FRINGE 2021 REVIEW: Unboxing

CYD Productions’ Unboxing follows six members Millennials over the course of a decade, exploring how the internet negatively affects each of their lives.

click to enlarge Poster for "Unboxing" - Photo: Provided by Cincy Fringe
Photo: Provided by Cincy Fringe
Poster for "Unboxing"


When I was in high school my family shared a single computer in our living room, taking turns checking our AOL accounts and printing MapQuest directions. The younger end of the Millennial generation has had a much different experience, as the internet — which they have never lived without — has become more expansive, essential and treacherous.

CYD Productions’ Unboxing follows six members Millennials over the course of a decade, exploring how the internet negatively affects each of their lives. On top of that, CYD exclusively uses platforms such as YouTube, FaceTime and Discord to show how those stories play out.

Dashal, known to his followers as “DashCam,” is the character with the most robust storyline. An unknown teenager in 2011, he performed video game play-throughs on YouTube simply for the fun of it. As the years pass, his follower count rises astronomically, leading him down darker paths to keep his career and gamer fame afloat. At the same time, he is growing more and more politically aware — or is he only reading what the algorithm is feeding him?

Fighting to keep Dashal from being completely radicalized is his half-sister Brooke, who is not interested in YouTube until she learns how much money she can make. The remaining core characters are part of Brooke and Dashal’s YouTube squad: Jax, whose bailiwick is ’90s Nickelodeon cartoons; Greg, who tackles food challenges for likes and subscribes; and Caroline, who creates thoughtful video essays about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other pop culture hooks. Though their interests are varied, this team has one thing in common: their YouTube ad royalties (plus Patreon … plus TikTok …) are keeping roofs over their heads.

But if you lived through the 2010s, you know that the viral video cash grab doesn’t live forever. When YouTube’s agreement with its content creators changes, it forces the squad to question everything, from their career choices to their identities to whether they were ever friends to begin with.

If this sounds like a lot, it’s because Unboxing is a sprawling, ambitious work, attempting to cover a decade of web culture and political upheaval over the course of two hours. (Yes, two — Unboxing spans two one-hour acts, uncommon for Fringe shows.) Certain storylines are less compelling than others — for instance, the two-year tale of Brooke’s on-again off-again Netflix pilot did not grip me — but the show never has time to linger long before it must leap forward again in time.

What the show “unboxes” is a litany of complicated questions to which we as a culture don’t yet have answers. What happens when your hobby becomes a job you depend on and then the rules change? When your life becomes “content” for strangers, how do you keep from becoming a product? When apologies become as meaningless as memes, how do you say something genuine? And perhaps the most terrifying question that Unboxing raises: Just how far would you go to be a part of something real? 

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place June 4-19. For more information, show descriptions, a schedule and tickets, visit cincyfringe.com.

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