Review: Squaresville
Kurt Van Ristell
Jan 17, 2013 (Modified: Mar 18, 2013)

One week ago today, we featured the first episode of Squaresville – the award winning comedy written and directed by Matt Enlow. Episode 1 made it to our much-vaunted list of great embedded stuff because of how hard it hits you with its perfect blend of irreverent, natural dialogue, delicate character building, beautiful cinematography and stunning locales. It’s obvious from the outset that Squaresville is something very special indeed.

If you’re not familiar, where have you been? Squaresville is a (very) shortform webseries following the lives of two misfit suburban teens, Zelda and Esther as they try to deal with their lives, feelings, aspirations, dreams and disappointments. It’s a broad and well worn subject but the focused characters and insightful writing elevates it beyond the usual cliché and provides us a startlingly fresh take on the genre – Squaresville is not an imitator, it’s a trailblazer and its idiosyncratic formula is going to leave a big mark on the webseries landscape.

That’s bold praise, and I don’t intend to leave it just hanging, but as you can imagine there’s a lot to say about this show beyond the usual “I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t like that” so I’m going to start with the facts and then dig into the more subjective layers of Squaresville’s carefully crafted, highly interlaced … Lore? Mythos? Canon? … Lore…

From the Top…

Squaresville was successfully Kickstarted on November 13th in 2011. The first series spans 16* episodes and was produced for $12,000. It stars the considerably talented Mary Kate Wiles and Kylie Sparks, and is written/directed by Matt Enlow – a young but experienced industry professional who works for Comedy Central and MTV – this is his directorial début but he has previously written, with writing credits on Comedy Central’s Atom TV.
As Kickstarters go, Squaresville’s was inspired – laying down the groundwork for the kind of inventive marketing and advertising approaches the show would go on to adopt during its launch. As certain funding milestones were met, mini episodes were released – short supplemental pieces that work without context but also fit nicely into the actual ongoing narrative. Alongside this, for only a $500 pledge, fans were able to dedicate an episode to a person (or pet) of their choosing. Four backers bought this. For writer/director Matt Enlow to hand a small degree of authorship to his audience was a bold statement that only reinforced the idea of Squareville’s easygoing persona. “This isn’t TV, so lets actually talk to our audience and hell, do whatever we like, even if it turns out to be awful”. This was the daring message the show was pushing, and believe it or not, it seemed to be working! (Though I did make that exact quote up) They certainly were doing something right – they reached their funding goal with an average pledge of $63.

So, with funding a success, and $12,000 to work with, filming began…

Shot with a single camera and to a tight budget, Squaresville is a huge technical achievement. The first episode alone bears all the hallmarks of keen directing and photography, displaying a solid understanding of both the expressive visual language of film, and the technical hurdles that must be overcome to allow every scene to achieve its full potential. This balanced filmmaking is almost a metaphor for the greater thematic elements that run throughout the actual series – the slight, playful camera sway succinctly conveys all the uncertainty and self doubt that the characters are wrestling with, and likewise, the dreamlike mixture of intimate closeups, and slow wide, drifting shots perfectly capture the feeling of frustrated, teenage limbo – that slow and awkward period between dependence and adulthood. There’s a carefully crafted lackadaisical feel to each episode that lays the groundwork for the script and its ideas – it’s thoughtful filmmaking and worth mentioning over the other more routine (yet no less impressive) technical achievements such as its smooth and consistent lighting or the crystal clear sound capture.

Solid production values are an important part of any series – without them it might be difficult to understand basic elements such as dialogue, action or location, let alone any higher themes that might be tucked within deeper folds of subtext. Squaresville has a lot more to say about life than its light-hearted quirkiness might let on, but thanks to good directing – the kind that just gets out of your way – it manages to successfully bring these themes to its audience.

We’ve already established that Squaresville has something of an interesting history, and looks and sounds fantastic. These are elements that add value to a production but by no means define it. A great looking, but ultimately uninteresting or poorly written show might be enough for television, but the online community are more subjective and discerning when judging webshows – possibly due to the formats’ turbulent history. Squaresville is neither uninteresting nor poorly written. It’s lighthearted, honest and insightful without ever straying into cheesy or overly sentimental grounds. The simplistic premise works as springboard for the series’ loftier themes and ideas. Zelda and Esther are two misfits trying to figure out their place in the world. It’s never explicitly stated but the gnawing fear of growing up, growing old and never amounting to anything and never leaving the suburbs lingers within every conversation or adventure the two take.
Their slow journey of self discovery and search for universal meaning is explored through these conversations – frequent topics such as sharing deep and personal secrets with one another hint at a longing for a neat and tidy context to fit their experiences into, the teen movie cliché that everyone has a special hidden something about them. The two girls’ lust for adventure and the weight they put on being “deep” or independent excellently capture their confused, teenage longings. Watching these ideas delicately unfold as the series progresses acts as the hook to keep you coming back. The characters themselves don’t experience a large or dramatic personal arc, but that’s okay. Their plights are mental and ongoing, fitting the dependant late teen limbo they feel trapped within.

