I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I like to have my iPad and phone near me. I’m never one to sit and passively absorb a show for too long before I want to start texting with a friend. And if it’s a collective event, like the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions, I like to follower Twitter at the same time. That’s when I realize I’m not alone in this tendency, as my friends around the country get fired up with hashtags and @replies. Even as television screens get bigger, they still have to compete for our attention with the little screens we carry with us day to day.
Instead of fighting this reality, Dirty Work, a three-episode online comedy that just won an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media, runs with it. Produced by RIDES, a “transmedia storytelling platform” created by LA-based Fourth Wall Studios, the show pings you with phone calls and text messages throughout, giving you an inner look at the characters’ own interactions. The premise is made all the more interesting by the show’s plot—these are no ordinary hipsters, they’re an oddball threesome of Angelenos who have the thankless task of cleaning up murder scenes.
Take for instance, the beginning of Episode 2. One man sits passively while another argues on the phone with tech support. Viewers who volunteer their phone number at this point receive a phone call to hear the exasperated tech support agent help the customer figure out how to properly use their device. But since this is a show about murder, the troubleshooting is literal, and the device in question is a harpoon gun.
There’s a certain rhythm to Dirty Work that I appreciate while watching. The text messages and phone calls aren’t intrusive, and they come at appropriate times. When the characters get an annoying text message—or, at one point, a sexy one—I get one too. Short video clips are strategically interspliced to offer backstory about the characters. And If I choose not to engage, I can just let the show continue. There’s always an opportunity to catch up later.
The show’s recent Emmy win is a curious nod, as this is the first online television show to win one. From the perspective of the vast majority of television shows today, Dirty Work does push in a slightly new direction. But texting with your TV is nothing new per se, as anyone who’s watched and voted for American Idol would attest. And those of us who grew up watching Nickelodeon will remember call-in TV shows like the Kids’ Choice Awards, years before the internet took off. The fact that Dirty Work is the first online TV show to win an Emmy seems more a sign of the changing demographics of television viewers.
But if Dirty Work‘s attempts at “transmedia storytelling” are lacking in the transmedia department, they show much more stable footing in the storytelling. Written by John Newman and The Office writer Aaron Shure, the dialogue flies back and forth with witty one-liners and outlandish awkwardness (in a good way). It’s carried along by the sullen 24 actress Mary Lynn Rajskub and the quirky Hank Harris and Jamie Clayton. The latter gives an inspired monologue at the end involving Google, her character’s upcoming surgery, and—wait for it—Kid Creole.
Somewhere between good interaction and good storytelling, there’s a balance to be struck. The same generation raised on social media is more than happy to surrender three hours at a movie theater where mobile phones are ostensibly prohibited. Sometimes amidst all this content creation we just want to consume content, too. Indeed, as RIDES states in their FAQ, even despite the multimedia, multi-screen platform of their shows, “You won’t be controlling the decisions that any of the characters make.”
I’m not sure how much Dirty Work counts as interactive programming, per se. Viewers simply click “accept” when the phones rings, and we continue to passively absorb the story. To me, rather than signaling the growing interactivity of entertainment, the Emmy nod suggests a simple acknowledgment that the television is no longer the dominant screen in our lives.
Images courtsey of RIDES.