embraced the non-linear ways The Simpsons echoes in the lives of its fans. With multiple channels of pre-programmed episode streams, the ability to stream any episode, character pages featuring curated clips, and the capacity to read-along with the script while watching any episode, Simpsons World is everything a fan could want.

And with the proposed ability to create and share clips to a range of social networks, it is also the engine for the Simpsons Clip Database I dreamed of.

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Sharknado 2 at TCA: Legitimating the Sharknado

Sharknado2In the past few weeks, I’ve been highly skeptical regarding Sharknado 2: The Second One.

In truth, I have no strong emotional investment in Sharknado 2. I watched the first Sharknado a good week or so after it first aired, and so I missed the social media fever and ended up finding the film itself…dull. Sharknado is not a particularly engaging film—even by B-Movie (or C-Movie or whatever we’re calling it) standards—when it is removed from the context of the Twitter commentary generated around it. And yet you wouldn’t know that given how Syfy has fully committed to Sharknado as an ongoing franchise, diving into licensing opportunities and treating this as a huge cultural phenomenon based entirely on social media fever despite a fundamental lack of evidence anyone other than people on Twitter care about Sharknado (which didn’t make it a failure, but does keep it from being a definitive mainstream hit).

It’s specifically reminded me of the release of Snakes on a Plane: the online fan base that emerged around the film convinced New Line to add new footage and push the film for an R rating, but then the film was a huge box office disappointment, and even failed to generate any significant cult following on DVD. It was a cult film in reverse: rather than struggling to find an audience then building a community of people unearthing a forgotten gem, the cult audience latched onto the film quickly but built a set of expectations that the film couldn’t live up to, and that killed that cult audience potential before it could develop into a long-term commodity. I’ve been convinced for weeks that all of the money Syfy is spending to push Sharknado as something more than a slightly more resonant movie-of-the-week has the risk of throwing good money after a bad movie that won’t sustain this level of franchise-building.

And yet when I arrived poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel for Syfy’s Sharknado 2 screening event as part of NBC Universal’s TCA presentation, I began to feel somewhat differently. The notion of Syfy bringing one of its monster movies to a press tour was absurd before Sharknado, and yet it felt perfectly natural for the critics to be gathering together to laugh their way through Ian Ziering and Tara Reid’s latest encounter with shark-related weather events. Themed as a drive-in theater, complete with popcorn and car-themed couches and drive-in-style speakers, it was not just “Sharknado at Press Tour”: it was Sharknado as a marquee event, one that brings the channel the very legitimacy this type of movie kept them from achieving in the past.

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Event Series at TCA: Dig and Ascension add fuel to the “WTF is an Event Series?” fire

USASyfy

The label “event series” has always been a confounding one, more a branding exercise than an actual entity from a production perspective. One does not actually make an “event series”: you make a television series or a miniseries, the former of which is open-ended and could return for more seasons and the latter of which is close-ended and will not.

At today’s NBC Universal press tour day, both USA Network’s Dig and Syfy’s Ascension were labeled as event series, and they have a lot in common otherwise: they’re both six episodes, and they’re both so early in production that there was no episodes available to critics in advance. This created a vacuum of sorts, but out of that vacuum came the news that both Dig and Ascension are hedging their bets on their potential for subsequent seasons, neither willing to accept the notion of a close-ended miniseries end of the event series spectrum.

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NBC at TCA: Searching for the Nuts and Bolts of A to Z

AToZOf NBC’s comedy pilots, A to Z feels the most complete. This isn’t to say that none of their other comedy pilots were good—I liked Marry Me, for example—but rather that A to Z has a clear premise and announces its intentions in very plain terms. It is the story of a relationship between two characters, told from A to Z, that will span a set amount of time and reach a meaningful point of conclusion by the end of its first season.

For some pilots, press tour is about critics looking for answers because the show is purposefully vague, or because—as discussed in a separate piece—there are changes going on behind-the-scenes. In the case of A to Z, though, the critics in the room have questions about details that are offered by the pilot, which is structured to the point where critics have enough information to have specific lines of inquiry that the pilot itself forces into the conversation.

While both Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman got questions about their chemistry as the romantic couple at the heart of the series, as well as questions about their notable fates in their previous projects (How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men, respectively), a lot of questions were directed to creator Ben Queen and producers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. How will the show balance its “relationship comedy”—they avoided “romantic comedy” as a term—with its workplace structure? How will the season be structured relative to their relationship? And how do you intend to have a series run for multiple seasons if you’re setting such a clear timeframe for the story of this relationship to unfold in? (I should admit at this point that two of these questions were mine, so it’s possible I’m more invested in the structure of the series than your average person.)

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NBC at TCA: Press Tour and Post-Pilot Changes

NBCPilots

When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.

This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.

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Starz’s The Chair: A Compelling Documentary, A Broken Competition

The Chair Key ArtWhen Starz made two episodes of documentary series The Chair (debuts September 6 at 10/9c) available to critics, I was unaware the series existed. After watching the two episodes, I was aware the show existed, but I still didn’t necessarily understand how it worked.

The Chair, as a television series on Starz, is a documentary about two filmmakers—YouTube personality Shane Dawson and independent filmmaker Anna Martemucci—who are each making a movie in Pittsburgh based on the same initial script. It’s an experiment both in terms of understanding the way a script changes depending on the creative forces bringing it to life on screen, as well as considering the specific contrasts in filmmakers who emerge in wildly different creative environments.

However, in addition to being a documentary, The Chair is also a competition, which is the element that was dramatically unclear in watching the series. Although a $250,000 prize is on the line, there were no specific details on how this prize would be awarded. There was the insinuation it would involve some form of audience voting, but the lack of clear details meant I had a wide range of questions about the series’ structure for Starz’s Summer Press Tour session about the project.

I’ll likely talk more about the series itself as we get closer to its September premiere, but the answers to some of those questions are more pertinent in the leadup to the premiere and the promotional campaign around The Chair. At the core of my question, in truth, is not only how this is going to function as a competition series, but also why it is going to function as a competition series. The answers to both questions were vague, but they speak to a project that shares a rather strange relationship to its stars, its network, and to the communities it seeks to draw interest from.

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