Has independent television become too calculated?

Has independent television become too calculated?

I’ve been attending (and working as a judge for the critics’ prize) at the New York Television Festival for four festivals now, my most recent concluding last week, and with every year, the product gets slightly better and more professional. For the first time ever, the majority of this year’s pilots actually looked like TV pilots, and some came complete with premises and conflicts that might be fun to follow for an entire season. The rise of Louie and Girls—both of which were copied over and over at this year’s festival (right down to the Girls title “sequence,” a.k.a. a title in bold capitals against a blank background)—has made it seem like anybody might be able to turn their lives into a TV show, and while the majority of independent TV producers lack the critical distance that gives Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham’s series their snap, they’re at least borrowing some of those programs’ filmmaking techniques. Louie and Girls look like what we might expect indie TV to resemble: a little grimy and obviously lower-budget, but also thoughtfully directed, written, and acted. It’s no wonder that those who attend NYTVF would glom onto both.

And yet the longer I look at the independent TV and web-series scene, the more I wonder if there’s ever going to be any real heart to it.

The natural comparison here is independent film, as it always has been. Each intends to slip past the corporate gatekeepers by producing something cheaply that’s nonetheless so good, and with such an original voice, that it simply must be seen by anyone who can get on its wavelength. Yet this is substantially easier to pull off in the world of film. There, if a fledgling director is a Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson or Spike Lee who just has to tell a particular story, the story is over in around two hours, and it can be judged on its merits. The gatekeepers then decide if there’s an audience for it, and even if it flops, the film still exists, ideally true to the director’s vision.

For an independent TV pilot, no such system yet exists. I’ve been harping on this for a few years, but watching this year’s crop of pilots made me acutely aware of another unfortunate offshoot of this fact: TV pilots tell the beginnings of stories that will hopefully run for several seasons, stories that may not have thought-out middles and ends. They’re less about bringing specific characters or stories to the screen and more about creating a welcoming vibe. Hang out here for a few seasons, and we’ll make you love all of these people. But that’s a much more difficult thing to do on a dime than simply offering a straightforward story as one might do in an independent film (which isn’t to say that the latter is easy). If the goal of pilots at NYTVF is to get picked up by a network, calculations must be made. It’s not enough to do something that is a vital, creative expression. There also has to be consideration of how a show might fit into the broader television landscape—of which networks might be interested. And in that context, all of the Girls and Louie copycats make a lot of sense. HBO might not be looking for another Girls, but what if IFC or FX is? Well, here are several dozen variations, and some of them are about young guys or gay dudes or women in their early 30s instead of mid-20s.

But it can also become a little numbing. The best TV pilots move with confidence and certainty. They get out of their own way and insist on the audience having a good time, worming their way past the very human reaction of wondering just what the hell you’re watching in under 20 minutes. Yet the number of truly great TV pilots is infinitesimally tiny. More common is something like what’s happening with Brooklyn Nine-Nine this season, where a promising pilot has led to a series that seems to put more of its comedic pieces into place with every episode. But independent TV festivals rarely allow for a handful of episodes that suggest a direction. Instead, they need pilots that will wow, when the whole point of a pilot is usually just to provoke a mild nod. “Sure, I’ll come back next week” isn’t enough when there’s no guarantee of next week.

The saving grace of the independent TV movement might be point-of-view. By far the best pilot I saw this year was Becky Yamamoto’s Uninspired, which seems like a Girls clone at first blush (what with the all-caps title card and the fact that it’s about a wayward young woman unsure of her direction in life) but reveals itself to be about something far more intriguing the longer it goes on. Yamamoto didn’t just write her show, but she also stars in it, and her roots in improvised comedy and the web-series scene shine through the longer the pilot wears on. What she’s talking about isn’t the aimlessness of being in your mid-20s. Instead, it’s about the aimlessness of being five-to-10 years older and realizing that everybody else in your life has seemingly gotten with the program while you continue to think the program is mostly pointless and stupid. Yamamoto’s very much working in the cringe-comedy vein, but she’s got a great eye for detail and ways to embarrass her character, as in a scene set at a baby shower where all she can think to tell her pregnant best friend is that she’ll be so happy when the baby is born so she can stop wearing such ugly shoes. (The scene devolves from there into convincingly comedic chaos.) Uninspired also has one up over Girls in that it depicts a diverse (in all senses of the term) Brooklyn without really calling attention to what it’s doing.

