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'East Los High' and 32 Other Web Dramas Upstaging TV With Their Diversity

By Aymar Jean Christian | Indiewire July 31, 2014 at 3:40PM

What is it about the web that helps diverse voices find an audience, and what are some of the great shows to make their mark?
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"East Los High"
Hulu "East Los High"

The first season of Hulu's "East Los High" brought revelations of cheating, pregnancy, rape, HIV diagnosis, sexting, deceit, molestation, bullying, theft and murder, gracefully anchored by an intergenerational cast of Latinas in Los Angeles. The second season, which premiered in full on Hulu this month, adds domestic violence and queer sexuality to the popular high school drama. It's not hard to find these themes in broadcast or cable television dramas, but rarely do Latinas drive such complex narratives in English-language programming. For years, web series producers have responding to television's galling lack of diversity on a scale largely unrecognized by the mainstream media. "East Los High" stands as one of the most recent and well-produced among dozens of original dramas created by and for diverse communities, from lesbians and gay men to blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, and released online.

Created by Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya, "East Los High" isn't just a teen drama, it's one of Hulu's most popular original series. Produced by Population Media Center, a Vermont-based non-profit, the goal is to provide educational content, particularly on reproductive health, through a storytelling strategy modeled after the Sabido method developed in Mexico and used in some telenovelas. Throughout the show, "teachable moments" pop up -- for example, different methods for birth control and terminating pregnancies are explicitly delineated, multiple times, by physicians and friends of the lead characters.

Filling these teachable moments with humanity is a cast of mostly teenage women living in East Los Angeles. It's not surprising: Indie producers have been filming dramas since the debut of streaming sites like YouTube and Vimeo in the mid-2000s. By 2006 one could watch Susan Buice and Arim Crumley’s classic "Four-Eyed Monsters" alongside pirated versions of R Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet," indie drama "Chump ChangeS" (one of the first black web dramas) and "Melody Set Me Free," one of artist Kalup Linzy's many soap-inspired art works (for which he does all the voices). 

The number of indie dramas started to increase after YouTube increased the length allowed on its videos and competitors Blip (now Maker and Disney's) and Vimeo attracted producers looking for fans interested in narrative and "professional" content, best exemplified by Daryn Strauss' actor-driven drama, "Downsized," which explored how the recession impacted a diverse group of Angelenos.

A watershed moment came in 2010, when "We Love Soaps" inaugurated the Indie Soap Awards, now entering its fifth year. The first winners speak to the incredible diversity in the market: Taking home the top prize was Robert Townsend’s Monica Calhoun-starrer "Diary of a Single Mom," which like East Los High found sponsorship through non-profit initiatives to provide education for social change; Townsend would eventually join "Resurrection Boulevard"'s Dennis Leoni to create Mexican-American drama "Los Americans" for One Economy. Susan Miller and Tina Cesa Ward took home the writing prize for their tenderly executed lesbian-led and racially diverse teen drama, "Anyone But Me," which ran for three seasons and ranks among the most successful series to arise out of the 2007-2008 WGA strike ("Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog" takes the prize).

Kai Soremekun's "Chick," a sci-fi/fantasy series about a woman of color seeking empowerment after an abusive relationship, took the directing award. "Compulsions," a dark drama led by indie TV stalwart Craig Frank, took home multiple awards. "Venice," a continuing series developed by Crystal Chappell after "Guiding Light" was canceled and fans lost her lesbian storyline, remains of the few examples of an indie series successfully funded through subscription. Series produced by women with meatier roles for female actors, including Julie Ann Emery's "Then We Got HELP!" and Jennifer Thym's beautiful Hong Kong-set "Lumina," received recognition.

Taking the award for Best Ensemble, and winning multiple awards since, was Anthony Anderson's "Anacostia," one of the longest-running and most popular black dramas online. "Anacostia" follows a group of neighbors in DC's southeast neighborhood of the same name, an area the media covers disproportionately for crime. "Anacostia" adapts dramatic conventions in filming and storytelling to show residents in the full range of life, while also providing plenty of juicy drama to keep viewers coming back. Its success has not only allowed lead actors to grow with their characters but attracted acting talent from mainstream soaps, most notably "As the World Turns" star Martha Byrne. Production values have risen as the series matures. The show is a hit on public access and signed a local sponsor in Anacostia River Realty, a path to financing more creators should follow.

