The WIGS channel on YouTube could unkindly be called the online equivalent of television’s Lifetime network, specializing in stories of the lives of women that are, ironically, primarily created by men. The first of these web series is “Jan,” created, written and directed by Jon Avnet, who is probably best known for producing hit ’80s and ’90s films like “Risky Business” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the latter of which he also directed. Like the superior “Blue,” “Jan” is simply named after its lead character, Jan (Caitlin Gerard), an aspiring photographer who has just gotten what might be her big break, so long as her life doesn’t get in the way.
Jan works as an assistant to Mel (Virginia Madsen), an established photographer whose latest project is a book called “Afterglow,” which is a collection of shots of women immediately after the completion of sexual encounters. The first session features British movie star couple Gery (Stephen Moyer, best known as Bill Compton on HBO’s “True Blood”) and Andie (Jaime Murray, best known as Lila Tournay on the second season of Showtime’s “Dexter”). Gery seems to immediately like Jan and, when Mel is preoccupied with a phone call at the crucial moment, he convinces her to take the shots instead, which leads to Jan being fired. Luckily for her, deadline pressures from the magazine Mel works for causes her to rehire Jan, though Mel takes the credit for the photographs and warns Jan that she is on thin ice.
Jan also has a junkie boyfriend, Robbie (Kyle Gallner), who is constantly pestering her and her roommate, Vanessa (Laura Spencer), and complicating their lives. This subplot should make the series more interesting, but what it mainly does instead is make everything feel less focused. The tone of the entire series is very uneven, and quirks like Jan’s initial clumsiness and her habit of getting the hiccups when she’s nervous come and go without ever really going anywhere interesting. Likewise, the late addition of a new boyfriend for Jan feels inconsequential and tacked on, despite the conflict it would seem likely to create with Robbie, the ex, and Gery, who flirts openly with Jan and drops by her place to take showers (another contrived quirk that feels less than genuine). All in all, the stakes are never really high enough, nor is Jan a compelling enough character to make this series particularly worthwhile. Check out “Blue” instead, if you want to see what the WIGS channel is like.
Described by host Amy Poehler as “a celebration of real friendship, real fellowship, and a kind of community with other girls,” the web series “Smart Girls at the Party” is a kind-hearted, fun and educational program for kids and their parents alike, but especially for young girls. Often specifically focusing on girls who enjoy activities traditionally thought of as being more for boys, the series enjoyed a significant viewership boost in its first season when it introduced its youngest interviewee, seven-year-old Ruby, who speaks precociously about feminism. Its most-viewed episode to date features a 14-year-old boxer named Precela, and another highlight features a young robotics engineer named Rachel.
These are the “girls who are changing the world by being themselves,” in the words of Poehler, who hosts the show with the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of a news anchor before ending each episode with a dance party. Along with producer Meredith Walker and musical director Amy Miles, Poehler explores the special talents and interests of each girl – or in a few episodes, groups of girls – and interviews them, always ending on a “very serious question,” such as “pizza or cotton candy?” or “which is cuter, a baby panda or a baby monkey?” However, despite poking fun at self-serious interview questions, the series never makes fun of the girls or treats them or their interests with cynicism or irony. Instead, it clearly aims to imbue its young audience with a sense of self-worth and individuality, without being boring or preachy.
Now in its second season, the series has markedly improved from its first few episodes, adding a “World Famous 20 Second Song” segment for Miles and boasting higher production values. There are also some familiar faces in the dance parties that parents will enjoy spotting, including Poehler’s husband Will Arnett (who returns from the first season), as well as her “Parks and Recreation”co-stars Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza. Look closely and you’ll also spot folks like Jon Hamm, David Cross and Jack McBrayer in later episodes. With its own new channel on YouTube, “Smart Girls at the Party” is slicker and more fun than ever, and is highly recommended for viewing with children, especially daughters, between the ages of five and fifteen.
Julia Stiles stars as the title character in “Blue,” a new web series produced by the YouTube channel Wigs, which is described as “a digital channel producing high-end, original, scripted dramatic series and short films about the lives of women.” “Blue” certainly fits this bill, as it has high, network-standard production values and explores the life of Francine, aka Blue (Stiles), a single mother who works in an office and moonlights as a prostitute. We are introduced to her in the middle of serving a client, Cooper (David Harbour), who turns out to be an old acquaintance from high school. Cooper has more than a simple professional interest in her, and there is speculation that he might be the father of her 13-year-old son, Josh (Uriah Shelton).
Josh is a precocious, A-student who is beginning to be curious about sex and who is too smart not to know that his mother is hiding something about herself from him, though he is not yet sure what. He befriends Cooper, seeming to need a father figure in his life to complement the good relationships he has with his mother and his grandmother, Jessica (Kathleen Quinlan), a sexy older woman prone to over-sharing about her love life. Meanwhile, beginning in the third episode, Blue has an oddly mentor-like relationship with her office co-worker, Lavinia (Sarah Paulson), who looks up to her, thinking Blue really has her life together. Lavinia seeks Blue’s advice about her relationship with her ex-husband, Walter (so far unseen), who seems to be using her for financial support due to his ailing health.
The series is created, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who is known for his work on feature films like “Mother and Child” and last year’s “Albert Nobbs,” as well as television series such as HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” the latter of which has a similarly soap opera feel to it. The first season runs 12 episodes, each around eight minutes long, which means the entire first season is roughly the length of a relatively short feature film, and each episode is basically a single long scene, or two shorter, connected ones. Some of these work better than others; while Blue and Josh have great chemistry and really good dialogue in the second episode, and a subplot involving Josh’s troubles at school in the tenth and eleventh episodes is especially interesting, I have to admit I have very little interest in the relationship between Blue and Lavinia. Paulson is a very good actor, but her character is sort of weak and whiny, and it remains to be seen if her subplot will garner more interest. On the other hand, the first season ends with an intriguing development involving an older man from Blue’s past, and fans of soapy drama will definitely want to tune in for new episodes once they become available.