But Yamamoto is the exception. She’s able to infuse a setup that’s had so many different spins already—young woman living in the city and wondering if it’s time to settle down—with her own point-of-view. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that the rest of the cast consists of web-series all-stars.) The vast majority of the series in competition at NYTVF are almost always going to be from twenty- and thirtysomethings from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and that necessarily means that many of these shows will be about dating and concerns that are close to the hearts of young people affluent enough to be able to make independent TV pilots. This is fine, but without an unusual point-of-view, the series have a tendency to become too insular, too unwelcoming of the perspectives of anyone who didn’t happen to make the thing. (One major exception: a drama called Red Clay, set in and around a reservation in New Mexico. It has problems—namely an uncharismatic lead, a visual aesthetic that seems taken from a truck commercial, and a premise that’s so ridiculous it constantly takes the viewer out of the series—but the setting was so intriguing I wanted to see more of it. It just missed my top five.)

I have no problem with shows that very deliberately attempt to evoke a particular slice of life that won’t be welcoming to all viewers. But there’s a way to do it that invites viewers in, without completely isolating anyone who isn’t living that exact life. Girls is an easy show to copy because it seems like it’s so easy to make, and Dunham herself has indie-film roots. But the program’s tone is monstrously difficult to balance, as seen in some of season two’s weaker episodes. Even in episodes that seem perfectly calibrated to me, there are legions of people who find them exhausting and off-putting. It’s not the sort of thing that can just be casually attempted without a great deal of thought. And yet it’s hard to find too much personal expression poking through in the other sorts of programs either. Most of the more traditional sitcoms take a playful setting and just hope for the best (though I did like Chicago-based Family Heirloom and The Startup, which set goofy comedies in an antique shop and video game company, respectively), but there’s little of the sense of passion that drives both the best and worst independent pilots. They seem like very calculated setups, so chosen for their ability to appeal as much to NBC as AMC, less about personal expression and more about hoping for a big network contract.

I’ve been saying for the last few years that NYTVF was on the verge of breaking out, not unlike Sundance in 1986 or so. I no longer know if that’s true (now watch Uninspired get a Showtime pickup and become a sensation), but if NYTVF remains primarily a festival where networks poach talent instead of shows, that’s probably okay. I’d love to see an independent TV movement take off—especially with all the streaming services buying up content—but it’s entirely possible the only true success to ever arise out of the nascent movement will be It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show that arrived rough around the edges but which no one could accuse of not having a point-of-view or a proper understanding of its characters. Producing a TV pilot is already hard work. Why go to all that trouble when it might be just as easy to produce a few smaller sketches for the web and call it a day?

My five favorite pilots from NYTVF:

5. The Startup: One of the main actors is weak, and the show leans too heavily on wackiness rather than actual jokes at times, but the cast is strong, and its casual diversity is refreshing.

4. Engaged: Sketch comedy seems to have waned a bit in terms of festival entries, but this pilot suggested the continued potential of the format. It’s a bit like Portlandia in that it features just two main actors (a real-life couple) and has just one subject—being engaged—but the laughs are plentiful, and actress Laura Grey is a find.

3. Animals: I have no idea if this minimally animated bit of weirdness is meant to be Girls with animals, but in its tales of lonely pigeons and horses living out their lives in New York City (and in its title), it certainly seems to be. The installment about the pigeons—one of whom falls in love with his own reflection—made me laugh harder than anything else at the festival.

2. Doorman: The festival’s best Louie clone was also the most successful at transmitting that series’ shaggy tone from what was happening onscreen out to viewers. Based on a popular blog about being a doorman and starring the author of that blog (an actual doorman), the pilot takes Louie’s “all of this is happening to one guy” vibe and gives it a hotel setting that ties everything together nicely. 

1. Uninspired: See above.

Another five: AB-, Family Heirloom, Red Clay, Re:Verse, Werewolf