All For One is yet another Canadian web series. I’m mostly very sick of them, and most of them are bad. Luckily, this one is not.
Produced by Cherrydale Productions, distributed by KindaTV, and written by Sarah Shelson and RJ Lackie (Inhuman Condition), All For One invites inevitable comparison to Kinda’s most famous property by manifesting as a queer-tinted modern-day remake of a classic literary work captured entirely by webcam. I originally planned to write this review without acknowledging that comparison, but decided against it, partly because doing so would be a pain in the ass, but moreso because A4O does not have the same problem with being compared to Carmilla most other web series might: it doesn’t pale in comparison.
It’s not really fair to either show to say one is better than the other (A4O has one season, Carmilla has three), but for those of you who keep fandom power rankings, I’d take A4O’s first season over Carm’s, which is the only apples-to-apples comparison to be made.
Inevitable comparison over with, let’s talk about the actual show now.
It’s The Three Musketeers, but about sororities and super queer. You wanna know more about the plot than that, go watch the damn thing; this is a review, not a summary. Structurally, the show revolves around nominal main character Dorothy’s webcam, with her never-seen-except-as-IMs crew of internet besties (“the Inseparables”) serving as a modern day Greek chorus, chirping away in the margins. This is a very smart creative decision for a few reasons*. First, it allows the writers to manipulate tone and pace on the fly by injecting comic relief, self-awareness, and/or cheap pathos whenever the fuck they feel like it without eating up that most precious of web series resources: screentime. Second, it allows them to multi-task; one plot line may be advancing on-screen while a second plays out quietly among the Inseparables (occasionally joined by whichever lead characters aren’t appearing in a given episode). Third, it gives the writing team (Lackie/Shelson) an easy counter to one of Lackie’s writerly crutches; almost all of Lackie’s characters are prone to bouts of plot-centric myopia, and in the past his shows have allowed, if not downright enabled, them to get away it, but with an ever-present jury firing off incisive running commentary, characters are generally (and effectively) called out when they start to go down that road. Not all of them course correct, but once the issue’s been dragged into the narrative, that becomes a feature, not a bug. Speaking of writing…
*Worth noting is that many, maybe even all, of the Inseparables are characters from other shows. I only caught two of them myself, but I’m assured that there are others. One is from Carmilla, making me feel better about giving in to the cheap comparison above, and the best of the bunch is from Lackie’s older web series, Santiago. It’s likewise worth noting that neither Lackie nor Shelson has (to my knowledge) ever admitted to either of those, but I’m not an idiot and hopefully neither are you, dear reader, so let’s call a cameo a cameo and move on with the review.
A4O is an excellently written show, and not just by the admittedly low bar set by web series. I haven’t seen any of Shelson’s other work, so I can’t speak to how the partnership affects her, but what I can say is that she seems to have a knack for allowing Lackie to be Lackie (which, my own pot shots at his previous monomaniacal characters non-withstanding, is a very good thing) while subtly steering him away from his bad habits and injecting her own high-energy voice and full-auto black market machine-gun pacing. A4O does an exceptional job of serving a way over-sized cast (five main characters, at least three major supporting roles, a few off-screen-but-still-developed side characters, plus the Inseparables) in a relatively brisk three hours or so; not only does every major player in the show have an arc (or several, in some cases), even the off-screen ghosts and most of the text-only Inseparables are gifted with pathos, progression, and payoff. It’s an absolute masterclass in using every available bit of narrative real-estate to build your characters and tell your story*.
*Bringing up the vampiric elephant in the room one (hopefully) last time, this is something that even Carmilla never totally figured out in its three seasons, largely punting on giving its supporting players any real meat in exchange for more time with its leads. That was probably the right play for that specific show (they were really great leads), but it’s refreshing to see a web series have its cakes and eat it too in a kitchen where most of its peers, far from either having or eating cake, accidentally added salt instead of sugar to the batter and have long-since retreated to the vomitorium. For that matter, even most twenty-minute TV sitcoms with more than five or six characters generally can’t serve them all nearly as consistently/artfully as A4O**, either.
** Footnote to a footnote! Brooklyn Nine-Nine is probably the current show that comes the closest, with seven principles, two consistently present supporting players, and a large tertiary library who usually get strong, character-driven notes to play, though of course Brooklyn has roughly quadruple the screentime to work with that A4O does.
