From far away, Tim Manley’s touchy-feely-ness may seem like it is narcissistic millennial navel gazing. It's anything but. Indeed, his web series “The Feels,” co-created with Naje Lataillade, is poignant, affecting and miles away from the TMI content so many others churn out.
Manley’s character, Charlie, an English teacher in Brooklyn, feels deeply. But his "feels" will resonate with any viewers who has ever found himself (or herself) caught up with the anxieties and emotions of modern life. As Charlie faces various pressures (self-imposed or otherwise), he expresses his thoughts verbally and visually — a device that allows him to cope with them. His thoughtfulness is endearing and perhaps why this web series, consisting of 60 short films (mood pieces, really) is so effective.
Season 1 premiered in November. Season 2, which became available online this month, continues the adventures of Charlie. He grapples with being bisexual but has reluctant relationships with men and women. He talks in fabulous monologues, about his insecurities, and the “raging terror he feels at every moment.” He also finds peace in small, quiet moments, like remembering his dad with his friend. Over the course of the series, he comes to learn to love himself more.
In “The Feels,” Manley, a contributor to “The Moth,” performs short touching speeches as Charlie, who interacts with a variety of diverse friends, co-workers and lovers as he navigates through life. “The Feels” also uses animation and music to provide texture and meaning to Charlie’s thoughts, experiences and feelings. There are many, many feelings. In one clip, his roommate vacuums up all the animated nonsense swirling around his head.
Manley spoke with Salon about his series and his emotions.
Do you think millennials are more emotional?
I’ve never thought about this. I feel like maybe we gush a lot online, so there is a performative aspect to being emotional, and there are a lot of places to be performative. As much as the show is very emotional and called “The Feels,” it’s very separate from how I actually personally process the things that are happening in my life. When an episode goes online, I don’t need emotional affirmation from the vast anonymous void that is the internet.
How much of “The Feels” is autobiographical?
A lot of the show is based on a version of me from five or six years ago. So the person I am today is different in some ways than Charlie. A lot of the episodes that are about love or sexuality or mental health are based on my life from several years ago.
The other characters are a range of some people being themselves and some people acting. I liked that vague line, where I’m not sure either when something is real or not. I also write fiction, so it’s not that unusual to me that there’s this blurry line.
How do you write the episodes?
The second season, we wrote a script before the election and then rewrote the whole script after because it was a very different world, with very different stakes. A lot of the episodes have blank spaces for the [actor] to add lines. We leave blank spaces for real life and real conversations.
My thought was, How do I create a space where someone can say something that is true for them, where they can improvise and say something natural? It feels real for us there, which is what I’m interested in. I would rather try something risky that we don’t know if it will work or only work 5 percent of the time and 5 percent will be a disaster. But that’s more exciting for me as a creator and as a viewer.
What can you say is the secret to good storytelling?
A practical answer would be very unique specific details. Make sure you give enough sensory details that a person can put themselves in that place. Apart from that, I think it’s if I’m going to ask for the minutes of your time, I had better make it worth your time. For me, that means I need to tell you a secret. I need to share something aloud that I might not even normally share with myself.
It’s like a very extreme version of telling the truth. You need to say something you might not be allowed to say. And my actual thought would be, even if someone is a terrible "storyteller" and doesn’t know about structure or sensory details, if they are speaking honestly from their heart, it will be compelling. And I would rather watch that than someone incredibly perfectly constructed but you never felt you heard the truth from them, that they seem to be guarding something.
Charlie repeatedly talks about feeling vulnerable, the need to feel safe. “Safe” seems to be his safe word. Can you talk about that?
In the new season in the episode, “Touch,” about a surprise one-night stand, he says at the end of the episode, “It didn’t make everything OK, but it did make some things OK.” That speaks to “If XYZ happened in my life, I’d be OK.” And the reality in my experience is that no one thing ever makes everything else OK, but it might make it a little better. So there’s a weird paradox of something outside yourself won’t make everything better, but sometimes things outside of you make you a little better. [Laughs.]
I like that Charlie reveals himself publicly and privately in the episodes. Can you talk about that in this age of social media where people are constantly putting their lives on display?
It might be surprising that I make this web series that shares vulnerable things, but I’m a very private person and unnerved by social media and the unspoken rules about what you present there. This is why I’m looking for a safe place to place these emotions and experiences. I would not write this show as a Facebook status. That would be very awkward. But I want to acknowledge the heavier experiences I have.
In this show, we see Charlie publicly and being very private. The private [moments] are the weirdest. Like when he dresses up as a palm reader in season 2. But I think both the public and private [faces] are true. When I post online that I love my family and am happy to spend a day with them, that’s completely true. And after I post that and I sit in my living room and feel vaguely bummed, that’s also true.
That’s why we’re silly and jokey and heavy in the show. It’s all true and valid. The public and private are true versions of who we are.
In season 2 “Secret” is one of the best episodes because it shows how a private space can influence your public face. Can you discuss Charlie’s arc of maturing and learning to love himself more?
I think to some extent the whole show is about learning to love and care for yourself. In season 2, and in my life, a lot of that comes from ways he cares for himself. In that episode “Responsibility,” where he journals before bed, he’s talking himself through feeling bad, how to go to sleep and start over tomorrow. One part of me knows how to feel good, and one part is a disaster. I can give myself advice from that part of me that has advice.
The second thing that happens in season 2 is that he sees other people instead of hearing only what's in his head. Someone else gives him insight and wisdom and he is open enough to hear it. A major part of season 2 is that he goes out and listens to and talks to other people. It’s a strategy I’ve used myself — reminding yourself you’re not the central protagonist in the universe. Other characters lead the dialogue and lead the scene. That’s more interesting for the viewer than to sit with Charlie forever. All of the episodes were co-written by the other people in them.
I like the inclusivity of the show, both in terms of race and sexuality. Can you talk about that element?
Part of our casting is just thinking about who do we want to work with? Living in New York City and being in a variety of circles, you can mix with genders, races, ethnicities, etcetera.
It’s also relevant that the co-creator and co-director of the show, Naje Lataillade, is African-American.
Certainly after the election, there was a question in my mind: What am I doing that matters? And namely, what am I doing as a white cis man?
I had a funny moment where I’d written on Twitter, "Can anyone suggest white artists making intelligent work on race?" One friend responded with one essayist. But it speaks to the fact that a lot of white people don’t know what to say or do.
Can you discuss the use of animation in “The Feels”? I like the “brain chatter” we see animated around Charlie’s head in the episode “Noise.”
I draw cartoons and I knew I wanted them in the show somewhat because I think they say something about a character’s interior world that I don’t know how else to say. My hope is that the cartoons give us some insight into Charlie’s interior world. The cartoons point to the emotions that the characters have.
Season 2 ends with a kind of epiphany. There is some real joy after all the melancholy. Can you talk about that and the show’s future?
I hope the last episode provides some closure. Because in my life, there are real moments of revelation where everything makes sense. Then, inevitably, a few days later, you know, you took a few steps forward and then took a few steps back. It’s an ongoing process. I think Charlie has grown from season 1 to season 2, but there are more ways to grow and more challenges and Naje and I feel the story is not done. Whenever we hear a good line in conversation, we look at each other and go, “season 3!”