What Genre Is This?: How We Classify Webseries


Since I originally wrote a Tumblr post about it, I’ve been following college-set Romeo & Juliet adaptation webseries Jules and Monty, which wraps up its eighteen-episode run on Monday (May 5th). As that Tumblr post suggests, some of this has to do with a general appreciation of what the project represents, and the way the webseries form gives real college students the chance to produce and then distribute something that can reach potential fans in the same places where other big-name projects can be found. However, the show itself has been a compelling take on the material, and has been pushing at a question I’ve been puzzling over regarding webseries—and television more broadly, really—for some time.

It began with two relatively concurrent events. The first was the release of Episode 14 of the series, in which Jules is confronted by her brother, Cliff.

The episode is notable for the presence of a trigger warning, preparing its audience for the violence within. In a Tumblr post, executive producer Imogen Browder explains the logic behind the trigger warning:

“I knew that if that scene had affected me so much in the room, and I knew it was coming, then we would be doing a disservice to our audience to not give at least a simple warning—and based upon the reaction we’ve received, I’m glad it’s there. It was important to our team that we protect our audience, as no one wants to go on to YouTube expecting to see another montage and instead watch something that could potentially have a seriously negative effect upon them.”

In a response to that post, director Evey Reidy notes that the trigger warning conversation is ongoing within the theater community at Tufts (where the webseries and its cast and crew are based), placing this as part of a broader conversation within the world of the cast and crew. In both cases, the creative team reveals their belief protecting their viewers outweighs any sort of narrative purity (which would have, one presumes, maintained the shock of the moment rather than “spoiling” that Cliff would strike Juliet in the midst of their argument, a decision that reflects many adaptations of the source material).

Although less important than broader conversations about the politics of trigger warnings, Browder’s comment about montages touched on something I’d been considering more broadly. She’s referring to Episode 9, in which most of Jules and Monty’s relationship is told through montage.

It’s romantic, playful, and also the complete inverse of what’s to come. And while this is something most human beings should know given that Jules and Monty is an adaptation of the most famous tragedy in history, the nature of the adaptation means that the comedy and light-heartedness of the story have been foregrounded both within the episodes themselves and within the behind-the-scenes material found in the accompanying “Vlog Vlogs.” The result is a webseries that is largely following the tragic narrative of Shakespeare’s play (albeit without death), but is contributing to a medium where “tragedy” is not a clearly delineated genre, and where—I would argue—the line between comedy and drama is itself a strange one. It also reveals that they felt the trigger warning was necessary in part because the webseries had to that point not presented itself as one that would necessarily explore such dark territory.

The second event that triggered this consideration was the Television Academy Twitter account—which I’ve followed ever since they accidentally tweeted their congratulations to “Benedict Cumberpatch”—tweeting out regarding the College Television Awards. Because I find it difficult to separate my status as an educator of college students from my experience with Jules and Monty, my first thought was that this would be a space where the series—which is produced through Tufts’ college television “station”—would be a strong contender (depending on how the production would fit into the Academy’s submission guidelines). However, upon realizing the College Television Awards divide their fictional categories into Comedy and Drama categories, it raises the question: where does Jules and Monty fit?

It’s a question I also had about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which the Jules and Monty producers have cited as a major influence. On the one hand, that series had many episodes organized primarily around humor, and so it wasn’t entirely surprising to see the show categorized as a comedy at the Streamy Awards. However, given the way the webseries concludes (which admittedly had not happened when it was eligible for the awards), and how many of its most memorable moments are dramatic in nature, I’m also not surprised to see that its Wikipedia page refers to it as an “American drama web series” and has categorized it as a “Drama,” especially given that Pride and Prejudice is generally adapted into a dramatic form.

However, the webseries as a medium is—I would argue—by and large imagined as a comic genre. This is not to suggest that it is impossible for dramatic webseries to exist—the WIGS channel is full of them—but rather that if you were to tell someone that you were watching or making a web series, it is likely the person you’re speaking with will presume it is a comedy. This comes from the idea that web video has been considered as a place for instant gratification, and for short-form video content that is by and large most successful when it makes you laugh. The origins of web video are so ingrained in discourses of comedy that we consider it to be the form’s resting rate: while it is certainly capable of being dramatic, there is an expectation that it is ultimately intended to make audiences laugh, especially for “amateur” web series (the Streamy for “Best Drama Series” went to big-budget Halo: Forward Unto Dawn in the same year The Lizzie Bennet Diaries contended for Best Comedy series, and other contenders included long-form Hulu originals like The Booth at the End and Battleground).

In the case of Jules and Monty, these generic discussions are further complicated by the fact that so much of the video content being produced on the channel is intended for comedy. The Vlog Vlogs—which I will readily admit to happily rewatching while thinking through these ideas—are very much constructed as comedy, an intentionally playful glimpse at the camaraderie behind the scenes complete with running jokes (See: “god-damned professional” and “butt shots”).

Meanwhile, in the Vlog Vlog Extras—where executive producer Ed Rosini interviews key members of the production—there’s a running gag of the interview moving to the floor, and each episode ends with an outtake intended as a comic coda of sorts. And in the first Vlog Vlog Extra, Browder and Rosini reveal they argue over who wrote what “joke,” an acknowledgment that their work of adaptation was in part built around translating the play into more explicitly comic territory.

As always, one must acknowledge that genre is discursive: those who aren’t watching the Vlog Vlogs—which would be most of those watching the webseries, given that the first thirteen episodes of the series have reached at least 1,000 views and the only the first Vlog Vlog has broken 500—would have less reason to see the series through a comic lens, and each individual would bring their own generic expectations to the text. And yet the College Television Awards would force Jules and Monty to pick a genre, and the choice would determine the kind of shows it would be competing against. Is the show too comic at quick glance to compete against more serious dramas, depending on how the College Television Awards submission would work (which seems like a process that would make submitting a “series” of any kind challenging)? Or is the show too dramatic—tragic, even—to compete against pure comedies?

And, thinking more broadly, can we categorize webseries based on the same markers of generic identity as traditional television? In the same way as “hour-long comedies” or “half-hour dramas” represent a disagreement between the traditional understanding of those broad generic categories, does the webseries have an inherent generic signature that requires a new set of negotiations when classifying a series like Jules and Monty? Is that generic signature carried over from television—where “short form” is typically imagined as comedy—or has the form been able to establish its own set of genre codes? It’s unlikely that Jules and Monty’s classification would solve such an issue, but it’s another space in which the series gets to enter into conversations happening within “the industry” as it marches toward its undoubtedly dramatic conclusion.



Filed under Web Series

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