(Originally published 23 November. Kind thanks to Catcher in the Reel for permission to repost.)
By Aaron Hunter
This article is part of an ongoing project on the topic of web series that will discuss a few key examples of this burgeoning medium. May include mild spoilers.
The first thing a viewer of the premiere episode of Squaresville (2012-2013) is likely to notice – especially in relation to the examples discussed previously in this series – is that it breaks out of the bedroom: no web cam, no confined space, no breaking the fourth wall. Unlike the many web series that have used the YouTube platform as a formal structuring device, in its first episode Squaresville seems to model itself more on TV and maybe even film. From the opening seconds we get voiceover, a variety of cuts, an extra-diegetic soundtrack, moving cameras, and, perhaps most significantly, an episode that takes place almost entirely out of doors.
Squaresville, E1 “Nerds on the Run”
In this sense, Squaresville is a very different series than those we’ve looked at previously in this spot, and its first season of sixteen episodes does a lot to amplify those differences. By making use of a variety of locations both indoors and out, and by using a broader range of approaches to filming and editing, Squaresville looks a lot more like a traditional TV series than do its web series godmothers. Perhaps this is due in part to the series’ high school themes and milieu: it needs bedrooms, classrooms, and locker rooms to sell its authenticity. Perhaps it’s also down to a more general trend: the web series is growing up. I would argue that the best web series make use of the medium itself and don’t necessarily try to ape TV conventions – web series do not want simply to be the runt siblings of television – and Squaresville does eventually make great use of its web platform (which, more on that shortly). But none of that has to preclude web series growing more adventurous in form and style in part by making use of TV and film conventions, which Squaresville also does, often very well.
The other first thing a viewer of the show might notice is that it stars Mary Kate Wiles as one of its central protagonists. Wiles, as you may recall, played Lydia on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and was, arguably, that series’ breakout star, as Martha mentioned in her excellent guest essay on the series (in fact, Wiles seems to have become the go-to web star for a wide range of quirky young women roles: I’d also highly recommend the funny, sweet, cloyingly meta Kissing in the Rain of earlier this year). In Squaresville, Wiles plays Zelda, best friend of Esther (Kylie Sparks), two high school outsiders who find their home town incredibly boring (thus the series’ title) and who have little in common with most of their peers. Much of the series involves Zelda and Esther trying to find ways to amuse themselves, while at the same time reflecting on their love lives, contemplating their futures, and avoiding the recriminations of their seemingly cooler older siblings. In this, it shares many tropes with standard teen dramedies on television.
The first season is fairly plot-driven, involving Zelda and Esther’s growing bond with their friend Percy (Austin Rogers, who increasingly grows into the group’s third member), a growing romance that threatens the stability of the group, and some simmering sexual tension. Plot aside, though, what sets Squaresville apart from the standard teen TV show is the way it allows its protagonists to do nothing, to experience leisure, to simply be friends. Here lies a large part of the show’s joy, just watching Zelda and Esther do the sorts of things that most teens do when they try to fill the cracks between important! events, the sorts of things that teens on TV do off-screen.
It helps that the small cast has excellent chemistry and that they really seem to enjoy working with creator, writer, and director Matt Enlow (the series won IAWTV awards for Best Comedy and Best Ensemble in 2013). In fact, the show includes an accompanying series called “QandHey” which addresses viewers directly, not only answering fan questions, but also featuring fan art work and responding to fan story ideas. Unlike the Q & A sessions of, for example, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries where Lizzie and her sisters respond to viewer questions in character, the cast and crew of Squaresville respond as themselves. Each session features a different pair from the show’s small cast and crew, and the joy they seem to get out of both taking part in these sessions and making the show itself is palpable. This camaraderie translates to on-screen chemistry that elevates scenarios that could otherwise come across as mundane. Snappy dialogue helps, too.
However, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its sophisticated formal attributes, S1 actually comes across as a bit less adventurous than a lot of other web series. In trying to look more like TV, which it most definitely isn’t, Squaresville’s first season fails to push the style of the web series in any sort of new direction. It seems caught between a formal desire to be a TV show and a narrative and character desire to be more web-based, the result being a danger of missing both marks. The second season makes up for this in a several ways. After smoothing over the S1 cliffhanger (which, more in a sec!), it pretty much drops all pretense of season-long, arc-based story telling in favor of sprinkling small one to two episode mini-arcs throughout the season. Furthermore, in between those mini-arcs many of the episodes take on a much more experimental nature. We start to see the imaginary lives of Zelda, Esther, and Percy, as if looking into their heads, with the show playing around with all kinds of formal and genre conventions. Perhaps most intriguing is an episode where the main troika jump from one pop cultural scenario to the next – everything from Star Trek: TOS, to Adventure Time to Annie Hall – all the while interacting with all of the worlds both in and out of character, and sometimes not always knowing exactly what text they’ve landed in. It becomes a short, 5-minute essay on identity wherein they make fun of themselves and each other while also wondering what kind of adventurous life they’d like to have. Plus, it produced this image:
In addition to the fantasy elements of its formal experimentation, S2 also sees Squaresville engaging in a web-standby that S1 had eschewed completely – the direct address to the camera. S2 is sprinkled with a series of eight Monologues, each of which features a different character – including minor ones – directly addressing the camera on a wide variety of topics. Some of these monologues directly concern series plot points, while others simply serve to add character depth. So Percy describes the first time he ever met Esther, while Zelda waxes euphoric on the joy of finding a song that you simply have to listen to over and over. In an example that gets to the crux of what the show is often about, the head of the high school gamers’ club addresses his propensity for wearing a fedora and whether or not this makes him “weird.”
“Weird is just a value judgment for the unimaginative.” Squaresville Monologue 3.
YouTube commenters on S2 episodes often decry what they see as the series’ more aimless feel and its lack of a sturdier narrative. I personally find S2 a lot more engaging precisely for those reasons. The paratextual elements of the QandHey episodes, the direct addresses of the monologues, the incorporation of fan art and ideas all indicate a show that is much more comfortable with its nature as a web series. And some fans did embrace the second season, most noticeably in the ways they started uploading their own versions of the season’s monologues. Furthermore, in dialing back on the story arcs, the show embraces what, for me, made S1 most enjoyable in the way it captures those aimless moments of high school life, the way that friendship often becomes the best substance for filling in the many cracks of boredom that meander through the high school years. In doing so, it also allows the characters to breath, and so to gain greater depth than they may have if they’d simply stuck to following the plot beats that S1 laid down.
It is worth mentioning one of those plot beats, however. Squaresville features one of the sweetest, most touching coming-out stories I’ve seen in teen drama. Hoping not to spoil too much, I will say that throughout S1 discussions of sex and dating happen frequently enough that it isn’t too terribly hard to guess that the series might be laying the groundwork for a coming-out story. The story is handled very deftly, however. The gay character only comes out in the final episode of S1, and then only to the audience – just about to inform one of the other characters by telephone, the two of them get into a massive fight and the character only says “I’m gay” after hanging up. The episode ends soon after without any resolution. Throughout S2 this situation is continuously alluded to, but not brought up outright again for most of the season (another frequent area of complaint amongst fan comments). However, once the resolution does arrive, it becomes clear that the wait has been worth it. All that time S2 spends on non-plot beats, all that hanging out and fantasizing, lends a depth to the central characters that makes the resolution to the coming-out story both believable and rewarding.
As far as I can tell, there’s no S3 in the offing as of yet. While I would love to spend more time with these characters, S2 ends on such a lovely, honest note that another season might not really be necessary. In any case, the entire series is worth watching. The characters are great, the dialogue zings, and for fans of the web series as a form, it’s fascinating to watch the way Squaresville creates a delicate balance in both eschewing and embracing its formal roots.
You can watch all of Squaresville – including the “QandHey” episodes and other paratextual segments here:
Next up: My Gimpy Life
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to circumstances of life, the universe, and everything, this series sadly remains unfinished. There were plans to include entries on My Gimpy Life and Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl. However, just because they didn’t make this series, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch them – both series are excellent and do amazing things with elements of narrative and style in the web series. Check them out!)