TV Binge: Carmilla, the Self-Aware Lesbian Vampire YA Supernatural Romance Web Series You Can Watch for Free
WTF is Carmilla?
Carmilla is a web series, based on some kind of old-timey graphic novel, but set in contemporary times, on a university campus. All of the action takes place in a single dorm room, where the main character, Laura, tries to solve the mystery of what happened to her missing roommate, and records everything for her journalism class on a webcam. The episodes average about 5 minutes each, and were originally posted twice a week while the season was airing.
Soon after Laura’s first roommate disappears, the school assigns her a new one, and it’s not spoiling anything to say that her new roomie, Carmilla, is a vampire, vampire, vampire. What follows is a cross between Buffy, Twilight, Dracula, Veronica Mars, feminism, lesbianism, and experimental story formats – if that isn’t Women’s Studies enough for you, the whole thing is also sponsored by Kotex.
How was it? How was it?
It was pretty fucking rad.
The first few webisodes, which, in real life, means the first 10-15 minutes, were a little rough. But, once the core characters are all introduced and vampires are on the table as a plot element, everything gels a lot more. There’s humour and suspense and even a little bit of pathos along the way. Once I started watching, I didn’t want to stop.
The biggest challenge the show has to overcome – and I think it overcomes this quite well – is that the only stuff we can see is the stuff happening in front of the webcam in Laura’s dorm room. That means that most of the time, the characters meet in the dorm room to make a plan, or to recap what the result of their last plan was, and then the action of the story – where they go to a creepy library, or do battle with supernatural forces – happens off screen.
That sounds like it should be lame, but it works really well, because the off-screen action is treated as a feature of the story rather than an ugly corner the format has painted us into. Part of the humour and charm of the series is that it’s showing us what it would be like if the characters from shows like Buffy or from Twilight or whatever, who spend most of their time having big, important adventures, came home at the end of the day and told the internet what happened. There are a lot of scenes where the characters turn on the webcam and look all dirty and bloody and bedraggled, and they’re just like, “Sooooo… turns out the library’s haunted.”
It’s funny but, in the later scenes, as the story reaches its climax, and the big final showdown between good and evil takes place, it also creates a sense of suspense and – dare I say it – emotional impact. We lose track of the characters when they walk away from the camera. We don’t know if they’re okay. We don’t know what’s going on. And the latter part of the story plays with that in an effective way. Instead of feeling cheated that we don’t get to see the final battle, the fact that we don’t get to see it is actually what gives it its impact. We’re just confronted with the faces of the characters who survived, as they tell us that the other ones are dead.
It also helps that the stuff taking place off screen is straight-up fantasy/horror cliché. We all understand the type of standard adventure set pieces the characters are describing, and focussing, instead, on what happens in the dorm allows Carmilla to spend most of its time on what makes this particular story… particular. The characters and their personalities and relationships. We get what they’re talking about with the library, and the giant mushrooms, and the showdown between good and evil. We know that there’s a bigger world where more immediate and important things are happening. But we’re drawn into the intimacy of this world, where people are just talking, and trying to figure out whether they like each other, and how to be friends, and how to be girlfriends, and who filled the milk carton with blood (it was the vampire).
In some ways, Carmilla feels a lot like a live-action fanfic – and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s partly a re-telling of the original Carmilla, partly a sequel, and partly a side-story about how Carmilla and that one girl fell in love and everything else was peripheral to their flirting and feelings talks.
The fanficy vibe, and the series’ social media campaign, and its experimenting with the YouTube format make it feel really fresh and relevant, but it’s also telling a solid story. The adventure plot – be it ever so pushed to the back – is recognizable, and designed for an audience that’s savvy enough to fill in the blanks, and the romance story – the characters and feelings story – is full of irreverent, self-aware humour that stops it from feeling repetitive.
The series also sets itself apart by taking the standard YA, cliché, supernatural romance story and making it a lesbian story without in any way behaving like that’s weird, or noteworthy, or something that can’t be just as fun and cool and easy as anything else. I’m not going to harp on that, because it’s not the show’s most important feature, but I confess that I’ve sometimes wondered why this exact thing can’t exist – why girls who like girls can’t just have a fun, escapist story that isn’t full of hand-wringing and identity crises – and now they do.
So, lesbian vampire humorous self-aware web series posted on YouTube – it’s great.