Yet "production value" continues to nag web drama creators as they seek broader recognition. Indie dramas are just as culturally meaningful as corporate television series, but they cannot compete financially. While some productions can afford to pay workers competitive rates, most are not great job creators. Since pay is often low or nothing, technical quality varies.

But let's not forget that cable networks aren't excelling at job creation either. Tales of the grim realities of reality TV work -- non-unionized labor that comprises the bulk of cable programming -- are easy to come by. To deliver the cinematic look critics crave on a TV budget, production companies for some scripted shows are extending work days and chasing tax credits. 

The importance of web drama isn't in technical production value -- cinematography, makeup, costume, editing, sound, etc. -- but rather in the creative production value, in the writing, acting and direction generated by a diverse group of workers in which networks have forgotten to invest. Web dramas cultivate narratives about a range of people in different stages of life and sociological positions. Fans judge series by how authentically or engagingly producers represent their realities and fantasies. Seen in this context, networks like Fox ("Empire"), CBS ("Extant"), Netflix ("Orange Is The New Black") and ABC ("Scandal," "How To Get Away With Murder") were picking up on trends most indie producers and soap fans have always known: Drama is best when it is diverse.

A full accounting of the market for web drama is impossible. However below is a list of currently running or recently concluded series (within two years) worth checking out. 

"Anacostia": The DC-set series drastically increased the drama this past season with tales of business malfeasance and anti-gay bigotry. The third season finale brought multiple murders and deaths, explosively paced. Fans will no doubt return en masse for season four to find out who survived. 

"Beacon Hill": As networks cancel and cut budgets for daytime soaps, more of those actors are finding work online. "Beacon Hill" unites "Venice"'s Crystal Chappell with a host of other soap stars, including Emmy-winning Sarah Brown. The Boston-set series is a high stakes political drama with a lesbian relationship at its center. 

"Between Women": Black lesbian dramas are widely viewed on YouTube -- beginning perhaps with Charmain Jackson's Miami-set "Lovers and Friends Show" -- and Michelle Daniel's "Between Women" is among the most popular and discussed. The series tackles a broad range of issues from domestic violence to coming out and offers plenty of drama that keep viewers coming back to this sprawling Atlanta-set drama about a group of friends from different classes and gender expressions. The show reportedly received a TV deal and fans still await the second season.

"City of Dreams": Musical theater inspires great indie series, most notably Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead's "Submissions Only" and Jake Wilson's "The Battery's Down." What "City of Dreams" lacks in A-list talent it makes up for in passion and confidence. Creators Justin Anthony Long, Jonathan Lee, Jee Young Han play Jamie, Julian and Julie as three New York City newcomers faking their way to success by producing "The Ballad of Ofagina."

"Disciplinary Actions": Labor disputes rarely receive air time outside of legal procedurals, but "Disciplinary Actions" makes scandal around work its focus. Each episode is a different case of an employer allegedly violating an employees rights. Created by Dianna Smith with "12 Steps to Recovery"'s Tony Clomax as a co-writer and producer, the drama's episodes explore sexual harassment, theft and corruption. The series' writing is mature and its cast of actors are stellar.

"Eastsiders": Kit Williamson's ("Mad Men") drama about a gay couple in Silverlake dealing with infidelity is among the most confident dramas online, with production values high enough for those uninitiated to the breadth of indie serials. The show features an engaging performance from Constance Wu in the best friend role of Kathy and delightful guest appearances from consistently hilarious Stephen Guarino ("Happy Endings," "Hustling") and Willam Belli ("RuPaul's Drag Race"). After publishing the series independently, Kit Williamson licensed the show to Logo TV but still raised over $150,000 through Kickstarter to fund the second season.

"Everything I Did Wrong in My 20s": Stephanie is a single, unemployed black woman living with a twenty-year old roommate and her dog just died. This brand new dramedy from Kim Williams, the creator of The "Unwritten Rules" starring Aasha Davis, is well-acted and lightly sprinkled with middle-aged melancholia.

"First": Jahmela Biggs' "Love Jones"-inspired "First" follows Robin, a writer, and is presented by Issa Rae, who is using it to help launch a network of patrons through Patreon. "First" is anchored by Biggs and co-star Will Catlett, who give solid performances, and style and good music characteristic of Los Angeles' indie black productions.

