The first thing you need to know about $5 Cover: Seattle, Lynn Shelton’s new series of online shorts (“webisodes”) for MTV.com out this June, is that it’s not bad. There were good reasons to worry that it would be: MTV.com, “webisodes,” the scripted “reality” style. But there were as many good reasons to expect that Shelton would pull this off. The semi-scripted/semi-improvised pseudo-reality style is her forte, and she’s managed to spin some surprisingly great films out of the potentially dubious form; she’s worked with bands and non-actors before and coaxed fine performances out of them; she’s a certified Stranger Genius.
Last night, at a sold-out SIFF Cinema, the series’ 12 episodes were received with thunderous applause, generous laughter, and the occasional outburst (a child in the audience, upon seeing the Lights onscreen: “there’s Jeff!”; Thomas Gray of Champagne Champagne, upon one of his band’s appearances: “Yuh yuh yuh!”). It was blessedly not like that scene in Reality Bites where Ben Stiller's shifty ersatz-MTV executive premieres an embarrassing, butchered version of Winona Ryder's labor of love documentary—about the cheesiest thing was the series' Zune-like tag line, "Everyone is in on the jam"—but mostly it seems like, IRL, the actual MTV execs just wanted to let Shelton to do her own thing.
Typically, there’s some great awkward, self-aware humor here. At one point, Sean Nelson is accosted by two overzealous Harvey Danger fans (try to suspend your disbelief), one of whom thinks Harvey Danger is Nelson’s given name and then says he got his tongue pierced because of them (a sharp joke given “Flagpole Sitta”’s actual attitude on the matter of body modification).
There are some great musical performances—GOD, a synth and cello-abetted Correspondents side-project, were particularly revelatory—and several of the musicians, playing versions of themselves, turn out to be able actors. Every episode ends on an effectively abrupt note, not exactly cliffhangers, just sudden jolts. And, like the music videos of fellow Genius Award winner Zia Mohajerjasbi, Shelton’s (and cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke's) shots of the city—beautiful, close-cropped, offbeat—present a Seattle far removed from its stereotypical representation: there’s no Space Needle, no endless shots of the waterfront, no Frasier skyline (ironically, this has the effect of making the city look less real, because it doesn’t conform to the stylized depiction we’re used to from, say, the Seattle season of MTV’s The Real World).
Still, I’m not sure how the series will play outside of Seattle—or even outside of SIFF Cinema, with its stacked audience of cast, crew, and industry types (even Shabazz Palaces was there!)—without the hometown pride and the little thrill of recognition. There are some dull stretches (even if some of those are meant to show us that being in a band is sometimes dull work), and the series doesn’t really hit its stride in terms of comedy or narrative until six episodes in. That may be fine in a theater, but online, where you can just click away to anything else in the world, those first couple episodes could do a lot more to grab you. If anything, you’re left feeling like this was just a pilot for a longer series (I’ve been watching Skins lately, so I’m imaging a version with a lot more sex and drugs, and no bleeping of the word “weed”)—there are so many characters and subplots here that you’d want to see teased out further rather than cut short as they are here.
There are two central speeches in the series. In one, an old man tells the Moondoggies they need to find a way to make money making music. In the other, the lead singer of the Lights extols the virtues of all us “great Seattlites” supporting each other and trying to spread our music to the rest of the world. One’s about business, one’s about love. The reality of $5 Cover: Seattle is somewhere in between.