It’s been a long road from the world of Friends, but we’re finally starting to get some meaningful diversity in our entertainment diet. Wizard School Dropout premiered last week on the interactive video platform eko, and while the hilarious hijinks of Andy the incompotent wizard are sure to entertain, they serve up a second purpose as well: positive representation.
Wizard School Dropout features an ethnically diverse cast, but it doesn’t stop there. The interactive format allows the viewer to choose the sexual orientation of the main character, and participate in the decisions she makes. And the creative talent is just as diverse behind the camera as it is in front of it, with a writing staff and production team made up predominantly of minority members.
The Small Production Company Pushing Diversity and Representation Beyond Tokenism
“We’re not hiring minorities just to mix up the status quo,” says Anand Shah. Shah is Head of Development at EffinFunny, the small Los Angeles based production company behind Wizard School Dropout. “The point is to accurately reflect the world we live in, with its full spectrum of voices.” He says they’d like to see the entertainment world get to a place where diverse casting is no longer a headline.
Token characters have seen their day. It’s easy enough to write characters who are played by actors of color, but who don’t speak and act like them. While that kind of representation may be better than nothing, it leaves a cultural gap, and sends a silent, subtle message that visibility only comes with assimilation. Similarly, we’ve all seen LGBTQ characters who are flamboyant and funny for the benefit of straight audiences, but who never fear for their lives walking down the street, grapple with childhood trauma, or face the other emotional complexities of being LGBTQ. Characters not written by the marginalized demographics they represent are usually still written as ‘others,’ while a minority writer is more likely to give their minority characters agency to be a minority, in speech and deed.
Innovative Formats and Pioneering Technology Make Dropout Doubly Unique
Diversity and representation isn’t itself enough to carry a show. Native audiences were thrilled to see positive representation of contemporary Native issues in Chambers, which featured Indigenous directors, writers and stars. But the groundbreaking move toward representation didn’t land as strongly with non-Native audiences. Netflix cancelled Chambers after the first season garnered poor mainstream reviews.
To ensure their position, EffinFunny has found ways to keep ahead of the curve in more ways than one. They’ve already proven themselves adept at web-specific programming, and pioneering in the realm of interactive entertainment. Their clickable, choose-your-own-adventure style series That Moment When earned them several awards, including the Webby Award for Best Use of Interactive Video. Prior to that, Comedy Central partnered with EffinFunny when they wanted to blaze a trail into the world of web series. The result was the loveable Legend of Niel.
Wizard School Dropout builds on these strengths and elaborates on them. And according to the team at EffinFunny, it has required them to do some storytelling acrobatics. “Because the story is interactive, there are multiple possible ‘universes’ where things go differently for the characters,” explains Sandeeph Parikh, EffinFunny’s founder and CEO. “It’s a fun challenge, especially for the writers, because everything has to line up seamlessly, no matter what the viewer chooses.”
Eko, the streaming service where you can watch Wizard School Dropout, as well as That Moment When, is designed especially to support interactive media. Netflix also dabbled in interactive viewing with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, as part of this emerging medium.
According to the wizards at EffinFunny, interactive media is an uncharted realm of technology based entertainment, and could present a new wave in how we consume media. “If nothing else,” says Parikh, “it’s a lot of fun—to make and to watch.”
EffinFunny is blazing trails in storytelling technique and technology, but more importantly, they’re doing it the right way. With diverse voices represented, and minority people getting more than just a token seat at the table. Whether the future of entertainment is interactive and web based (it probably is), one thing is certain: meaningful diversity is finally becoming a prerequisite, and not an exception. If you’re still not sure, just pop in one of those Friends DVDs and see how uncomfortably dated they look.