A few days ago, an acquaintance posted a link on my Facebook wall.
“You will LOVE,” she insisted.
The link took me to Hulu’s “Book Club: A Web Series For Bibliophiles.” The first season is made up of eleven episodes, each five to seven minutes long, excluding the fourteen minute pilot. The log line was easy to find: “After being rejected from their town’s elite book club, a pill-popping young woman and a deeply closeted gay man start their own book club made up of local misfits and both fall in love with the town librarian. With every other meeting focused on a different book, Book Club explores both literary lessons applicable to daily life as well as the humor found in simple, monthly interactions of people dying to relate.”
That was more than enough to get me watching. I’ll just come right out and say it now, I did not love this series. I wanted to. I didn’t. Let’s talk.
First, I want to touch on the technical storytelling problems. Then I’ll get into why I don’t think this is a web series for bibliophiles, why I think it completely misses the point of being a bibliophile.
Let’s start here. After pill-popping Harlo and deeply closeted gay man Thad found the organization, “The Walhalla Book Club” is rounded out by ex-convict Louis, unhinged mother of small children Sharon, sexually inappropriate priest Father Joseph, and offensive Asian stereotype Ling. The books they read are, in order, James Joyce’s Ulysses, fictional soft-core romance novel Cougar Enchantments, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Barbara M. Joosse’s inner-city set picture book Stars in the Darkness, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The books are rarely discussed. Instead, the club either participates in book-related arts and crafts and performance activities that makes the majority of the members look and feel foolish, or “Stories,” the elite book club referred to in the log line drops in and delivers vaguely ominous dialogue. The members of Stories were far and away my favorite characters, in particular their ice-queen leader Aubrey, played by Julie McNiven (recognizable in that “I remember her from something” kind of way, she plays Hildy, Pete Campbell’s secretary on Mad Men.)
I knew I was supposed to be rooting for the misfits of The Walhalla Book Club, but I found so little to root for. The characters were cartoonish, none of their interactions felt honest, I couldn’t understand why these people kept meeting up to spend time together month after month. I would have been out of there in five minutes flat. No, that’s a lie, I’m not that assertive, I would have waited ’til the break, pretended to get a call, lied to everyone and explained that a friend’s car broke down, and then gone home and eaten something with a lot of calories to get the taste of all that crazy out of my mouth. The Walhalla Book Club clearly doesn’t like each other very much, and because of that, I don’t like them very much either. The books they read make no sense together, and the characters seem to gain little to nothing from reading these classics and eclectic finds.
(Also, word to the wise, if you’re going to start your book club off with a classic, don’t make it all-783-pages-of Ulysses. Slant the prompt and pick a slim, hip NYRB Classics book like John William’s Stoner or Elaine Dundy’s Dud Avocado. I’ll go to that book club. And I’ll watch that web series.)
I didn’t believe The Walhalla Book Club as an organized group. I didn’t believe many of them as human beings. Most of all, I didn’t believe them as bibliophiles. Certainly not bibliophiles worthy of my eyeballs. Every day on Twitter, Tumblr, and book blogs, I see hilarious, fascinating, borderline-explosive, and every once in a while certifiably enlightening interactions between book lovers. These bibliophiles are characters worthy of fiction and I’m sure most of them don’t even realize it. I think the problem with Book Club is that the series did not trust its premise. It seemed like these bizarre characters and their improbable interactions with one another was storytelling smoke and mirrors, as if the creatives behind this series were worried that people talking about books wasn’t enough. I think it can be enough. I think it can be the core of a story worth telling. Certainly books like The Jane Austen Book Club and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society figured it out. Book lovers are worthy subjects of fiction.
You just have to have the right book lovers. And you just have to have the right books.