Any comedic web series is tough. Branded, derivative web series — could anything else sound more corporate? — might be the toughest nut to crack. Viewer expectations are high; the web show premieres with a higher budget counterpart, a comparison it can’t beat. Having to integrate products only makes things harder. Too often they look original-lite, like the homework the writers and actors didn’t want to do but pulled off the best they could.
Every now and then, great derivative series pop up — personal favorites include ones for Battlestar, Walking Dead, Ugly Betty, and 30 Rock. It can be done. But quality and seamless brand integration has been rarer.
Happy Endings‘ series Happy Rides is the best example out right now — perhaps among the best ever — of the pitch perfect derivative web series. Happy Rides is about Penny’s first car. It starts when Penny tells the gang her mother is selling her first car, a truck. It’s the kind of broad, mundane situation enlivened with snappy dialogue and zippy jokes fans have come to expect on-air.
Except online it’s in service of Suburu’s “First Car Story” campaign, where the company collects your memories in exchange for brand loyalty. It’s a mawkish participatory ad campaign most people avoid for its near pointlessness.
Yet Happy Rides is so well-written. Penny’s news prompts Max to narrate sexcapades he had in the truck back in college. Max and Alex decide the truck is too important to be sold without a last hurrah. In the next episode, Jane tells another story about her and Brad’s misadventures in said truck, back when she had pink hair. In hearing other characters tell funny stories about this car, you actually want to watch the rest of the episodes to hear the rest of the stories! The episodes are light, brisk and inviting, with just the right amount of spontaneity.
Happy Rides feels like a bonus episode. In fact, the narrow storyline in Rides (Penny is losing her car. Full stop) almost works better than the sometimes frenetic on-air Endings. Almost. I’d share Rides with friends as a sample of the show. The actors are in top form.
The web series benefits from a sponsor who’s looking to promote an idea alongside the product. Penny’s car doesn’t not have to be an Impreza and, for all we know, it isn’t even a Suburu (it may well be). The “first car” idea is just a field on which the writers can play, which is what the Endings staff does best. Happy Endings has really found its groove in season two, and it’s nice to see the web series reflect, not undermine, its maturity. In the end, the quality of the show makes a little less lame heading over to Suburu’s branded site (I’m still not participating, though the animated letter is kind of cool).
Of course, if you’re not a fan of the show, Happy Rides might not work, but it might. Happy Endings is not the best comedy on television, but it’s a delightfully adept and consistently humorous rendition of Friends. It’s Friends for the generation of people who remember Friends fondly but avoid the reruns. They want a hint of the zaniness of Community/30 Rock/Scrubs in their neo-Friends sitcom. They also watch New Girl (which is not as funny but a bit more endearing).
The show is smart, creative, warm and safe, much like Modern Family, but at half the price. No wonder Suburu called them up.