Chicago Non-Profit Tells the Stories that Mainstream TV Doesn’t
A few months ago I walked into a meeting about the future of OTV–Open Television, a platform for web series and other content by queer artists, femme artists, non-cis-het artists, and artists of color. As far as I could tell, my co-producer and I were the only cis-het white people in the room. And, honestly, I don’t know my co-producer’s sexual preferences because it’s 100% irrelevant to our working together. So it’s possible I was the only cis-het white person in the room.
There were trans folx, non-binary folx, queer folx, black and brown folx. I felt distinctly “other” in a way that I’m sure every person in the room feels every day walking amongst the “normies” and white folks. This OTV space clearly did not exist for me. They’d invited me in. As a guest, I tried to exhibit good behavior.
I became acquainted with OTV early in the producing of my web series, The Haven. The show centers around the staff and clients of a fictional domestic violence shelter in Chicago. For years, I worked at a non-fictional domestic violence shelter, and I’d become increasingly dismayed by the one-dimensional, simplistic, sexualized way most television and films portray domestic violence. So I decided that I wanted to tell stories about the women (and some men and non-binary folx) who were determined to no longer suffer from violence, and who were attempting to escape and rebuild their lives.
These stories required not only a talented and inclusive cast, which I knew we could easily get in Chicago, but also a diverse crew. As a white cis-het woman, I knew I needed women of color and queer folx helping to tell the story. And as I started asking around, everyone pointed me toward Aymar Jean Christian and OTV. In 2016 when we were shooting our first episode, Samantha Bailey (Grown-ish) was rising off the success of her web series Brown Girls, which OTV had premiered.
The Haven team connected with Aymar early. In turn, he connected us with some artists of color who worked with us. While I knew that I fell on the edges of OTV’s priorities, I also knew that our content and our characters fit firmly within their mission.
The Other Network
Fast-forward to the fall of 2018. We’d finished post-production on the last of four episodes that now comprise Season One of The Haven. I sent a link off to Aymar with a “thank you for your help”note, and he responded a month later with “Welcome to Cycle 4 of OTV.” Which is how I ended up in a Future of OTV meeting with a roomful of artists with exceptional outlooks on the world.
I can’t review The Haven, obviously, but I’m shouting from the rooftops about the rest of the Cycle 4 OTV Season, because there’s so much to love. I encourage everyone to watch all the series on OTV because they’re a glimpse into worlds of which we don’t get to see enough. The network portrays queer folx and people of color as more than victims or foils in a white-centered story. Art like this creates empathy and compassion, something marginalized people desperately need. And for people who are part of these marginalized groups, it’s an opportunity to feel seen and represented.
Several of the series take a deep dive into the queer and gender-queer world. The Femme Queen Chronicales by Ahya Simone follows three black trans women dealing with life, love, and milestones in Detroit. The first episode of Ashley Lackinger’s For Better is a must. She beautifully shot and executed the almost dialogue-free episode. If you love a love story, this will get you.
Just Call Me Ripley is a comic web series full of fantastic characters that explores one person’s quest to understand their own gender and sexual identity, a topic that isn’t addressed enough. Shannon Noll, the show’s creator, is the engaging and incredibly likeable titular character. Elijah McKinnon’s Good Enough (trailer now available) follows a tight-knit, Chicago-based group of friends forced to confront a string of messy decisions that unravel during Sunday Supper.
Vincent Martell’s Damaged Goods is an excellent slice-of-life look at four very different roommates trying to make ends meet, sometimes through illicit means. It’s a lovely series about friendship and sacrifice. Border’d is about three Latinx siblings who must confront their ignored culture, past failures, and hidden secrets after a family tragedy.
On the even-darker side are Stephanie Jeter’s exploration of the way society neglects missing black women in Searching for Isabelle, and Nine Blackmon’s thriller series Night Night about a recovering alcoholic (played by Blackmon), blackmailed into a contract killing.
A Comedy Back Catalog
I appreciate the variety of genres that OTV presents, and comedy is not a sidenote. FOBia is a comedic pilot by Priya Mohanty about a young Indian woman coming to America to study in business school and grappling with the cultural differences. The Right Swipe by Kyra Jones and Juli del Prete has the fantastic premise of two women starting a business where they improve the dating app profiles of local Chicago men. Low Strung by Shervin Bain and Victoria Lee goes all the way into absurdist and surreal comedy with their series about two close friends and their talking bunny.
And there’s more. OTV hasn’t even released them all yet. Plus, there are series available from past cycles. I highly recommend clicking on Geeta’s Guide to Moving On, Fuck Stan, Yogma, The T, and Velvet. I loved loved loved Velvet.
OTV hopes that their platform will encourage larger platforms to develop works by their artists. I encourage you to check out the vast talent that is on display and find some stories that introduce you to new people, or maybe, hopefully, show you a version of yourself that you’ve never encountered on the screen before.