As a native, I know how to navigate Los Angeles’s Westside with relative ease, depending on the amount of mind-numbing traffic and inevitable freeway closures, of which there are many.
But when it came to navigating the digital landscape of LA-set reality series “@SummerBreak,” this young Angeleno was completely lost, and seemingly no dash-mounted TomTom could provide the guidance I so desperately needed with about 15 tabs of social media open on my Firefox browser.
Some background: Variety broke news in April that Chernin Group was prepping the launch of an unscripted series that would take place only on social media platforms, and not on TV. This format and distribution model seemed a “game changer” within the reality sphere, marrying the docusoap aesthetic made famous in shows like “The Hills” with a distribution method that ostensibly appeals to young viewers’ internet habits.
“@SummerBreak” centers on several Westside teens who graduated from high school this year and are enjoying their last summer before heading off to college. Launched on June 17th, “@SummerBreak” leverages Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, but YouTube is where short, produced clips featuring the teens in social situations– usually no more than five minutes long — are posted. These clips are the anchors of the show.
The skein is closer to real time than most reality shows, since the show takes place this summer and has already bowed online. YouTube clips appear to be posted about a week after a taping occurs.
With so many platforms at play, “@SummerBreak’s” first problem is that it lacks a distinct entry point. YouTube clips, while labeled numerically, land on Tumblr and other websites out of order, so you enter into the series — and its developing plot — in an off-balanced way. On the show’s YouTube page, the most recent clips are billed at the top, whereas clips that provide character description and background are loaded at the bottom of the page.
The first week’s mini-episodes feel stilted at times, opening with banal conversation between the teens (think “Does swimming right after eating really make you puke?”), before offering about a two-minute discussion that dissects a particular social situation, if that. Then, the clip abruptly ends, thereby not allowing moments to be drawn out in the way halfhour or hourlong shows can.
I explored the Twitter and Instagram accounts of each cast member, but these sites feel like background noise or just promo platforms for the YouTube clips. Most of the pics are in the vein of teens posing at parties or the beach, which do little to propel the budding social tension and plot points. Other photos resemble Tumblr-esque photos, artsy and with lyric-like catchphrases that encourage reblogs from Tumblr’s teen users, but do little aside from promote the show.
Is the show really “playing out” on these social media platforms, outside of YouTube?
So far, not really, unless you count a continual flow of photographic proof that, yes, these kids really do know one another and live in L.A.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of “@SummerBreak” is the time element. Because the show plays out in the very recent past online, as opposed to skeins like “Real World” that have multi-month-long gaps between production and broadcast, viewers and social-media gawkers can feel close to the action. There is a sense that, in Los Angeles, you could stumble upon a shoot for “@SummerBreak” already understanding the social dynamics of the cast. There is also an intriguing element where the teens reference filming and watching the clips within the mini-episodes (“He didn’t know his mic was still on in the bathroom,” one cast member says, referencing a “@SummerBreak” clip she’d evidently watched that week), allowing for meta-commentary on the consequences of taping a reality show.
Yet the downfall of “@SummerBreak” lies in its defiance of linear content programming. The strategy of rolling out unscripted content in small clips on YouTube makes it difficult to keep track of the stories playing out on “@SummerBreak.” Cobbling together the mini-episodes makes one long for the days of MTV’s veritable docusoaps, where heavy editing sapped the content of raw authenticity but at least added clear, distinct storylines that engaged viewers.
Furthermore, “@SummerBreak’s” use of Twitter misses the point of why social media is fun in reality TV. Fans of programs like Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise and MTV’s “Real World” scramble to the Twitter accounts of cast members to see sassy comments and accusations be hurled at one another in 140 characters or less. Those Twitter accounts truly propel and provide depth to the on-cam drama in a meaningful, organic (and albeit horrific) way.
But with tweets like these…
…it’s hard to feel compelled to continue to scroll through an endless sea of mundane hashtags and pics of pool parties in order to find the one riveting diamond in the rough.
Perhaps there is a middle ground available. While lensing and doing post-production on such a series would be a small nightmare for a reality shingle, a traditional docusoap that has a weeklong lead time and airs in halfhour episodes on YouTube would offer this “close to the action” aesthetic along with more comprehensible episode structure.
Yet, with such a short lead time, it’s difficult for producers to shape a story for auds to follow when they simply don’t know what that story is yet. With “@SummerBreak,” the creatives behind the show seem to be posting episode clips that are comprised of whatever funny moments or semi-dramatic exchanges these teens have conjured up when cameras were present. But that does not a reality show make. The kids don’t know what this show will ultimately be about, and neither do the producers, really, since they simply don’t have the footage in the can yet.
“@SummerBreak” is like a puzzle, one the viewer is tasked with putting together, and without much promise of entertaining content (seriously — you are reminded of how important season sizzle reels that tease blowout fights are in reality TV when it comes to keeping your interest piqued). But in its current state, “@SummerBreak” needs bigger pieces — episodic videos — in order for the smaller ones — tweets, Instagram shots — to feel fun, and not daunting. For now, “@SummerBreak” feels like its title: an expanse of time lacking real structure, where everyone gets a little burned.