Culture

Online Distractions for that Entertainment Sinkhole Known as January

From Serial to UK radio dramas, the Internet has plenty to amuse us until spring.

By Shannon Rupp 2 Jan 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Welcome to January's entertainment sinkhole. You know what I mean: the post-Xmas stretch in which all the amusements are suddenly absent. The parties are over. TV series are on hiatus. Theatres are dark. You've seen all the Christmas Oscar-contenders you care to and the weather really sucks.

This dull week is the perfect opportunity to explore the online distractions.

The 2014 buzz was all about the return of radio and this is the perfect time to find out why so many of us are treating audio shows as if it's 1947 all over again.

The big hit is the Serial podcast, a true crime investigation into the case of a Baltimore teen who may have been wrongfully convicted of murdering his high school girlfriend in 1999. The hour-long first episode, which sets out the case, is well worth a listen even if you don't think you want to commit to all 12 episodes. Or join the throng of amateur detectives matching wits (and doxxing skills) with reporter Sarah Koenig over at the Reddit discussion group. Or read Split the Moon, the blog by lawyer Rabia Chaudry who persuaded Koenig to do the story. Or listen to any of several podcasts about the podcast. Or let it take over your life.

With five million downloads and counting, Serial has a bigger audience than a lot of premium cable TV shows, so it's bound to come up at parties.

Not all the radio drama was in journalism. Over at BBC Radio 4, they're delivering actual drama with an adaptation of Good Omens, a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The six-episode show was broadcast Christmas week and remains online for a month before being packaged and sold, just like a TV series.

This is the second Gaiman radio blockbuster -- yeah, whoever thought anyone would use the words radio and blockbuster in the same sentence? Last Christmas, they did Neverwhere, a six-episode series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, and Natalie Dormer. Apparently this is what British actors do between star turns in Hollywood film and TV series. You can buy a copy of the series at all the usual digital shops or hear it online at Grooveshark.

Web series stars Downton's Dan Stevens

Web series are one of those emerging art forms that promise so much and deliver so little, which is why critics get over-excited when a good one comes along. High Maintenance is getting all the raves. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of Brooklynites via their weed dealer who makes house calls. He's the only recurring character linking this collection of video short dramas, each of which has a unique tone. They all come in under 15 minutes, and some feature high profile actors. The "Rachel" episode stars Downton Abbey's late, lamented Matthew as a cross-dressing novelist. You may not recognize actor Dan Stevens who is 30 pounds lighter, bearded, and distinctly not a member of the gentry.

With Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Jerry Seinfeld finally got to make the show he always wanted to make, since it really is about nothing. Quirky, hilarious, nothing.

Here's the plot: Seinfeld, in a swish car, picks up a pal and they go for a nosh all the while having one of those rambling meaning-of-life conversations that are such a delight if your friends are witty. Seinfeld has very witty friends. The 20-minute episodes are just the thing over lunch.

Of course, you could spend this week's leisure time reading a book, or you could spend it searching for the next bestseller.

If you're as mystified as I by the success of bad books like Fifty Shades of Grey, you'll be delighted to learn about fan fiction sites that explain how these atrocities become hits. Long before Fifty Shades was printed, author E.L. James was building a fan base via online posts at a fan fiction site for Twilight aficionados. Eventually James' story, which was inspired by the high school vampire and the simp who loved him, had an audience big enough to interest a traditional publisher.

Something similar happened for Anna Todd, the latest fan fiction author to make it to the big leagues. In the summer, Simon and Schuster offered her a six-figure contract to publish hardcopy books of After, and then Hollywood came calling. The unlikely subject of this success is the boy band One Direction, which has a fan base worthy of the term rabid. The 25-year-old Texan spun tales around the delights of knowing Harry Styles, one of the singers, and the band's fans guarantee she will have a bestselling book and a blockbuster film.

After is still available in three free digital volumes online at Toronto's Wattpad. And yes, I do think it's your democratic duty to look this over and know what your fellow citizens are reading and thinking.

Online writing communities

Boy bands aren't your thing? Well, you're in luck then since Wattpad also publishes stories about celebrities and Harry Potter characters. Or you can find tales more to your taste at any of more than a dozen of these online writing communities. Start with two of the largest ones: FanFiction and Archive of Our Own.

I'm not sure how anyone gets any work done with YouTube around especially given the small army of classic TV series you can find there. This is what my Downton Abbey-loving friends and I have been watching while we wait for the season five kick-off on Jan. 4. Of course, I pretend it's research.

House of Elliot (1991-94) is just the sort of series to get the hearts of Downton fans palpitating. It's the soapy story of two British sisters in London in the 1920s who become fashion designers after their father dies leaving them penniless. Another one of those shows you watch for the sets and costumes while ignoring the dubious plot points.

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93). A young friend who only knows actor Hugh Laurie from House saw this beautifully produced adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's satirical stories and couldn't get over the thespian's way with a British accent. (Sigh.) No one does Upper Class Twit quite as well as the Oxbridge educated Laurie, who has learned to do a convincing American accent since his days at school with Stephen Fry. The two spent their formative years surrounded by Hooray Henrys, and I always assumed that was their inspiration for the ditzy rich-boy and his scheming manservant romping their way through 1920s London.

And if none of my finds is to your liking, I'd suggest you head over to my favourite website OpenCulture.com which has a rich archive of unpredictable offerings. They list hundreds of free movies and documentaries online, free eBooks, and most of the free MOOCs (online university courses) currently running.

And best of all, there's a roster of surprising, eccentric things like this: Donald Duck World War II propaganda cartoons.

Open Culture is the site that tells us about all the things we absolutely must see even if we didn't know we needed to see them until they told us.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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