Last week, Warner Bros. brought back the defunct WB channel in a new form: an online-only network, the first one with a name inherited from Hollywood. You can watch august old WB shows on TheWB.com, along with raggedy new Web-only video series, and the effect, so far, is something like those professional dog walkers who have a Great Dane, two chihuahuas and a bulldog on the same leash. You know they're all the same species but -- wow, did the Creator really intend for them to be out strolling together?
But that's a little bit like Warner Bros. television. There's the studio itself, which is massive and traditional, defined by shows like "ER" and "The West Wing." Then there was, for a decade, the WB network, which, through independent-minded shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek," created iconic teen worlds in which beautiful people also suffered, and outsiders' obsession with social status could somehow look like social justice.
TheWB.com blends those two corporate identities into what they're calling a "curated experience" -- much in the spirit of an old-school TV network, in fact. With its attempt to be something unified in spirit, it goes a few sprightly steps further than sites like NBC and News Corp.'s more catch-all Hulu.com toward fusing the old TV model with the new one that's emerging on the Web.
Above all, it's a way for Warner Bros. to wring some small change, at least, out of its library, in this case popular shows like "Gilmore Girls" and "Everwood" that ran on the WB, which merged with UPN to form the CW in 2006. Be warned: The network is not putting everything online -- right now there are only around 200 selected episodes, with "fresh" ones substituted each week so viewers keep coming back. Not every WB show is there, either: No "Dawson's Creek" or "Felicity," at this point. (But you do get "Veronica Mars," a Warners show than ran on UPN.)
So if it's merely a small step toward the dream of every TV show or movie you want, available any time at the click of your mouse, TheWB.com is still a tentative peek into a future of convergence, in which your TV and your computer will be the same animal. As Hollywood brands go, the frisky WB seems like a natural test case for a Web/TV hybrid. The Web network too wants to come across as a force of liberation: "The WB isn't about putting a limitation in front of our viewer," Brent Poer, the site's general manager, told me over the phone. "It's about saying, here's the content -- enjoy it when you want to."
Shows like "Gilmore Girls" have some age on them at this point, but still, they had a particular feel -- intimate and intense, soapy but not dopey -- that makes them Web-friendly. With smallish, loyal followings, a "Gilmore Girls" (or "Veronica Mars" or "Everwood") were always scaled more in the niche way that has come to define a Web audience. Watching them with your computer screen inches from your face feels appropriate. "Buffy" and "Smallville," the Superman prehistory drama, are also right at home on a computer screen, with their science-fiction underpinnings and superhero DNA.
Those shows easily sucked in a particular kind of brainy, emotional viewer ("Smallville," still on the air, continues to exert its appeal), but were too precise and moody to have the mass appeal of a TV juggernaut like "Friends" -- which, by the way, TheWB.com is throwing into the mix, since it was a Warners production that ran on NBC. "Friends" will probably get a healthy share of clicks, but in a way, it's working against the identity that TheWB.com is trying to build. As a glossily packaged comedy with next to nothing to do with real human life, it looks weird sitting on the home page next to a sincere and depth-seeking show like "Everwood."
Web series in the mix
Since the old shows are a finite, exhaustible trove, the network will also have to furnish new material too. So it's including a handful of original Web series -- that ever-shifting category, defined for now by fuzzy parameters. (Shot on video, presented in bite-sized episodes, influenced by the democratic, tell-your-story-into-the camera vibe of YouTube. Add to that: unlikely to make any real Hollywood-style money in the near future.)
TheWB.com will have one high-end Web series that looks like it comes from money, at least -- slick-looking, McG-produced "Sorority Forever," which premieres Monday and has an appealing (and "Buffy"-ish) premise: a sorority that appears to be also some sort of evil cult. It stars the only actress to anchor a hit Web series, Jessica Rose, better known as lonelygirl15, and it's got all the production values of a regular old TV series, but with super-quick-cut episodes all in the six-minute neighborhood.
TheWB.com has a few other new Web series launching in September, including one from "Gossip Girl" creator Josh Schwartz (whose Fox show "The O.C." is another non-WB hit playing at TheWB.com), This one aims to involve viewers in a new way: It's set in a Hollywood rock club that users will be able to "visit" online.
Less explainable is the selection of what TheWB.com is calling "snaggables." Brent Poer described these shows as "short-form, information-based or humor-based, not episodic. They allow you to view a little content and go on with your day." While a series like "Sorority Forever" is conceivable on TV (just as another Web-born series with Hollywood DNA, Marshall Herskovitz's "quarterlife," ended up on NBC), these other shows are, as Poer put it, "things you wouldn't necessarily see on air, but they are part of the daily diet of this audience."
In other words, these are existing grass-roots Web shows that have been plucked from Internet micro-microfame and given the red-carpet WB treatment. These particular shows are not, so far, benefiting. The contrast makes them look hokey and striving instead of refreshingly un-Hollywood.
There's "A Boy Wearing Makeup," in which a friendly young guy named Mathieu Francis gives makeup instructions by demonstrating on his own face. Someone apparently found this gender-bending premise exciting; Francis has some charm but he's not funny, and he is all business. There's nothing else going on here, no submerged narrative, and his conventional approach could be right out of a Bobbi Brown instructional video (though all his products are from MAC, adding a suspicious infomercial overlay).
"Whatever Hollywood" is a little better, with its three singing and dancing chicks mocking both celebrity culture and their own lack of fame. But it still seems to belong more to the realm of things you find randomly on the Web than to something that would have the WB stamp on it.
It's been only a couple of years now that Hollywood and the Web have been trying to imagine a way to live as one. TheWB.com may not be that just yet, it's a sign that the two approaches are not ridiculously far apart but if you squint hard at the site, you might pick up a hint about TV's next act.