Tuesday, August 16, 2016

BSN Review: First Five Episodes

The first five episodes of The Candle Wasters' Bright Summer Night, a webseries inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set at a modern-day New Zealand house party, are sharp, funny, painful, and wildly inventive--and if trends continue, the next five will only improve.

The character spotlight structure isn’t just the most distinctive thing about Bright Summer Night; it’s the only thing that makes the story work. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a full-length play with nearly a dozen major characters operating in three distinct worlds (the world of Athenian nobility, the world of the Mechanicals, and the world of faerie). Characters stumble through the woods, careening off of each other, sending shockwaves through parts of the story that they never directly interact with. It’s a truly sprawling story. Without some device to focus the narrative, it would be impossible to satisfyingly condense AMND into an hour. You might fit every plot point in, but you would almost certainly do so at the expense of the atmosphere.

Ironically, The Candle Wasters create sprawl by focusing tightly on one character at a time. Each episode is a sharp, cohesive story, a detailed character portrait with a beginning, middle, and end. But any two episodes may be only tangentially related to each other. Episodes skip backward and forward in time; a video may chronologically start before and end after the video that came before it. Brief, inconsequential moments in one episode become centerpieces of another. One week, we examine a character’s deepest desires; the next week we examine the deepest desires of a character who may not even know that person’s name.

Yet the episodes do have an impact on each other, glancing and non-linear as it may be. Puck’s quest for Awhina’s purse sends Petra and the Mechanicals on a mission to save the party; Lena’s request for drugs, now an hour old, turns Deme and Zander’s night on its head; in searching for a quiet room, Bryn inadvertently throws off Zander and Mia’s shaky groove. Petra trips over Awhina’s purse, Puck’s tugging sends the fairy lights to the ground when Lena slams the door, and all over the party, no one can find water. These characters may inhabit different figurative worlds, but they all live in the same literal world. All of their actions have consequences, even if they can’t always see them.

Which seems, fittingly, to be the theme of the whole damn thing. So far, every character’s story (save possibly Zander’s) has revolved in some way around the question of what we owe to others. The question of whether people can have an impact on the world comes up overtly (in Bryn’s arguments with Awhina, and Puck’s with the Mechanicals) and implicitly (in Lena’s fumbling attempts to make a difference in her own life). We’re reminded over and over of which characters think they can change the world and which ones think they can’t, which characters worry about the effects of their actions and which ones don’t. BSN is a story of characters reckoning with their effect on the world and the world’s effect on them, and that theme is reinforced by the very structure of the series.

The character spotlight structure does create some limitations, however. First, it by necessity slows down the story; when episodes skip backward in time, or cover the same event from multiple angles, you double the amount of time it takes to get through the plot. That’s not the worst thing in the world—a major concern, when condensing a two- to three-hour play into a one-hour webseries is that things will feel rushed, and BSN definitely avoids that—but considering that we’re halfway through BSN and only about a third of the way through the equivalent plot in AMND, it is potentially worrying.

Slightly more troublesome is the fact that the character spotlight structure leaves very little room for error. If a spotlight episode fails to get across everything we need to know about a character—as “Bryn” and especially “Zander” do—it may be weeks before that character even shows up on screen again, let alone has a psychologically illuminating moment. Episodes aren’t entirely bereft of information about the non-titular characters—you can gather insight on Zander from “Bryn,” on Nicky from “Petra,” on Mia from “Lena”—but the tight focus limits the time available to other characters.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that an episode about, say, Awhina will reveal more information about Bryn, who forms an important part of her story. Or that seemingly unimportant moments will, in the light of later episodes, turn out to be more meaningful than they originally appeared. Both of these things have happened already. In addition to explaining its titular character, “Puck” provides, not a passing glance, but a good long look at Bryn. And the brief exchange between Zander and Deme in “Lena” reads very differently, after you’ve watched “Zander.” (An experience that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever rewatched Lovely Little Losers.) Indeed, every one of the first five episodes has improved on rewatch, and that will probably only get more true with time; subsequent episodes will enlighten and enrich the ones that came before, and the way each character’s story ends will undoubtedly provide a lot of insight into the way they began. If you’re really worried about getting the most out of BSN, my recommendation is to rewatch the whole thing, once it’s out.

But in a series as heavily episodic as BSN, especially one that’s being posted six minutes at a time, each six minutes should be enjoyable on its own, in the context in which it’s first encountered. We don’t have to know everything about Zander by the time we’ve reached the end of “Zander.” But we should probably understand why Zander does the things he does in that episode.

All of that aside, it’s remarkable how much TCW have been able to convey about these characters in so little time. In only about 30 minutes, they’ve crafted nine major characters. Some of those characters, like Deme and Mia, are still fairly broad—we have a sense of their personality and presence, but we haven’t really dug into the details of them yet. But characters like Puck, and even Bryn and Zander, for all their mystery, are complex, relatable, and realistic. And not a single character is a cartoon or a plot device. They all have depths and motivations. They’re all distinct and understandable. They feel like people you know, people you might meet at a party, if you were young and social and a little counter-cultural. Even when clouded by their aversion to exposition, characterization has always been one of TCW’s strengths, and it remains a strength in BSN.

The other strength of BSN is the atmosphere. Not just the narrative atmosphere created by the episode structure, but the lighting, the music, and especially the editing, which work together in idiosyncratic ways to create an off-kilter, almost magical feeling that links individual episodes together. TCW are elaborating on the tricks they learned from vlogseries: freely mixing diegetic and non-diegetic music; letting the setting (with its fairy lights and crowds of winged partiers) do a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing character and tone; incorporating jump cuts in such a way that they give the series a kind of rhythm. Some of the series’ more traditional editing occasionally stumbles—the camera angle has a tendency to shift a little too far and a little too quickly during conversations—but the wilder and cleverer and more experimental the editing gets, the more successful it generally is.

We have five episodes, thirty minutes, four point-of-view characters, and a hell of a lot more plot to get through in the back half of BSN. It’s a tall order, and TCW haven’t particularly gone out of their way to shorten it. But the ride so far has been moody and funny and clever and painful, and so I’m happy to stick around and see what comes next.

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