Every Wednesday, we take a look at a web series. This week, it’s Refinery 29’s The Skinny.
Earlier this year, Sundance Film Festival did something for the first time: it put on a special screening to preview a web series. The show in question? The Skinny, a comedy-drama about a young vlogger, Jessie, who wants to become the next big thing.
Jessie Kanhweiler writes, directs and stars in the programme, which follows the loosely dramatised version of herself, as she navigates the waters of trying to make it on the world wide web. She faces the familiar pressures, from a disapproving, overbearing mother (Ileana Douglas) to a scrub of an ex-boyfriend (Spencer Hill). But the title stems from another issue that Jessie hides from those around her: bulimia.
Eating disorders are still something of a taboo in 2016, despite us living in an age where perception – particularly online – is more important than ever. People take tons of Instagram photos to find the right one and pick and choose what statuses to share on Facebook. For vloggers, especially, there’s a significant trend towards sharing personal details with viewers, from tours of bedrooms to announcements of sexuality. The Skinny, then, is a welcome move to tackle that superficial fixation by focusing on the awkward truths behind the glossy lens.
Awkward is certainly the word for it. Jessie, we soon realise, is far from perfect; her vlogs mostly consist of embarrassing and inappropriate things with even less taste than sense. (One sees her trying to f*ck a vet for Veterans Day, while another features her talking to a homeless person, only to decide to stop halfway through and go and get sushi.) They’re amusingly awful – and actually exist, as part of Jessie’s old back catalogue of comedy videos. The series neatly develops this persona into a subtle study of shame and identity – on the one hand, Jessie (the character) is confident enough to be herself on camera, but on the other hand, she also feels she’s not worth anything, unless she has loads of fans.
As she shacks up with a mostly clueless manager and fails to sign any brand partnerships, there’s a coming-of-age tale hidden in the satire of the web video community; one standout episode sees Jessie hook up with some younger Vine stars, only to find them vapid (although arguably no more than her) and rather fond of substance abuse – the kind of culture clash that both offers wry laughs and prompts some rapid growing up.
But what of the bulimia? That’s The Skinny’s real masterstroke: the series constantly foregrounds Jessie’s eating disorder, but never shoves it in our face. Instead, her bulimia – often presented in short cutaways amid the rest of the action – simply becomes part of her overall, complex life; it’s another problem to add to the pile, or perhaps a problem partly caused by the pile. It’s a natural, honest approach that you can imagine being encouraged by Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who is one of the exec producers on the show. The Skinny is no Transparent, and it doesn’t always nail the tonal balance between comedy and drama, but it manages something equally impressive: it de-glamorises all the behaviours that might normally be celebrated by online or traditional media. From shoplifting to sticking two fingers down your throat, there’s an uncomfortable reality to the entertaining silliness that makes The Skinny a smart fit for its digital home of Refinery 29, a lifestyle site aimed at millennial women. Despite the odd flaw, this is a show that raises important questions, makes you giggle and provides an excellent showcase for the talented Jessie Kanhweiler. Who knows? One day, she might be the next big thing.
The Skinny spans six episodes of around 10 minutes each, with all episodes available to watch for free on YouTube.