When the entertainment studio Super Deluxe launched in 2015 (or, rather, re-launched, having originated online with Turner Broadcasting in 2006 before a lengthy hiatus), it came in the wake of several competing web-only ventures that had experienced success, including “online comedy community” JASH and the kingmaker of virality, Funny or Die.
Yet, rather than shoot for the comedic middle ground targeted by ongoing series like Between Two Ferns, Super Deluxe’s reboot aimed to “amplify creative voices that live just outside the mainstream” through the machine-gun dispersal of outré, often ridiculous videos and posts across social media. Twitter’s Vine (launched in 2012) and Instagram’s video platform (2013) were beginning to give voice to self-made comedians, and Super Deluxe capitalized early on their content creators’ exposure by producing and recycling their work between apps.
Gifted editors with expansive social reach, like the genius political videographer Vic Berger IV and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp, became early contributors; and their videos (like Berger’s legendary “Trump Has No Chill at the 9th GOP Debate”) were disseminated across YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat and other platforms. In less than two years after its re-launch, Super Deluxe demonstrated a mastery of social media content distribution; the company reports that it received more than 87 million collective video views in February alone.
It’s only natural that, like Funny or Die before it, the Los Angeles-based studio would seek both to widen its digital projects’ exposure and to bring the proverbial pain against aesthetically lower-grade competitors. Now, with a high-quality, auteur-driven new show called City Girl, Super Deluxe is finally making its play at becoming the Netflix of digital series.
This six-episode comedic series takes its inspiration, at least in part, from a script developed by a 12-year-old girl. The show’s creator, director, star and mastermind is Sarah Ramos, the aforementioned adolescent screenwriter who is now an adult multi-hyphenate with major roles in American Dreams, Parenthood, and The Affair.
Though best known as an actor, Ramos has also begun carving out a niche as an independent filmmaker of note, with her hilarious 2012 short The Arm (co-directed by Brie Larson and Jessie Ennis) taking home the Short Film Special Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. She then made her solo directorial debut with Fluffy, a darkly satirical exploration of women’s sexuality starring herself and Max Minghella, which was released by fashion brand BB Dakota.
While The Arm cemented her credentials as a burgeoning indie director, Fluffy demonstrated Ramos the writer’s gift for fusing elevator-pitch storytelling with assured comic timing. The eight-plus minute short (still available on BB Dakota’s Vimeo page) suggests a single-minded creative voice. But it’s through Super Deluxe that Ramos’s razor-sharp conceptual abilities emerge in full force.
In City Girl, which, a title card tells us, “was written in 2003,” Ramos stars as Casey Jones, the owner of a sparsely patronized vintage L.A. boutique. The customer(s) that do shop at her “Shabby Chic-style” store continuously demand denim versions of her items, contributing to the chronic crippling migraines from which Jones suffers. Desperate for a cure, she heads to Foley Medical, where the handsome Dr. Foley (Nick Thorburn, the very rad frontman of Islands and The Unicorns) is completely free to see her immediately, and his secretary, Claire (played by Alia Shawkat), eats chocolates.
From this literally childish premise, Ramos and her crew—most notably director of photography T.J. Williams, Jr. and the hyper-talented editor Bia Jurena (the show’s secret weapon)—extract several absurdist scenarios. In the first episode, which runs less than three minutes, Jones is sick, both with her headaches and of a preppy ex-boyfriend (a game Dan Byrd, doing the douche-bro version of his Cougar Town character). But by the third episode, after being illicitly medicated in a bright blue office, her relationship with Foley has them rapping together in a McDonald’s parking lot straight out of a Wes Anderson commercial.
Through these piecemeal comic set-ups, Ramos commits a feat of world-building with a keen pop sensibility that owes as much to Anderson as to Amy Heckerling, Adam McKay and Jeff Koons. The series is an askew fantasia from the first scene, mixing surrealistic dialogue with an explosive visual palette. Stylist Cocoa Rigal and production designer Heather Farah go buck-wild, rigging the sets with the overwhelming colors of a pre-pubescent girl’s childhood: Kitchens and bedrooms are slathered in pastel pinks; employees of the store dress in outrageous goth get-ups.
When Shawkat’s Claire offers a chocolate to an infirm patient, who declines, the actor’s reaction shot brings on a belly laugh. Likewise for the secret rendezvous between Jones’s BFF, Monica (played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Esther Povitsky) and Aaron (comedian Benji Aflalo), which take place in the boutique—to its owner’s prudish shock. Little visual details, like the strangely abundant floating ducks in one character’s bath, stand out for their peculiarity and their specificity: In this image, the rubber ducks are not essential to anything except to make you chuckle at their immaturity. Only a child could have imagined these details, yet only a team of determined craftspeople could have executed them.
One might never have expected a project of such stylistic ambition from this particular studio. For Super Deluxe, Fleischer-Camp’s Nathan Fielder-starrer David and Berger’s ongoing Chubby Checker series recall Netflix’s moves towards original programming with Hemlock Grove and Lilyhammer: fascinating original experiments limited by their cult appeal and lack of aesthetic flair.
Nonetheless, the creative rigors of City Girl and Super Deluxe’s investment in indie auteurs (besides Ramos, the show is also executive-produced by the Sundance-approved director of Ingrid Goes West, Matt Spicer) pays off so impressively that one cannot help recalling the period in 2013 when the behemoth streaming service launched its first truly daring blockbuster shows, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.
Whether City Girl will match the legacy of House of Cards remains to be seen, with a second season apparently left unwritten by 12-year-old Ramos. But Super Deluxe would be smart to assemble a writers’ room of imaginative teenage girls as soon as possible.
City Girl is now available on the Super Deluxe Facebook page and YouTube channel.
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.