Will Wright’s user-created show for Current TV.

Bar Karma

On Jan. 21, Keith Olbermann abruptly parted ways with MSNBC, forcing twitchy media junkies, progressive couch potatoes, and simpering little knee-jerk liberals to wonder where they’d turn, thenceforth, for their fix of lefty stentorianism. Then, on Feb. 8, Olbermann announced that he had signed on as the “chief news officer” of Current TV, forcing these and others to wonder what the hell Current TV was. Current, launched in 2005 with the backing of Al Gore, is a cable network available in about 70 million homes and, on any given night, neglected in about 69,980,000 of them. It’s far too modest an operation to rate being called a news network, but it’s newsy, news-ish. The target demo is 18 to 34, possibly overeducated, probably undershaven. The audience is highly civically engaged, or at least that’s the impression they try to give their dates over sushi. This is a network where the TV version of This American Life lives on in reruns and where a documentary show, Vanguard, is smart enough to win Peabodys and brazen enough to brand itself as “no-limits journalism” while showing off the talent’s biceps. Current’s this-week-in-snarky-review show, infoMania, shares an attitude about the media—a complicated of kind self-loathing gluttonous glee—with similar programs on Comedy Central and E!. The main differences are that infoMania’s particular sense of smugness involves a tangy element of liberal smugness and that its production values are borderline DIY. But doing it yourself is what Current is all about. Two years ago, for instance, this column begrudgingly admired its Rotten Tomatoes Show, which collates the film reviews of amateur critics. (It is a decent show with a beautiful business model: Movie studios provide free clips, and “citizen critics” chat at their Webcam gratis, and all you need is a couple telegenic quipsters to bring it all together.) Last Tuesday in Manhattan, Current threw a press breakfast spotlighting its forthcoming docu-series and also, especially, its adventures in viewer-created content. (This includes viewer-created ads: The network has empowered humble civilians to join in a grassroots efforts to sell corn chips for Frito-Lay.) Gore and business partner Joel Hyatt presided over the breakfast, but the stars were the producers of Bar Karma (Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), Will Wright and Albie Hecht. Wright is the video-game creator behind The Sims and SimCity, and Hecht is a big-deal TV executive, and they were there to sell us on an experiment in “community-developed television.” On the show’s Web site, you can use Wright’s “StoryMaker engine,” a sort of decision map, to choose the characters’ misadventures. You can lobby to tinker with the soundtrack, vie to suggest plot devices, and submit your art to hang on the other side of the fourth wall. So far, the sales pitch is more intriguing than the product. Semi-philosophical and quasi-mystical, Bar Karma has a premise like a Tom Waits song adapted into a British sci-fi series. One morning, a cocky Internet brat (Matthew Humphreys) wakes in the bed of a bold blonde and makes for the door. He walks into a bar that he cannot leave. His friendly captors are the parched barkeep (William Sanderson), who is kindly and creepy and perhaps as old as time itself, and a comely Australian bar wench (Cassie Howarth), who is just slightly younger and who wears fishnet stockings. The hero’s got a karmic debt to pay, I think, and he will settle that metaphysical tab by lending aid to various accidental time travelers who stumble into the establishment. Or something. It’s a bit tough to say, and Bar Karma’s characters and their situations are more easily comprehended by reading the online material about how to develop the show than by actually watching it. Maybe I should hold back on complaining about the show, this being the rare case in which I can actually do something about it. Or maybe I should just concede that I’m the old-fashioned type, that I’m not a part of the Current psychographic. In order to have a complete Bar Karma experience, you need to feel a thrill at completing a Web 2.0 circuit: The TV watches you.

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