Media Circus: Out, damned Spot!

Forget The Spot and its demon spawn. The unacknowledged masterpiece of the Web Soap Operas is an obsessive, meanspirited concoction called The Loser Living Upstairs.

Published January 13, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the news from The Spot, the much publicized and much loathed Web soap opera featuring a beach-house full of hard bodies and excess hormones, hasn't exactly been good of late. Last fall, the site laid off a dozen staffers, then prompted a fan boycott after it tried, perhaps a bit too hard, to make its content more "mainstream." Then last week, a staffer posted a desperate note to the show's bulletin board informing fans that American Cybercast, the company producing The Spot and several other Web soaps, "is running out of money" and "in danger of going out of business this month." By the end of the week, c|net reported, it appeared the site might have a possible savior -- in the form of Spot founder Scott Zakarin, who offered to buy the troubled soap. But no deal was announced, and the future of The Spot remains unclear.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, because I couldn't give a rat's ass whether or not this moronic site survives the week. I still can't quite believe that there are nearly a hundred of these episodic sites, or "Web-sotics," on the Web already -- ranging from the sci-fi series Eon-4 to the improv comedy of Grape Jam -- and that major media companies like Lifetime Television, Fox TV and MGM are launching more, as a way to gauge potential interest in future TV series. What, has the world gone crazy?

It would take at least a full frontal lobotomy before I could bring myself to care about the fate of these sites, much less the characters on them. I mean, simply reading the character descriptions from The East Village sets my teeth grinding. They're all so perfectly appalling, from lead character Eve Ramsay, "a previously privileged, tastefully neurotic 25-year-old editor and aspiring celebrity" with "a social life most people would envy" to "Sam, the up-and-coming rock star with a skeleton in his closet" and "Lila, the surly model who lives next door."

And consider what they do with their lives! I mean, this is worse than MTV's The Real World:

Sam came home and found Tabitha and Naomi fooling around in bed. He was baffled, but decided he might as well join in. But then he found out Tabitha had been ripping off him and his band. He left her a nasty note, then went over to Eve's to vent. Eve and Sam ended up sleeping together. Shortly thereafter, Eve threw a sleepover party, and in the middle of the night found a rat in her refrigerator.

The rat's a nice touch, but it's obvious that these people's lives are much more glamorous and sex-filled than mine. Who needs that? I don't know who's advising the East Village creators, but most gen-Xers I know are surlier than any model has a right to be, and decidedly less glamorous. We want soap operas that relate to our lives, starring such characters as "Samantha, the bitter graduate student with no washing machine in her building who often has to do her undies in the sink," and "Jeff, the dissatisfied freelance writer whose cat has diarrhea and who just got a really thick letter from the IRS."

As far as I'm concerned, the Money Men, the Hollywood Suits, should dump all these worthless bits of fluff and pour all available funds into the unacknowledged masterpiece of Web Soap Operas -- a collection of diary entries collectively known as The Loser Living Upstairs. As the title suggests, it's about as far from The Spot as, oh, The Noam Chomsky archive is. Bereft of sponsors (and of anything but the most rudimentary of graphics) Loser is little more than a long, redundant, meanspirited and relentlessly repetitive document posted on the Web by Loser's obsessive downstairs neighbor. Starting in January 1995, the document was updated nearly every day until June, when Loser left the premises at last. In those six months, Loser's downstairs neighbor compiled some 36,000 words of complaints and observations about a man he almost never saw -- only heard. These aren't Notes From Underground; they're Notes From One Floor Beneath Underground.

The diaries had their humble beginnings when, after several months of cohabiting in relative peace, Downstairs Man (he calls himself Tralfaz) began to realize that the man who lived above him really was something of a strange character. "Loser had no friends," he noted in a sort of introductory statement to his long chronicle. "He spent much of his time pacing around his apartment at a slow, laborious pace. He never seemed to go anywhere."

