I heard about Twenties from numerous people online who shared it with the story of Lena Waithe’s struggle to get the show made: the networks all express their love for the project, but suggest there isn’t an audience for these stories (or that they already exist), which is paraphrasing to hide the fact they’re freaking out over the show’s intersection of race and sexuality.
It’s a sad story, and it’s a solid pilot presentation, but I’ve been somewhat more interested in Waithe’s insistence on distancing the series from the designation of “web series.” It’s in the description of each of the pilot presentation’s four parts (“This is NOT a web series”), she’s corrected people who refer to it as a web series on Twitter, and in an interview with Indiewire’s Shadow and Act she’s even more adamant:
“And just so we’re clear: this is not a web series! I repeat this is not a web series. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing a web series. I’ve done one. My goal is to partner with a network that understands what I’m going for.”
It’s a clear effort to avoid further ghettoizing the series, as Waithe is unwilling to abandon her belief that stories about black women (and specifically black queer women) deserve a space on cable. It’s an admirable position that more people need to take—and more executives need to recognize—in order to impart real change in how African American audiences are served in our contemporary moment. It’s also a position that’s going to be very difficult for Waithe to insist upon given the way her distribution of the series’ four-part pilot presentation and the basic premise of that presentation fit comfortably into web series logics.
There is no question that the primary reason cable channels have thus far refused to take on Waithe’s project is a belief that there is no audience for a series about a queer Black woman. However, Waithe’s decision to release the pilot presentation—which consists of four scenes, separated into four YouTube videos—online has highlighted one of the series’ other barriers, which is that it’s a television series about a web series. The direct address sequences of the pilot presentation—found in both Part One and Part Four as a bookend to the larger narrative—are framed as Hattie’s Humble Opinions, a web series the character uses as a creative outlet (and as a symbol of her friends’ belief she doesn’t have a “real job”).
They’re the show’s most effective sequences, best capturing the distinctiveness of a “pilot presentation” that in its middle sections struggles to develop comic timing with no space to fully establish characters or string together situations. “Part Four” is when the show and the character start to click, shifting away from the desire to develop comic situations around Hattie’s twenty-something existence and just letting us see how that existence weighs on her. The direct address of the web video is an efficient way to handle this, and although the YouTube hit count is a bit cutesy—which is typical of a pilot—it offers a meaningful glimpse into how we can see the web not just as a space for self-promotion but also for self-expression and self-reflection.
Which is precisely the problem, of course: on a basic level—at least in its pilot presentation—Twenties is a series about the web, which is why I can imagine network executives seeing this and presuming that it was designed—or destined—to exist as a web series. The Guild started out with this kind of direct address, while the Pemberley Digital ouevre (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Welcome to Sanditon, and the upcoming Emma Approved) are organized around web video as both a form of distribution and an in-text aesthetic. Although Twenties enters a more traditional single-camera comedy mode of shooting for the majority of its pilot presentation, that it opens and closes with the evocation of web video is a barrier to thinking about the show outside of the context of web video.
There is some precedent for web video aesthetic on cable in Showtime’s Web Therapy, but that’s Showtime’s Web Therapy created by and starring Lisa Kudrow, and which was already a successful web series when Showtime picked it up as a utility player (and which comes with Kudrow’s famous friends being willing to participate on the cheap). And that show commits to its low budget aesthetic, requiring limited camera and lighting setups and cutting more substantial production challenges, which means that the “low” aesthetic markers of web video are coupled with low costs that along with the star power allow Showtime to justify the series’ existence alongside their high budget, glossy comedies (which in at least one case, House of Lies, use direct address without the web video connotation).
It’s unfair to suggest that Twenties is just a show about a web series, but it’s also difficult not to think about it in those terms. The decision to release the four scenes as separate YouTube videos—rather than stringing them together as one video—is certainly a big part of this, and the fact the scenes could largely stand on their own and be shared on their own fits a semi-serialized web series model. However, even if we were to see the pilot presentation on television, it is still a short pilot presentation where two of four scenes are built around the web series framework, and where the emotional development of Hattie’s character is tied to her use of web video.
It’s possible that the show would use the web series less in future episodes, but the whole point—for worse, let’s not even pretend it’s for better—of the pilot process is that people will judge your show based on what they see on the screen. This is going to be a somewhat crude analog, but I believe it’s a useful one: At CBS’ press tour panel for this fall’s The Millers, creator Greg Garcia was frustrated with a question about the number of fart jokes in the pilot, angry that the room was insinuating that this was a show about fart jokes when they could confirm they had no fart jokes in the scripts they’ve written since. However, the reality is that Greg Garcia wrote a pilot with a recurring fart joke, and when you only have one first impression he chose to tell a very base joke that—while not without humor—was designed to appeal to test audiences that would determine the show’s fate and was inevitably going to turn off a room full of critics.
Obviously, Waithe’s use of a web series as a central part of Twenties doesn’t have quite the same base connotations as fart jokes, but it nonetheless consigns the series to a certain reputation irregardless of how that relates to the series’ future (and irregardless of how the full pilot, were it to have been filmed, would or would not relate to the web series in terms of balance). I don’t think Waithe should have to avoid using web video in order to sell Twenties as a television series, to be clear, but the reality is that Twenties faces an additional barrier outside of its use of race and sexuality for connecting with cable channels as Waithe hopes. I respect her desire to get this “on television,” and believe that would be a strong step forward in terms of representation, but at the same time the show itself—which even includes a YouTube Partner joke—and the way Waithe is spreading the word are only further making the argument that this series “fits” into our contemporary web video moment.
And the fastest way for your show about race and sexuality to be dismissed by a cable channel is for them to have access to a reason for rejecting the series that hides the fact they’re terrified by race and sexuality. This doesn’t mean that Netflix or Hulu won’t come calling, or that no cable channel will be willing to talk to Waithe should the pilot presentation pick up further steam; equally, it doesn’t mean that this is fair on any level. However, as much as it would pain Waithe—and me—to see her be forced to settle, I’m also not convinced that Twenties living online as a profitable webseries wouldn’t be a meaningful consolation; it might not be a web series now, but I would hope that Waithe is open to the option should the system remain as frustrating as it’s always been.