By Chris Hadley and David H. Schwartz
Note: This article is also available via the Huffington Post, and can be viewed at this link.
Religion and spirituality have been a major part of web series. The edgy comedy Devolve (co-executive produced by co-author David H. Schwartz and Dan Arthurs) tells the story of a stoner God recruiting a disillusioned band of young people to save the world from apocalyptic doom, while the suburbia-based satire The Shades challenges religious extremism in hilarious, satirical fashion.
At the same time, the sci-fi drama Peacekeepers features God as a true omnipresent character, as He leads a group of young missionaries to save the people of New York City by communicating with them via cell phone texts.
Regardless of the specifics, creators of spiritually-themed web series have a delicate balance to strike: they must entertain without alienating their audience when it comes to very personal themes and subject matters.
For The Shades show runners Michael Barnett and Kevin Davis, getting viewers from all beliefs accustomed to their no holds barred brand of humor was a goal that they pursued relentlessly.
“Offending viewers was a risk we took willingly. You don’t necessarily tread lightly when you talk about how extreme views on faith can have negative and unintended consequences,” Barnett says. “And I think people in general need to be more receptive to the idea of being offended, and what that says about themselves and their world view.”
Achieving authenticity in its depiction of spirituality was crucial for Barnett and Davis as they began work on The Shades. “The hardest challenge, outside of the challenges of any production, is knowing the facts. There are certain stereotypes people have about everything, especially faiths, that are either ‘low hanging fruit’ or just untrue,” Davis adds.
“The most challenging hurdle is definitely looking for the truth, which we can then either highlight or satirize, because if our through lines are false, then we lose credibility. If we are going to do this series, we have to be informed.”
When it came to developing the concept and characters for Devolve, Schwartz and Arthurs worked alongside the series’ head writers Lizz Leiser and Ricardo Delgado to make both elements equally outrageous. Of course, it also helped that they reached out to people who really knew the ins and outs of the Good Book.
“Lizz Leiser and Ricardo Delgado, the head writers, came up with the idea [spoiler alert] of having Satan possess, not one but several characters — Satanic musical chairs,” Arthurs says. “To make sure this concept was true to the original intent of the Bible, we cleared it with the office of the Archdiocese of Chicago.”
Surprisingly, Devolve hasn’t run into the obvious problems that many web series creators would normally face when presenting the topic in such a risqué manner.
“It turns out our biggest challenge has been offending viewers. Other than 4 dislikes on YouTube, we’ve had no negative feedback,” says Arthurs. “We were hoping for much more, maybe we’re not reaching the right audience. We have a huge following in Vietnam; I don’t know what religion they are, but we absolutely meant to offend them.”
Davis reports that The Shades has also enjoyed approval from viewers, but adds that some who may be offended by the series’ content still haven’t yet warmed up to it.
“People who have seen it have had very positive reactions to it, as they see we aren’t demonizing religion, but rather using it to discuss greater issues,” he says. “However, there are many who choose not to watch it for fear of what they may see. Again, a satire on religious extremism is definitely not the easiest sell, but they are missing out. Those who do see it enjoy it immensely. They also see that we do not skimp on production value, and do everything we can to make sure it is an enjoyable viewing experience and the comedy and message shine though.”
For anyone seeking to present their own take on religion via an original web series, Barnett advises them to be cautious, careful and informed about the topic.
“Identify early on what you hope to start a conversation about, and explore it. Immerse yourself in the research. It will open your eyes up to new ways of exploring religion as a topic,” he says. “Take your time with the writing. Get your tone and ideas where you want them to be, and only then worry about producing it. The Shades was two years in the making from the pilot shoot to the launch of the series, and trying to force it to happen faster just would not have worked.”
Where to watch:
The Shades: http://www.theshades.tv/