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Writing The Web Series Instructor: MJ Halberstadt

MJ Halberstadt on Writing the Web Series

By MJ Halberstadt, Department of Visual and Media Arts

As I began preparing my syllabus for “Writing the Web Series” coursework for the fall, I decided to try to connect with the experts on the subject. But here’s the thing: there are none, because—and this is both good and bad news—there are millions of hours of web series material available on the internet, and nobody can watch it all.

Web series are a formidable force, and have already significantly shaped the ways that major networks and streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) think about developing and distributing new programs. Some web series were picked up and made their way through the development pipeline before becoming full-fledged network programs (Broad City, High Maintenance, Insecure), while other series are amplified by being “copy-pasted” onto increasingly competitive platforms (Netflix streams several). Web series are also a marketing tool, with plenty of business recycling memorable characters from their commercials and giving them extended life.

There are precious few books published about them, and even less academic programming; I could only identify a small handful of colleges that offer coursework explicitly focused on writing web series. It should come as no surprise that Emerson is placing itself ahead of the curve by including a “Writing the Web Series” course in its catalog this year, particularly since Emerson graduates are responsible for so many critically-acclaimed and genre-defining web series. I was thrilled to be invited to lead the course, and immediately set about the impossible: wrangling the scattered knowledge about this versatile, moving target of an art form into a coherent, digestible curriculum. 

One of the first observations I’ve made is that, while web series are incredibly diverse, the majority of series each tend towards one of three significant “traditions.” These include:

1. Story-based

These series are the direct progeny of serial TV programs. They follow a character (or several characters) through an ongoing story broken into several episodes. They generally need to be watched in sequential order, and often begin with a “Previously on _____” sequence. These series hook you with the question, “What will happen next in the story?” Simple, right?

Emersonian Example: Unsure/Positive (above), the creation of Christian Daniel Kiley, MFA ’15, is a serialized story about a young man navigating the stigmas and complications that plague his day-to-day life after he receives a positive HIV diagnosis. The show’s appeal is in watching the central character navigate his evolving relationships.

2. Actor-based

 Often, the best writers are actors who discover writing when taking their fates into their own hands and create their own ideal role. Some actor-based series employ the same actors playing a revolving door of characters, where others rely on one colorful character who encounters a string of situations in no particular order. I might even consider “Character-based” its own sub-tradition; there are tons and tons of “talking-head” web series that primarily involve one character speaking directly to the camera (Miranda Sings, anyone?) The series could only possibly exist with the featured cast. The series hooks you with the question, “What kind of character will that actor play next?” or “What kind of story will that character encounter next?”

Emersonian Example: Longtime friends Dan Robert ’13 and Lisha Brooks ’13 used their Performing Arts training and creative can-do attitudes to create Beards (trailer above), in which each episode centers on couples from different eras and locations with one thing in common: their relationship is a cover for a hidden sexual orientation. Their second season recently encored a pair of characters from the first, but each episode functions as a standalone short film. The show’s appeal is in Robert and Brooks’ chameleonic and dynamic performances.

3. Premise-based

A show is “premise-based” when it exists as variations on a single non-sequential premise with new actors in every episode. These kinds of series hook you with the question “What subject will the series tackle next?” and have a uniquely accessible appeal because audiences can begin watching the show at any time with little confusion.

Emersonian Example: I would argue that High Maintenance is the most famous web series today; not only was it developed as a half-hour HBO program, but its original cache of 19 episodes was also lifted intact and made available on HBO. The show retains its original premise: each episode focuses on different characters who, in one way or another, cross paths with a weed dealer known only as “the guy.” Michael Cyril Creighton ’01 is a standout character from an episode in the web series, who was encored in the HBO “reboot.” Incidentally, Creighton is also the creator and star of Jack in a Box (Episode 1 above), one of the first web series anybody talked about, and a great example of a character-based show.

Bonus: As is the trouble with most attempts at categorizing anything, there are riffs, variations, exceptions, and overlaps. One of my favorite web series which bridges all three aforementioned “traditions” is Brooklyn Sound, created by Noel Carey ’11, Julia Mattison ’11, and Drew Van Steenbergen ’11 (and featuring many more Emersonians). On one level, the show is a story-based sitcom about the staff at a recording studio trying to delay financial decline (played by Carey and Mattison), but the appeal of the show is the revolving door of clients who record there (separate characters who are also played by Carey and Mattison).

That’s just a taste of what’s out there; countless other hilarious, moving, and impressive web series have Emerson’s fingerprints all over them. Wherever the future of web series may go, Emerson will continue to play a major part.

MJ Halberstadt teaches in the Visual and Media Arts department and was recently named a Playwriting Fellow at Huntington Theatre Company. He teaches Writing the Web Series both in the fall and spring.