It seems you can go home again. This week, NBC started airing quarterlife, the social-network-inspired Web drama that represents the first venture into online production for quality-TV mavens Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, who've never met a catchy generational tag they didn't like (lowercase preferable). The jury's still out on whether quarterlife will come to mean 20-somethings the way thirtysomething described ... well, you know. (Thirdlifers?) In any case, the 36 webisodes that compose this series about a group of young, creative, progressive types playing bumper cars with their communication skills, career hang-ups and romantic lives have been spliced — is that too old a word now in the digital age? — into six prime-time episodes. But if you've been watching quarterlife in the bite-size installments that have been doled out every Sunday and Thursday on MySpace or quarterlife.com, you've already gleaned that all along there were six episodes, with titles like "Anxiety," "Finding Your Voice" and "Goodbyes," each broken up into six eight-minute-or-so chunks that carefully checked in at least once with all the major characters.
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Three-dimensional friends in a digital world: the quarterlifers
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Looking for love: the Unhitched crew
The mathematics of television have conditioned us to see dramatized life neatly demarcated like this — with commercials as the medicinal adhesive in between — and while I know that quarterlife was initially conceived as a TV series before Herskovitz and Zwick decided to turn on, log in and upload, I wish they'd experimented a bit more with short-form storytelling rather than simply broken apart a time-slot template they were already familiar with. Especially since there are more than a few elements to quarterlife — even with all the blogging/texting/videographing of its tech-savvy characters — that will remind you of the Herskovitz-Zwick brand of soulful angst. In fact, how different, really, is quarterlife character Dylan Krieger's neurotic, nobody-understands-me video blogging from the diary narration of Angela Chase on My So-Called Life?
The argument, of course, is that the device is different because turmoil-ridden teen Angela didn't exactly unveil her thoughts to the world at large, while Dylan — a textbook (or should I say Facebook?) example of the private-is-public generation — happily spills her feelings, evolving philosophies and some choice inner-circle gossip onto a community Web page. One of the early storylines, in fact, is how emotionally treacherous — or is it just stupid? — this kind of attention-starved engagement with the world is. Strangers can enjoy your autobiographical drama, but your friends may not want to be known as the scene partners. And yet, after a few dustups between Dylan and her buds, the show dropped this angle, perhaps rightly so. Can't break up the gang too soon! And besides, Dylan is supposed to be the brainy, witty, slouchy-cute anchor of the ensemble, and as played by Bitsie Tulloch, she's more appealingly three-dimensional when not blathering into a webcam. Plus, her later flirtations with a roommate's visiting friend — a judgmental activist named Eric (Mike Faiola) — have a funny, electric charge, and are among the best scenes in all of quarterlife.
Nothing else feels quite as sturdy, though. The rest of the cast fret, goof and yearn with admirable charisma — doing their best to prevent the A-likes-B, B-likes-C, C-likes-D nature of the relationships from feeling anything but stale. Still, if we're supposed to believe that Dylan and her friends' search for the answer to the eternal "Who am I?" question is as dramatically resonant as the quest to hook up with the right dude or girl, then watching quarterlife is too much like a squirrelly cursor never clicking on the link you're interested in. Then again, a show about the new-media-saturated, postcollege years of reluctant ambition that can't quite get a bead on what's intriguing about its own subject matter — or exciting about the possibilities of its Internet narrative — feels like a strangely appropriate assessment. I don't feel negative necessarily about the flaws of quarterlife, but then I don't feel much at all about quarterlife either.
The goals of a Farrelly-brothers-produced show like Unhitched are as easy to spot as the ersatz hair gel in There's Something About Mary. It's hit your mark, sell your dirty joke, move on. Now, after The Loop, The War atHome, Stacked and The Winner all failed like bad pickup lines, will the sibling groin-humor specialists be the ones to deliver a raunchy sitcom hit to Fox? It all depends, I guess. Will seeing Craig Bierko ass-attacked by his date's pet baboon get a viewer like you to second base?
The premise of the show — and yes, there is one — is that just-divorced Bierko and three other 30-somethings (damn you, Herskovitz & Zwick!), also on the mend from broken marriages/relationships, are renavigating the seas of singlehood. And as you might expect, the waters are ... pee-filled? Is that the terminology the Farrelly boys prefer? Of course, it's easy to blame them for the thorough crass-ification of humor in the past 10 years, but what's been harder to achieve for the copycats is the strange layer of joyfulness and beguilement behind even their filthiest, most un-P.C. gags. In other words, they're not misanthropic used-car salesmen grossing you out, they're more like happily demented novelty-joke purveyors who might notice your disgust at the fake dog shit and say, "Okay, well, we have Groucho glasses too."
Which is a roundabout way of saying that, even when Unhitched isn't funny — and the second episode is definitely an improvement on the pilot, which tries too hard — it at least isn't vile. And so far, thankfully, they haven't made the only female — sweet-faced Rashida Jones (Pam's rival for Jim last season on The Office) — endure anything as sexually humiliating as the guys. Consider it the Farrellys' chivalrous side. The joke with Jones' bad date in the pilot is, in fact, a sly left turn away from the expected source of comic embarrassment — that he's a lot shorter than her — and toward the shockingly funny reveal of what his job is. And Jones' Mr. Wrong in Episode 2 is another howler.
Like the casts of a lot of these sitcoms, the Unhitched crew are a format-convenient quartet: Bierko has a rock-solid charisma that allows for haplessness; Johnny Sneed plays the de rigueur horndog, but at least he smiles a lot and doesn't act as if he hates women; Jones is the nice girl; and Shaun Majumder's good timing helps you forget he's playing another naive foreigner with a funny accent. And like a lot of these sitcoms, of course, it's a format-convenient quartet. It's hard to imagine exactly how this particular foursome became such intimate, do-or-die fixtures in each other's lives. But knowing the Farrellys, it probably started with someone accidentally being naked, someone doing something gross, wrong things being said, and everyone laughing.
QUARTERLIFE | NBC | Tuesdays, 10 p.m. | Premiere Tues., Feb. 26
UNHITCHED | Fox | Sundays, 9:30 p.m. | Premiere Sun., March 2
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes