Friday, May 21, 2010

You Gotta Get a Gimmick: "Kickassia" Edition

In my last post on web reviews, I pointed out a couple of examples of film reviewers who were blurring the line between commentary and scripted entertainment. This week, in honor of the second anniversary of their website, the reviewers over at Channel Awesome just leaped the divide.

And indeed, it was awesome.

Channel Awesome is a production company that features the work of web reviewers and satirists, many of them ousted from Youtube over IP infringement concerns. Chief among them is Doug Walker, aka That Guy With the Glasses, whose moniker is also the name of the main Channel Awesome website. He's a great example of a media reviewer whose critiques operate as entertainment in and of themselves. Walker portrays a number of different characters like The Nostalgia Critic, Chester A. Bum, and Dominic the Bartender, who each host web series that revolve around pop culture commentary. The best known of these is "The Nostalgia Critic," where Walker spoofs and excoriates childhood favorites from the 80s and 90s. It currently averages over 100,000 viewers weekly, which has allowed the site to turn a decent profit through ad-generated revenue.

Channel Awesome also produces and hosts web series for other talent, and aggregates the videos of affiliated contributors. Some of these include "Atop the Fourth Wall," for comic book reviews, "The Angry Joe Show," one of several video game-themed offerings, "The Cinema Snob," who has a yen for exploitation films, "The Spoony Experiment," following a popular media vlogger, "Anime News Editorial," to cater to the otaku population, and "The Nostalgia Chick," who takes on media aimed girls and women. All feature technology-savvy members of Gen X and Gen Y, operating out of basements and bedrooms, putting webcams and video editing software to good use. The shows have shoestring budgets, offer bare minimum production values, and often rely heavily on the manipulation of existing media. Crossover efforts are common, though the collaborators can be in different states or even different continents.

For Channel Awesome's first anniversary last year, many of the site's popular contributors gathered at a Holiday Inn in Chicago and had a celebratory brawl. For their second anniversary, they reconvened with a more ambitious goal in mind.

"Kickassia" chronicles the Nostalgia Critic's campaign to to conquer Molossia, a real-life micronation situated in the Nevada desert. It premiered this week on the That Guy With the Glasses site as a six part web series, with one new installment released per day, each running roughly fifteen minutes apiece. Add them all together, make some edits, and and you have a full-length film. Unlike most of their other videos and sketches, "Kickassia" features almost entirely original material and concepts (the better to sell DVDs with, no doubt). The site contributors all play exaggerated versions of themselves, or fictional characters from earlier videos. In-jokes and references abound, but aside from a quick explanation of how to play the board game "Risk," nobody reviews or discusses anything media-related. Instead, we get a straightforward story that treats the contributors as characters, actually fleshing out several like Cinema Snob and Film Brain beyond what we'd seen from their individual web shows.

Has anything like this ever happened in the ranks of traditional media reviewers? Quite a few critics indulge in affected quirks to distinguish themselves, particularly on television, but I've never heard of any of them developing those screen personae into full blown characters. The only analog I can think of is that one time when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel guest starred on "The Critic" as warped caricatures of their onscreen selves, and I'm certain they didn't originate the idea. But that was only possible because the pair was so well known at the time, they had achieved an iconic status that made them unwitting targets for parody. I can't imagine any current film or television reviewer trying anything similar. Can you imaging David Denby or A.O. Scott crossing over into movies, and playing fictional versions of themselves a la "Being John Malkovitch"? Are there any major reviewers left in the media landscape that would have the charisma to pull something like that off?

I would pay to see "Armond White: The Movie," but probably not for the right reasons.

One could argue that the Channel Awesome crew shouldn't be considered real reviewers, since most of them wear a lot of different hats and reviewing media is only one of several facets of their online work. But this is exactly the point - reviewers no longer have the luxury of only being reviewers. There's too much competition for attention now, and too many voices all trying to make themselves heard. To some extent reviewers have always had to be entertainers, and had to find ways to engage and retain their audiences. The difference now is that the new generation of media critics are mixing entertainment and criticism together in ever-more inventive ways, so it may become necessary for newcomers - and certain esteemed, recently unemployed critics - to learn how to navigate both worlds, or even to go back and forth between them.

Say what you will about the quality of the Channel Awesome shows, but they know how to attract attention, and they know how to brand themselves. After watching "Kickassia," I may not be particularly impressed with some of the reviewers' work, but I know who they are - or at least the fictional, calculatedly larger-than-life facades associated with them. And that's half the battle won right there. I'm not saying traditional print critics need to band together and launch an invasion against a minor sovereign territory - there are more dignified ways of getting attention - but they'd do well to keep an eye on what the cool kids are doing.

Because "Kickassia" is indeed pretty kick-ass. And Channel Awesome may be the future competition.

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