Tralfaz was not exaggerating; his upstairs neighbor -- Loser -- seemed to spend literally hours pacing about what Tralfaz sarcastically described as his "palatial manor" -- later "the palace," for short. And his routine rarely varied. "It is the same old thing everyday," Tralfaz wrote. "Pace around. Sit down for a while. Phone "stooge." Pace around and talk to "stooge." End call. Sit down for a while. Get up and pace around some more, ad nauseam."

I should point out that The Loser Living Upstairs has a certain quasi-literary predecessor. In the second decade of this century, shortly before he was to achieve comics immortality with his energetically surrealistic strip Krazy Kat, the brilliant cartoonist George Herriman chronicled the exploits of the Dingbat family in a little strip called "The Family Upstairs." The Dingbats, city dwellers, lived in an kind of awe and fear of their mysterious upstairs neighbors -- whom the readers never saw and whose odd activities could only be glimpsed through the befuddled and paranoid eyes of the Dingbats downstairs. The strip was, on the one hand, a kind of cartoon vaudeville, filled with improbable characters and even more improbable capers. It was also a telling satire of the anonymous life of the big city. What apartment dweller hasn't wondered, from time to time, about the People Upstairs and their Strange Noises?

It is one thing, of course, to wonder, and another thing to obsess -- and still another thing to write 36,000 words on the subject of a random person you don't know and almost never see. The entries in Tralfaz' diaries are almost interchangeable:

February 28, 1995

Loser got up at nine-thirty and took his shower. Rather than pace the "palace" in his usual circular fashion, he traversed it continuously for twenty minutes. No phone call to "stooge," though. He left shortly after.

March 3, 1995

Loser got up about nine and traversed the "palace" for about fifteen minutes, then took a shower. After the shower, Loser commenced traversing the "palace" continuously for thirty-five minutes. There is no logic concerning Loser's need to walk around the "palace" over and over for such extended durations.

March 6, 1995

Loser got up at nine-thirty and took a shower. Then, he paced around the "palace" feverishly for fifteen minutes before departing at ten.

Several days after this entry was posted, Loser broke his previous record, pacing his apartment for five hours, "making one complete round of the 'palace' approximately every 35 seconds ... There were short moments when Loser was heard conversing with someone, but he definitely was not on the phone." As the entries continued, Tralfaz seemed to become, if anything, more obsessed with the odd behaviors of his upstairs neighbor. He became preoccupied with Loser's bathroom habits, commenting every time his neighbor took a piss, and counting the number of flushes after each extended bathroom bout.

By the middle of April, Tralfaz was beginning to wonder if Loser wasn't "another Jeffrey Dahmer, what with all those late hours and odd noises." He imagined he detected "what sounds like music one would hear in a mortuary" coming from the apartment above. Then he began to wonder what has happened to Loser's friend Stooge. Soon he had a vision of Loser as a voracious cannibal, disemboweling innocent victims, shrinking heads and transforming his old friend into "Stooge Tetrazini." The next day he heard what sounded like a printer upstairs -- or was it a meat grinder?

By this time Loser returned from his summer vacation, moving into a different apartment in the same building, Tralfaz had stopped chronicling the lives of his neighbors and had begun chronicling his own. This story, which he calls (among other things) The Life and Times of a 41-Year-Old Virgin, is less relentlessly repetitive than the Loser's Tale, although less compelling as well. It's also much longer -- with more material still being added nearly every day. Our hero, it turns out, is a self-admitted loser himself; his own life seems curiously similar to the original Loser's, minus the pacing.

Still, it's a damned sight better than The Spot. Give this man some development money -- and quick!

David Futrelle is the editor of Media Circus.

EXTRA! Free at last!

Followers of another long-running soap opera will be glad to know that the marriage is off once again -- possibly for good. After announcing last fall (for the second time) that readers of Microsoft's Slate would soon have to pay $19.95 a year to access the site, Michael Kinsley reports in his latest readme column that Slate will continue, indefinitely, to be free. The announcement gives Mr. Kinsley the opportunity to indulge in that clever Bill Gates humor of which he has become so fond. ("But you promised me $20 a reader," Kinsley reports Gates as saying, while "borrowing a Kleenex from a nearby Nubian.")

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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