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Stars from Hanks to Seinfeld enter digital fray

The Associated Press, Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:22pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- As a new wave of big names enter the growing field of Web series, leave it to Larry David to keep enthusiasm in check.

"I wouldn't say I'm excited, but I'm looking forward to it," David says at the start of Jerry Seinfeld's new series, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."

The conceit of the show is exceptionally simple: Seinfeld picks up a comedian friend in one of his personal vintage cars, and they get some coffee. Having achieved these meager tasks, David, the co-creator of "Seinfeld," appropriately concludes: "You have finally done the show about nothing."

In the latest batch of notable series to launch online, long-harbored ambitions find digital outlets: Seinfeld does nothing; Tom Hanks plays a hero; Larry King keeps his suspenders in action.

Their three new series — "Larry King Now" on Hulu, Hanks' "Electric City" on Yahoo, "Comedians in Cars" on its own website — represent the latest stage in the slow but sure evolution of digital television. Though none is exactly must-see TV, each has its charms (some more than others) and their very existence suggests a further advancement for online video.

Of the three, "Comedians in Cars" is the most promising. Only one episode has run, the 13 1/2 minute "Larry Eats a Pancake," but future episodes featuring Ricky Gervais, Alec Baldwin, Michael Richards and others are set to premiere Thursday evenings on ComediansInCarsGetti ngCoffee.com and Crackle.com.

The series is an argument for leisure. Seinfeld extols the virtues and necessity of laziness to, as he says, "the comedian mindset." And when Seinfeld and David get together — as they did for David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" reunion of the "Seinfeld" cast in 2009 — their ease with one another is a joy to behold.

Indeed, the best aspect of the debut episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" is to see the two in their natural habitat, laughing far more than they would ever allow their deadpans to do on TV. At one point, a chortling David spits out his herbal tea (he makes a minor protest over the coffee ritual) after Seinfeld uses the word "debauched."

"It's a miracle we ever got any work done because nobody can waste time like you and me," Seinfeld says to David.

Chatting comedians are seemingly everywhere these days — the creme de la creme being Marc Maron's remarkable podcast. Still, the chance to see two of comedy's greats huddled in a 1952 Volkswagen bug is hard to resist.

"Larry King Now," too, depends on the basic appeal of conversation. King's setting, though, is less distinct: He typically interviews entertainers — Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, George Lopez — in the semi-retired comfort of his own home.

But the steady patter of the 78-year-old's questioning hasn't changed: He's still a congenial, entertaining interviewer, albeit one now without much reason for journalistic prodding. He's a veteran taking another spin through his rolodex, unwilling (to his credit) to give up the thrill of the interview.

King created the series with the new digital network Ora TV, which turned to Hulu to distribute four 20- to 25-min. episodes a week.

The episode with Betty White charmingly concludes with the pair selling lemonade on King's front lawn to passing celebrity tour buses. In the developing digital landscape, the two TV old-timers are just kids.

"This is a whole new world for us, Betty," King tells 90-year-old White.

With the animated "Electric City," Hanks has literally created a new world. It's long in the making: The actor first had the idea for it nearly eight years ago, envisioning a settled dystopia in a post-apocalyptic society.

Figuring out how to make it — and for whom — proved a challenge for Hanks, who shopped the idea to networks and studios, and originally contemplated making it with marionettes. (Yes, marionettes.) He finally settled on a cheap animated series, produced by the Indian media company Reliance Entertainment, with Hanks' own production company, Playtone.

In advance of its debut last week, "Electric City" was trumpeted as a prime example of the latest push into original programming, alongside efforts from Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. But as is often the case with digital series, the hype outpaced the show's quality, which is dragged down by mediocre production value and a muddled purpose.

The 20 episodes of five minutes are awkward, if easily consumable bite-sized helpings of a story that strives for long-form ambiguity and seriousness. Hanks voices one of the main characters, Cleveland Carr, a "grid operative" in a future where some apparently climate-based event has left a dangerous, bleak, electricity-starved world. Carr's mission has something to do with stopping black market schemes for a new transmitter device.

"It's best to ask no questions and be told no lies, here in the Electric City," Hanks narrates, using an oft-repeated mantra in a city fashioned out of numerous science-fiction conventions.

"Electric City" does conjure an enjoyable atmosphere (the ominous score by Leo Z and Ali Noori helps), one that the creators have attempted to make immersive with various interactive components.

But the Internet is not good at "immersive." Even if a show is compelling, countless options are a click away — a distracted audience is inevitable if they're watching on computers and mobile phones.

This is one of the biggest problems for original digital series. Well, that and making any money. It should be noted that these three experimenters — Hanks, Seinfeld and King — have done alright for themselves. These projects could all be classified in the vanity variety — none of them are expecting a big paycheck here.

But even if the dollars aren't there yet and the content isn't always superior, it's surely a milestone when one of America's most favorite movie stars, one of its most beloved comedians and one of its signature news anchors are all opting for the Web.

The platform is there. The machinery to launch, promote and distribute these series is clearly in place now.

Another Hollywood player will also soon try his hand on the Web: Bryan Singer, the director of "The Usual Suspects" and much of the "X-Men" franchise, will on Aug. 8 launch his series, "H+," another dystopic drama where Internet microchips embedded in humans go haywire.

The future — one kind or another — is online.

———

Online:

http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/

http://www.hulu.com/larry-king-now

http://electriccity.yahoo.com/

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