Web shows have increasingly become auditions, testing a concept and building an audience, before making the leap to a television network. Children's Hospital, the darkly satiric medical show created by Daily Show veteran Rob Corddry, began on The WB.com and now airs as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. Friends star Lisa Kudrow started her improv series Web Therapy independent online in 2008, and this summer, it premiered on Showtime.
The creators and staff of Husbands have learned from their predecessors. Jane Espenson, the Husbands creator and writer who's written for shows ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Game of Thrones and helped create SyFy's show Warehouse 13, funded Husbands herself, just as Whedon did with Doctor Horrible.
"I approached it like someone should approach any kind of game—don't bring more than you can afford to lose," she says. "My plan wasn't really to make my money back on the web, but to make the point that there is an audience for this subject matter."
It helps, Espenson says, that her line producer on the show, M. Elizabeth Hughes, is a veteran of the web TV genre: She's worked on The Guild and other web shows, and knows well the importance of cultivating an audience in a medium where shows don't have advertising budgets or the luxury of hoping people will stumble upon them while channel-surfing.
"Web creators and stars make themselves more accessible than television creators and stars because they know that they need to be active and visible in the medium they've chosen," Hughes says. It creates a community between fans and creators...I think that makes the project sustainable...People will forgive low production values if the story and characters are fresh and engaging."
Fortunately, Husbands has a novel premise and executes it with considerable charm and wit. The season, which follows a gay actor and newly-out gay baseball player who get married on a wild trip to Las Vegas after six weeks of dating, is a step forward in gay marriage stories. It allows a couple to make an irresponsible decision rather than act as role models. Cheeks and Brad, the central couple, may be alternatively flamboyant and buttoned-down, but they're also refreshingly specific, both in their individual presentation and in the way they flirt with and claw at each other as they work through their unexpected newlywed blues.
The Husbands stars and writers have been tweeting and networking aggressively, hoping that on September 13, when the first episode airs, that an audience will show up. But operating without the safety net—and constraints—of a network hasn't only meant a different promotional experience. The veterans of network television who are working on the web for the first time on Husbands are learning to write and act for shorter episodes, and finding out what they truly want to do absent network constraints on content and language.