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It’s been a tough year for Facebook. Amid concerns over data privacy and disinformation, the company’s stock plummeted in July after shortfalls in user growth and earnings. And although Facebook’s user base is still growing, data published in May by Pew Research Center added to the growing perception that the kids are moving on. As a Newsweek headline from February put it, “Facebook Is Officially for Old People.”
Viewed in that context, the current batch of original series on Facebook Watch, the platform’s dedicated space for video streaming, can be seen as part of an aggressive commitment to regaining relevance. The bulk of its original drama and comedy programming seems aimed at younger viewers: relatable, insightful coming-of-age stories focused on the harrowing emotions of teens and 20-somethings, several of whom must learn to navigate trauma in a rapidly evolving digital world. Shows like “SKAM Austin,” “Turnt” and “Strangers,” focus specifically on characters whose identities defy traditional sexual and gender boundaries, reflecting an increasingly fluid generation of viewers.
Facebook’s original series have been light on established talent thus far, one major exception being the talk show “Red Table Talk,” with Jada Pinkett Smith, which has about three million followers. But “Sorry for Your Loss,” starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young widow from a mixed-race marriage and Kelly Marie Tran as her adopted sister, may represent the first step in an effort to boost the prestige of its scripted content.
A year into Facebook Watch’s existence, there’s a lot to sift through — but is any of it good? Here’s a look at its best scripted originals to date.
Based on a Norwegian web series, “SKAM Austin” takes its name from the Norwegian word for shame — an inescapable emotion for the high schoolers in this series. Mimicking the original’s strategy of “fresh drops daily” — a short new web clip each day, with accompanying Instagram posts — the show’s universe is not only impressively immersive but also well attuned to the rapid media-scanning habits of teenagers.
The series depicts the intense teen romance between Megan, an introvert who has fallen from the popularity pedestal, and her boyfriend, Marlon, a musician and a chill foil to the school’s blustering jocks. With shy, sunlit glances and prolonged embraces, Megan and Marlon innocently chart their youthful voyage with no destination until jealousy, insecurity and misunderstanding strike at a school dance — and of course, on Instagram — and they find themselves in a love triangle with Shay, Marlon’s lesbian female bandmate. (Watch it here.)
Based on the book “The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly” by Stephanie Oakes, who in turn was inspired by the Grimm Brothers fairy tale “The Handless Maiden,” “Sacred Lies” is the story of Minnow (Elena Kampouris), the 17-year-old sole survivor of a fire that killed everyone in the cult in which she was raised, called the Kevinians. She emerges from the forest with no hands, spurring a police investigation with her as the sole witness.
Shipped to juvenile detention after assaulting a stranger, she meets a cast of female characters who have been similarly tormented by a misogynistic society. Angel, Minnow’s guide through her new incarcerated life, committed an act of violence to escape her abusive uncle, while many other girls hide burns and scars. As Minnow opens up to Angel, an F.B.I. psychologist and her teacher, she begins to question the violent mythology of her cult, led by a punitive David Koresh-like figure named Kevin, and ultimately the nature of faith, science, love and family. (Watch it here.)
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Executive produced by Kerry Washington, this high school drama centers on Eric (Spence Moore II), a prom king and football star who commits suicide by shooting himself in his car — or does he? Each episode is presented from a different character’s perspective, each of whom gives a deeply personal — and sometimes unreliable — account of the fateful day.
At first, each character seems to fit some high school archetype: the hustler, the nerd, the outcast, the jock, the queen bee. But there’s more to each than we see at first glance. “Five Points” confronts the tremendous pressures faced by teenagers, from life below the poverty line to painkiller addiction to closeted sexuality. The series succeeds at balancing authenticity and sensitivity (the number for a suicide hotline is presented after each episode), urging a more compassionate reconsideration of the roles teenagers play — and have forced upon them — on the brutal playing field of high school. (Watch it here.)
While “Friends” may have made a punch line out of a lesbian wife who leaves her husband for another woman, the comedy “Strangers,” produced by Refinery29, shows the realities of life after that kind of breakup — this time from the point of view of the woman. The creator Mia Lidofsky has said she wanted to create ”create crazy positive portrayals of women, of female friendships, of lesbians, of bi, of trans, of sexually curious, questioning, real people” like Isobel (Zoë Chao), a 20-something aspiring writer in Los Angeles and New York, whose boyfriend breaks up with her after she cheats on him with a woman.
Dating women after the breakup proves harder than Isobel anticipated: One date rejects her because she’s not a lesbian; another runs off after her ex-boyfriend shows up and attempts to rekindle their romance. With a new guest staying at Isobel’s house in each episode (by way of an app called Where I Wanna BnB), there’s a fresh character or two each time, much like in “High Maintenance.” Costumed dance jams, art and literary salons and mischievous party high jinks abound along Isobel’s helter-skelter road to 30. (Watch it here.)
This bright and poppy fictional series reads like an aesthetic mash-up of Instagram videos and MTV reality shows, following Ayana (Jasmine Luv), a broke and unemployed 25-year-old with a master’s degree in art history. In an interview at an art gallery called the Spoke, she mentions her boyfriend Bryce’s self-employment as a viral meme-stagrammer. “People get an audience, and suddenly they think they’re an artist,” she screams in frustration as she leaves the interview, rejected.
To her surprise, she is offered the job, but it’s just a trial, in which she’ll curate an exhibit on memes in order to compete with another local gallery’s opening. One catch? She’s expected to include her six-month boyfriend and idiot savant, @brybryjobro, who has 651k followers (to her 375 — no thousand). Fittingly, the title of the show is a clever reference not only to the survival skills recent grads need to enter the working world, but also to a popular internet meme. (Watch it here.)
‘*Loosely Exactly Nicole’
Before Nicole Byer became the host of Netflix’s culinary-disaster show “Nailed It!,” she starred as a version of herself, a struggling actor in Hollywood on MTV’s “*Loosely Exactly Nicole.” Mina Lefevre, who developed the series for MTV, moved to Facebook Watch, and the social media network swooped in to pick up “Loosely” for a second season after MTV cut it loose last year. (Season 2 dropped earlier this year.)
The show is an exercise in verisimilitude, tracking the skyrocketing career of the fictional Nicole. Despite the tendency for Hollywood to marginalize her, she dares to be an actor who is happy, black, sexy, funny and overweight. From mocking her too-light foundation applied by a clueless makeup artist to reveling in accident-prone shower sex, this series is lighthearted enough to binge after work (and meaningful enough to remember the day after), carving out a hilarious niche of realness about the experiences of women of color in La La Land. (Watch it here.)