Beyond that big-picture high-concept goodness, Lackie/Shelson also have a strong ear for banter (though both clearly watched way too much Buffy in highschool); A4O has a comedic batting average that hangs with all but the strongest of its TV brethren. They may be shorter on A+ knock-you-off-the-couch laugh grenades, but they’re firing off laugh bullets near-constantly and score at least a glancing blow with most of them. Their dramatic beats also mostly land, and they generally obey one the most oft-broken cardinal rules of good writing: thou shalt not sell-out thy characters* for either plot convenience or lazy comic beats. The writing isn’t perfect—as great as the overall pacing is, there are a couple conversations that overstay their welcome long past the point of narrative utility (occasionally to the point of undercutting what had up till then been a home-run scene), and Shelson/Lackie have never written a conversation they felt couldn’t be improved by an awkward pause or seven—but I can count on my thumbs the number of web series pilot seasons that get closer.
*There’s one major exception to this, and I’ll bitch about it later when I get to the part of the review where I’m hateful jerk who ruins things I like.
Given the size of the cast, I don’t have the ink to spill to cover everybody individually, either as a character or an actor, but top-to-bottom the cast is stellar, and every single one of them should be proud of the work they did. The worst performance in the show is probably still in the B+ to A- range. Gun to my head, I’d shout out Alejandra Simmons (Alex) as the MVP of the leads and Denise Yuen (Treville) as the top dog among the supporting players, but sincerely, I’ve got nothing bad to say about the cast as a whole in twenty-nine out of thirty episodes*.
*We’re almost there, pessimists.
I have nothing terribly interesting to say about the direction. The cast act in front of a stationary webcam. The blocking is functional. They mostly use the setup to their advantage, cutting off scenes that work just fine implied (except as noted above). Solid, functional work that does the job, but doesn’t exactly leave you racing to the director’s IMDB.
Alright, before I get into the higher-concept thematic stuff, let’s get the part where I piss all over something I really like out of the way (we all knew this was coming and when I die alone we’ll all understand why).
The show does have two major warts, and one begets the other.
The first is the live episode, coming in right around the 2/3s mark of the season. It’s by far the show’s longest episode, and neither the writers nor the actors are up to the sudden formula shift, the unscripted environment, or the awkward necessity of combining what probably should have been three or four separate major sequences into one clunky stationary set-piece. One conceit of this…look, I like the cast and crew a lot here, but calling this episode anything kinder than a tire fire is being a disingenuous reviewer so… one conceit of this tire fire is that, as it aired, fans were able to masquerade as Inseparables and ask the cast live questions in-character. I’m sure it was great fun for the fans involved, but the fans involved had nothing interesting to say, and the actresses were stuck and-yessing responses without either the help of the writing staff or the freedom to really riff (as I assume the rest of the season was already pretty thoroughly structured or maybe even filmed and they couldn’t risk contradicting or redirecting anything with a careless opinion or anecdote).
Oh, also, the single-set-for-twenty-minutes-and-also-they-all-need-to-get-their-turn-talking-to-the-fans setup necessitates a whole lot of contrived entering, exiting, and maneuvering that does nothing for the story and everything to remind you that you’re watching a manufactured production, and could only feel less authentic if accompanied by flashing text to the effect of “fuck your suspension of disbelief, loser.”
The episode is an amazing technical achievement in that they did it at all, but to paraphrase one of the least annoying iterations of Jeff Goldblum, they were so excited to see if they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. While I’m sure the episode was effective as a gimmick to goose the fanbase, removed from the context of the twenty minutes where it was accomplishing that goal, it mostly just saps the narrative momentum of the show right as it was cresting, takes its actresses away from doing what they do best, and introduces the single biggest creative misstep (in this not-so-humble reviewers estimation, anyhow) of the season in Alex’s sudden, dramatic, and inorganic character shift.
…which brings us to wart number two, wherein the show’s strongest character, fed up with being the responsible one, suddenly morphs from nuanced character into a party-girl pastiche that seems more at home on MadTV than KindaTV. While the idea behind the change is a decent one (Alex lashes out against her role as “Mom”) it scans totally false for the character we’ve been given, doesn’t fit the tone of the show, and doesn’t serve much narrative purpose beyond forcing one of the other leads into the leadership role (there were better ways to get there), and letting actress Simmons show off her comic chops (which, granted, are sharp). It’s also completely devoid of the nuance and verisimilitude that otherwise permeates not only Simmons’ work but the show’s character-writing in general. In a world where every other character is consistently, painfully, beautifully themselves at their own expense, turning the best of the bunch into a cartoonish punchline for three episodes or so fucks up the emotional feng shui something fierce. I suspect the writers might even agree with me, as the gimmick is quietly dropped a few episodes later with no lasting consequences.
Now, that was a negative couple paragraphs, but let’s put it all in perspective: ultimately, A4O has one bad episode out of thirty. Show me another show with a better batting average and I’ll show you Banshee, which I’ve previously described as “the best show on television*”.
