This morning I binge watched 11 episodes of a show at my desk. It took me four minutes. Now, I have been known to pick movies before based on their run time (approaching the very end of my 20s I have a nasty habit of falling asleep in very long films) but I think this exercise might have gone too far.
The show in question, Artistically Challenged, was the first ever series shot exclusively for Instagram.
God help us all.
Artistically Challenged is shot like it’s swinging for the big leagues, reportedly using a costly Canon 5D camera and utilizing a crew of 25 and roping in 30 actors. It’s the brainchild of three New York City filmmakers and graduates of the Tisch School of the Arts. So there’s pedigree there. It’s also almost a first of its kind idea, too. (Adult Swim is building a whole micro-network for smartphone audiences.)
So there’s some credit due. There’s a lot of effort here. But it is still entirely a redundant exercise. The show covers the life of Nick, a perpetual layabout and aspiring artist, who gets drawn into the scene when he tells a lie about himself. Watching it feels like watching a hyperaware culture turning too far in on itself. The 15-second episodes rely on runs of quick cuts and qualifying shots, or small gags that span the full episode but don’t have time to land. In episode two, we get a run of eight qualifying shots of Nick getting fired from jobs that he’s not trying that hard at. In episode eight, Nick’s new art dealer fires Banksy (played by an actor of course). Each storyline has the potential to be funny or rewarding, but of course because of the time constraint, just can’t.
The concept squeezes the life out of whatever thought has gone in here, while the whole thing still feels too pleased with itself.
I get that a lot of mainstream, longer form entertainment, is about as deep as this. Movies are getting shorter. TV is shaving minutes out of the hour to make room for ads. People take audiences for numbskulls on a daily basis.
The other night I had the misfortune of watching the new Jack Ryan movie, with Kevin Costner and Chris Pine, which came out earlier in 2014. When we’re introduced to Kenneth Branagh’s character, the baddie, he wordlessly beats up an assistant that is tending to him. There’s no point to the scene apart from to convey in as gratuitously unsubtle a manner that we are looking at the villain of this movie.
I cackled when I saw it. It was pretty dumb. Artistically Challenged takes that style of character development and turns the dial well past 11. It feels too easy to bemoan it as another affront to our attention spans, at a time where we mostly scan Twitter and read headlines and news ledes for information and if we spend two minutes with an article that’s a deep thing. But it’s almost impossible not to.
For what it is worth, the filmmakers take it seriously.
“We only broke the surface [of the art world] while writing this first season,” co-creator Sam Delmara has said. “We felt like people would be excited about watching content on a platform they already use regularly rather than asking them to look for it elsewhere.”
Have we retreated so far inside our mobile bubbles that putting down the phone and opening up Netflix or turning the TV on is a pain point to be remedied now? If there’s anything to toast here, it’s Instagram’s ascendancy. It’s getting so far past photos. It’s one of the only American social networks that’s blowing up in China. It’s making money faster than anyone expected. It’s doing major ad deals. People are writing TV shows for it. If Instagram’s growth continues, it’ll make more money than Twitter before too long.
Who knows where Instagram’s boom ends. My only hope is that journey doesn’t land in Idiocracy.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]