You've probably never heard of "F to 7th." A spin-off of "The Slope," a Vimeo-based series about "homophobic lesbians," "F to 7th" is a New York indie TV show from Ingrid Jungermann, who financed the recently-concluded second season with a Spike Lee production grant from New York University (where she received her MFA).
To me "F to 7th" is one of the best web series out there, yet most episodes of its second season have just 2,000 to 3,000 views. Aside from niche publications like "Bust," "AfterEllen" and "SheWired" -- the latter two being dedicated web series supporters -- no major media organization has written about, much less reviewed, the second season.
So I feel provoked to ask:
How do you know if a web series is worthy of attention?
With Netflix and Amazon producing great, full-format series, critics are struggling with how and whether to review web content. This week "New Yorker" TV critic Emily Nussbaum, in her important review of the indie hit "High Maintenance," opened her piece explicitly addressing this conundrum:
Every few months, I spelunk into the world of online indie television. It’s nearly always a disappointment: most series, even those which have managed to Kickstart up some hype, are half-baked and amateurish—more audition tapes than real productions.
For Nussbaum, "High Maintenance" is the pinnacle of indie TV, comparable to "Louie," "Girls," even "Enlightened." I agree, obviously, which is why I named it, alongside "F to 7th," the best comedy web series of 2013 in Indiewire. Other "hyped" series can't compare. "High Maintenance" is art, but the series took some time to build its audience. Most episodes have between 100,000 and 200,000 plays today -- a very respectable number for a series hosted by Vimeo, but rather low compared to YouTube's most popular franchises.
YouTube, with its prominent viewcounts, shapes how fans and critics watch web video. We expect and want the best web video to be seen by millions. But the reality is more complicated. I argue that critics would find more series worthy of review if they looked beyond the "hype" and regularly followed the web series market, as opposed to just spelunking in.
Consider "Broad City," another series Nussbaum has lauded. I first started writing about "Broad City" when it was a web series, and most episodes had about 10,000 views on YouTube. Some had less, some more. They were shot on the cheap, guerilla-style. Any critic dropping in might immediately discount them as unprofessional. Indeed, very few TV critics reviewed "Broad City" during its web series days.
But "Broad City"'s fans recognized Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as storytellers who were trying to do something different, even if the images and sound weren't as crisp as corporate television. Glazer and Jacobson didn't care about views or having millions of fans. They were telling a story, one that eventually caught the eye of Amy Poehler, who helped bring the show to Comedy Central. With more money for production, "Broad City" is now a critical hit, one of the top shows on cable and has been renewed for a second season.
Writing for my personal blog last year, Glazer said "virality" is not a significant measure of art. "We were able to experience and understand how, exactly, the way in which our show was popular," she wrote. "'Broad City' is not the type of project that produces viral videos... We got quality, one-step-at-a-time character development and universal-yet-specific situations inside of a cinematic-yet-casual aesthetic space. Again: this. ain’t. viral. shit."
Everyone knows the best stuff doesn't spread, most of the time. Consider last week's cable ratings for Monday night, when "Louie" airs on FX. What were the top shows? "Love & Hip Hop in Atlanta," wrestling (WWE), "Swamp People," and reruns of "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Big Bang Theory." Reruns! "Louie" didn't even rank in the top 100, with Nielsen counting 600,000 viewers. And yet, how many articles are written on "Louie"?
There are lots of reasons to disregard ratings and popularity. First, there is the impossible, imperfect task of counting viewers. Any media researcher will tell you ratings are best-guesses based on statistical probability and constantly at odds with how and where viewers watch television. Indeed, for most of TV history, broadcast, local and cable networks have regularly fought with Nielsen over the accuracy of their rating process, which advertisers rely on for tens of billions of dollars in advertising commitments each year. At various points in its history Nielsen has under- or over-counted rural, urban, minority, older and younger viewers, depending on what network you ask. The growth of cable channels made this more vexing for the firm.
The web has exponentially more channels, so audience measurement is more fraught. Nielsen and Comscore, the major measurement firms for web video, routinely disagree on ratings, often by wide margins. YouTube has spent years trying to legitimize viewcounts on the site, which are scarily easy to manipulate. Google's most recent solutions -- auditing views and choosing "preferred" networks for advertisers -- may reinforce existing inequalities on the site, where the company's desire for increased monetization through anonymous, automated protocols like ContentID consistently shuts down legitimate channels, big and (especially) small.
More importantly: there are series worthy of criticism that aren't as easy to market and share as some of the most popular videos, which are designed to hook viewers in the first three seconds and encourage them to post on their timelines or subscribe at the end of the video. Series are spreadable if they motivate sharing and conversation, as Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green argue in their book "Spreadable Media." It takes a certain kind of genius to create spreadable stories, and YouTube has all the masters, from independents like Benny and Rafi Fine to corporate channels like College Humor.
But academic studies on spreadable media suggest that what's most likely to spread tends to focus on "ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness and whimsical content," as Hebrew University researcher Limor Shifman found in the journal "New Media & Society." Not always the best formula for art, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that what is mostly likely to "go viral" is either misogynistic or infantile; most YouTubers agree that showing "boobs" in your thumbnails instantly increases views. If you don't have boobs, try a cute animal.
This market disadvantages series like Jungermann's "F to 7th," which is as close to "Louie" as indie TV has ever come. The show, named after the subway stop to Park Slope (where the series is set) follows Ingrid as she tries to find her identity as a misanthropic, middle-aged lesbian in New York. At the heart of the show is a nagging question of whether we can shape who we are or whether our neighborhood, friends, family and lovers ultimately determine how we express our selves.
Just like Louis CK, Jungermann isn't a showy performer. In "The Slope," which she created with then-girlfriend Desiree Akhavan -- who financed the Sundance feature "Appropriate Behavior" on the strength of that similarly non-viral series -- Jungermann lets her co-star have most of the jokes, playing the "straight man" to her comic relief.
In "F to 7th" Jungermann replaces Akhavan with terrific guest actors who carry the episodes with their wit and flawed humanity. Through each character's idiosyncrasies, faux-pas and talking-tos, we learn more about the main character, played by Ingrid... Which is exactly what "Louie" does. And whereas C.K. has Jeremy Renner and Parker Posey to interact with, Jungermann has Janeane Garofalo, Amy Sedaris, Gaby Hoffman and Olympia Dukakis.
Her onscreen partners air their neurosis by trying to expose and define Ingrid's gender and sexuality, the focus of the series. In the first season, Ingrid struggles to discover what kind of lesbian she is. In the second season, she tries to be straight. It's absurd, but, as we know from "Louie," absurdity exposes cultural norms and the fluidity of identity. Social life is absurd.
"F to 7th" is professionally produced and superbly acted, but it is also the rare web series showcasing the creative brilliance of women as writers and actors. Most web video features performers aged 30 and under, because that's who shares videos and who advertisers cannot reach on television. In their pursuit of masses of youth, advertisers, television and corporate web networks have all but written off women over 40. Middle-aged women have a tremendously difficult time finding quality roles in Hollywood. "F to 7th" is a marvelous showcase of the range of talent we could see if our television system were more open and fair.
That is, after all, why people believe in the Internet. Open access to distribution was supposed to diversify the narratives we see from the media. Media are more open today, but American culture is not. We still disproportionately privilege stories released by corporations and produced by white men. Already critics are starting to tire of how cable networks invest more in marketing and technical production value than in storytelling -- see Nussbaum's critique of "True Detective" or Matt Zoller Seitz's pan of "Low Winter Sun."
Why not try a low-budget indie? It might not look or sound as nice, but it may surprise, if you give it a chance.