Nuanced 'Quarterlife' too cool for the Web

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"Quarterlife" has set a new standard for circuitous routes to a TV network pickup. First passed on by ABC, the drama series resurrected itself last week on MySpaceTV, only to have the ensuing buzz rekindle interest from NBC, which has scheduled it for midseason.

From the moment "Quarterlife" began, its timing felt portentous. Just as the WGA strike got under way, here is this beautifully scripted gem airing on the Internet instead of on TV, which could be hurting for the written word for quite some time.

It is as if executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick want to provide a torturous reminder of just how sublime a great scripted show could be at precisely the time when there doesn't seem to be anything like it on TV.

Edited into eight-minute increments, "Quarterlife" also is available on Quarterlife.com, where it comes complete with a social network targeting young artists, the kind of people depicted on the show.

Although it has been three years since ABC passed on it as an hour drama, it is not difficult to see its original format. It also bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Herskovitz and Zwick, who know how to dramatize the angst and agitation of beautiful white people like no one else in the medium.

They've done it time and again on ABC going back to the pop-culture phenomenon that put them on the map in 1987 with "thirtysomething." There also was "Once and Again," "Relativity" and their cult classic "My So-Called Life," which recently was rereleased on DVD.

What they have in common is an acute sense of the human condition as experienced by middle-class strivers too self-conscious for their own good.

"Quarterlife" is no exception, featuring a quintet of wannabe artists locked in what can only be called a romantic pentagon.

If nothing else, Zwick and Herskovitz have an eye for female talent who possess that rare combination of raw acting chops and killer looks. They discovered Claire Danes ("My So-Called Life") and Evan Rachel Wood ("Once and Again"), and they might have done it again in "Quarterlife" with Bitsie Tulloch.

That is, if the series can attract enough eyeballs. For all the critical acclaim Zwick and Herskovitz are accustomed to getting for their shows, they typically don't chalk up huge ratings. That's more of a compliment than anything; "Quarterlife" and the others simply are too nuanced to attract mass audiences.

Why they haven't struck a deal at HBO or FX during the past decade is mystifying. Their taste plays perfectly to niche audiences looking for more challenging material, which cable has made its forte.

Now Zwick and Herskovitz are doing their thing on the Internet, which in recent years has not proved itself a bastion for intelligent entertainment by any means. Truth be told, "Quarterlife" is the farthest thing from a conceptual fit for the Internet. It's not just that it's too smart for the room; there's nothing genuinely interactive about the material.

If a TV series could be said to have a midlife crisis, that's what "Quarterlife" would be. Instead of slathering on the Grecian Formula and buying a Porsche, it is slicing itself into multi-minute bits and covering itself in social networking in order to fit in with the cool kids online.

But beneath its new-media exterior lurks the same insecure geek just trying to fit in somewhere after being rejected by the girl who once loved it: the broadcast business.

And now, in an ironic twist, NBC is bringing "Quarterlife" to primetime. Were the TV industry not in dire straits, it's hard to believe the series would have gotten a second look. It is a sad reflection of how far television has fallen when desperation is necessary to give great programming a chance.
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