Once a week, the Intertubes will look at popular internet-only television-style series and comment on them. We're trying to avoid porn, but you really never can tell with the internet.
To start off the Intertubes properly, it seemed like there could really be only one choice: the first YouTube channel to receive 1 million subscriptions, the most-subscribed-to channel for quite some time. Yes, I'm talking about Fred.
Fred Figglehorn is a 6-year-old boy played by teenager Lucas Cruikshank, a kid from Nebraska. The character was invented in 2006 and the series has been running since 2008, and has spawned a movie which premiered on Nickelodeon. I remember watching one or two of the Fred videos when they were first getting popular, but haven't really checked into them since then. I decided to start with what's listed as the first episode: "Fred On May Day."
The first thing you'll notice is Fred's ear-splitting chipmunk voice. In a spot-on parody of your typical under-supervised, too-young-for-the-internet video blogger, Fred points a camera at himself and jabbers about what's going on in his life, sometimes going on little mini-adventures around his neighborhood. He's a hyperactive kid with a tendency to shriek, and a few episodes in, he reveals that he's on medication because he has "anger management issues."
I know Fred's audience. He's extremely popular among the tween set, the same kids who devour Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Bros' output. Hell, he's even guest starred on iCarly and Hannah Montana. So it was something of a surprise to learn how weird and dark the webseries can be.
For the first few seasons, Fred is the only human being we see; all interaction with other characters - usually his mother, grandmother, or schoolyard crush Judy - is done via offscreen voice-over, usually provided by Cruikshank himself. This has the effect of making Fred seem eerily isolated, and it's hard to think of this effect as accidental, since Fred is portrayed as a social outcast with no friends and largely absentee parents. Yeah, those parents - his father, whom he has never met, is on death row and his mother is an alcoholic drug addict who frequents the local rehab clinic and "works the corners," a term whose meaning Fred doesn't know; he only knows that it brings in what little money the family has. Fred himself is on medication, and as shown in the episode "Fred Loses His Meds" - which is a fine episode to watch, if you're only going to watch one - they have little or no real effect on his behavior.
Couple the sometimes troubling subject matter with the editing style that whiplashes between stark realism and brief flashes of true weirdness - the lens tends to zoom in on Fred's contorted mouth whenever he screams, which he does often - and you might wonder how this series got such a huge audience among kids. At times it's less Zack & Cody and more Tim & Eric.
Well, the answer to that is that Fred keeps the show pretty PG. There's almost no swearing, and the more adult references usually sort of zip by, so that you'll miss them if you're not paying attention. Also, Fred tries to keep a relentlessly positive attitude and is largely successful, despite frequent but brief flashes of temper. He also sings, dances, goofs around, and vamps for the camera in an endearingly childlike way. He's constantly interacting with stray neighborhood animals, despite numerous times being bitten, and he'd prefer to be nice to people, partly because it's his nature, and partly because on the few occasions he's tried to insult someone, he's been really terrible at it.
So, in a sea of increasingly vapid tween entertainment, here is a web series that really surprised me by containing multiple levels, a semi-realistic character biography, and perhaps most surprising of all, abject poverty. Fred isn't wealthy and it kind of blows my mind. Most characters that tweens follow and emulate tend to be at least somewhat glamorous, but Fred owns only one shirt per season and lives in a tiny house out in the sticks where he spends all of his time babbling into a digital camera which is, more often than not, on the shitty side as far as quality goes.
Fred is not for everyone. Let's be up front about that. There doesn't seem to be much of a script, and some episodes are way better than others. If the episode goes on for too long, Fred's hyperactivity, effeminate pseudo-sassiness, and especially his constant shrieking can really wear on you. Most of his videos, while raking in millions of views, also manage to rack up a Dislike-to-Like ratio of anywhere between one-to-five to one-to-one. Indeed, every video has numerous comments along the lines of "FRED IS A FAGGOT" and so on and so forth. It kind of makes you wonder about what sort of people are out there, obsessively watching each video and then denigrating each one, but never mind. That's a study for a different day.
The simple fact is that this series is an amazing accomplishment for a kid who wasn't even in high school when he created the character and who wound up winning a Teen Choice Award two weeks before he turned 16. The character of Fred is complex, unique, and above all, funny more often than not (although the trailers I watched for the movie all made it look really bad). I really wasn't expecting to like this series at all, and while I don't anticipate becoming a weekly viewer, it will be interesting to see what this Cruikshank guy cooks up next.