Life After Lisa Makes Slow but Promising Start

[show=lifeafterlisa]Don’t you hate it when you move into your college dorm room only to find out that it was previously inhabited by a girl who looked just like you and died mysteriously the previous spring?  I mean, gag me with a spoon, totally!

In fact, the above is an extreme oversimplification of Life After Lisa, an intriguing little mystery series which, yes, happens to be set at a Baltimore college in the ’80s — but, thanks to writer/producer Elena Moscatt (Jamie’s Way) and director Palmer Enfield, blissfully avoids slamming the audience over the head with a glut of decade-centric cliches. In the first episode, freshman and aspiring reporter Jessie Beaumont arrives at her new dorm and notices that she’s being watched from afar by a mysterious girl.  This is Kapria, who we learn via flashback was good friends with Lisa, the deceased titular former occupant of Jessie’s dorm room.

Not that Jessie knows any of this; she just knows that there’s a surly smoking girl watching her, and that someone has written STAY OUT in lipstick on her dorm room door.  By episode two, she finds a similar message on her bathroom mirror, and she learns about Lisa, who died in a drunken car wreck the previous spring.  But was her death really an accident?

The answer to that question is presumably going to unfold as the series does — if, in fact, Lisa’s death turns out to be a mystery at all.  That’s a big problem here: The show’s been scripted to be filmed in 22 8-minute episodes, which could be cut together into six half-hour episodes for a broadcast series.  And the first two episodes of Life After Lisa — about 15 minutes’ run time — feel like the first half of a half-hour broadcast pilot; it’s the kind of pacing that comes from having plenty of time to tell your story. But web time is different from TV time, and regardless of how many episodes are planned, in the first 15 minutes of a web series, the audience had better know what your series is.  Murder mystery?  Ghost story?  Soap opera?  It’s just not all that clear.

Another thing that’s not clear: Lisa is played in flashbacks by Stephanie Danielson, the same actress who plays Jessie, but why is anyone’s guess, because Jessie proceeds to meet all of Lisa’s old friends and not a single one remarks upon the resemblance, so presumably the two characters are not supposed to look uncannily alike. It’s just odd.

Here’s what’s good: Danielson, who’s compelling in both personas; the dialogue, which falters occasionally on exposition but is overall natural and clever; and the ’80s production design.  This, actually, is one of the most striking attributes of the web series; most films and series set in the ’80s are an explosion of condescending kitsch, jamming every trend into every frame, as if to say, “Weren’t we idiots back then?” But Life After Lisa is designed not with mocking nostalgia, but as if it were filmed in the era in which it’s set. The credits could’ve been lifted out of Degrassi or Saved by the Bell, there’s no Valley-Girl-speak to be heard, and even the wardrobe is refreshingly not over-the-top.

Speaking of the wardrobe, you can find suggestions for how to dress like your favorite characters lurking amid the other great supporting content on the series’ web site.  Extensive character bios and video extras are fun to browse, and the site is easy to navigate, which is pretty smart, given the elaborate Sponsors section, where companies can pony up for product placement and individuals can buy themselves titles like “Awesome Associate Producer.”

It’s clear that Life with Lisa is a production that’s been planned with a lot of careful thought, both on the creative and the business sides.  The 22-episode pacing threatens to be a pitfall, yes, but there’s enough promise here to hook even impatient web viewers.  Still, 20 more episodes = 160 more minutes of viewing, so Life After Lisa has some ground to cover before things get totally tubular.