Choose-Your-Own-TV-Future: Pantheon University and Amateur Webseries

Two years ago, I was sent an email by the co-creator of webseries Jules and Monty. What I discovered when I went to watch these Tufts University students’ vlog-style reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a college setting was not simply a charming production but also a meaningful symbol of how the accessibility of web distribution has reshaped the creativity of young producers. Here you have a group of college students who saw an independently produced webseries (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and its cultural footprint and said “we can do that,” and then went ahead and did it thanks to the help of a campus TV station with an interest in making web content and the mainstreaming of the equipment/software necessary to make it happen.

I wrote about Jules and Monty both on Tumblr and here on the blog, but the students at Tufts—with co-creators Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder now branded as Neat-O Productions—have kept creating. But these creations have taken a different path than Jules and Monty—that show caught on with the fan communities that had emerged around the literary webseries of the moment, generating over eight thousand views of its finale and over twenty for its premiere. But followup webseries Wavejacked failed to ignite in the same way: it was less romantic, pushed the boundaries of genre, and latched onto a cultural reference point—old time radio plays, by way of Welcome to Night Vale at times—that didn’t necessarily appeal to their existing audience. And yet its success should be measured less in terms of views—still over a thousand for the finale, the measure of true viewership—and more in the fact that its creators didn’t just adapt another romance. They told a different story, explored different themes, and made a conscious effort to engage with LGBT representation in the process. The end result could be a bit scattered (in part due to a fragmented release structure), but it would have been easy to just fall into a pattern and they resisted that.

Pantheon University, this year’s production, represents the apex of the idea of college students making their own webseries by combining the media industry happening around them and their own creative impulses. Like Jules and Monty, Pantheon is an adaptation reimagining stories in a college setting, but in this case it’s the sprawling Greek mythology. This gives them the freedom to explore genre, moving between different tones and styles as the characters and their stories shift. They’ve even been inspired by the rise in Netflix’s all-at-once distribution pattern to build a puzzle-like structure, with the episodes released at once and able to be watched in any order (although with a suggested order). If Wavejacked was Neat-O pushing the boundaries of what they were interested in exploring and how they wanted to explore it, Pantheon University is channeling that ambition into creating something truly distinct.

Pantheon University as a whole is an accomplishment: each node of the story works on its own, but the structure allows characters to move in and out of each other’s stories, and there’s a sophistication to that balance that pushes beyond what one would typically expect of a “webseries.” But there are two specific episodes that go beyond this: the first, “Dionysus,” comes at the mid-point of the series’ run and goes full musical episode, a weird and wacky diversion that nonetheless finds space for a very traditional and delightful “End of Act One” number, “Low,” which connects the wackiness to the series’ central narratives.

The creativity continues with “Hercules,” which is largely a stand-alone piece but explores the way web video creates new paths for creativity by turning Hercules’ trials—framed as part of a pledge process—into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Annotations lead you to different choices at various stages, with “wrong” choices leading you to fun “failures” and right choices moving the story along while connecting this ancillary character to previously established characters and arcs. The idea itself is fun, but I particularly appreciated the care that went into filming Hercules’ indecision, as the actors riff on the user’s delay disrupting the scene’s momentum. It’s a fun concept, but it only really works if the tone of the episode matches it, and it does, and there’s a thrill in knowing there’s entirely different paths that I’ve yet to explore.

As with both Jules and Monty and Wavejacked, Pantheon University is a student-produced amateur webseries, and that comes with some concessions—the lighting can occasionally be a bit wonky, and in Pantheon in particular the sound issues can be a major point of distraction (there’s a note on the finale about headphones for a reason, and as someone oversensitive to ADR there’s lot of reminders that sound continuity is never easy with something this complicated). But the series’ emotional arcs are more complex, and the balancing of so many discrete stories is well-matched to the chosen episode structure, and it comes together as an accomplishment regardless of the context in which it was produced.

My primary point of interest in these productions stems from the idea of seeing how, with limited but significant resources, young creators look at the current media landscape and decide to make something to contribute to it. But as they’ve evolved, it’s also made clear how much universities and colleges can foster a sort of creative collective, with ongoing collaborations and internal growth. While the number of viewers for Neat-O’s productions may have dropped since their initial success, the level of professionalism and creative ambition has only grown, and it’s an evolutionary trend that speaks to the way access to tools of production and distribution will foster not just new media being created, but also new media communities being born, incubators for the type of people who will make the television of the future.

But in the interim, it’s giving us some fun, bingeable, creative content to explore on YouTube, which is in and of itself a positive development and something to appreciate.

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