*And as “The Ballad of Sheriff Punch,” though that’s neither here nor there.
Beyond that, the show’s only real creative misfire happens to its best character and isn’t bad enough to keep her from staying its best character. I’m picking nits here, and I’m using some very precise tweezers and a microscope to pick them. I’m also done doing it. Onto the abstraction!
One of the most incredible things about A4O is how many hats it manages to wear. It’s a comedy and a drama, sure, but it’s also a character study… scratch that, six or seven character studies. It’s also The Three Musketeers and sometimes it’s Animal House. It’s a virtuoso performance of an increasingly well-traveled formula, but thanks to its Inseparable gimmickry, it’s also the only show of its kind. It’s about persistence, and friendship, and admitting when you’re wrong, but it’s also about ambition, and narrative, and perspective, and bikini fund-raisers that end when one of the show’s stronger supporting players marches in cheerfully proclaiming “Hi. I’m here to ruin everything.” This is a show that tries to do about three-hundred* more things than any other web series out there**, and somehow feels less rushed, crowded, or inept than any of its competitors.
* Estimated. I’m not a math person, I swear on my thirteenth finger.
** Well, beside Next Time On Lonny, I guess, but the whole point of that show was that it did everything.
All that narrative ambition and versatility feeds back into the show’s characters, allowing them to exist in more dimensions than their screentime ought to allow. Pay attention to Yuen’s Treville, and note how much we learn about her simply from the things she owns or the way her eyes react to a certain name or an unexpected offer. I doubt she’s on-screen more than seven or eight minutes in the whole show, but she’s got more depth and nuance than anyone outside of the two leads on that apparently inescapable point of comparison*. This is something Lackie’s shown before in flashes (the bodyguard from Inhuman Condition is arguably its most interesting character and might not have ten lines), but here it's displayed consistently. Almost all of the Inseparables have at least two or three layers to them, and that’s without the benefit of a performer to embody them or any capacity to meaningfully interact with the A-plot.
*Last time, I swear. For the record, I do *really* like Carmilla, and it’s because I like it so much (and because it’s so much better than web series have any right to be**) that it’s such a useful measuring stick to show exactly how impressive A4O is at its best.
** I’ve previously compared its second season favorably and mostly sincerely to Shakespeare.
That’s not to say the leads are underdeveloped, either; in contrast to, say, Parks and Rec, where every character seems to exist solely to populate the Parks Department, all of A4Os feel lived in, with rich personal histories and plenty of implicit relationships and interests we don’t need to see or even hear about to take as read. Shelson & Lackie do an excellent job of letting the things they do reveal or spend time on imply a thousand more they don’t, and it’s the sort of expansive and elegant world-building you never get from web series* and rarely get from anything.
*Credit where its due, Inhuman Condition was similarly economical at building its world, but not nearly as adept at bread-crumbing the personal histories of its principles.
More than all that, though, at the end of the day, A4O is just fucking fun. The heroes have Sepinwall’s oft-discussed but rarely attained “I don’t even care if they’re not being funny right now, I like them and I just wanna hang out with them,” vibe, the villains are enthusiastic and memorable without succumbing to camp, and even the damn theme music is smiley. The emotional moments (mostly) feel earned and make you feel feelings, and they’re paced properly to do it without burning you out or risking diminishing returns.
Since it’s nominally a KindaTV show and I didn’t spend any time on the gender politics, I’ll awkwardly pause here to quickly note that A4O is pleasantly open-minded and inclusive. These people care about telling these stories respectfully and for as many people as possible, and it shows.
End of day, A4O is television in microcosm. It’s funny and cute and sad and angry and it’s still got time for both nerf gun duels and planted meth. It’s got close friends and bitter rivals, will-they-won’t-they’s and wish-they-wouldn’ts. It’s a pleasant place to escape to when you’re feeling shitty, and it’s a great neighborhood to show your friends around when you’re feeling good. It’s inventive and ambitious and yet familiar and comfortable. It’s great actresses (and actors) giving strong performances of sharp lines equally charged with uniquely subtle character biases and peppy Lackie-banter, all done at Shelson’s bullet-train pace that somehow never feels rushed and always gets you to exactly where you need to be. It’s fearless but rarely reckless, smart but never condescending, and sweet without ever veering into twee-town. It’s got all your favorite things from classic literature and modern television, and yet it’s something you’ve never quite seen before. It’s one of a kind, for now, and that’s a shame.
Incidentally, it’s also currently fundraising to make another season. How’s that old Musketeer mantra go again? All for one and whatever amount you feel comfortable donating for All For One via their Indiegogo.
Written by Nick Feldman.