The first season of Hulu’s “East Los High” brought revelations of cheating, pregnancy, rape, HIV diagnosis, sexting, deceit, molestation, bullying, theft and murder, gracefully anchored by an intergenerational cast of Latinas in Los Angeles. The second season, which premiered in full on Hulu this month, adds domestic violence and queer sexuality to the popular high school drama. It’s not hard to find these themes in broadcast or cable television dramas, but rarely do Latinas drive such complex narratives in English-language programming. For years, web series producers have responding to television’s galling lack of diversity on a scale largely unrecognized by the mainstream media. “East Los High” stands as one of the most recent and well-produced among dozens of original dramas created by and for diverse communities, from lesbians and gay men to blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, and released online.
Created by Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya, “East Los High” isn’t just a teen drama, it’s one of Hulu’s most popular original series. Produced by Population Media Center, a Vermont-based non-profit, the goal is to provide educational content, particularly on reproductive health, through a storytelling strategy modeled after the Sabido method developed in Mexico and used in some telenovelas. Throughout the show, “teachable moments” pop up — for example, different methods for birth control and terminating pregnancies are explicitly delineated, multiple times, by physicians and friends of the lead characters.
Filling these teachable moments with humanity is a cast of mostly teenage women living in East Los Angeles. It’s not surprising: Indie producers have been filming dramas since the debut of streaming sites like YouTube and Vimeo in the mid-2000s. By 2006 one could watch Susan Buice and Arim Crumley’s classic “Four-Eyed Monsters“ alongside pirated versions of R Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” indie drama “Chump ChangeS” (one of the first black web dramas) and “Melody Set Me Free,” one of artist Kalup Linzy’s many soap-inspired art works (for which he does all the voices).
The number of indie dramas started to increase after YouTube increased the length allowed on its videos and competitors Blip (now Maker and Disney’s) and Vimeo attracted producers looking for fans interested in narrative and “professional” content, best exemplified by Daryn Strauss’ actor-driven drama, “Downsized,” which explored how the recession impacted a diverse group of Angelenos.
A watershed moment came in 2010, when “We Love Soaps” inaugurated the Indie Soap Awards, now entering its fifth year. The first winners speak to the incredible diversity in the market: Taking home the top prize was Robert Townsend’s Monica Calhoun-starrer “Diary of a Single Mom,” which like East Los High found sponsorship through non-profit initiatives to provide education for social change; Townsend would eventually join “Resurrection Boulevard”‘s Dennis Leoni to create Mexican-American drama “Los Americans” for One Economy. Susan Miller and Tina Cesa Ward took home the writing prize for their tenderly executed lesbian-led and racially diverse teen drama, “Anyone But Me,” which ran for three seasons and ranks among the most successful series to arise out of the 2007-2008 WGA strike (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog” takes the prize).
Kai Soremekun’s “Chick,” a sci-fi/fantasy series about a woman of color seeking empowerment after an abusive relationship, took the directing award. “Compulsions,” a dark drama led by indie TV stalwart Craig Frank, took home multiple awards. “Venice,” a continuing series developed by Crystal Chappell after “Guiding Light” was canceled and fans lost her lesbian storyline, remains of the few examples of an indie series successfully funded through subscription. Series produced by women with meatier roles for female actors, including Julie Ann Emery’s “Then We Got HELP!” and Jennifer Thym’s beautiful Hong Kong-set “Lumina,” received recognition.
Taking the award for Best Ensemble, and winning multiple awards since, was Anthony Anderson’s “Anacostia,” one of the longest-running and most popular black dramas online. “Anacostia” follows a group of neighbors in DC’s southeast neighborhood of the same name, an area the media covers disproportionately for crime. “Anacostia” adapts dramatic conventions in filming and storytelling to show residents in the full range of life, while also providing plenty of juicy drama to keep viewers coming back. Its success has not only allowed lead actors to grow with their characters but attracted acting talent from mainstream soaps, most notably “As the World Turns” star Martha Byrne. Production values have risen as the series matures. The show is a hit on public access and signed a local sponsor in Anacostia River Realty, a path to financing more creators should follow.
Yet “production value” continues to nag web drama creators as they seek broader recognition. Indie dramas are just as culturally meaningful as corporate television series, but they cannot compete financially. While some productions can afford to pay workers competitive rates, most are not great job creators. Since pay is often low or nothing, technical quality varies.
But let’s not forget that cable networks aren’t excelling at job creation either. Tales of the grim realities of reality TV work — non-unionized labor that comprises the bulk of cable programming — are easy to come by. To deliver the cinematic look critics crave on a TV budget, production companies for some scripted shows are extending work days and chasing tax credits.
The importance of web drama isn’t in technical production value — cinematography, makeup, costume, editing, sound, etc. — but rather in the creative production value, in the writing, acting and direction generated by a diverse group of workers in which networks have forgotten to invest. Web dramas cultivate narratives about a range of people in different stages of life and sociological positions. Fans judge series by how authentically or engagingly producers represent their realities and fantasies. Seen in this context, networks like Fox (“Empire”), CBS (“Extant”), Netflix (“Orange Is The New Black”) and ABC (“Scandal,” “How To Get Away With Murder”) were picking up on trends most indie producers and soap fans have always known: Drama is best when it is diverse.
A full accounting of the market for web drama is impossible. However below is a list of currently running or recently concluded series (within two years) worth checking out.