Snapchat Makes Television Now

It’s vertical, highly produced, and very superfluous.

Phone screens displaying promo images for the Snap Originals series Endless Summer, Class of Lies, and Co-Ed.
Screen grabs from Snap Originals.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Snapchat.

As Instagram Stories has replaced Snapchat in the hearts and minds of millions of users, the once-hot app has become a bit of a joke among teenagers who are nostalgic for 2015. But Snapchat has a new plan for getting back on top: original scripted content. You say you already have way too much TV to watch? Well, get over it, because Snapchat has a slate of six new five-minute shows, with more to come, called “Snap Originals,” produced exclusively for the app and designed to be watched inside it. Yes, that means there is now scripted television available in vertical video.

Pilot episodes from three of the shows (it’s not clear how many short episodes will make up a season) are already available to watch, so I tried them out. They include Endless Summer, a reality show about influencers, from the reality TV powerhouse Bunim/Murray; Class of Lies, a mystery set on a college campus; and Co-Ed, a comedy about friends struggling to keep in touch after one has started college.

Professionally produced content on Snapchat has up to now been largely underwhelming; watching Snapchat stories produced by publications and brands on Snapchat Discover can feel like watching a bunch of fancy PowerPoint slides. But these shows have impressive production values and pedigrees. They’re from TV industry veterans, and it shows: These are not amateur web series that look like they were filmed in your friend’s apartment. Each show makes good use of vertical space, which can’t have been easy considering some 70 years of TV history that happened in a completely different aspect ratio. The shows were interrupted every minute or so by six-second ads for the upcoming Halloween movie, an instance of life imitating the concept of the 10-second sitcom that 30 Rock parodied over a decade ago.

The shows are also extremely Gen Z. If you are not Gen Z, get ready to feel old! (When watching these shows, and for the rest of your life.) This means that I was virtually transfixed by the makeup, hair, and clothing choices of all the young people on them. For example, what is going on with the pants on the girls in the screenshot below? I genuinely have no idea!

Two young women walking.

Endless Summer feels like a 2018 bizarro-world simulacrum of MTV’s classic Laguna Beach—same pseudo-scripted, too-beautiful-to-be-real feel, and it even takes place in the actual Laguna Beach, California. But because the people on it are influencers rather than high school students, it seems to exist without any stakes whatsoever. They are just hot and live at the beach and their jobs are to make content, and this is meta content about how stressful that can be. I find that concept a little suspect, but I also found it very easy to get drawn into this creepily perfect world. Will Summer and Dylan’s relationship be strong enough to survive the pressures of fame??

The scripted Class of Lies feels a lot like a reboot of Veronica Mars with a dash of today’s true crime craze. The two main characters of the show literally host their own true crime podcast. One of the main characters is gay, but it’s not a big deal or a centerpiece of the show, in a way that feels casual and appropriate for 2018. The plot entails one mystery taking place in the current timeline—someone on campus disappeared!—as well as another mystery story told in flashbacks. Who said you couldn’t do heavy-duty plotting in five-minute increments? The show might take itself ever so slightly too seriously for a vehicle that is some newfangled app’s experiment with original content, but of the three shows I watched, it was the one I was most interested to keep going with.

Co-Ed, also set in college, felt a little same-y presented in conjunction with Class of Lies, and it’s just generally a bit forgettable. Comedy is hard, and comedy pilots are hard, so I don’t envy any comedy that only has five minutes to establish its tone and go for laughs.

All of this said, watching TV on Snapchat is weird and I’m not sure I liked it! First of all, it made me rethink my anti-PopSocket stance: Who wants to hold a phone up for such a sustained period of time? Also, there was some lag in each show that made me acutely aware I was watching on a phone with a struggling battery. That became all the more clear when, three times in a row after finishing an episode, my phone froze up and couldn’t be used for a few minutes. I can’t completely blame Snapchat for that—my phone is very slow, and I am very bad at using it—but it can’t bode well for the rest of the people out there who also own slow phones and suffer from a touch of digital ineptitude.

One thing I’ve never understood about the push to have users watch longer and more expensive videos on their phones is that it seems at odds with what people love most about their phones, which is the second-screen experience they provide. It’s fun to use your phone while doing something else, whether it be texting while watching a real TV or scrolling through Instagram while you’re on a call. This could just be me, but I don’t like when a video dominates my phone screen—it makes me feel antsy because I like my phone to be free to toggle between apps.

Will these shows be the savior Snapchat is hoping for? This remains unclear, as does the entire rush to monetize and dominate the online video landscape. One thing we do know is that Instagram and Facebook are trying to figure this business out too. Translation: Expect way more of these five-minute TV shows in your future.