It just seems like the first episode…”I paused, searching for a tactful phrase.
“Kind of sucked?” offered Lina Chen ‘08, the mastermind behind IvyU, the undergraduate soap opera that recently premiered on YTV, Yale’s student-run television station.
‘Well,’ I thought, ‘now that you mention it, yeah.’
IvyU captured attention on campus long before it premiered. Chen’s marketing team handed out laminated cards at Commons Dining Hall, placed ads in the campus tabloid,Rumpus, and plastered every campus bulletin board with posters. Each offered seductively few details: “IvyU… Soon.” The show managed to achieve that magical something as yet unheard of for YTV: serious buzz. And it paid off. On the day IvyU premiered, 847 people went to the show’s website, www.chooseyourscandal.com, to download the episode.
Unfortunately, the show fails to live up to its hype. The length of the entire pilot is a measly 15 minutes (including three minutes of credits), which leaves the dedicated television viewer with that difficult-to-articulate feeling that it isn’t, well… good. (In the sense that MTV’s trashy teen soap Laguna Beach is good.)
Still, the premise is undeniably brilliant: an “interactive” soap opera starring your peers—kids you see in lecture—whose destinies are placed in your hands like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. “I remember watching TV in 10th grade, and I really wanted a character to die, and they just wouldn’t die,” Chen reminisces. “I came to Yale, and I was like, ‘I can do this myself.’” After each episode, viewers log online to vote on questions like, “Should Snow and Christian make out in Episode Two?” The results are then incorporated into the next episode (64% percent said “yes, they should”). As Chen has realized, there is no better way for viewers to sate their God complexes than by commanding characters to make out on camera and then watching them swap spit. Even casting decisions are left in the audience’s hands.
Although open to criticism, Chen quickly ticks off the steps she has already taken to improve the show. The original screenwriter—a “random graduate student” who wrote the line “I’m more screwed than a fat cat in a blender” to capture a character’s midterm anxieties—has been replaced by two undergraduates, Eamon Murphy ‘08 and Toni Blackwell ‘09. And, from now on, each episode will focus on only half of the cast in order to flesh out the characters‘ personalities.
Then there is the problem of visual tone: IvyU more closely resembles a home video than nationally broadcast TV. For this, Chen blames her inability to command a crew: “I was too nice,” she says. “I wanted everyone to have fun. I didn‘t demand enough.” But she has since abandoned her welcoming attitude. “I just can’t have inexperienced people. Everybody working on this has to be experienced.”
As with most pilot episodes, the first show introduced characters and set the stage for future intrigue, making Lynwood Place seem more like Melrose Place. Meet Snow: Laura Merriman ‘08 is the innocent ingénue who is starting to feel smothered by her nice-guy boyfriend, RJ, played by Lucas O‘Connor, ‘08. (“I think I just, like, need some fresh oxygen, or something,” she tells him.) Providing skanky relief is Stephanie (Ashley Fox, ‘08), Snow‘s “best friend,” who purrs in RJ‘s ear, “you know, there are always…other people.” Then there is Cherry, the new girl; Diesel, the smooth-talking bad boy; and Ryan and Brittany, the funny know-it-alls who trade quips over Cherry’s airhead comments. Ryan’s sexuality is also literally open to vote, although evidence from lines like, “Oh Brittany, I‘m sorry you‘re so uncultured. You wouldn‘t recognize Prada if it were kicking you in the ass,” may have already tipped the balance (62% voted for gay, 31% for bisexual, and 7% for straight).
The pilot’s plot gets underway when Snow notices a mysterious necklace hanging over the edge of a brick wall. She grabs it, proceeds to a deserted area—bathed in moonlight, of course—perches on a bench in her flimsy, white shift, and fingers the jewelry while nervously glancing over her shoulder. Inexplicably, she is then kidnapped. The necklace belongs to a secret society called “The Gentlemen,” whose dark, brooding leader, Christian, has organized the kidnapping to recover it— and maybe something more. “I‘ll pick her up at midnight,” he orders a goon over the phone. “No, of course she doesn‘t know me. And,” he adds, his voice dropping a register, “I want her back in an even better condition than you took her.’
So where is this story headed? Amazingly, it’s up to us. Merriman has a few proposals for her own character’s future: “I think there should be a sex scene in the stacks,” she suggests thoughtfully. “Snow could be up there, with pigtails, a basket of books, a sundress. And then one of the bad guys could find her, like Diesel, and he’d say,”-she lowers her voice-”Snowcome here.” She also has a plan for how Stephanie and Snow should resolve their backstabbing friendship: “I was like, ‘why don‘t I make out with Ashley‘? And they were like, ‘but she‘s a girl!‘ And I was like- ‘so?‘ I want to un-build gender stereotypes at Yale; it‘d be so progressive.” Chen, hoping to attract a male audience with a science- fiction angle, is giving “The Gentlemen” ties to a race of “demonic creatures from hell.” It is Merriman, however, who may have more of the right idea.
The most impressive element of the show is its endless roll of credits. Though Chen conceptualized IvyU on her own, she relied on more than forty-five people to bring it to fruition. “Lina Chen is unbelievable,” explains Suzanna Lee ‘08, head of programming at YTV. “It takes so much time and effort to put together something like the vision she had for IvyU. This was a two year process of making it happen.” Two years for fifteen minutes? “People are so ready to criticize everything and anything on YTV,” Suzanna continues, “but they have no idea what goes into it—the equipment, schedules, learning how to use the equipment—often for the very first time.”
Why do students who are self-proclaimed “bad-TV” junkies ridicule Yale‘s own network? YTV is not, and never will be, MTV: it‘s an amateur-run college TV channel. This translates, as we all immediately note, into the home video quality of its shows. But, more importantly, it also allows for enormous creative opportunities: “We could go right now, and I could put you live on the air,” Suzanna says.
So if you have an idea for a show, YTV can help make it a reality. If you don‘t, perhaps you should abandon your pretensions and sit back to enjoy another example of Yalies working hard at making art. Of course, in this case, the art is set to an ‘80s soundtrack, with a few close-up shots and a handful of love triangles thrown in for good measure.
Sophia Lear is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.