An Open Letter to Crackle: Step Up, or Step Out

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An Open Letter to Crackle: Step Up, or Step Out

Dear Crackle,

Not long after your corporate rebranding in 2007, following several years as “Grouper,” you began to show real promise as a programming platform, studio and streaming distributor. As a subsidiary of Sony, your access to a smashing library of evergreen film and TV classics—Seinfeld, The Shield, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Big Daddy—was immediately impressive. Best of all, your services were, at the price of some exhausting commercial breaks, entirely free.

Then, in July 2012, you launched what would become your flagship show: Jerry Seinfeld’s Emmy-nominated Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a charmingly intimate short-form series with genre-busting aspirations. An experiment in documentary virality, it features Seinfeld driving funny friends around in luxe vehicles, but it was several degrees more successful than anyone (including the show’s creator) anticipated. With its jollity, narrative simplicity, and consistent chuckleworthiness—not to mention conversations with celebrities like former President Barack Obama and Tina Fey—CiCGC effectively staked your claim as a mini-major in the original content landscape.

Success, of course, has its drawbacks: After clinching more than 100 million views, Seinfeld’s show migrated to Netflix in 2017 for its ninth season, taking the previous eight seasons with it. For a different company, the loss of a whale of that size might simply be humiliating. Unfortunately for you, Crackle, Seinfeld’s departure has left a dangerous, gaping wound.

To your credit, you’ve tried valiantly to leapfrog off that show’s success into original programming, like the stop-motion superhero parody SuperMansion; the recently-renewed Rupert Grint vehicle, Snatch; and the self-promotional highlight clip show This Week On, which debuted in May.

But like a pack of purebred dachshunds with painful back problems, the on-paper pedigree of these series barely conceal their exhaustingly derivative construction, of which SuperMansion is the clearest example.

Despite its recent renewal for a third season, SuperMansion illuminates some of the creative strategies that have left you in a rut. Created by Zeb Wells and Matthew Senreich of the perennially funny Robot Chicken, and executive produced by Bryan Cranston, this must have looked like a home run. After all, it blurs capable stop-motion animation with a take-no-prisoners parody of comic-book mythologies, its obscene super-powered characters voiced by an expert revolving cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Jillian Bell and Chris Pine.

The voice performances, though committed (Pine and Key were both nominated for Emmys in 2016), are not enough to hide the derivative, often puerile material on which SuperMansion depends. In the Avengers-like group in Titanium Rex’s (voiced by Cranston) mansion are two immediately troubling characters: a spiritually confused, stereotype-heavy robot named Jewbot (Zeb Wells) and a humanoid cat called Cooch (played by writer Heidi Gardner) whose grotesque catchphrase is, “Who wants some Cooch?!” And then there’s Rex himself, a sloppy pastiche of Marvel heroics and Trumpian narcissism whose primary nemeses are his erectile dysfunction and an aching back.

As your sole animated original, SuperMansion begs for attention its fart jokes and insipid Mike’s Hard Lemonade product placement can’t sustain. That should not dissuade you from collaborating with Senreich, Wells and company on future projects: Their themed specials for Adult Swim are among the wittiest programming on television. But a series this proudly and brazenly ignorant is bound for ignominy.

Your newest series, This Week On, is off to a similarly shaky start. It features online personalities Ian Hecox and Kevin Mimms spit-balling in two-minute segments (closer to vlogs than episodes) about what they’re “watching” from within the Crackle/Sony catalogue—a sort of weekly welcome for new visitors. The question of whom these episodes are geared to, however, looms large.

This Week On’s unpopularity is astonishing in a world where fidget-spinning dogs get international news coverage. The first episode, “5/4-5/10,” has accrued fewer than 1,300 YouTube views at the time of this writing, at least three of them mine (some episodes have fewer than 1,000 channel views). This makes more sense, however, when one notes the sometimes-offensive commentary Hecox provides, as in his tone-deaf sexualization of Milla Jovovich in an early episode.

By aping the amateur YouTuber aesthetic in a play for teen viewers, your platform undermines both Hecox’s earnest attempts at more mature content and the show’s marketability to anyone over the age of fifteen. Nearly two months into its run, Hecox is struggling to recapture the nimble, calmly stylish comic presence he demonstrated in Smosh, Ghostmates and Angry Birds: The Movie. As a result, no matter how tasteful the host’s recommendations, the program remains impossible to take seriously as entertainment.

But all is not lost, Crackle: With Snatch, this spring’s ten-episode semi-follow-up to Guy Ritchie’s hyperkinetic 2000 crime drama, you demonstrated at least a taste for complex material.

Created by Alex de Rakoff, the show moves frantically between vicious comic set pieces, Breaking Badstyle. The main trio—posh Charlie Cavendish (executive producer Rupert Grint, radiating devilish charisma), Albert Hill (Luke Pasqualino, also commanding), and their boxing buddy Billy (Lucien Laviscount)—display a Three Stooges level of foul-mouthed idiocy on their journey from childish crime to aspirational gangsterism.

The show’s directors, especially Nick Renton in the second and third episodes, move past visual homage by utilizing nifty split-screens and a warmer, more richly colored palette than Ritchie’s. Here, greed is elevated as both an inspiring trait and a plot device: Gold bullion plays a significant role in Season One, so cinematographers John Lee and Sean Van Hales shoot several fine sequences above, underneath, amidst and through piles of gold. By the end of the fifth episode, in which the boys align with two wily conspirators, Lotti (Phoebe Dynevor) and Chloe Koen (Stephanie Leonidas), the every-person-for-themselves nihilism of the original has been abandoned in favor of rewarding the ensemble, slowly.

Where Snatch falters is in its reliance on vacuous racism, some of which strangely mirrors SuperMansion. In the second episode, lascivious Orthodox Jewish diamond dealers force the boys to take them to a strip club; in the third, a kippah-wearing character threatens to cut off and pickle Pasqualino’s penis. Why not offer it on a bagel with lox? (There’s also the decision to cast English actor Ed Westwick as Sonny Castillo, a coke-addled Cuban gang lord.)

Ultimately, in such an overwhelming and cluttered content landscape, neither these substandard Crackle Originals nor your “serious” shows like the overcooked art-world drama The Art of More, have been able to replace CiCGC in terms of viewership, water cooler impact, or even critical acclaim. Without a brand-defining flagship project-and, unforgivably, with pesky advertisements creeping into your streaming service-you’ve been left without a strong leg to stand on.

So, here’s the truth, Crackle: When it comes to original programming, it is time to step up, or step out.

Yours,
Sean

New episodes of This Week On are released Mondays on the Crackle YouTube page. All episodes of SuperMansion and Snatch are now available on Crackle.com.



Sean L. Malin is a media critic and producer based in Austin, TX. He is a frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Filmmaker Magazine; and he is the editor-in-chief of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.

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