This is the not-quite-true story of six friends picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, as one pensive video-blogger finds out what happens when people stop being polite and start being “real.” Originally a Web-only series and social network, quarterlife was designed, writes creator Marshall Herskovitz in Slate, to be the first Internet series to “engage the emotions of an audience.”
The series attempts this feat by zooming its sympathetic lens on emerging adults, specifically those observed by Dylan Krieger (Bitsie Tulloch, whose untamable hair and moony eyes look great even in a pixilated online screen), a writer and magazine “editorial associate,” who maintains an inexplicably popular video blog about her housemates and friends. They spend all of their time together, are secretly in love with one another, cause drama in each others’ lives, and complain about being part of today’s creative underclass.
Hmmm… a show where friends sleep around on each other, only to have truths revealed about their lives through a blog? It’s basically Gossip Girl, only without the awareness that it’s a total fantasy. Instead of seeking popularity and social influence like the teens in The CW’s soap, the friends in quarterlife are looking for unadulterated artistic talent. Jed (Scott M. Foster) is most admired and desired, apparently because he directed a regional car dealership commercial that included “postmodern filmmaking” and “weird shots.” Danny (David Walton) remains stuck on the bottom rung of the group’s hierarchy: you can tell he’s not as cool as the rest of the bunch because he looks like a young Matt Dillon rather than a member of Vampire Weekend. He’s fun at times, but his intermittent interest in business and making money can be kind of a drag.
The artifice is only underlined by the series’ Nickelodeon-style universe, with cartoonish villains and heroes. The car dealership salesman asks Danny to get him a cup of coffee while writing up a sale Danny helped to close. Debra’s (Michelle Lombardo) father is so dismissive of her efforts on the job (at his appliance store) that she has trouble finding time with him to give her two-weeks notice. Worst of all is Dylan’s magazine cohorts. Straight out of The Devil Wears Prada, they comment on her dress, steal her ideas, and give her filing projects as revenge when she dares to speak up for herself. “Your greatest asset is inauthenticity,” observes Dylan of the business, and yet it’s the world outside quarterlife‘s core characters that feels the most inauthentic—a strange, Gen-X view that having any salaried job or joining any type of organization is selling out. (Even though, in the real world, Gen-Xers have moved on and started companies like Google.)
That’s not to say these core characters are particularly convincing either. Dylan undergoes a personality reversal each time she walks into her magazine cubicle, changing from bright and talkative to a nervous, stuttering mess with no reason or explanation. She cries about it. Her friends cry too, for the thinnest of excuses. They talk about how they’re scared to fulfill their potentials. It’s as if quarterlife comes with a prefab drinking game: take one shot when the waterworks start, another if the word “scared” follows. You’ll be passed out before the episode ends, but chances are you’ll only miss more crying.
According to Herskovitz, all this emoting and sympathizing may have echoes in the initial online community: “What amazed me was that our users were exactly the people I’d hoped they’d be: aspirational, creative, thoughtful.” He elaborates: “Discussions are honest, sometimes tough, but never cynical… There’s not a snarky bit of snideness anywhere in its microclimate.” But this seems like just as much of a fantasy as the show. It’s hard to believe that today’s 25-year-olds can buy groceries without being snarky about it, let alone respond so to a fictional Web 2.0 series so earnestly. Now quarterlife is graduating out of its self-contained Web community and into the real world. Let’s see how it resonates among the rest of us sellouts.