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This Comedic “Black Mirror”-Style Series Is Online Visual Storytelling Done Right

Cirocco Dunlap’s funny, surreal anthology “Everything is Okay,” marks a strong start for Topic.com, a new voice in visual storytelling. Here’s how it happened.

This Comedic “Black Mirror”-Style Series Is Online Visual Storytelling Done Right

Everything Is Okay, a wickedly funny head-trip meditation on How We Live Now, and it’s available to watch this very second. It’s also a brightly burning signal flare announcing that Topic.com, a just-launched visual storytelling arm of First Look Media, has arrived and they mean business.

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Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel who took the reins at Topic, has spent years thinking about ways to tell stories digitally, without relying on words alone. It’s an interest borne out of frustration during her waning days at Jezebel.

“I was sort of sick of words: Sick of writing them, sick of editing them, sick of having to keep track of them as they pertained to digital media, professional or amateur,” Holmes says. “I was having more fun with visuals and photos for the site than anything else, and it was at that point that I decided maybe I should move in that direction in the future.”

Her decision has now culminated in Topic, a refreshingly unusual website where refreshingly unusual projects like Everything Is Okay feel right at home. Each month, the editors select a new theme around which to organize features. Then they hash out the possibilities of how this topic could be explored. Once there’s a foundation of ideas, the team reaches out to a wide range of storytellers, with creative briefs, to see what pitches they yield. About 90% of the content featured on the site is original.

This month’s theme is 21st Century Women, and it’s incisively mapped out across a multitude of approaches, mediums, and collaborators. There’s a photo-heavy guide on how to freeze one’s eggs, a mixtape of short films about women–one of which features Transparent star Gaby Hoffman and another directed by Janicza Bravo of the film, Lemon–along with an animated monologue from veteran indie filmmaker Todd Solondz. And then, of course, there’s Everything Is Okay, a standout project this month.

Everything consists of five shorts all set in a modern New York City that is alternately banal and heightened to the sky. Writer and star Cirocco Dunlap’s series takes metropolitan roommate politics to an apocalyptic place, imagines task rabbiting your social life to a robot clone, and wades into a subway station that exists beyond the realm of time. Comparisons to Black Mirror, the technocentric Twilight Zone, with more twist endings than a knot-tying workshop, feel inevitable. However, the show also shares some DNA with High Maintenance or Girls, whichever New Yorkian HBO show you prefer. Everything thrives on bleakly relatable humor, the kind Dunlap also occasionally contributes to The New Yorker.

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It was one of the writer’s Shouts and Murmurs contributions that paved the way for her new series. Last February, The New Yorker published her humor piece N.Y.C. to L.A. to N.Y.C. to L.A., Ad Infinitum, which sadly concluded that the two rival cities are equally unlivable. N.Y.C. to L.A. made its way around basically the entire internet, and eventually it landed with Holmes’ colleagues Lisa Leingang and Nick Borenstein.

The two development executives saw a lot of potential in the piece, and reached out to its author to see what ideas she had. Dunlap had by then already written one of the short films that became Everything Is Okay (the second episode, Subway), and had been trying to figure out how to shoot it with her director friend Adam Sacks. The writer sent along a script for the short, amongst other items, and Borenstein and Leingang commissioned a short series.

“It evolved a lot but we stayed pretty true to the original concept,” Dunlap says. “Adam and I were trying to go for a slower tone that felt honest and grounded, and we went through several drafts of each trying to make sure we didn’t have anything that didn’t feel like something we’d really been through. You know, like a fridge portal.” [Ed note: the series indeed contains a fridge portal. Just go with it.]

Those two development executives weren’t the only ones to reach out after The New Yorker piece, though. Simon Rich, a fellow veteran of Shouts and Murmurs, saw a simpatico style in Dunlap’s writing. He lured her to write for the third and final season of his comically surreal FX series, Man Seeking Woman. Rich also brought her on board for his new anthology series, Miracle Workers, which premieres on TBS this fall.

While opportunities were already opening up for Dunlap concurrent to her debut on Topic.com, the website seems poised to propel many other up-and-coming storytellers to the next level in their careers.

“Part of our mandate is to make sure we are supporting and amplifying the voices of unknowns as much as people who are more accomplished,” Holmes says. “We’re trying to create stories and support storytellers that offer narratives that feel more evergreen, more reflective than reactive, while also publishing content that we believe belongs in the digital space and is easily shared. Focusing on visual storytelling – photography, illustration, scripted and non-fiction video pieces and short films – felt like a way we could do that and do it in a new way.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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