The Booth at the End

I recently discovered the Booth at the End during a very boring Saturday. With nothing better do due I decided to check this show out after seeing it advertised several times on Hulu. This became one of those odd moments where I (A) wanted to kick myself for not finding it sooner and (B) was glad that I was able to watch the first two seasons all in one go.

The Booth at the End is a web series originally produced by the FX network website. Despite a bit of research I could not figure out if they are still involved or not. Either way it is currently showing exclusively on Hulu. It is what I have termed a type one web series, which is a series that is produced by a professional studio and using professional actors for distribution on the web.

The premise is that there is a man who sits in a booth in a diner. People will come to him with something they want. He will make a deal with them, where he gives them a task to do and when they complete the task they will get what they want. Part of the deal is that the people have to check in with the man and give him an update on how their task is progressing. The things the people want can range from money, to curing a child of cancer to bringing the dead back to life.

The tasks will often not appear to have anything to do with the goal, but are always something the person asking would not do of their own will. The man who wants his son cured of cancer must find and kill a 5 year old girl. The girl who wants money to save her father’s restaurant must find a shut in and make them leave their home. The young man who wants to be immortal must “mark three people” with no explanation of what that means. Another twist is that the man does not directly give the reward. Instead completing the task causes the reward to manifest on its own. In many cases the stories intertwine. One man is given the task of protecting the girl that the other man is tasked with killing.

Some people complete their tasks and they always get what they asked for. Others try and fail and still get what they want. Some are stopped by others and get nothing. And some realize that what they wanted isn’t what they really wanted after all and abandon the task.

The entire series takes place in the diner so the story is told by the people coming in to update the man. This is obviously dictated by the show’s limited budget, but rather than a weakness the show makes this aspect one of its strengths.  Normally you want to follow the “show, not tell” paradigm, but here the reverse is true. What you have is a collection of private conversations and the emotion displayed is often that of someone dealing with the aftermath of their actions.

As is often the case, when you are dealing with a low budget show you need to step up in writing and acting to make up for it. I honestly believe that several actors on this series are using scenes from it on their demo reels. The scripts are strong and clever. It is amazing the amount of information they convey not only in what they say, but what they leave unsaid.

The actors on the show are a collection of actors that you see in supporting roles or guest star roles on other shows. The lead is played by Xander Berkeley who is familiar face from shows like 24 and Nikita. His unnamed character, called only the Man in the credits is a calm collected person who seems a bit detached. The man seems to have no vested interest in the people he deals with completing their tasks or not. Berkeley underplays the man but still conveys that a lot is going on under the surface.

The other stand out character is Doris played by Jenni Blong who True Blood fans will recognize as Sookie’s mother. Doris is the waitress at the diner in the first season. She does not ask the man for anything, seeming only interested in getting to know him, something he is not comfortable with. In the second season when the man moves to another diner she shows up again and reveals that there may be more going on with her.

Two other stand-out performances are Jennifer Del Rosario, who plays Melody, the only other character to appear in both seasons, and Noel Fisher who plays Dillon, a man who wants immortality whose story crosses over with Melody. Both provide very emotionally performances with Fisher providing one of the most heartbreaking performances of the whole series in his last appearance. If there is any justice he will find more work based on just that.

The nature of the show naturally provokes a lot of online speculation from its fans. Most center on the nature of the man, but I think there is a lot more interesting details in the other characters. The man is not the protagonist of the series; at least not in season one. He is a well written plot device, he servers to motivate the people who deal with him, but they are the ones that grow and change. Second season gives the man more to work with himself, giving him some growth as well, but even then it is the people who come to him that are interesting.

Put yourself in their shoes. You learn there is a man who can give you anything you want as long as you fulfill a deal with him. The deal will be difficult, maybe even unthinkable, but you will get what you want. How far are you willing to go for what you want? That’s the hook of the series.

As for the nature of the man, a lot of fans want to put him in Judo-Christian terms. They speculate that he is either the Devil or an angel. I personally think that is too simple for this show. If we look at him in context of archetype he is a trickster. He provides a deal that allows people to face a truth about who they really are while they work to complete their tasks.

I would give The Booth at the End a solid grade of A as a web series. I encourage everyone to check it out.

An overview of Web Series

Are web series the way of the future? For most of you I’m sure your answer is, “what the hell are you talking about”?

