Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The creators of Jules and Monty strike gold again with Pantheon University

Two years ago, I wrote about Jules and Monty, a web series created by Tufts University drama students Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder along with help from many of their friends in the theater department.  Jumping off of the craze at the time of people making YouTube adaptations of literary works, they wrote a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, but set in college and formatted as a series of vlogs.  If you haven't watched it yet, do so immediately because it's an absolute joy and the tragic ending haunted me for at least a week after finishing it.  What awed me the most about Jules and Monty was here were these college students only a year or two younger than me making an adaptation that was better than similar web series with 10 times the budget.  It was enough to make me think, "I'll watch anything these people create until the end of time."

Which is what I did when they released their follow-up the next year, a series called Wave Jacked about a group of students who band together to try to put on an old-time radio play on their college's premiere station.  Rosini, Browder, and their Neat-O Productions group could've tried to keep reliving the magic of Jules and Monty over and over, but this was a refreshing departure in many ways.  For one, it was an original work instead of an adaptation, and it wasn't done in vlog format.  But it was also such an odd, unclassifiable little story, blending gentle comedy with surreal elements with semi-spooky noir.  Judging from the view count for the series, it's not as beloved as Jules and Monty, and I still prefer the latter as well, but it's hard not to be taken by the sprawling charm of Wave Jacked.  There's a unique sense of life in the series, and you can tell it was a personal work for the creators.  (You could almost read the story, which is about a bunch of college kids scraping their resources together to put on a show, as a meta-commentary on Rosini and Browder's creative pursuits.)

Earlier this year they announced Pantheon University, their final project together, as most of the crew involved with producing these series were in their final year of college.  Pantheon would be a return to adaptations in a way, but for this series they were reimagining Greek gods and goddesses, and the myths surrounding them, in a modern college setting.  This time around they seized a different trend, the method of releasing all 13 episodes at once, like many shows that premiere on streaming services.  But they added an extra wrinkle: aside from the finale, the episodes were designed so they could be watched in any order (though there is a recommended sequence, which is how I watched it).  Despite the fact that all of this sounded extremely exciting to me and I loved their previous work, I didn't immediately watch it when it was released in April.  Maybe it's because I knew this was going to be the last series from this group of people and I didn't want to say goodbye.  Maybe it's because I'm horrible at watching things when every episode is presented to me at once.  But either way, the tab stayed on my browser for months while I constantly told myself, "I'll get to it soon."

Well I finally made good on my promise to myself and checked out Pantheon University, and I'm happy to report that it's Neat-O Productions' most complex, intelligent, and creative work yet.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there's not one concrete story to Greek mythology, which allows them to pick and choose from an array of characters and tales.  As a result, they're able to get more ambitious and freewheeling with their storytelling.  And that sense of playfulness takes the series to interesting places structurally as well.  The idea that these little short stories can be watched in any order gives Pantheon University a wild, massive feeling.  There are references to events that make more sense a few episodes later, subtle arcs that build in the cracks and corners of the story, and an expanding and shrinking sense of time.  After watching the series all the way through once or twice, you can map out the sequential order of every single thing that happens if you truly want to, but it also works if you think of the show as a fascinating Mobius strip where all the events just occur freely and the timeline bends back on itself.

There's such an astonishing breadth to Pantheon when taken as a whole.  Though there is a throughline to the story, each episode functions so well as its own discrete short story with varying themes and filmmaking styles.  There's an episode that's shot as a simulated unbroken take, a choose-your-own-adventure episode, a mockumentary episode, a musical episode, and so much more.  And they're not just stylistic switch-ups for the sake of stylistic switch-ups -- the form always matches the content for each character.

I'm also impressed by the clever ways in which the series translates these characters to a real-world, modern context.  Some the choices feel like a natural extension of what we know about these gods and goddesses (Zeus is the president of the college's most popular frat, Ares is a hothead), but many of them take an extra step that at once seems fresh and logical (Aphrodite runs a campus hookup site, Hades' underworld takes the form of the university's underground radio station).  Best of all, these stories are able to maintain Greek mythology's overarching theme of gods meddling in the lives of others' because it makes sense that a group of young people in the same social circles would be this invested in what's going on with the people around them.

