Free from the constraints of network and cable television, the web series has been long touted as the next big thing in entertainment: Content intended for distribution online can be cheaply produced and avoid the ratings system entirely. Without time slots to fill, they can also range in length from feature films to a series of vignettes. Such is the format for Blue, 12 six-to-eight-minute episodes directed by Rodrigo Garcia in a collection of stories about women on the WIGS YouTube channel.
Blue (Julia Stiles) is a young, single mother of a highly gifted 13-year-old son, Josh (Uriah Shelton). She also works a bland office job during the day—but that’s not all. For a few hours a week, Blue—get this—turns tricks for an escort agency in order to make ends meet! Clearly, that, in and of itself, is enough to carry a story, so go on, YouTube viewers! Proceed to be riveted by these edgy topics, filled with flat performances, static characters, and painfully awkward dialogue.
Or … not. I admit to having had high hopes for this series. I have an appreciation for Stiles as a hot blonde who has traditionally played smart girls. Garcia has impressive credits in quirky, cerebral television under his belt, notably Six Feet Under and Carnivale, both of which deal with easy-to-sensationalize subcultures in ways that are incisive, funny, and humanizing. I was confident that Garcia could handle sex work, but two minutes into the first episode, Blue had already lost me.
Undressing for her client in the opening shot of the series, Blue manages a nervous smile and maintains icy eye contact with her client, who sits silently several feet away. The level of eroticism was such that Blue could just as easily have been a woman undressing for a gynecologist who refused to afford her a little privacy to disrobe before a pelvic exam. Her professional credibility further deteriorates as she stops the session and goes to the bathroom to answer her son’s call about homework problems, then casually negotiates a discount with her remarkably unfazed client. BUT WAIT. He’s unfazed because he knew Blue in high school. And thank goodness, too, because her phone’s ringing again, and this time she hands Josh’s homework problems off to her schoolmate-cum-client. Aaaand, scene. Though the writers clearly want us to think of Blue as a skilled companion, anyone who has ever engaged in transactional sex will cringe at lines like “Alright. Show me your torso” or “some of my clients like to be reminded that this is work for me. It turns them on.”
Such a stilted, apathetic approach to her work may have been forgivable—even empathy-inducing—if the viewer could sense that Blue had some other driving passion or goal. Or, for that matter, a pulse. Her mood toward her son ranges from exasperation to dutiful responsibility. Every moment she shares with him feels like either a concession or a conflict, and their interaction consistently lacks tenderness or believable affection. She’s not a bad parent, but she seems less a loving mother than a committed guardian. Blue’s only apparent friend is a mercurial basket case of a co-worker, Lavinia (Sarah Paulson), whom Blue placates and comforts rather than actually connects with. Paulson’s first few seconds find her lurching onscreen and sobbing bizarrely that her “name sounds like VAGINA,” into Blue’s cubicle. Even Blue’s mother (Kathleen Quinlan), a hypersexualized cougar, has no apparent personality, just a bizarre propensity to hurl the graphic details of her steamy sex life at her groaning daughter.
Blue appears to have no interest in anything, only a sense of duty to push her through her days. In the series finale, when we finally see Blue desire and pursue something, we’re so used to her Valium-flat personality that it’s hard to tell whether we’re witnessing sexual assault, a nervous breakdown, or just Blue playing a different role after all, this time the role of wanting something, just as stiffly performed and obligatory as daughter, mother, friend, employee, whore.
Ultimately, it’s this handful of roles that Garcia clumsily tries to make a woman out of, and maybe the only nugget of truth in all of Blue is that such an effort fails to satisfy on film just as it does in real life. The entire series strives at being simultaneously erotic and Kafkaesque, but instead comes off like a high school AV club trying to pitch something extra edgy to the Lifetime network. After 12 agonizing episodes watching a dead-inside young woman vacantly turn tricks and try to corral her teenager, the viewer is left uncomfortable and unsatisfied. After all, what’s the point of a “say anything” medium if this is the most interesting thing you have to say?