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Monday, September 14, 2009

The Portland Web Show: Hype, Reality, and The Free Box.

Posted on Mon, Sep 14, 2009 at 4:08 PM

In the ebb and flow of Portland's creative community, people are always ready to jump up and shout that the next big thing is just around the corner. That kind of buzz happened this summer around the web series Wage Slaves, and last summer around another web series, The Bicyclist. While Portland didn't invent the web series, we do have one really great local web show, and that show is The Free Box.

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My first look at the show's description, about “roommates living in Portland” left me expecting something trite and sigh-worthy, but the first episode quickly melted those doubts away. The Free Box is absolutely hilarious. The characters all have their own screwy, idiosyncratic traits, but without overbearing lack of subtlety of a TV sitcom. (Oliver, for example, is a huge stoner who can't—or won't—ever put his bong down. No particular reason for this is ever given.) The situations, exaggerated and sometimes even supernatural, still have a more believable, natural rhythm than most shows that take place in solid reality. And even though it's filmed in Portland and takes place in Portland, it eschews in-your-face local flag-waving. The episodes, though often saddled with a kooky premise, are well thought-out and full of nods to the fans and references to previous episodes. Most importantly, it makes me laugh hard, often, and loudly.

More booger-lickin' butt fire after the jump!

We have an enormous amount of creative talent twiddling its thumbs here in Portland, usually between barista and bartender shifts. But the means to coordinate and direct that talent doesn't appear to be as common. The amount of web content may be on the rise, but you can't just toss something online that imitates another medium, like TV, and expect to become an overnight sensation. Because of the short attention span of internet viewers, two elements are absolutely necessary for a web series to succeed: a razor-sharp sense of timing and the dedication and ability to get content out often and regularly. The Free Box's director, Jon Meyer (who, along with Drew Hicks, is also the co-creator/writer of the show), has a firm grasp on these concepts.

“It's all about getting it done,” says Meyer. “It has nothing to do with money, or expectations, or whether you've got the best lighter in town. It's about getting it done. I meet a lot of filmmakers in Portland, and they're always talking, talking, talking. It's like, 'What have you done?'”

That's essentially what it all boils down to. The Free Box has a polished, semi-professional feel, and you can tell it's been toiled over. There are rough edges, but they're not the kind of edges your web viewer will take issue with. They're certainly not anything to sweat, or important enough for Meyer and Hicks to take time away from what's truly important: creating content and getting it out there. To put out a good web-based show at the moment, cutting corners is almost mandatory; the trick is knowing which corners to cut.

I'm focusing a lot on The Free Box. What else is going on with Portland-based web series? Well, The Bicyclist was pretty good, but they stopped putting out episodes last year (they've been busy shooting and screening their feature-length film, The Bicyclists). The hype about Wage Slaves over the last couple of months was just that: The show has some potential, but it suffers from a major lack of directorial skill. In addition—and speaking as someone who's worked in the service industry on and off for almost 10 years—the scripts come off as more than a bit naïve. (I won't win any popularity contests for saying that. Portland's creative community loves its babies, even the ugly ones. But there it is. ) Wage Slaves is also taking a big break after putting out just six shows, and preparing for the series' "second season." (Isn't the concept of a season perhaps best left in the television world?) And then there's Blue Fiddles, “the story of three women searching for meaning amongst the day to day grind living in Portland, Oregon,” which will premiere “sometime late Fall 2009.”

So, regardless of whether it's the “best” or not, The Free Box is, arguably, the only Portland web series throwing up fresh content. (21 episodes are up already, and new shows are posted weekly.) Despite the complete lack of a budget, a schedule of day jobs, and other projects (the cast and crew are currently at work with another group, making an indie feature called The Corners), these people are getting together regularly and creating something out of pure love for the project, and maybe that's why it's so good. In fact, even if he could, Meyer wouldn't change the way the show is made. When I asked what kind of things he'd do with a big budget that he can't do now, he said, “I'd pay my actors.”

The Free Box is taking part in a fundraiser party this Wednesday at Kelly's Olympian for The Corners feature-length film, including screenings of new episodes. More info below.

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