If you're not an expert on Greek myths, don't fret.  I was a little bit rusty too.  (Though if you're like me, watching these episodes will cause you to read through the Wikipedia pages of each of these gods and goddesses.)  These stories work because they're compelling, not just because they're riffing on ancient myths.  Take the Aphrodite episode for example, which tells the story of her romance with Ares.  In this episode, we're introduced to Cupid's Bow, the algorithm-based hookup site that Aphrodite runs to help her peers find someone to have sex with.  In voiceover narration, she describes the rules she and the site live by: no romance, no repeat matchups, and the use of protection is mandatory.  When she begins using Cupid's Bow for her own purposes, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Ares.  Despite the surface differences between the two of them, along with the ethical gray area of her rigging her own system to get repeatedly matched with the same person, Aphrodite and Ares fit together.  It's a fascinating angle from which to approach this story.  This is a woman who lives by a code, and watching her reckon with something that causes her to question her convictions is really interesting stuff.

Of course, knowing more about these myths enriches the experience.  The Hades episode is perhaps the best example of this.  It's a re-telling of the story of Orpheus' trip to the underworld to save Eurydice, but it also touches upon Hades' relationship with Persephone, mirroring these two sets of separated lovers.  When I first watched it, my foggy memory caused me to not quite register the myth they were tackling with Orpheus, and I still enjoyed the episode.  But on my second viewing, after I familiarized myself with the story again, I absolutely loved it.  In particular, the way that they handle the end of Orpheus and Eurydice's story in a non-supernatural way almost makes it more moving and resonant than the original version.

All of these semi-standalone stories culminate in a satisfying finale that displays an excellent control on the scope of the series, wrapping up every character's arc beautifully.  That cumulative power of the series is really overwhelming once you take a step back and get the full view of this mosaic of complex, soulful little narratives.  Jules and Monty might be Neat-O Productions' most famous work, but Pantheon University should be the one they're most proud of. 

Both Jules and Monty and Wave Jacked had a series of "Vlog Vlog"s, which is what they called their behind-the-scenes production videos, to go along with the actual episodes.  They were funny, entertaining, informative, and in my opinion, essential viewing.  So it makes me a little sad that there aren't any for Pantheon University (although they promised it would happen, so maybe one day? Please???).  It makes me even more sad that this is the last series we will see from Browder, Rosini and the rest of the gang, but what a high note to go out on.

Highlight episodes
1. Dionysus
This episode centers around Dionysus, a director in the drama department, as he struggles to concoct his magnum opus.  A perfect example of form matching content, the installment is told in the style of a musical and it's absolutely delightful.  This is the episode that really made me sit up and recognize the brilliance of the series.  It's incredibly funny, the songs are catchy, but it's also a dreamy, thoughtful rumination on the creative process.  If you watch Pantheon University in the recommended order, then this episode arrives at about halfway through the series, which is the perfect placement for it.  It's the one that has least amount of impact on the overall plot of the story and yet it deftly comments on everything we've seen or will see in the other episodes.  You can tell everyone involved put everything they had into this episode.

2. Hera
In my Jules and Monty review a couple of years ago, I mentioned Imogen Browder's excellent performance as Juliet as the highlight of the series, and she once again delivers as Hera.  She's just an amazing talent, bringing a sense of life and reality to a character who could've been painted in much simpler terms.  This episode depicts the complexities of Zeus and Hera's long-term relationship, tracking their meeting in freshman year all the way up to the events that occur in Zeus' episode in their senior year.  Compressing such a long passage of time allows you to see all the rhythms and phases of long-term coupledom right next to each other, from the initial stages of bliss, to the rough patches, to the sustained sense of comfort.  And it's not just the acting that carries the episode -- there's a skillfulness and subtlety to the writing that shows the way that Hera has been defined by her relationship with Zeus ("I don't know what college is like without him," she says at one point) while still making her a three-dimensional character.

3. Hephaestus
This episode features alot of classic story ideas thrown into a blender together in a way that I've never really seen before.  Part of it is a sci-fi story in the vein of Ex Machina, about man (in this case, computer programmer Hephaestus) pushing science and technology too far (creating an artificial intelligence program and trying to trick others into thinking it's human).  There's also a little bit of something like You've Got Mail as it tells a story about the budding friendship between Hephaestus and Hera.  It's a charming and sweet episode that also has a nice tinge of melancholy to it.

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