Of course, without a strong and capable cast driving these heady back-and-forths, the message might come across as hamfisted – like more and more webshows as of late, Squaresville has a small core cast but isn’t afraid to expand and pull in bit roles to fit the required purpose of any given episode. All roles are well acted and work within the setting – it’s hard to call the tertiary characters original in their own right, but the key moments and interactions that director Matt Enlow has selected to portray do go a long way to fleshing them out as individuals.

Unlike most contemporary characters in fiction, Zelda and Esther do not act as an “in” to help the audience understand and experience the oddities of their world, but rather the opposite. Their offbeat and sardonic conversations paint a sharp (and funny) picture of the mundane day to day nature of their suburban lives, and then immediately undermine them with energetic hints at the imaginative, vivid and improbable possibilities that lay before them. It’s raw, sheer youthful optimism masquerading as teenage angst and cynicism. It’s an insightful juxtaposition brought about by clever and nuanced writing that interlinks the trademark irreverent conversations with the shows continuous themes to build a real world populated with believable (if not always original) characters. Zelda and Esther may serve as cyphers for the tones and themes that Matt wanted to express, but they are still first and foremost their own, defined characters – and it’s Squaresvilles excellent lead characters that are also it’s greatest secret weapon…

Squaresville definitely isn’t the first webshow to experiment with alternative means of promotion and advertising – namely audience participation, supplemental behind the scenes material and an open creator/consumer relationship – but it’s certainly the only webseries I’ve ever seen that gets this right. From day one Squaresville has been treated like a modern brand – the show itself only a part of the picture. Providing heaps of candid behind the scenes footage for the fans as well as the usual blog, facebook and twitter activity, the makers and stars of Squresville are approachable and in touch with their audience. This isn’t unheard of in and of itself, but in a stroke of genius – Squaresvilles’ leading ladies Mary Kate Wiles and Kylie Sparks also host a highly entertaining “Q and Hey” show where they answer fan questions and respond to the top and bottom rated comments for each episode.
This strong, creative ‘transmedia’ presence was clearly planned alongside the development of the series itself, and as a result it runs through almost every aspect of the finished product. The show isn’t afraid to stray from the time worn formulas that make sense on TV but have no place on the web.
Episodes are short and self contained, feeling almost like standalone vignettes and so they start immediately with only a tasteful hint of the iconic branding fading in and out over the opening seconds. Long, TV style opening titles have no place in a three minute show and Squaresville gets this. Likewise no obnoxious credits roll at the end of an episode but instead we’re treated to an encouraging “thank you” and some informal banter from Mary and Kylie – these may sound like small touches but they add up to a cohesive package that feels well aware of its target audience and understands its platform. Squaresville is one of the first webshows to truly understand the strengths of being online, free and on demand. This highly self aware, audience friendly approach to production has set the bar for online video at a new high. Its impact will be seen over the coming years and its format adopted and used increasingly often.

So, what do I think?

I think Squaresville may be an interesting case study in how to write, direct, fund and market a webseries but to boil it down to such would be unfair. Despite its many technical achievements Squaresville shines on its own as a fun, fascinating and endearing little series about the doldrums of life in the American suburban sprawl, and the effect that has on the spirits of the young. It may sound depressing to put it that way, but everything is put together with a joyful nonchalance that uplifts and invigorates. Squaresville feels hard to define in spite of its boldness – but it feels like the herald of a new paradigm in the web series landscape. The first of many, and one to watch.

If you haven’t already – be sure to check out episode 1 right here. You can watch the series as well as catch the “Q and Hey!”‘s in full over at Youtube. If you like what you see, be sure to check out the usual website, facebook and follow the twitter @L7sville for some fun fan discussion (see how the L and 7 make a square?). If you’ve been, seen and done all of those things already, then you’ll have to be patient. Series 2 is confirmed to be on its way… Soon.