The new Web video series quarterlife takes a boldly precious approach to product placement. The show watches over a vaguely post-collegiate group of pals squirming toward adulthood, and two of them, fledgling moviemakers, pick up a gig producing a commercial for a Toyota dealership. (Given how the characters spout off about consumerism and artistic purity, it seems that we’re supposed to be mildly sympathetic when the pretentious one tries wooing the owner by explaining, “The whole concept of Postmodern filmmaking is based on the idea that there are no limitations.”) The dudes shoot outside of the showroom, where a sign on the window draws our attention to Toyota’s Scion, a line aimed at Generation Y. At one point, they take a meeting inside a car on the lot, hashing through their romantic rivalry in a manner that suggests a market survey about Gen Y ideas on commitment. For sure, they’re sprawling in a way that makes the car’s interior look intriguingly roomy.
The attitude is, if not Postmodern, at least post-cynical, and quarterlife drips with earnestness even when stooping to pay the bills. Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick—the upper-middlebrow maestros behind thirtysomething and My So-Called Life—have launched quarterlife both as a MySpace TV series and as its own social-networking site. The target audience for the latter is, according to Herskovitz’s profile page on quarterlife.com, “creative people, passionate people, people who want to change the world”—in other words, people with enough youthful idealism to tolerate the show’s high-gloss navel-gazing.
Protagonist Dylan Krieger is the chief self-absorbee. Unfulfilled in her entry-level work at a glossy women’s magazine, Dylan starts maintaining a blog, complete with video, as a way to stay true to her writerly ambitions. Foremost among these is gossiping about her friends. Those film guys—Danny (crass but sensitive) and Jed (sensitive and totally sappy)—live in an apartment across the way from Dylan and her roommates, Lisa and Debra. Lisa’s a bartender enrolled in an acting class. Debra, though not any sort of artist, still has a soul tortured enough to compete with the rest of the crew. In an early episode, seeing Debra parked on her front steps with her knees up and her shoulders slumped and her downcast eyes gazing into the self-absorbed middle distance, you may come to realize her posture is quarterlife’s definitive stance. This show sulks.
As a rule, if the female characters are not actively crying, then they’ve either just stopped or they’re wrinkling up their button noses in an attempt to start again. Lisa cries when she finally gets a look at Dylan’s blog, which depicts her as an alcoholic strumpet. “You put my face all over the frickin’ Net!” she bawls, rage overwhelming her faculties such that she can relay her thoughts only in the corniest terms. Lisa’s lower lip also gets to trembling when her acting teacher humiliates her in front of her class. (Hershovitz himself plays the teacher; quarterlife is so full of such rabbit holes and mirror tricks—the Toyota ad built into the plot, the fact that Dylan posts her videos on quarterlife.com—that it sometimes resembles a kind of kiddie Borges.)
Elsewhere, Dylan cries because she loves Jed—”The thing about Jed is, he really is an artist,” she says—but he loves Debra. The boys also get in on the act, with Jed mewling because he loves Debra and she loves Danny. Meanwhile, Danny mists up because he’s not a talented filmmaker and really needs Jed in order to get by, bro. All of them quiver and moon. None of them arouse our sympathies because they indulge their misery with rather too much relish. After all, if Dylan were content, what would she blog about? “Why aren’t you happy?” one of her friends asks in a lighter moment. Dylan responds in a preteen pout: “I don’t feel like it.” It’s supposed to be cute.