Every so often a new web series comes out that is heralded as an “all new type of interactive experience!” It’s not. Increasingly though, networks are doggedly putting money behind webisodes that supplement their main content (like FOX did partnering with AT&T to release the Touch-offshoot web series Daybreak this summer). Interacting with televisions shows over the internet and through other media is nothing new – we do it with our fan forums and sub-reddits and frantic “did you just see that??” texts to friends. The difference here is that there is a desire to both control and quantify that experience through specifically supported forums and other tie-ins that are created and moderated by the network or studio. Again though, what else is new?
What makes the upcoming Electric City interesting – it being the latest attempt at a mainstream web series – is Tom Hanks. For more on the project (which is hosted by Yahoo! and will be paired with apps that offer a related role-playing game as well as digital comic books to expand the mythology, etc – that’s the “interactive” part), and my take on its first ten episodes, hit the jump.
Tom Hanks serves not only as the creative force behind the scenes of the dystopian series, but also lends his voice to its lead character. The series has a sci-fi bent to it, taking place in a world that reminds one strongly of The Hunger Games, but with less pomp and more graphic deaths. Citizens of Electric City are rigidly controlled by the sort of governing body that requires applications to allow childbirth. More than anything, energy consumption is heavily monitored. Resistance movements attempt to illegally tap into the main system and even begin creating something like wireless. They are dealt with swiftly and with deadly force by those in control – who happen to be a knitting circle of nannies.
This type of series isn’t something one might necessarily expect from Hanks, who has built his reputation on far more comedic and heartwarming fare. But Hanks actually conceived of and wrote Electric City himself. The early word was that his partnership with Yahoo – who has been looking to get more into the web video market – was because the “business-as-usual” Hollywood-types weren’t as open to such creative experimentation.
The other possibility is that they didn’t find the series all that fantastic. There is something about Electric City that’s inherently engaging. All of the pieces are there – dystopian society, fascist regime, the underdog resistance, a jaded anti-hero at its core – and maybe that’s part of the problem. Though the specifics of Electric City may be somewhat fresh, its conceits are certainly not. There’s a familiarity to every piece of dialogue, such as that old refrain “ask no questions and you will be told no lies,” and a non-ironic romantic-setting use of “where have you been all my life?” I half expected the grizzled Hanks-voiced character Cleland Car – a rogue, naturally – to be asked to turn in a gun and badge with him muttering, “take it, I don’t need no stinkin’ badge to serve justice in my town.”
Twenty episodes averaging five minutes each will be released over three consecutive days, starting July 17th, exclusively online. Though Yahoo wants users to interact with the world, the timeframe in which the webisodes are released won’t allow for much of that, especially because the world is particularly difficult to come to grips with. Electric City incorporates a map to show where each mini story takes places, much like the opening sequence of Game of Thrones (“meanwhile, back on Pyke …”). But the stories themselves take place with such dizzying pace the map doesn’t particularly help with spacial orientation. The same is true with the character arcs – after watching ten episodes I didn’t find any of the characters to be more than one-dimensional, but how could they be? There was no time!
Having read about the interactive features that will be paired with the series, I saw how the series’ purposeful obfuscation could be helpful in directing viewers – out of necessity if not desire – to read supporting materials in order to understand what, exactly, is going on. Still, call me old-fashioned, but I want most of my info upfront in the series I’m watching, and don’t want to have to scour the internet for homework.
The curiosity of Hanks’ involvement is probably reason enough to give Electric City a go; and given the marketing, it seems Yahoo is making a very strong bet that’s the case. Electric City also offers puzzles and codes within it that fans of mystery-laden series will enjoy, and there will likely be plenty of viewers who enjoy it specifically for its old-school limited animation style. But with its trite dialogue and confusing presentation, it may not quite be “the” interactive webseries that finally breaks through to the mainstream.
The first episodes will air July 17th on Yahoo’s Electric City launch page.