Is an indie television movement on the verge of breaking through?

Is an indie television movement on the verge of breaking through?

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the New York Television Festival, the world of independent TV in general, and the direction it seemed to be headed. It prompted some consternation within that particular subculture, as well as from the NYTVF organizers themselves, who were quick to assure me that things were moving in the right direction. In 2010, the festival, which purports to gather the best independent TV pilots out there, was too filled with web videos awkwardly stitched together to fill 10 minutes of screen time. One of my favorite pilots that year—the sadly just-concluded Jack In A Box—was exactly that, but too many of the shows I screened that year were simply five-minute shorts padded out here and there. This is not to say that web videos are an irrelevant form, but they’re a far cry from even the sort of 11-minute shows in which Adult Swim traffics.

Just two years later, the difference in the air at the NYTVF is palpable. The pilots are put together better, many last 20 minutes or more, and the selection is far more competitive. There are some that are re-edited versions of web series, but in a few cases, that’s impossible to tell. Take, for instance, one of my favorites at this festival, the Chicago-produced Shrink. (Tales of psychiatrists and their patients are enormously popular at NYTVF for the simple reason that they’re cheap to shoot.) The story of a man who needs to complete more than 1,000 hours of psychiatric work or lose his license, Shrink has taken elements from the web series—which mostly consists of the sessions he conducts in his garage with patients he’s gathered from Craigslist and other unlikely places—and constructed other elements around them, giving the actual pilot a sense of momentum and direction moving forward. If the show were to become a series, that would be vital. It’s hard for a network to look at a web short and see a series; it’s easier to look at a full pilot.

To be sure, there are still clumsily re-edited web videos here, though some are quite enjoyable. And there are still more mediocre pilots than truly good ones, and even some of those good ones suggest themselves less as pilots for TV series than short films. (Bill Plympton had a short film that’s good, but it’s hard to see it pulling together as even an Adult Swim series. It’s fun, though!) Creating a good pilot is one of the toughest tasks out there, and if there’s anything holding the independent TV movement back from hitting the mainstream, it’s the fact that producing an effective pilot is so difficult and requires such a different toolkit from creating an effective independent film. But even in that regard, the selection here is improving, slowly but surely.

In many ways, the best thing that’s happened to the NYTVF—to the whole indie TV movement, really—is IFC picking up the fake game show Bunk. The pilot for that series, hosted by comedian Kurt Braunohler, debuted at the NYTVF in 2010, and IFC eventually brought it to series with minimal changes. It was, to a real degree, the first big success for a series out of one of the two competing independent TV festivals. (The other, ITVFest, takes place in Los Angeles in the summer.) It’s impossible to know if Bunk was a huge success for IFC—which did not pick it up for a second season—but that a full season of 10 episodes was produced at all is as good a result as any series has gotten out of a festival. Sure, since it was shot on one set, Bunk was a much more attractive financial proposition to buyers attending the festival than a more traditional scripted series (which would have to film over several locations and employ a regular cast), but Bunk’s success seems to have opened a door. Eighteen different buyers are attending the 2012 NYTVF to pursue 26 development deals, with at least four more deals joining the group next year, says festival director Terence Gray. The festival and the movement it hopes to highlight grow with every passing year.

The strongest argument for independent TV (whose definition I will broaden by incorporating more traditional web series) is also the greatest reason it has yet to break through beyond boutique cable channels. At its best, indie TV allows a platform for voices not often represented on TV. Similarly, it allows for more unconventional storytelling. The pilots at NYTVF and the most popular web series will often wander down weird paths and take oddball tangents. They might look like pilots and feel like pilots, but they’re also much more obviously products of a singular voice than more traditional, fussed-over network pilots. And while the world of indie TV is still dominated by the voices of straight white males, it’s not dominated as much as the world of traditional TV. There are pilots at NYTVF—great pilots—produced by minorities, women, and members of the GLBT community, and the web-series world is even more open to such voices. For example, one of the best currently running web series, Awkward Black Girl, has resulted in a deal for its creator, Issa Rae, to produce a pilot at ABC shepherded by Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy. At the very least, independent TV and web series allow for a back door into the mainstream entertainment industry, one that’s opening increasingly wide.

As another example, take Husbands, currently the best web series running. Produced on a model that created a first season that ultimately added up to roughly the running time of a TV pilot, the show then moved to a Kickstarter funding model. A forthright defense of gay marriage based around a silly sitcom frame—two guys get drunk and get married and decide to see it through—the show blends good jokes with the sort of social-issues storytelling Norman Lear would have been proud of, and it does so much better than NBC’s similarly themed The New Normal, which too often treats its gay characters as curiosities, not human beings. Husbands would be a solid fit on just about any broadcast network, yet it remains on the web. This is not to say that it can’t be successful there, but the fact that it has yet to cross over suggests even more fully the ways that independent TV and web series represent a sort of present-day Wild West, where ideas networks might shy away from for whatever reason can take root, even as they might seem to point toward the future of TV itself.

