Here on Venice Beach: Season One Review of Crystal Chappell's Passion Project
I just finished watching the season finale of Venice, the groundbreaking, web soap opera from Guiding Light and Days of Our Lives' superstar Crystal Chappell, talented writer Kim Turrisi and sharp director Hope Royaltey, and all I can say is I hope a fly doesn't get a chance to head down my throat before I can pick my jaw up from the floor! If you are one of those people who opted not to subscribe to the web series, let me just say the season one cliffhanger featuring GL alum Jordan Clarke as Col. John Brogno— the homophobic father of Chappell's principle character Gina— alone was well worth the 10 bucks I paid, if only to make sure I know the backstory for what is sure to be a much stronger second season. But for now, let's talk about the season that was.
Venice got off to an amazing start 10 weeks ago by giving long-suffering fans of GL's monster hit supercouple Otalia the payoff they had been so cruelly denied by CBS and Procter and Gamble. The first episode introduced us to the troubled Gina, a successful interior designer living and loving on Venice Beach and her sometimes lover Ani, played by Chappell's former GL costar Jessica Leccia. I stood up and cheered (okay, no I didn't, but I did do a seated version of Janet Jackson's popular 80's dance The Cabbage Patch) as
Olivia Gina and Natalia Ani finally got to walk it like a dawg—complete with the ever-enterprising Chappell sporting Venice-themed panties for sale at Venice's official website. I couldn't wait until the next episode to see where Gina and Ani's complicated relationship would take me!
Fast forward to the next week and I found myself basically needing to hire an IT person from the CIA in order to watch the series, which was by then being streamed online at theVenice website for subscribers only. Reportedly, the website's servers weren't strong enough to withstand all the traffic from Chappell and Leccia's diehard, legion of fans (Hey, these people did crash the CNN International and Curve magazine sites after all!). I ran into similar issues when I tried to watch the third installment the following week.
In full disclosure, I must admit I was a bit cross over these early techinical difficulties. I have the attention span of a gnat on cocaine, and am not the most patient of souls, just ask my business partner Luke Kerr who routinely has to deal with my temper tantrums when things don't meet my anal set of standards. Sorry, Luke, I'm reading Don't Sweat The Small Stuff as we type, I promise! Plus, if it's one thing you don't mess with, it's black peoples' money! If I pay for something, I want it right then and there.
My immediate reaction to Venice's tech troubles was that these things probably should have been worked out before the show's launch, especially if fans were going to be paying to see the series. I didn't mind ponying up the cash, because these shows cost money, and I applaud Chappell and Co. for developing a revenue model that works for them in keeping a web soap opera in production and allowing them to make a profit, because if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense, but for all you aspiring web soap producers out there, please make sure you've estimated your audience and bandwidth needs prior to a much-publicized roll out. I am not saying this at all in a snippy way, because I adore La Chappell and her sisterfriends, but it would be a disservice not to be honest about this as we all grow and learn about the brave, new world of web soaps.
Because of my love for Chappell and Co. and what they were trying to accomplish, I kept making the attempt to go back and view their passion project until I was finally able to watch the show with success. After interviewing Chappell for Curve, I knew what it meant for her to do Venice for all those gay and lesbian soap fans who wrote to her during the last months of GL about how inspiring Otalia was for them. I planned to stick it out with Venice through good times and glitches. So since we've already dealt with the glitches, let's talk about the good times— and the not so good times— of Venice's first season.
From the start I loved the realistic feel of Venice. Unlike the initial episodes of Martha Byrne's Gotham, which I criticized for being a bit too old-school soapy, early on Venice felt like a sleek, cable series you'd find on HBO or Showtime. Now the rest of this review will not be a tit for tat comparing and contrasting Venice to Gotham, but since the two series rolled out at the same time, it was hard not to make the occasional comparison.
Gina and Ani, the starcrossed lovers of Venice felt much more like real people than Richard (Michael Park) and Catherine (Byrne) in Gotham's pilot and subsequent first couple of episodes. I will admit Chappell and Leccia's already established chemistry from GL no doubt influenced my favoring them initially, but beyond that I really wanted to know more about these two women. Why was Gina so angry and depressed in her personal life, while her work life thrived? What kept drawing Ani back in? Unfortunately, it was practically the end of the season before I even started to get my answers, whereas Gotham managed to get its act together much earlier.
