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Beyond 'Orange Is The New Black': The Summer of the Lesbian Web Series

Indiewire By Aymar Jean Christian | Indiewire September 19, 2013 at 12:39PM

This summer I was on my way to see a friend’s band when Regina Spektor’s voice pierced my ears. It was coming from a ground-floor flat: “Yooouu’ve got tiiiiiiiiiime!” "Orange Is New Black," via title credits, leapt from my laptop to my city street. I’ve never heard a web series broadcast so publicly. Netflix’s drama has touched a nerve, no doubt. It’s sparked some discussion about women in prison, and the racist injustices, if not the operations, of the prison industrial complex. But more than anything else its popularity demonstrates widespread desire for television dramas about people other than white, straight men (they’re not all "Breaking Bad").
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"Little Horribles"
"Little Horribles"

This summer I was on my way to see a friend’s band when Regina Spektor’s voice pierced my ears. It was coming from a ground-floor flat: “Yooouu’ve got tiiiiiiiiiime!” "Orange Is New Black," via title credits, leapt from my laptop to my city street.

I’ve never heard a web series broadcast so publicly. Netflix’s drama has touched a nerve, no doubt. It’s sparked some discussion about women in prison, and the racist injustices, if not the operations, of the prison industrial complex. But more than anything else its popularity demonstrates widespread desire for television dramas about people other than white, straight men (they’re not all "Breaking Bad").

But while "Orange Is The New Black" is significant, it wasn’t the only web series about queer women this summer. There's been a steady release of indies in comedy, drama and even horror featuring love between ladies.

It’s not surprising. Web series succeed when they do something different from or better than television. Lesbian and queer women have always had a place in the indie TV market, where their stories aren’t warped by network development. "Anyone But Me" was an indie breakout at a time when Hollywood writers were praying audiences would watch scripted shows independent of TV networks (the show grew out of the 2007-2008 strike and later won a Writers Guild Award). Low-budget shows like the black melodrama "The Lovers and Friends Show," Brooklyn comedy "The Slope" and cartoon "Lizzy the Lezzy" amassed tens of thousands of fans through blogs and word of mouth.

There are now plenty of good-to-great romantic comedies, buddy sitcoms, soap operas, and even horror web series. Exciting projects are in the pipeline: Anyone But Me’s writer/director Tina Cesa Ward will release a drama, "Producing Juliet," set in New York’s theater world this month; One More Lesbian’s tello released a solid teaser for "The N&N: Files," a police procedural based on an unaired pilot at UPN; in July comedians Beth Lisick and Tara Jepsen kickstarted $30,000 for "Rods and Cones," based on their “Carole and Mitzi” act, guest-starring artists Jibz Cameron and Erin Markey; and there’s always hope Lena Waithe’s "Twenties," a comedy about a young black woman in love with a straight girl, will find a buyer. 

Below is a closer look at nine series about queer women worth putting in a playlist now.

The Critical Darlings

The art-house crowns this year belong to "F to 7th," from "Slope" co-creator Ingrid Jungermann, and "Little Horribles," created by and starring newcomer Amy York Rubin. F to 7th concluded its first season in the spring with one of the queerest episodes of a web series I’ve seen to date:

"F to 7th," “Intersex”: 

F to 7th - Episode 8 - Intersex from F to 7th Web Series on Vimeo.

The premise of "Little Horribles" is simple: it follows the failures of Amy, a “self-indulgent lesbian.” The show works because it’s scaled for the medium. Rubin never set out to write a web series, but she was inspired by life’s minor humiliations. The fifth episode, “Stunning” is a good example:

"Little Horribles," “Stunning”:

“I’d had one or two experiences like that, and it was really upsetting,” Rubin said during an interview at Vidcon this year. “I remember relaying this story to my mom and my sister and they were, like, laughing hysterically…I realized I could tell these stories that were really emotional but also entertaining and funny without cheapening it into a joke.”

That kind of small, intimate humor is au courant these days on television, even though it’s ideally suited to the rule-free space of YouTube. Rubin drew inspiration from the women who came before her -- including executive producer Issa Rae and Broad City, whose co-creator Ilana Glazer guest stars.   

“I’m experimenting,” she said. “I really believe there is an audience for this stuff. I wanted to watch stuff like this. I wanted to watch what Issa was making or Broad City. I think those people are there,” she said.

The Buddies

It’s hard to write a good “coming out” narrative. It’s not a cinematic process. Squaresville, as always, keeps it simple.

