The Golden Age of Webisodes: How Shorts Are Keeping Your Favorite Shows Alive

Networks are breathing new life into beloved characters with web-only shorts

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Jesse Plemons on Friday Night Lights

I miss Dillon, Texas: the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small town that only eats BBQ, buys cars from Buddy Garrity, and worships high school football; the place that Brian “Smash” Williams and Vince Howard call home; the humble slice of America, where endless nights under the stars are spent with friends, a pigskin, and a 12-pack of Lone Star. Of course, none of this actually exists, but it’s a dream I was sold by Peter Berg’s critically-acclaimed NBC drama, Friday Night Lights, which used Dillon as its setting. Sadly, the dream ended in the Winter of 2011 — or so I thought.

But this week, NBC posted a webisode for their current series Parenthood. Titled “Friday Night at The Luncheonette,” the 18-minute featurette finds Parenthood characters Amber (Mae Whitman) and her cousin Max (Max Burkholder) watching over their family’s expensive recording studio. In a surprising twist, Friday Nights Lights Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and his in-show Christian speed metal band, Crucifictorious, are booked for a session. As an added incentive, they even brought back Tim Riggins’ dopey older brother Billy (Derek Phillips) for a few laughs.

How did this happen? You can thank Parenthood producer Jason Katims, who once worked on Friday Night Lights. (It also helps both franchises are NBC entities.) No doubt this was a fun idea that came to mind on a whim — and story-wise, it comes off that way — but nonetheless, it’s a blast to watch. I don’t watch Parenthood, but that didn’t matter; this served as more of a way to “check in” with our favorite characters, a prospect for Friday Night Lights fans that seemed nonexistent after Berg, Kyle Chandler, and Taylor Kitsch recently all shot down any hopes of a followup movie.

The short did the trick. The last time fans saw Mr. Clarke, he was outside his buddy Matt Saracen’s house tossing around the football with his future up in the air. Now, we know a little bit more of his whereabouts without cracking the mystery or ruining the integrity of the show. That’s what makes the format of the webisode so intriguing: producers and writers don’t have to recharge the franchise, come up with another major conflict or orchestrate a big comeback that’s bound to disappoint to give fans a taste of their favorite characters.

Recently, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jason Alexander used the format to revisit Seinfeld. This past Super Bowl, the three devised a commercial spot that featured NBC’s blockbuster characters Jerry, George, and Newman (Wayne Knight). The spot later extended into an online short as part of Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. True to the original, it was a simple, fun scene about nothing, but to fans that have been waiting outside the jail for over a decade, it meant the world. (Of course, Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm was the reunion every fan deserved, but this was the format many wanted.) And now it’s a wrap, as Seinfeld told Buzzfeed: “I have a feeling you’ve seen the final coda on that very unique experience.”

As someone who lives with characters — in other words, cries when that last episode is reached on Netflix, or mines message boards to see what other likeminded fans think for hours at a time — these webisodes have me excited. If anything, it’s a great way for networks to keep dusty fans in the mix of what else is going on in their schedule. It’s cool to know that Parenthood conceivably exists in the same universe as Friday Night Lights — and that’s coming from someone who had zero interest in a non-Steve Martin re-imagining of the Ron Howard classic.

To paraphrase Tim Riggins? Webisodes forever.