Friday, 24 November 2017

Hello Cupid (web series)

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) wants to know why she cannot find anyone on the dating website 'Hello Cupid'. As a bet, Whitney swaps her profile picture with one of her roommate Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman). The next day, she discovers hundreds of messages in her inbox. She starts talking to one of these prospective suitors, Cassius (Brandon Scott), and discovers they have a lot in common. 

Unwilling to break it off, she convinces Robyn to go on a date with Cassius and find out what he is like. And then things get REALLY complicated...

Series stars Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) and Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) 
I stumbled on this show via a circuitous route involving Roger Ebert's review for the teen comedy Fired Up!, the show Adam Ruins Everything, and finally Adam's podcast, where he interviewed Hello Cupid star Hayley Marie Norman. Since it was easy and free, I burned through the whole first season in an evening.

Created by Lena Waithe (Netflix's Master of None) and Featherson herself (currently starring on Netflix's Dear White People), this show is great. A lo-fi take on the rom com, Hello Cupid is elevated by strong writing, complex and likeable characters, and a strong understanding of how to best utilise their chosen medium.

While this show is based around finding romance, it is the foregrounding of the friendship between its lead characters that gives this show its spine and heart. It is so rare to see female friendship, warts and all, in a movie or a TV show. Despite the light tone, the relationship between Whitney and Robyn feels like a genuine relationship, and is interesting for the ways in which their predicament highlights both the strengths and weaknesses in their friendship. With no forced exposition, the writers and performers manage to build the dynamics of their relationship through the early episodes, so that by the time their 'date' shows his face in the fifth episode, the viewer is immersed in how they work as unit.

Throughout the series, I was amazed at how natural and real their interactions were. They feel attuned to each other's wants and needs, reacting in ways that feel believably empathetic (the girls' play-fighting over what to wear for a date) and petty (Robyn interrupting Whitney and Cassius's bonding moment with a casual saunter in her shorts).

The way the show takes advantage of its format really plays into this focus on character. I love the sense of scale - each episode is basically one scene. Freed from the constraints of TV, it allows the relationships and conversations to develop naturally, with their own rhythm. The show was partially improvised, which adds to the sense of verisimilitude in the characterisation and relationships.

In this respect, there are two examples of how the stand out: Episode 3, which is built around Whitney's first conversation with Cassius online. This scene reminded me of how hard it is to create a believable 'meet cute'. In terms of showing a connection develop without feeling contrived, it reminded me of the dinner table scene in Your Sister's Sister.

I think I like this guy...
Robyn's date with Cassius is another strong meet cute - once again, thanks to good writing, performances, and the lack of a set runtime their date is allowed to play out at its own pace, and by the end of the scene you believe that this guy could gel with either of the leads.
The most impactful beat in the episode is a visual callback to Whitney's talk in episode one about light-skinned girls. When Cassius describes what he likes about her features, the filmmakers cut to those features on Whitney's face. It's a quietly brutal moment that adds a sour note to the scene that prevents the viewer from committing to this 'relationship'.

Yes, you do
From a creative standpoint, this series has really inspired me -while Hollywood and mainstream TV stumbles vaguely toward some version of diversity in casting and production, this kind of small-scale (but long form) storytelling is the vehicle for all kinds of POVs and relationships to get better representation. Movies cannot do it - runtimes and the decline of the small to medium budget drama/comedies have put paid to that. But TV and online platforms can.

The casting is so on-point: the leading ladies feel like best friends, and Cassius, their shared object of attraction, actually lives up to the hype. He's a good guy with interesting habits and a sense of humour. You buy into the girls' ridiculous scheme because they - and he -are so believable
Because writing and directing are more important, casting can get overlooked, but the performances and the chemistry amongst the cast are pitched so perfectly, I had to bring it up. And if you want any idea of how strong the casting is, you have to look to Brandon Scott's performance as Cassius.    

I cannot emphasise how many movies screw up the shared love interest. They always base the plot on some bland-but-good-looking guy who both women lust over. It is never based on someone who might have something more to offer, like a personality or shared interests. It means the female character wind up feeling shallow and petty. Hello Cupid is the rare case where they make the ménage-trois believable. Scott manages to pitch himself on such a fine line that you can see the appeal for straight-laced Whitney and flower child Robyn.

Of course, the show would not work without its lead players.

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) could be hard to like - she is basically using her friend to get a man. Despite being a smart, considerate woman, she acts quite selfishly. But the way the story unfolds, and the way events spiral out of her control, is so naturalistic that I was never thrown out. Likewise, Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) could have been a type - an airhead valley girl - but once again that type is just a launching pad for the show's analysis of the ways first impressions (particularly around notions of physical attractiveness and its intersection with race). That might sound a bit heavy, but the show handles its themes with a subtlety and deftness that prevents it from ever feeling didactic. 

This show is great. The premise might come off a little rote, but this is all about the execution.

The show spans two seasons, with 10 episodes each (the first is available on Youtube; the second season has a few episodes behind a pay wall). Don't worry, the first season feels like a complete story, so don't feel under any obligation to keep going. But - it's really good, so keep going!

There is also a third season and a short film, which feature new characters and different variations on the original's premise.

You can watch the first episode here.

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