"For Colored Boys": Stacey Muhammad's drama about a father, Benjamin Boyd, Sr., returning to Brooklyn from prison who must grapple with the consequences of his absence. His son, Jr., played by "The Wire"'s Julito McCullum, and his mother, Lisa (Lauren Hooper), are keeping serious secrets from one another, and Sr.'s moving in makes them even more distrustful. Executive produced by Isaiah Washington and Marc Lamont Hill, "For Colored Boys"' narrative is true to its title, but for its strong performances everyone should give it a try.

"Freefall": Chronicling a group of black gay men who "fall prey to the allure of Atlanta street life," "Freefall" is a distinctive crime drama with a macho edge.

"GAYS the Series": A tender coming-of-age drama about a group of young New Yorkers -- including a drag queen, black gay man and white boy surviving illness -- "GAYS" is more than its title. Avoiding many of the first-season mistakes indie drama producers makes, "GAYS"' half-hour episodes are well-paced; with a cast of promising new talent, few scenes drag. "GAYS" outperforms its contemporaries in diversity ("Girls") and heart ("Looking").

"Hard Times": Presented by Issa Rae ("The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl"), Tahir Jetter's moody and attractive "Hard Times" is based on his own experiences pursuing exotic dancing during the recession.

"The Horizon": This popular, professionally produced Australian soap follows a group of sexy white gay men and Wilma, their friend and drag queen, and their lives in Sydney. Sex is a major force in the story -- characters explore and navigate barebacking and open relationships, for instance. And the show informs fans about sexual health in the show and in PSAs. "The Horizon" is supported by a long list of sponsors, including General Pants Co, DNA and Ben Sherman.

"The Hinterland": Anti-gay bullying in small town America gets the musical treatment in this teen drama. The music of "The Hinterlands" is pleasing, as are its overall production value. It's a tender, heartfelt story.

"Hustling": In this New York set drama, an escort tries to move past his profession. Played by creator Sebastian La Cause, Ryan Crosby is an ambitious, successful biracial escort who's struggling for legitimacy in his professional career. Around him are a cast of characters struggling with addiction, domestic violence and immigration. Hustling received support from Kickstarter donors and a variety of New York businesses and community organizations.

"If I Was Your Girl": Coquie Hughes' epic drama of love and betrayal is now packaged as a film but can still be seen in series form on YouTube. "If I Was Your Girl" follows a group of women, most of them black and lesbian, falling in love and trying to maintain relationships between lovers and family. It's among Chicago's most popular dramas.

"In Between Men": An "alpha male" drama about a group of New York gay men who are successful and trying to be more so, in work and love. The second season, funded through direct payment from fans, investors and sponsors, added more diversity this season, with more screen time for Margot Bingham ("Boardwalk Empire") and new cast member Mark Tallman ("Single Ladies"). The narrative revolves mostly around Dalton (Nick Matthews) and his quest for a secure and lasting relationship, partially inspired by creator Quincy Morris' experiences dating in New York City.

"Legal Aids": From "In Between Men"'s Quincy Morris and Jennifer Gelfer comes this series about a black Republican struggling with her conscience in the wake of a landmark lawsuit about HIV.

"Melody Set Me Free": The most important web drama you've never heard of, Kalup Linzy's "Melody Set Me Free" is a two and a half hour long camp, epic narrative about an art mogul, KK Queen, and her quest to dominate the music world while trying to hold her family together. Shot at MoMA/PS1 and produced by James Franco's Rabbit Bandidni, it features original music -- "nasty ass hits" -- and music videos sung and very often performed by Linzy, who was inspired by daytime and primetime soaps of the 1980s and 1990s, when he started to write his scripts. It also includes cameos from Natasha Lyonne, Narcissister (Isabelle Lumpkin), Dwight O’Neal ("Christopher Street TV") and artist Wardell Milan. Premiering this week, the newest season features Macaulay Culkin's Pizza Underground.

"Millions": A passion project from creator Andrew C, "Millions" focuses on a group of twenty-somethings -- dancers, stoners, filmmakers -- trying and (mostly) failing to success. The series is well-produced and features strong performances from emerging and established Asian-American actors, who remain severely underrepresented in traditional television.

