Current TV, Al Gore’s “new media” cable television experiment, doesn’t often contain much new media. Sure, there’s the occasional short shot on someone’s iPhone, but it’s pretty much your standard collection of documentaries. This month, the network added a scripted sci-fi series called “Bar Karma.” Which would seem like an odd addition to a network primarily concerned with current affairs. It is, however, the network’s boldest experiment to date. Not necessarily its most successful, but we’ll give it points for the boldness.
The show is the brainchild of Will Wright, whose name won’t resonate much with avid film and television viewers. He is, however, a legend in the video game community, having developed such famous life simulation games as SimCity, SimEarth, The Sims and (most recently) Spore. “Bar Karma” is the world’s first “crowdsourced” TV show—meaning that viewers have a chance to shape the very show they’re watching. This is no primitive “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, either. Not only can Internet-equipped viewers submit character names, settings and other background details, but whole storylines can be generated that way.
The show is based on Wright’s StoryMaker Engine, a sort of branching, computerized string of cards, each presenting major plot points. Viewers who log on to current.com/studios (or use a special iPhone app) can submit their own storylines for the show. Other viewers then write and rewrite the stories, creating a potentially limitless collection of possibilities. (Guy dies, guy lives, guy gets married, guy falls into a manhole, unicorn flies out his ass.) Eventually, the most popular possibilities get compiled and the episode is shot.
Sounds crazy. And it probably is. At least the show is attuned to this schizophrenic method of storytelling. The plots all center around a mystical watering hole that can travel through time and space. Everywhere it alights, it finds a customer in need of some “Twilight Zone”-style karmic adjustment. (You see, everybody’s storyline is in flux!) Riding along with this cosmic fix-it shop are 20,000-year-old bartender James (longtime character actor William Sanderson), spunky waitress Dayna (Cassie Howarth, Mao’s Last Dancer) and the bar’s deeply confused new “owner” Doug (Matthew Humphreys, “Big Love”).
The cast is tiny, there’s basically one set and it all feels kinda choppy. At its best, though, the show is a cheap, fun, ’80s-style late-night anthology (think “The Hitchhiker” or “Freddy’s Nightmares” or “Friday the 13th”). Personally, I have an unreasonable fondness for stuff like “The Hitchhiker,” so I’m good with the basic formula for “Bar Karma.” I do worry what the future will bring, however. If history has taught us anything, it’s that leaving decisions up to the whims of the Internet isn’t always the best idea. We could very well end up with a lot of episodes in which characters named “Harry Balls” and “Dick Scratcher” visit the set of “The Colbert Report” and scream “Baba Booey!” while Pedobear dances in the background. The idea of a community-developed TV series is noble. Funny thing about that word “noble,” though: It often gets attached to the word “failure.”