The Neistat Brothers debuts tonight on HBO, 11:59pm EST
HBO has always taken risks on stranger television projects, but recently it's become clear that the Internet, in all its infinite wisdom, has become a testing ground of sorts for the network. It seemed that way with Funny Or Die Presents…, with its "Drunk History" and repurposing of Human Giant cast members into other sketches. The trick, though, is to do something fans of the web stuff will recognize, but retool it to sustain TV watchers for half an hour. Not every online video maker is up to the challenge, and not every style is going to make the leap unscathed. Somewhere in the middle we have the Neistat brothers, whose debut is charming, if not claustrophobic.
The New York-based siblings have an impressive collection of short films in their repertoire, and this eight-part series tells the story behind the filmmakers themselves. Each episode is broken down into segments around the length of, oh say, a YouTube video; the brothers tell these story-ettes utilizing a flourish of camera techniques, most of them stop motion-based. They delicately arrange matchsticks to spell out the table of contents, for example, and at one point show off the 40 shelves they've built in their studio with 40 separate shots one right after the other. Clearly it all took a lot of time to shoot, and the effort pays off with these stunning shots.
The problem is that there are a lot of these shots. For a few minutes, it's no problem—downright fascinating. But after half an hour, it becomes tough to find the show's level ground. Take the middle segment, sandwiched between a piece about how the guys found their studio (they relate the amount of time it took to knock down a wall to the construction of the Empire State Building, showing off the boys' mock grandiosity) and one following Casey Neistat and his son as they make a film. This one, though, covers some weighty subject matter: Van Neistat takes a tour of New England to buy some new T-shirts, and stops off to see his father, who he hasn't made contact with since he was three. Well, there's that, but also some stuff about his wife, and the aforementioned T-shirts…and when the reunion finally happens—admittedly something Van has been dreading for a while—it's over-and-done in a few seconds and awkward as hell. In fact, despite the Neistat's adeptness with the camera, we barely even see it. It's surrounded with a swirl of twee, and dropped immediately.
The final segment fares much better, tracking Casey and his son as they prepare to shoot a short written and directed by the son. It's titled "The longest introduction to a really short film," and it's apropos: Casey talks about how he had the kid, Owen, when he was in high school, and how Owen has grown to idolize his father and want to be in the movie making business. The context adds sweetness to the film, which we finally see just before the credits roll ("roll," as they're yet another hand-crafted Neistat creation). Much like any super-short film—perhaps on the Internet—the singularly focused ones are the ones that stick with you.
The show, as a whole, certainly sticks. There are enough crafty cinematic storytelling devices and endearing quick jokes (Casey sitting in a bathtub full of Kool-Aid, trying to dye his skin, and quipping deadpan, "It's not working") for The Neistat Brothers to coast on. But a sharper focus on story would elevate the show, and all the nifty camera tricks, to new heights—a cohesive, rich tale that's unlike anything you can find on the Internet.
- HBO sent two episodes along on its screener, and I haven't had a chance to watch the second one yet. I'll post some thoughts here later once I do.
- Their studio: I want.