‘Riley Rewind’ Is the Beginning of a Promising Future
We ranked it.
Here is a sampling from the comments section of a recent episode of Ray William Johnson’s YouTube show “=3”:
Commenter one: “NOOB”
Commenter two: “you are the worst”
Commenter three: “Do you ever plan on being funny again?”
Commenter four: “Watch an extremely funny chemical powered car ,on my channel . Do like it nd subscribe”
This, painting with broad strokes, is a swath of Johnson’s target demographic. They are pretty upset about this free entertainment, but still happy to plug their channels. They’re not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but based off the general unpleasantness on display here, I wouldn’t peg any of them for the art-house crowd. So when Johnson announced that he was directing a long-form web series written by his partner Anna Akana, I think I can say most of us expected it to be some kind of hybrid between the “Jackass” movies and anything directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans.
As it turns out, that would not be giving Johnson and Akana enough credit. Yes, “Riley Rewind” is written and directed with Johnson’s audience in mind, but not in the way you would expect. Instead of stuffing it with dick jokes and bad puns, Johnson and Akana created a web series that avoids pandering to their audience and instead respects it.
The plot of “Riley Rewind” is simple enough: Riley (played by Akana) has the power to travel back in time. We don’t know how she got it, nor does she. Think of this first arc as a superhero origin story; Johnson and Akana did. The series is intercut between handdrawn panels that transition to live action. A comic influence is heavy in “Riley Rewind” and its creators are not shy about showing it off. As a high school student, Riley must navigate the brutality her classmates while trying to save the lives of several people. It’s a open and close story that forgoes set pieces and VFX-heavy shots in favor of character studies and linear narrative — well, as linear as a series about time travel can get.
What is surprising about “Riley Rewind” is the series’ depth, which is disguised in its uncomplicated story. Weaved within the series are themes about destiny and accepting that it cannot be changed. You are who you are, “Riley Rewind” tells us, so would time travel really change that? It’s a heavy theme for any audience, yet Akana and Johnson trust their fans enough to appreciate and understand it.
Although the series stays consistently solid throughout its five-part run, “Riley Rewind” does falter as it races towards it climax.
As the series concludes, Riley, who has been attempting to save goth outcast Angela from committing suicide, comes to the realization that all Angela needed was someone to love her. That someone, of course, is a cute fellow outcast who only moments ago was going to blow up the school in a fit of rage. Forget Angela’s awful home life or the fact that she may have a legitimate mental disorder; no, she simply needed the love of a homicidal sociopath who is capable, if pushed, of killing everyone at prom. The story attempts to wrap things up in a tight package, but ultimately failed as soon as our savior for poor Angela started making pipe bombs in his basement. However, that is one flaw in an otherwise genuinely enjoyable web series.
When answering a Q&A, Johnson explained that the series was being offered for free because “it’s my first project of this scope. I want you to watch it, and give me constructive feedback, so that I can learn from this experience and the next one will be better.” With “Riley Rewind” being such a strong first offering from Johnson and Akana, here’s hoping that “next one” isn’t too far off.