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TV's Boring Obsession With Accidental Viral Video Stars

Last week ABC announced that it had picked up a particularly depressing new comedy pilot: “Selfie,” a series inspired by My Fair Lady that, according to ABC, “tells the story of a self-obsessed 20-something woman who is more concerned with ‘likes’ than being liked.” “Selfie”’s tragic heroine endures an embarrassing public breakup that makes her the subject of a viral video, leaving her with “more social media ‘followers’ than she ever imagined—but for all the wrong reasons.” It’s a strangely familiar plot, and certainly not because it is in any way reminiscent of My Fair Lady. Rather, “Selfie” is the latest in a slew of TV shows to tackle the plight of the accidental viral video star.

Take the recent storyline on “Girls” in which Marnie, after her relationship with Charlie has soured for the second time, appears in a baffling viral video involving auto-tuned singing, slow-mo blinking, and a few half-hearted air humps. There was also the “Newsroom” episode in which office ingénue Maggie ranted on the sidewalk at a “Sex and the City” tour bus, unleashing a crackpot declaration of love for her coworker Jim; needless to say, the video hit YouTube within minutes and Maggie was roundly shamed. Famed internet-hater Sorkin loves himself a social media cautionary tale, so in another plot line Sloan’s nude pics, courtesy of a vengeful ex, also lit up the web. And of course, the “Newsroom” pilot opened with Will McAvoy’s verbal attack on a college co-ed, after which a colleague intoned, with all the seriousness of a policeman delivering a death notification: “It’ll be viral by morning." 

Several other shows have attempted to mine social media as a subject—in 2010 there was the CBS comedy  “$#*! My Dad Says,” based on the Twitter feed “Shit My Dad Says,” which starred William Shatner and was so lame as to defy description. (Also, CBS insisted on pronouncing it “Bleep My Dad Says.”) And there was the comedy “Shh Don’t Tell Steve,” also an ill-advised bet by CBS, about a man who live-tweets the pratfalls of his drunken, unemployed roommate. Produced by Ashton Kutcher, the pilot was never ordered to series. What was funny in three-second bits turned out to be considerably less funny when made into a show.

It’s easy to see why TV is looking to viral video subplots as a way to amp up its zeitgeist quotient. But accidental viral stardom, no matter how wacky the offending clip, tends not to be inherently dramatic or narrative-friendly. It’s quick and fleeting, as the life span of a meme is, for the most part, a lot shorter than a television show. So making virality into a storyline involves much replaying of the scandalous source material, scenes of hand-wringing on the part of the viral protagonist, and zooming in on computers to demonstrate the wildfire spread of digital shame. “The Newsroom” helpfully featured a montage of screens passing on the link to McAvoy’s outburst. And the tension between unwitting viral star and invisible hordes of link-clickers doesn’t necessarily translate to narrative tension. "Girls" offered a scene featuring Marnie on the phone with YouTube, begging to have the video removed. The video itself, it should be said, was weirdly hypnotic. But the storyline around it seemed a bit feeble next to scenes of actual human-on-human humiliation, like Hannah’s self-absorbed word vomit at her literary agent’s funeral. "$#*! My Dad Says" should have been a cautionary tale: attempting to wring a plot from internet ephemera is harder than it looks.