Everyone's Welcome at Current TV's 'Bar Karma'
By Mike Snider, USA Today
Keith Olbermann is not the only new face coming to Current TV.
Journeyman actor William Sanderson (True Blood, Deadwood) and relative newcomers Matthew Humphreys (Obsessed) and Cassie Howarth (Mao's Last Dance) star in the first crowd-sourced TV series, Bar Karma, which premieres Friday at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on the network. (The premiere also will be streamed on current.com after the broadcast.)
The premise for the series — a bar at the edge of the universe — was conceived by an online community started a year ago by The Sims creator Will Wright. Everything from the costumes to the plot twists are proposed, discussed and voted on by participants on Current's Creative Studio site. The site has already served more than 12 million visits.
All that participation results in an opening episode with a Cheers-meets-Twilight Zone vibe tailor-made for fans of Lost. Doug (Humphreys) finds himself transported to the mystical bar. "Think of it as a karmic rest stop," says the bartender, James (Sanderson).
But the bad karma kicks in when James and waitress Dayna (Howarth) inform Doug that back in the real world, he has been arrested for the murder of his paramour. While the trio try to unravel Doug's situation, each week a new customer comes into the bar to face his own cosmic conundrum.
Viewers may revel in the spontaneity that crowd-sourced TV produces, but the actors find it thrilling and nerve-racking in equal parts. "It's a little terrifying. The community makes all of the suggestions, and you don't know what they are going to say," Sanderson says. "They suggested (James) wear a suit, and I love that because I have played so many renegade types. But what if they ask me to wear a Speedo or something?"
Sanderson may be safe on that account; the production company Worldwide Biggies, run by former Nickelodeon and Spike TV president Albie Hecht, does have ultimate creative control. But the producers regularly seek guidance from the online community in narrowing the direction of each episode. They are currently shooting the fourth of a dozen episodes planned for the first season.
"We've been evolving to this true intersection between user-generated, community-driven content and professional Hollywood storytelling and characters," Hecht says. "We just threw out a challenge that a football player is coming into the bar, 'What's his favorite drink?' That is almost in real time, and as soon as we clear it, then three or four days later, we can be shooting it. When we need this or we need that, we reach out to the community as often as we can."
Online collaborators submit plots for episodes using Wright's video-game-styled Storymaker software to create, in essence, storyboards for the series. "It looks like a graphic novel," Hecht says. As part of the process, members of the production team — writers, directors or producers — might join the community in commenting on the storyboards. Eventually, three plots for an episode are chosen to be voted on. Those whose stories are chosen get credited on the episode.
Viewers can still get involved in the development process through the online community. "The whole second half of the season depends on them and where the character arcs go," Hecht says. "The fates of these characters ultimately will rest in their hands."
Also on tap for Current TV, which is broadening its focus beyond its former core of user-generated content: a nightly talk show hosted by former MSNBC host Olbermann, due in late spring; 4th and Forever, a documentary series about a Long Beach, Calif., high school football team that's a recruiting magnet for the NFL; Smoke Jumpers, profiling aerial firefighters in Montana; and repeats of Showtime's This American Life, which is based on the public radio series hosted by Ira Glass.
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