‘Quarterlife’ and the Problem with Whiny Protagonists

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t pass their pilot and saved us all a ton of grief. 

Sometime between the subduing angst of the mid-90s and the eternally young and overconfident vampires of the present, there was a lull in the mid-2000s. Smartphones hadn’t yet given the common man anything to look down at when not in front of his TV, while the dwindling interest in Survivor gave way to the anti-Survivor, The Biggest Loser. It was a different time, a dark time, and out of it came Quarterlife, a show that resembled aging trends and nullified new ones — hence, its immediate failure.

Quarterlife was a web series about a melodramatic 25-year-old blogger and her creative yet financially deficient friends. Filmed as a web series for MySpace, the show’s first season contained 36 10-minute long episodes, which attracted a strong cult following. One year later, the show premiered as an hour long NBC drama and was canceled shortly after the pilot aired, garnering some of the network’s worst ratings in nearly 20 years.

The pilot’s failure was something of a surprise. Quarterlife’s showrunners, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, champions of the angst-ridden, age defying Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, seemed to have a home run on MySpace. However, as thousands of users looking for romance on the site would soon learn, looks can be deceiving.

Assuming they could grab the elusive 18-to-34-year-old demographic between the high school complaining of My So-Called Life and the endless string of adultery and divorce of Thirtysomething, Quarterlife tells of the underemployed young adults trying to make their dreams a reality. Our guide, Dylan, a blogger and associate editor of a teen lifestyle magazine, plays My So-Called Life’s Angela at 25. She’s intelligent, awkward, and wears her emotions on her sleeve. Or, more specifically, she posts her emotions on her blog.

When Dylan isn’t performing the soul crushing, exploitative labor of her editorial position, she blogs about her life — well, not so much her life as her friends’ lives. She blogs about Dan and Jed, two aspiring filmmakers about to start work on their first commercial. She blogs about her roommate Lisa, an actress, bartender, and promiscuous alcoholic. She blogs about her best friend Debra, Dan’s girlfriend and Jed’s unrequited. Dylan’s a writer, so gabbing about her friends is a huge part of her process. It’s, like, a fetish, or something.

The show announces itself within first few moments. Dylan’s face appears on a computer screen introducing herself, her friends, and her woes. She’s the writer who doesn’t write, opting to confess to her webcam. So the depressed Dylan, who has no direction in life and isn’t sure which life she’s supposed to be living, analyzes her friends, because she totally gets them. But, of course, somehow or another, or because someone we’ve never met introduces them to it, all of her friends stumble upon the site. “Holy moly,” proclaims Dan. Holy moly, indeed.

Combined into one continuous 43-minutes of television, the actions of these characters don’t make much sense. This could be because seventeen minutes of the initial six episodes were cut and repackaged for advertising. A problem, like Dylan airing personal details of Lisa’s life, which would cap a ten minute episode and segue into the next one, now appears before the first commercial break. It has no time develop and, therefore, has little bearing on the rest of the episode.

So none of Dylan’s friends are that mad at her. Jed’s sort of bummed that Dylan blabbed about his loving Debra, but that subsides when Debra starts making passes at him. Also, Dan doesn’t really care, because he’s not that interested in Debra. At least, he doesn’t seem to be, but maybe he is. His intentions are really never that clear, but we’re supposed to think he’s a jerk. Sort of. Lisa’s pretty peeved about being called a lush who sleeps around, but after one half hearted, sarcastic apology, she forgives Dylan, who is just spreading her artistic wings anyway.

Other arcs, which would probably make up a good chunk of the season, like Dylan’s boss stealing her idea for the magazine, don’t get their due. Wrapped up in one 40-minute episode seems more abrupt than as part of a weekly series. The week-to-week break gives an episode time grow in importance. As a scene in the middle of the pilot, it just falls flat.

Quarterlife missed the mark on a number of fronts. First, this may be a bit presumptuous, but no one wants to watch 40 straight minutes of someone complaining into a webcam, unless they’re demanding that we leave Britney alone. Second, by the time Quarterlife hit primetime, the 90s angst well had run dry. Viewers don’t want diffident twentysomethings. They want Gossip Girl and self-assured characters that know they’re the best. Plus, everyone hates bloggers.

Compared to the rest of the garbage on Brilliantly Canceled, Quarterlife isn’t all that bad, but it does feel like a cash in. The formatting issues probably would’ve been ironed out, after its planned six episode season, and its performances, though hindered by the lapses in logic, are good enough. Had the sorry ratings of its pilot not soured its reputation, the show probably would’ve had a healthy run online.

Shows like Quarterlife cater to such a specified demographic. No, not the people living lives like this, because they know how phony it all is, but those in surrounding demographics who think people live like this. Herskovitz and Zwick needed the thirtysomethings and teens with so-called lives to grab on to this one, but their audience was spending too much time on Myspace to watch.

‘Quarterlife’ and the Problem with Whiny Protagonists