"Mythomania": The first season of comic artist Derek Kirk Kim's "Mythomania" was a tender and beautifully shot dark comedy about a flailing cartoonist in Los Angeles. "Mythomania 2" is my most eagerly awaited second season at the moment, based on its trailer released in January of last year. The upcoming season signals a genre-bending shift in focus away from season one's protagonist Andy Go -- living in an "alternate timeline" from Kim's Eisner and Harvey Award-winning comic "Tune" -- to his best friend Tony as a cartoonist on the brink of ending his main character, Black Raven.

"Nikki and Nora: The N&N Files": Two female cops police New Orleans and manage their relationship in this series from indie subscription network tello/One More Lesbian. Nancylee Myatt created a version of "Nikki and Nora" for UPN; the pilot never made it to series but became a cult hit. Since, she's created a number of web series, including "3Way" and "Cowgirl Up" for tello films. Fans resurrected the pilot last year, raising $65,000. The series is as easy as New Orleans. Procedural dramas remain a difficult genre for web series to crack, but "Nikki and Nora" approaches a workable model, partly because of its location. Guest stars include Janina Gavankar ("The L Word," "True Blood") and Aasha Davis ("Pariah," "The Unwritten Rules"). 

"No Shade": Sean Anthony's series about a group of twentysomethings in New York might lean heavily on comedy but it serves plenty of drama. In "No Shade" Noel is an artist living with his mother and trying to coming into his own as a gay man. His friends search for success in dance, love and legal gender transition and sex and drugs. "No Shade" narrates a range of black queer lives with flair, employing witty cutaways, dance sequences and in-group vernacular -- yes gawd! The production company also introduces audiences to black queer culture through its series "Black Gay University" -- which starts with an epic rundown of ball slang -- and "Ignition" -- which features vogue performances on the street.

"Out With Dad": Jason Leaver's Toronto-set series about a girl coming out while living with her single dad is PFLAG-endorsed, well-acted and confidently paced. The show has earned multiple awards and nominations at festivals and shows like the Webbys, LA Webfest and the Indie Soap Awards.

"People You Know": John Dylan DeLaTorre and Baltimore Russell's New York drama explores the seven deadly sins through the lives of several gay men and their personal and professional dramas. "RuPaul Drag Race"'s Pandora Boxx makes a cameo. 

"Producing Juliet": "Anyone But Me"'s Tina Cesa Ward's drama focuses on New York's theater world and a young playwright, played by Rachel Hip-Flores, lost in neurosis and unrequited love. The writing evokes the setting, with characters who articulately dissect and struggle with their feelings, as thespians are wont to do.

"Red Sleep": Released on JTS (Just the Story), a new network for web series, "Red Sleep" channels the horrific history of the Tuskegee experiments for this thriller about an inmate who agrees to a government experiment in exchange for freedom.

"Riley Rewind": Ray William Johnson's series about a girl who can rewind time celebrates the mistakes teens make when they crush and fall in love. "Riley Rewind" gives teen soap fans the rare story focused on an Asian American woman (Anna Akana) and adds a twist on the coming out story via Riley's best friend Jay (Lamar Legend).

"Starting From Now": Julie Kalceff's drama starts with a love triangle formed by Sydney newcomer Steph and her friend's girlfriend Darcy.

"Studville TV": Butch and femme lovers and friends engage in "tomfoolery" in this Atlanta-set drama with action and comedic elements.

"Wallflowers": A support group for singles and introverts in their thirties anchors Kieran Turner's "Wallflowers," the marquee series for Stage17, a new web series network. "Wallflowers" is heartfelt in tone, and its cast of working actors brings sincerity to the show's humor.

"Whatever this is": "The Outs" creator Adam Goldman followed his romantic drama with this tale of creative class melancholia: a group of young production workers take freelance jobs to make rent in New York City. As they lose sleep and dignity, they're challenged with finding love in various stage of emotional and physical desperation. Humor comes in as the series parodies the production of reality television and corporate video production. Each on-camera personality is more ridiculous and dastardly than the last.

Any other shows that should be checked out? Let us know in the comments!

This article is related to: East Los High , YouTube, Vimeo , Web Video, web series