I think I was eight years old when I attended my first “Star Trek” convention — my mom brought me along to one where DeForest Kelly (McCoy on the original series) was the featured guest — and since then I’ve been to countless other conventions, including a half-dozen San Diego Comic-Cons. Being surrounded by fans celebrating their passion for pop culture, to me, has always been a joyful experience, but that’s because I’m usually in the audience, enjoying the moment. Being in the spotlight is a much tougher thing.
That’s just one of the undercurrents of “Con Man,” the digital series created by Alan Tudyk, four episodes of which premiere today via Vimeo VOD. Tudyk played the lovably goofy pilot Wash on the Joss Whedon sci-fi western “Firefly,” which was canceled by Fox in 2002 but embraced by fans following its release on DVD. While Tudyk has found plenty of work since then (including a series regular role on “Suburgatory” and guest-starring on “Dollhouse” and “Arrested Development”), “Firefly” made him nerd famous, which led to him making appearances on the sci-fi convention circuit, a surreal world full of semi-celebrities, crazy costumes, all night partying and some very awkward interactions — all of it rich with comedic potential.
So, Tudyk made a show about it. “Con Man” — which he also wrote and directed — features Tudyk as Wray Nerely, who starred in a show called “Spectrum” for half a season, but is still traveling the world to talk to fans about it. Traveling the festival circuit has its pluses, like hanging out with people like Sean Astin (playing himself), but also its drawbacks, like constant travel and being asked for autographs in bathroom stalls. And Wray has bigger aspirations as an actor, like a potential audition for a new Clint Eastwood western (one that’s slightly dependent on him being believable as a 30-year-old, that is).
Being uncertain about a first-time writer/director who also happens to be the star is in general a correct response to this sort of situation, but “Con Man” is clean and watchable with strong pacing behind it. The series broke crowd-funding records when it launched on Indiegogo earlier this year — 46,000 people contributed $3.2 million — and with extra money comes professional production levels.
However, the immediate draw for fans is the casting. You won’t recognize everyone on screen because Tudyk’s pulled his supporting players from an incredibly diverse array of fandom subsets, but there are plenty of fun cameos in the first four episodes available — including Wil Wheaton and Nolan North. And the full cast list includes Amy Acker, Felicia Day, Michael Dorn, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Seth Green, James Gunn, Alison Haislip, Tricia Helfer, Liza Lapira, Sean Maher, Henry Rollins, Jewel Staite, Gina Torres, Michael Trucco, Casper Van Dien and Milo Ventimiglia, all of them veterans of the con circuit, some of whom said during a Hall H panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con that they leaped at the chance to participate.
The rules as to who plays themselves vs. who plays a fictionalized version of themselves vs. who plays a completely unrelated character seem at times a bit arbitrary. Astin isn’t the only fan favorite to play himself, but Nathan Fillion (who also produced “Con Man” after encouraging Tudyk to make the series) plays one of Wray’s “Spectrum” co-stars who then went on to find solid Hollywood success; a casting choice that parallels reality to some extent. Meanwhile, Day is a delightfully giddy convention volunteer who’s obsessed with Wray, undoubtedly channeling the same fan energy she’s been exposed to since creating “The Guild” and becoming a geek queen. It’s fun to see everyone, but the rules for Tudyk’s version of reality are a bit confusing. (“Firefly” fans, watch out for at least one Jayne hat in the convention scenes.)
Here’s the most interesting facet of “Con Man”: While the series wouldn’t even exist without the massive fanbase that Tudyk and Fillion have accrued since starring in “Firefly,” the character of Wray has a very ambivalent relationship with both the show he’s best known for and the nerds who still love it.
And — again, speaking as someone who’s attended her fair share of fan conventions — that honesty plays really well. “Con Man” shows real signs of becoming a deeply personal narrative; Tudyk may have changed many of the names, but that may have been the necessary step to create a story that feels true to his experience. It’s hard to say where the journey Wray begins here will lead him, except that it’s based on something clearly authentic. “Con Man” isn’t immediately a love letter to fandom, but that only makes it all the more real.
The first four episodes of “Con Man” are available for rental on Vimeo VOD now.