No one has quite figured out the independent TV business model just yet—a problem even Grey will admit exists. Attending NYTVF feels a bit like how I imagine attending Sundance in the mid-’80s must have felt: There’s a whole bunch of valuable product that could attract an audience if given a chance, but no one’s yet sure how to make money from that product. It was Sex, Lies, And Videotape that helped Sundance break through into the mainstream consciousness, and I’m not sure that independent TV has found its Steven Soderbergh yet. And even considering that factor, there’s the fact that running a TV show is a vastly different undertaking from directing a film. An independent film can be released to theaters, where it will hopefully recoup its budget. An independent TV pilot will ideally lead to a larger series, and that would mean a substantial investment of network funds to keep the show going, while an independent film is, ultimately, a much smaller investment of cash. Until a show as self-evidently good as Sex, Lies, And Videotape breaks through, independent TV may remain a curiosity too costly for networks to indulge in.

And even though the pilots are better this year, signs remain that they have a way to go. Few feel like truly personal and artistic expressions from creators who just had to tell a particular story. Increasingly, most feel like weird pop-culture mash-ups, like Darla, from Santa Monica, which attempts to toss the films of Wes Anderson and Dexter into a blender to somewhat entertaining results. (The pilot—obviously re-edited from the web—has ambition that outstrips its abilities, but it’s well shot and has some fun moments.) Or take Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon, a funny but derivative pilot that essentially asks what would happen if Mystery Science Theater 3000 was set aboard a typical Adult Swim setting, say, that of SeaLab 2021. The similarities go even further: When the little puppets who “star” in the pilot go off to watch an old cartoon and riff over it, the transition is made via a shot of an opening and closing door. Again, this is an enjoyable show, but it’s hard to ignore just how much it wants to be something else.

Yet there are signs of hope. Grey points out that digital filmmaking first truly broke through in the mid-2000s, and now that it’s been around for almost a decade, filmmakers are increasingly figuring out ways to use it. This has been a particular boon to independent TV producers, who can produce a pilot fairly cheaply with a few friends. (There’s a good reason the market is still so dominated by veterans of the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles alt-comedy scenes.) The sophistication of these pilots, in terms of writing, filmmaking, and acting, is already so far beyond where it was just two years ago that it seems as if that Soderbergh figure is just a few years out, if that. The independent TV movement may not break through in 2012, but mark this year as the year that it started to build into a wave.

Below, my five favorite pilots from the NYTVF:

1. Books
If there’s an argument to be made for independent TV as a movement, it’s best made by Joe Webb’s confident, assured dramedy pilot Books, which already feels like it could slot into the comedy lineup of just about any cable network. Though it has a few cases of on-the-nose dialogue and heavy exposition, Books lets its audience draw its own conclusions, and its central relationship, between two estranged brothers drawn closer together in the wake of their father’s death (and the uncovering of his substantial debts to organized crime), is effective and compelling. Plus, Webb’s funny, literate script features one smart conceit after another, all culminating in the two brothers attempting to raise money by operating a sports book together, which gives the whole thing a premise that’s eminently TV-friendly. (Plus, Webb’s script understands the dynamics and business of sports betting, which gives the whole thing an extra veneer of capableness.) This is as good as any new network pilot from this fall. Here’s hoping it lands somewhere it has time to grow.

2. West Side Stories
Though not as immediately assured as Books and feeling just a bit too much like a couple of comedic sketches stretched out to pilot length, West Side Stories is damned funny, and that’s ultimately all that matters. A low-concept comedy about a man and woman who are platonic best friends, West Side Stories is mostly about navigating the weird world of dating in Los Angeles, with often very funny results. Creator and star Greg Lisi’s script is full of good lines, and star Heidi Neidermeyer gives a great, go-for-broke performance.

3. Pam And Sue
One of the stranger trends at this year’s festival was the way that more and more pilots featured faces attendees would have known from elsewhere. Many of these were deeply flawed, but it was still strange to see Willie Garson or Dee Wallace popping up in an independent TV pilot. This is the standout of that trend, a show featuring Sue Galloway, who will be known to fans of 30 Rock. The festival is full of wannabe sketch-comedy shows, and while this one is obviously edited together from web shorts, it’s done so with panache and style, and Galloway and her sketch partner, Pam Murphy, come up with wild, weird concepts that they then play to the hilt.

4. Shrink
The best of the “pilots about therapy” trend, Shrink has mordantly funny moments and an impressive commitment to a conceit that might seem difficult to sustain. Plus, by the end of the pilot, it’s done the best job of any pilot not named Books at laying out what the series will be going forward and suggesting a sense of the stakes involved for all of the characters. It drags in places, but by the end of Shrink, I was curious to see more, and that’s the most important goal any pilot has to meet.

5. Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon
Funny is funny, and there’s something irresistible about the thought of characters having to watch old, crappy entertainment and riff over it. The three characters here, who watch public-domain cartoons and joke about them, aren’t as distinctive as the three on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that earlier series is dearly missed, and this could be an acceptable substitute if it gets time to find itself.