Netflix’s high-cost, highly watched House of Cards blazed a new trail for mass-market, internet-based television, but Kevin Spacey’s political blockbuster could have come from any of the traditional US networks. Not so far way on the web, a clutch of series aimed at the gay community – filmed for a sliver of the $100m House of Cards budget yet still attracting a respectable audience – are showing up the reluctance of mainstream broadcasters in the US to stray far from the middle of the road.
Where the Bears Are focuses on a group of husky, hairy sleuths living in Palm Springs; Husbands revolves around a newly out sports jock and a fey tabloid star who marry on a whim; Hunting Season is a sexually frank show about a 20-something gay man exploring the sexscape of New York; and The Outs (pictured) is about two ex-boyfriends coming to terms with post-breakup life in Brooklyn.
On first glance, these gay-themed internet shows don’t look so different from their network television counterparts. And of these are experiences not so far removed from those depicted in a more heterosexual context on network TV. Where the Bears Are even compares itself to two iconic television programs – Murder, She Wrote and Golden Girls – and the creators of Husbands liken their project to I Love Lucy. But in all of them, the differences are clear: the dialogue is more honest, the woes more authentic.
The first season of Husbands consisted of 11 mini-episodes running at about two minutes each. Writer Brad Bell, a former producer for VH1′s Pop-Up Video, who also plays the more feminine of the titular spouses, finished the first script in April 2011. Epsenson, Bell and the rest of the cast, including second husband Sean Hemeon, were shooting by August, the season debuted in September and the entire series had aired by 18 October of that year. It was a hit from the start and even inspired the New Yorker’s first review of an online television show.
“On a nothing budget, Espenson and her teensy cast score laughs,” wrote Emily Nussbaum. “The sad truth is that, so far, most web series are worth watching only in theory. Husbands is one notch better.” It was a start.
With fans clamoring for another season and still cash-strapped from the first, self-funded go-round, Espenson and Bell turned to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, and on 19 March 2012, they put out a request for $50,000 worth of individual donations. By 18 April, they had $60,000 from 956 people and have so far used that to produce three eight-minute episodes featuring guest stars such as Joss Whedon, Mekhi Phifer and Jon Cryer, the Emmy-winning star of one of network television’s most popular shows, Two and a Half Men. And they have a surprisingly diverse audience.
“We thought our audience would be mostly women, but it’s actually almost 50/50 men and women and spread almost evenly across the age demographics,” says Husbands producer Jane Espenson. “It’s an extremely broadcast-network type demographic.” That’s an important modifier – broadcast-network type – because for years web-based shows were treated like the entertainment industry’s unwanted stepchild. And LGBT series were perhaps the most wretched, either openly mocked or ignored, even by the communities they hoped to represent. Husbands, whose first episode has been viewed on YouTube, just one of the many platforms where it aired, more than 120,000 times.
Husbands took off not only because Espenson’s connections and contacts from her work on Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom, the gay-friendly Buffy, The Vampire Slayer or the equally inclusive Torchwood. Nor was it just Husbands’ primetime-ready production value, though that definitely helped. Mostly it was the crisp, honest discussion of gay lives, loves and pressures, all set against a familiar sitcom background.
“Husbands really sort of represents I think what the internet can be for creators that are hungry to see stories told that just aren’t being given to them by major network television or even film in some cases,” said Matt Kane, Associate Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD, the gay media watchdog group. “This is what LGBT and other minority communities have done for decades – not seeing itself thoughtfully served in media and wanting to take matters into their own hands. Back in the 90s, that meant raising a couple thousand dollars, putting together a camera crew and producing an independent film.” Today, all you need is a phone, an internet connection and the support of a few strangers.
“Creators can directly reach an audience who in many cases is hungry to see their stories told in a much more immediate way,” GLAAD’s Kane says. “And that also invites them to feel participatory in the process by giving a $15 donation on Kickstarter.”
Adam Goldman used Husbands as a model when producing The Outs. And like his predecessors’, his gamble paid off. After posting one self-produced episode online, Goldman turned The Outs over to Kickstarter, and between 18 June and 2 July 2012, made more than $22,000 from 503 people, giving him and collaborator Sasha Winters enough money to finish the planned six-episode season, as well as bankroll an additional seventh, set to premiere next month. The show has been written up in a slew of magazines, including Time Out New York and New York, and the Brooklyn Museum recently hosted a special screening celebrating The Outs and its real-life fans.
Though Goldman never set out to change the media narrative or make a gay political statement, he’s aware that he’s tapped into something meaningful. “The internet provides a really incredible opportunity for representational content about minorities,” he says. “Production has become a process where you say, ‘If this represents you, you can make it happen.’ The viewer owns part of it psychologically.” Studio executives no longer decide how gay people should be represented – it’s the creators and the fans making the decisions.
Ultimately trying to get networks to cast a wider net may not only be an uphill battle, but a pointless one. House of Cards showed that web series can get massive amounts of press, and Husbands and The Outs show that web series can be cheaply made and reach beyond target audiences, two developments that prove yet again that networks no longer hold all the power when it comes to capturing viewers. And with Netflix, Hulu and “super syndication” deals that allowed Husbands to air on YouTube and the streaming services Blip and Roku, traditional network divides and distribution models will continue to melt away.
Epenson, the television veteran, thinks that moment has already come. “We consider Husbands television. It’s just television that arrives in a different box.” Maybe that’s why none of the creators seem too concerned about striking deals with television networks. Epsenson and Bell are focused on the Husbands comic book being published by Dark Horse press; Jon Marcus and Adam Baran from Hunting Season are debating what to do for a potential second season (the Viacom-backed gay network Logo ran season one on its website); Adam Goldman’s finishing The Outs’ seventh episode and says he’s looking for a new direction – and the second season of Where the Bears Are, paid for, novelly, with DVD sales of the first season, will premiere around this summer’s gay pride season.
As for well-rounded gays on traditional television, Goldman predicts it will happen. I have a strong impression that over the next few years it’s going to become a thing, like Girls, and Two Broke Girls; people are just going to catch on.”