Esther (Kylie Sparks) confessed she was questioning her sexuality last season, but she kept it from Zelda (Mary Kate Wiles). Esther and Zelda are Ghostworld and Romi and Michelle-inspired geek girls who need each other to grow and survive in the suburbs. They fought at the end of the first season, but repaired their bond in the second. Esther stayed mum for the rest of the season. She dreamed, watched her friend Percy (Austin Rogers) go through coming-of-age romance and tried on a new identity.

Last week’s season finale – preceded by another great episode, “Hearts and Farts” – broke Esther’s silence and gave Squaresville’s straight fans a nice script on how to take news of your friend’s sexuality.

“Hearts and Farts”: 

Finale: 

A comedy network for women on YouTube, Comediva, has premiered a few web series, and LESBROS, is among their better offerings. Channeling Jake and Amir, LESBROS depicts a tight-knit lesbian-straight guy friendship. The two are more compatible than odd couple, but it works in short bursts.

"Lesbros," "Threesome": 

Finally, East WillyB wrapped its expanded first season, which mostly focused on Willy and his struggle to fight gentrification and win back his ex. His bartender at buddy, Ceci (Julia Grob) revealed her lesbian identity this season and spent most of it looking for her birth father. Willy was so focused on his own problems he most neglected Ceci, putting the friendship on the rocks and leaving the audience cliffhanging: can these buds repair their relationship or will Willy’s desire to realize the American dream pull them apart?

"EWB," Episode 5:

The Partners

Keeping it light are a few partner comedies in the great American sitcom tradition. Like Jane Espenson’s "Husbands," now on CW’s new web network, these shows succeed on comic chemistry of the stars. It helps them save cash on locations: they can lock two actors in a room while also poking fun at the “homebody” stereotype.

In tello’s "Roomies and Neighbors," buddies Sam and Alex (Brandy Howard) are buddies pretend to be partners to live in super-special lesbian-only apartment complex in Chicago. They may be friends but they bicker like Lucy and Desi. Julie Goldman takes the spotlight as Sam, the sarcastic, gay half of the couple. She has fun and hams it up, which is all you need in a web series, sometimes.

"The Neighbors": 

"The Better Half" features the ordinary adventures of a couple who’ve been together awhile and are trying to spice it up. By the third episode the couple has committed to some new experiences. The show is crisp and light, nicely shot.

"The Better Half," Episode 3: 

The Freaks

Outside comedy, two shows slipped their first few episodes onto YouTube, hoping to generate interest in larger, ambitious narratives.

"Lyle," created and directed by Stewart Thornike, is a horror series about a couple (Gaby Hoffman and Ingrid Jungermann) who have a newborn and want to purchase a Brooklyn brownstone. In the first three episodes, the baby’s behavior goes from puzzling to frightening quickly enough to leave me wanting more.

"Lyle," Episode 1: 

The team behind "The 3 Bits," Max Freeman and Margaret Singer, are also releasing one-third of their series, a planned 27. "The 3 Bits" is one show with three separate but loosely linked storylines told in three separate genres: 1) Roman (Singer), a lesbian drug dealer, has romantic and money problems her stylish thriller, 2) Henry (Cole Escola), Roman’s brother, is a coquettish gay man trying to have a good time, and 3) Madison (Erin Markey), a Park Slope mom, whose episodes are premiering soon.

“I think we want the vibe to be fun and free and inclusive. So Roman’s story opens with a trans guy in bed with a lesbian, who tries to stab him to death. We’d like it to be open to all sorts of stories and people,” Freeman told me in an interview.

"The 3 Bits," "Roman":

When I asked if they were challenging the normative impulse among today’s gay establishment, they agreed. Freeman said we’re losing the radicalism that made gay culture possible in the first place. But Singer said they try not to worry too much about representing the community at large. 

“It’s hard to shirk that weight,” she said. “It’s the burden of being a minority artist. Gay men are bad. Lesbians are way worse. They’re policing those stories so hard.”

"Henry": 

After releasing the first set of episodes the team are planning to crowdfinance the full season to realize the complete vision. What’s online is great, particularly for first-time series producers. Roman’s thriller is as moody and sleek as thrillers should be, while Henry’s gay rom-com is fun and just naughty enough. "The 3 Bits" is a refreshing departure from the relatively safe stories populating most of television and mainstream online video.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, web series, Queer Cinema, Women's issues