Since about 2006 I have been fascinated by the how media and the way we consume it is evolving. That was the year I really got into podcasts. One of the early ones I found was Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code. During those early days one of Adam’s assertions was that in five years 50% of the media we consume would be produced by what were previously consumers.

It’s six years later and while we are not at the 50% mark we are further along than we were. And I think there are three factors at play here.

The first is how we want to consume media. I for one do not watch anything on TV during the time it is actually broadcast.  Between my work schedule and other activities I just don’t have the time. If I am interested in something I either watch it on demand, or online. When I reviewed American Horror Story, I did not watch a single episode during broadcast; I went out to FX’s website and watched. If I am not watching a show through On-demand, I am either watching it on Hulu, Netflix, or in rare cases Itunes.

And this is a growing trend. We have the technology to watch what we want, when we want, and where we want. The big media companies are catching on slowly. I am convinced that there will come a day when watching on demand is the norm and that shows will not be scheduled around a timeslot at all.

And this brings us to the other factor at play, the technology. Back in the eighties I was part of an amateur film making group. We made Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan films. Back then our distribution network was basically word of mouth at conventions and tape distribution. Also we had to rent time with editing equipment. Now you can get editing software for reasonable rates and when you are done you upload the video on-line.

So the barrier of getting your material out is gone. Instead the effort is to get people’s attention with so much competition.

So back to my original statement, why are web series the way of the future.

First I want to point out that there are basically three different types of web series.

The first is the professional series, produced by a big studio or network. These are either online side series to bigger shows, or original products that are not big enough to put on a network. Examples would be online extensions to the shows Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, or original content like the Booth at the End and The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD). The extension series can add detail to the main show, but they are general made so that they are not required viewing. A show like Booth at the End is a smaller budget scenario but can give actors who rarely get a chance at starring roles the opportunity to show their chops. LXD, which I previously reviewed, is an example of a show that would just not fly on regular TV, but given a chance online, is able to find an audience. The non-extension examples can often blurs the line with the next type

The second type of web series is the independently professional produced series. Shows like Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, The Guild, or Leap Year, which again have recognizable actors and even creators, but are made outside of the normal studio system. These can be passion projects for a creator that they cannot get backed, or an attempt for an up and comer to show they have the skills to work in the industry.

The previous two types of web series are ones that while smaller than normal TV shows can still get enough press to be successful. The third type is also the one that most fits Adam Curry’s prediction. These are independently produced shows that feature an amateur cast. The budgets are often small, so for a show to succeed there are to be something going for it like good writing and solid concepts.  A great example is a show I previously reviewed called Ninja: The Mission Force. The production company, Dark Maze Studios, specializes in what it calls micro budget productions. Other great examples are Standard Action, Transylvania Television, lonelygirl15 and JourneyQuest.

A subset of type three is the internet reviewer. I’ve mentioned some of these before. The best examples can be found at That Guy with the Glasses. Some of the reviewers are also film makers so it all comes down to people looking for a way to be creative.

Of course some people do it because they want to be famous, but honestly that’s not the worst motivation. But unless they have talent to go along with ego they aren’t going to do so well.

It’s the independent amateurs that I feel personally drawn to. These are the people that in the pre-internet days no one would have ever heard of. Now they have a means to get their work to an audience and make a name for themselves.

And actually make money at it.

That is the third factor at play. People have finally figured out how to monetize web series. It can take a few forms.

The most common is ad revenue, just like regular TV. In the case of online video it is usually by going through a service, like Blip TV, that hosts the video and stiches ads in them. The service will then split the ad revenue 50/50 with the video producer. The revenue is based directly on how many views a video gets so the more popular producers can make a full time job of it.

For the professionally produced web series they will either be on a studio site, or on a site like Hulu.

A variation of the above is when a site picks up a video producer, like IGN or the Escapist. They take care of the ads and pay the producer.

Another way is crowd sourcing, where the producer gets donations from fans to produce the show. This is how the first season of the Guild was paid for. The advent of Kickstarter has been a great boon to the web series, as it has for many artistic endeavors.

Since there is money to be made people will go out and make web series. This is what will make sure that there will be more and more content. So I say give it another five years and Curry’s prediction will come true.

I could go on about individual shows, and I certainly will in future articles. In fact in a couple of weeks I will be reviewing Booth at the End.

Who knows, if the stars are right maybe one day I might finally get around to creating a web series of my own. It could happen.