By Jeanette Bonner
Over the weekend I watched two very different web series, both about gay men trying to navigate the complexities of love and dating amongst hip urban millennials. Eastsiders, set in LA, is like that city itself: flashy, half naked, over-dramatic and full of nondescript locales. The Outs, set in Brooklyn, is akin to the hipsters living within its borders: sardonic, ironic, and aching with need. They share similar plot lines but have two different approaches to the story. Let’s start with LA, shall we?
Meet Cal. He’s a delightfully awkward millennial gay man, who also happens to be an alcoholic drama magnet unable to confront his real emotions and is pretty allergic to communication.
Meet Kathy. She’s a charmingly cute heterosexual commitment-phobe with a penchant for the dramatic in order to amp up her self-proclaimed “boring” life. (She too drinks like a fish.)
Together they are BFFs (and coincidentally, neighbors!) living in East LA. Given the chance, which one would you date for a year? (#yikes) It’s guaranteed that most of us have at one point in our single lives met or dated these types before (and maybe even exhibited these characteristics ourselves), and what makes this series charming is that through its characters (which also includes Kathy’s boyfriend Ian, Cal’s boyfriend Thom, and the man Thom is cheating with, Jeffrey) we see our own flaws mirrored back to us. It’s easy to relate to these people because as anyone who’s been on Tinder knows, relationships are hard, man! But I hate to break it to you, lest you think Eastsiders is a cute new series about finding love in the 21st century: Eastsiders is a cynical view of messed up relationships, full of infidelities, lies, doubts, pettiness, and secrets, all amplified by lots and lots of alcohol.
If you’ve had any sort of relationship drama or have broken up with someone in the last six months, please do yourself a favor and go take a hot bubble bath instead of watching this series!! Eastsiders is incredibly well acted and filmed, and written so well that each episode flows easily into the next, making it immensely watchable. But I didn’t find much to contradict the realization that I was experiencing deep schadenfreude while watching what amounted to relationship porn. Does watching the story of two best friends and their equally messed up relationships somehow make us feel better about our own romantic and sexual disappointments?
No one called this a comedy, so it’s not as if I was expecting The Princess Diaries here. Real life and real relationships are rough, so there is merit in this show daring to showcase the struggle of individuals trying to understand each other without the sitcom ending. I do however wish there was more joy in their relationships in order to comprehend why these people stick around day after day continually hurting and being hurt by each other. Is real life this torturous? Do we put up with people that hurt us just because (deep down) we love them?? I walked away wondering: Yes, we hurt each other, but isn’t there more to loving someone than that?
Season 2 lightens it up (a smidge) by being all about fucking. (Re: that word. That verb was very overused, to the point where I didn’t even blink typing it.) Almost every episode revolves around sex and/or some form of cheating, including the lesbian couple that is added the storyline in Season 2. Season 2 centers around Cal and Thom (yes, they’re back together) having threesomes to spice up their sex life and the ramifications of that choice. Frankly, it’s all a bit sexually exhausting. Don’t these people ever just go bowling!? Then again, one man’s (woman’s) gay naked-man exhaustion is another (gay) man’s Christmas.
Naked gay man exhaustion aside, I do want to pause here and acknowledge what Eastsiders has accomplished. This was an indie series written by and for a gay community, and that audience’s viewership made Netflix sit up and pay attention. I hope this continues to happen. In the last year we have seen a boom in greenlit shows featuring families of color, lead actors of different races, and storylines addressing non-heteronormative sexuality, and that kind of diversity is essential to reflecting real world audiences for entertainment in 2016 – especially when they are stories written and created by the people they represent. But while I applaud Eastsiders being a show that normalizes gay coupledom, it is also largely a series about attractive, privileged white millennials whose only major issues revolve around sex and fidelity. I would have liked to see Eastsiders address other issues that are present in the LGBTQ community.
If Eastsiders is the embodiment of gay LA culture, The Outs is its fraternal opposite, depicting the struggles of dating in the gay scene of New York as sad, lonely, boring, and frustratingly real. Its charming awkwardness is an experience I think most New Yorkers can relate to.
This time our cast of characters include Mitchell, a quirky and coltish Brooklyn nerd trying (and failing) desperately to move on from his long-term relationship with Jack – a lost soul with no job and no prospects – the details and emotions of which are slowly, gut-wrenchingly revealed to us throughout the first season.
Similar to Eastsiders, The Outs has both a female heterosexual BFF with boy troubles (named Oona), and a hilarious gay chum who makes quippy witticisms while pretending to offer solid relationship advice. Also similarly, there is some cheating. But with this series it is less about the sex and more about that gray morality that can justify hurting someone because they hurt us.
And between them, love gets complicated. [SPOILER ALERT] Jack cheats on Mitchell with Oona’s boyfriend Drew which breaks Mitchell’s heart and infuriates Oona. But Jack wasn’t appreciated by Mitchell, so when he meets Paul, a sweet soft soul with patience, Jack blossoms into the man he knows himself to be which makes Mitchell come to the realization that he really misses his ex-boyfriend. Yes, that sounds like more soap opera. But unlike Eastsiders I was rooting for each character equally. I seldom see a series written so humanly that my heart yearns for all of the characters to journey from a place of destruction to a place where they can find themselves by standing up for what they deserve.
So whether you like your web series fast, dirty, and sexy, or quiet, sardonic, and sweet, there’s content out there that’s right for you. Both Eastsiders and The Outs are smash hits, from a web series point of view. Eastsiders has Emmy nominations and The Outs just released their second season as part of Vimeo’s original content platform (which streamed Season 2 of High Maintenance before their move to HBO). But The Outs excels at fleshing out the fine, delicate lines of hurting someone without truly meaning to. I found The Outs to have funnier lines (“I would pity you if I wasn’t so busy imagining you on fire”) and a more relatable story line, but at the end of the day what we really need to be celebrating is that these two series were made, that there is an audience for them, that they are being watched, and that people are paying attention. And this paves the way for more of this type of LGBTQ content to come.
“The best part about being gay is that you don’t have to be drunk to stick up for yourself.” – Paul on “The Outs”