If I may beg your indulgence, I’d like to do something rare and respond to a comment¹, in large part because it expresses something I’ve seen elsewhere in the past couple of days. To reduce the argument to its most basic form:
Strip Search’s first episode was boring, nothing happened.
Which I think is an unfair critique. True, over sixteen minutes there were no screaming matches, no competition, no disqualifications, and no overt drama. This is exactly what needed to happen, as we’re still in the scene-setting stage of the show. Yes, but reality shows have a well-established set of tropes that we’re all familiar with, so we can jump right into the meat in the first three minutes, right?
Well, not really. The shows that jump straight into competition are ones that have tens, dozens of seasons behind them, with a built-in audience that knows how things are going to go. But look back at those shows when were they new and trying to find that audience — you have to get people to care about the contestants before they can care about the competition, and that’s what Strip Search episode #1 did.
“But Strip Search has a built-in audience already” is the usual counterargument, but it doesn’t, not really. Robert Khoo, among other things, is an inveterate collector of data — he can tell you to two decimal places anything of significance about the statistically typical Penny Arcade reader. And one of the things that he’s alluded to over the years (and it’s borne out by how he’s led the company) is that Penny Arcade, despite outward appearances, isn’t really part of the webcomics sector of the entertainment industry. It’s part of videogames sector.
Khoo could tell you exactly what percentage of PA readers read webcomics widely, but I’m willing to be that the numbers are skewed towards those that read two or three other webcomics and only read Penny Arcade². Heck, I’m all about webcomics and I only knew three of the twelve Artists introduced in episode 1, which would give me little reason to care about 75% of the competition had the others not been introduced properly. Khoo’s also been open about hoping that people who don’t follow webcomics at all³ will hopefully find the competition intriguing.
“But why didn’t anything else happen?” is the other criticism I’m seeing. The answer to this one is even simpler: time. Having run many, many episodes of streaming video, one of the things that Khoo has hard numbers on is how long people will watch TV over the internet and those numbers are clear: fifteen minutes is pushing the outer limits of acceptable to their audience. Khoo’s been consistent in describing Strip Search as aiming for a 10-15 minute running time, which limits how much of a story you can tell without running out of time. Look at it this way: depending on whether the episodes run closer to 10 minutes or 15, that’s three or four episodes equaling the runtime of a broadcast show (once you take out commercials, you’ve got 44 – 46 minutes of content per hour).
We’re just now at the first commercial break; this is the exact time that the introductions should be wrapping up and setting up a sense of anticipation for what comes next4. We’re most likely going to see the show run a total of nine or so hours, broken up into approximately 36 episodes each in the vicinity of a quarter-hour. Eleven eliminations will take place across eleven competitions. Three episodes per elimination (setup — competition — judging/elimination/heartfelt goodbyes) gives us 33 epsiodes, with three left over for especially complex or story-rich bits to scatter throughout the season.
Not everything will happen in every episode, nor can it unless Khoo decides to broadcast in 45 minute chunks instead of 15 minute chunks. You aren’t watching episodes of a competition show as you’ve grown accustomed to watching them, you’ve watching segments between commercial breaks. On the one hand, that means there’s fewer commercial breaks per hour than you’d get on broadcast; on the other hand, the breaks are several days long. I’d advise viewers eager for big chunks of action to watch three or four episodes at a time and avoid the Spoilers section of the Strip Search site.
The show may ultimately turn out to be uninteresting, or the personalities of the Artists lacking5, or the mechanics of the challenges uncompelling (although given Khoo’s penchant for planning for every possible contingency, I’d bet against it). However, it is way too damn early to declare that Strip Search is not good. Oh, and to answer a specific point in the comment that prompted much more than I’d originally intended to write, if Erika Moen wins, that’s when you’ll see a blog-gasm.
- If there’s any justice in the world, today’s blogging by Bad Machinery creator John Allison6 on the state of webcomics and the stressors that may construct post-webcomics will provoke many fertile discussions. I am particularly struck the the strain of human behavior that Allison identifies that seeks to enjoy the attention that comes from sharing creations with the world, but in the manner that is least likely to actually reflect back on the creator. Read it.
- Well played, Rich Burlew, well played. Not only have you come roaring back with eight updates of Order of the Stick in the less than two weeks since we noted your big plot twist, you’ve managed to turn said twist around 180 degrees and make a big surprise into a BIGGER SUPRISINGER7 [uh, spoilers]. It’s true, I got ahead of myself in my earlier reading, not waiting for the eyes to turn to little Xs, but you’ve covered that base today. Oh, and the pale skintone that crept in during the strip? Bravo.
¹ Regular readers of this page will recall my oft-stated dictum to Never read the comments, but obviously I have to keep up on the conversation on my own site. Regular readers may also recall that it’s extremely unusual for me to respond to comments, so take this for what it is — a fleeting occurrence, like sighting an endangered bird in graceful, full-song flight, and treasure it. Or at least check off the box on your Internet Opinionmonger Bingo card.
² I’ve long since come to peace with the idea that I am not Penny Arcade’s target audience, and that they will rarely produce content that’s designed to appeal to me. I’ve never played an MMORPG. I haven’t owned a game console since I was a child and we had an original Atari deck. I buy maybe one game a year, and still haven’t gotten around to Portal 2.
³ There’s a reason that Khoo’s got people involved in Strip Search talking to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal instead of just hack webcomics pseudojournalists, and you can bet at least part of the show’s structure is designed for the people that those stories will bring in.
4 The alternative — jumping straight to eliminating people without getting to know them — is certainly possible, but would require a different show. Think about it for a moment: to jump directly into competition without getting to know the contestants, you’ve got no emotional involvement. Why bother getting to know contestant #7 if he’s going to be gone in the first 15 minutes, just give him the loser’s edit and bring on the screaming could work, except for the part where Khoo’s stated clearly that he didn’t staff the show with damaged people that could only bring drama, and the part where he states his clear desire to want to do right by the Artists.
5 Although I cannot imagine any circumstances so dire that I won’t stick around long enough to see the context in which Hurricane Erika decided to talk about butt virginity.
6 And goodness, are we really just weeks away from the release of Allison’s first proper Bad Machinery collection? I say “proper” because while you can have my copy of A Feral Flag Will Fly when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, I do long for a gloriously colorful presentation of The Case of the Team Spirit.
Also, I should note that March and April are going to be webcomicsarrific at Oni Press, as we will also see the next Penny Arcade collection and two (two!) collections of Double Fine Action Comics.
7 Shut up, it is too a word.