For some reason, the Gina/Ani romance—Venice's central hook— took a backseat to Gina's familial relationships with her hunky, actor brother, Owen (Galen Gering), weirdly-comedic aunt, Guya (Hilary B. Smith) and aforementioned, homophobic pop, The Colonel (Clarke). For the life of me I am still trying to figure out why this Guya individual was sniffing a startled Tina Sloan in episode two.
The third episode introduced us to Tracy (Lesli Kay), a sometimes-British businesswoman whom Gina took a liking to. I say sometimes, because her accent came and went more times than All My Children head writing teams. Kay, like Chappell, is one of my all-time favorite soap actresses, but something was a bit off with this character. She didn't seem real to me, which made her stand out among Venice's better drawn supporting characters. Tracy appeared at times both in awe of Gina and terrified of her, and not in a good way.
Tracy was sadly the first Kay character I didn't absolutely love since her early days on As The World Turns. Everytime she showed up I kept asking myself, "Where in high hell is Ani?" I wanted a web series that reunited Otalia, not Olivia Spencer with Felicia Forrester! Not that I mind interlopers, they are necessary soap staples, but without Ani featured prominently in the batch of episodes where Gina and Tracy's relationship began, this triangle was missing an all-important leg for much too long during the first season.
Instead of building on the heat of Gina and Ani from the pilot, Venice spent numerous scenes in numerous episodes establishing the sibling bond between Owen and Gina. While Chappell and Gering have a nice, easy chemistry that makes me buy them as brother and sister, and it was cute to see them cutting up with their Aunt Guya (who became much less weird when bonding with her late sister's kids), I still found myself wondering, "Where in high hell is Ani?"
Gina and Owen's relationship with The Colonel was disturbing to watch. While It was nice to finally be clued in on one of the factors that made Gina such damaged goods (her father is an asshat), the episode in which The Colonel criticized Gina for being gay and Owen for being a struggling actor felt a tad bit forced. Would this man really be such a tool as to start in on his kids before the Leg of Lamb was even served? That being said, Chappell gave one of her trademark brilliant performances when she ripped into her father, revealing to him that he was just as much a disappointment to her as she was to him, thus salvaging the episode.
Owen's (C) story romance with Sami, a Peace Corps goody-goody played by GL and One Life to Live's Gina Tognoni, was sweet, but unnecessary. Here's where I am going to give the Venice peeps the same bit of advice I gave the Gotham gang. WIth such precious, little time in a web series to tell the (A) story properly, you can't get bogged down in subplots. I would definitely watch a spinoff featuring Owen and Sami, but when a show only airs for five-to-eight minutes-a-week, the central characters need to drive story. Chappell assembled an amazing group of supporting, soapy actors, all of whom I would love to see mix it up on a 30-minute or hour-long sudser, but Sniffing Aunt Guya, and Owen and Sami's talky romance just frustrated me, because again, I was wondering, 'Where in high hell is Ani?"
Near the end of the first season, Ani finally returned to the front burner in a game-changing romance with Lara Miller (the never-more striking Nadia Bjorlin from Days of Our Lives), a childrens' book author, who met harried, fashion photographer Ani at a bar. Holy Sexual Chemistry Batman! Ani and Lara's flirty first scene had me about ready to ask, "Otalia, who?"
The season one finale of Venice saw four of the sexiest, brunette lesbians (I guess blondes in the Venice universe are strictly dickly?) to ever descend on SoCal all meeting up face-to-face at the rooftop restaurant Gina and her peeps frequent, as Owen sat there struggling to keep from wondering what they all did to each other in bed. This resulted in twin scenes were Ani and Lara and then Gina and Tracy discussed what I was still desperately trying to figure out myself at this point— what exactly do Gina and Ani mean to one another? On GL it was all-too apparent that Olivia and Natalia were meant to be together. On Venice it wasn't so clear with Gina and Ani.
To be honest, if I had just happened upon this series on the web, and had never heard of Otalia, I would definitely be rooting for Ani to pick Lara over moody Gina at this point. Here's hoping season two of Venice picks up with a jucy, front burner storyline featuring a Gina/Ani/Lara triangle that has Gina getting over herself and fighting like hell to get her girl back. Sorry Tracy, but you can hop back across the pond and take several other nonessential character with you. I'm not saying I want Venice to be All Gina and Ani, All The Time, but in my opinion, that would be the best use of time for this web series, that is of course unless Venice extends to 15-minute episodes. I don't mind seeing more of The Colonel (especially after that kinktastic shocker in the finale!), Weird Aunt Guya, Owen, or even Sami, if they tie them more tightly to the main narrative, but Venice is much too pretty and promising a place— and a web soap— to keep taking so many unnecessary detours.