If you were actually measuring for buzz or even a raised sense of excitement for Tom Hanks’ Electric City, a new online animated series, well, you probably didn’t detect much.
The series launched Tuesday on Yahoo Screen, which is likely the problem. Not Yahoo Screen in particular, just that it’s an Internet series. Once thought of as the future of visual storytelling — another example of a new technology crushing an older one (television) — web series are now met with shrug from viewers. It’s no longer new territory. And there hasn’t been any indication that there’s a big tent project in the future that would actually draw devoted viewers.
Jerry Seinfeld will release his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee starting Thursday on Crackle.com. Where there’s no firm idea of how many of these “episodes” Seinfeld creates, the long-in-gestation Electric City has 20 episodes that are roughly five minutes in length. It’s doubtful that Hanks and his Playtone company will make more.
Why? Because there’s no money in it. As Hanks told The New York Times: “Although no one else has, we gave up long ago the idea that you could make money doing this.”
Of course, it should be noted that neither Hanks nor Seinfeld really needs the money, so these projects seem more like larks than anything else. And since both men could withstand the financial payout and lack of return, the world gets to watch their ideas come to life for free.
If the bloom is off online series, that’s basically the reason. Others have come, failed and gone away. In 2008, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick tried to make a television quality dramatic series, Quarterlife, and make it work on the Internet. It failed. Even when NBC put it on the air, there wasn’t much business. Since then, even when devotees of technology preach that the Internet it the future of television, nothing of real impact has arrived, and the notion is as naive as the girl who can’t get a date on a CW series.
Again, you could follow the money to find out why there’s no future in web series, but there’s no money to follow.
But thanks to the largesse of Hanks and his company, you still get something for free. The question is whether it’s any good.
Tom Hanks’ Electric City is a post-post apocalyptic tale where all the things we took for granted — like, say, the Internet — don’t exist anymore and electricity is the new God. Well, that’s sort of what it’s about. If you watch any of the free episodes online now, you’ll get this sense that somewhere in the dystopian world of Electric City there’s a Big Idea to unravel, that this animated series with hints of noir and Westerns will hook you in and the backstory will come together and the characters will coalesce into something riveting — you know, just like a real drama. Hanks voices the main role of our hero (of sorts) Cleveland Carr. What does he do? He’s a “grid operative.” What that entails is unclear at first. You’ll have to keep clicking. Or as Carr says in voice-over, “It’s best to ask no questions and be told no lies … here, in the Electric City.”
There are two problems that are immediately obvious. First, the writing is poor. In fact, no writer is even credited on the episodes. If you want the hip comic-book crowd to bestow cult status on you (and that’s the best you’ll get for a web series), it needs to be damned special, which Electric City is not. The second problem is the structural issue with all web series: The episodes are too short. It’s hard to generate much interest — or story — in five minutes, so even though much of the animation is intriguing, the actual series never gets liftoff. As the plot unwinds, the end comes. At least in the case of Electric City, you can get the bulk of episodes now and keep clicking away. If you had to wait a week for the second episode, well, you probably wouldn’t.
That’s not to say that Electric City doesn’t have its charms. The noir element works well, and a number of characters are interesting (Hanks got some good voice talent including Holland Taylor, Jeanne Tripplehorn), but everything is tripped up by the weak writing. And as mature as Electric City can get — it’s violent, sexy — there’s already plenty of animated television series that are better.
As the band Wilco once sang, “Our stories fit into phones.” Hanks alluded to the same thing in his Times interview, saying that Reliance Entertainment, who helped fund the series, told him “a billion people will watch this on their phones in India.”
Well, they might watch for free. But if you really believe that billion-person sales pitch, I’ve got an online series I want to sell you.