New York Television Festival, Day 2: Please stop. Your TV show is a movie.
One of the nice things about going to a TV festival (as opposed to a film festival) is that it's fairly easy to see almost everything. There are 42 pilots at the NYTVF in four different competitions (comedy, drama, animation, and non-scripted), and between Steve Heisler and me, we'll be able to see all of them. One thing we've both noticed is that a lot of them are less like actual TV pilots and more like crude attempts to stitch together episodes from a Web series until they're 15-20 minutes long and, thus, fit within the time guidelines of the festival. Only a few of the pilots we saw today could easily go on to be on TV, despite all of the grand talk from their creators about how they were ready with series bibles and the like. Worse, most of the pilots don't really seem to be the pilots of TV series but, rather, the opening acts of movies. But that's a problem Hollywood has too.
Also, we'll be blatantly ripping off the usual A.V. Club film festival format, because why not?
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Justin Dec and Carlos Vega/Miami/30 minutes
Cast: Taylor Miller, Carlos Vega, Paul Tei, Ricky Cruz, Susie Abromeit, with special appearance by Gabrielle Anwar
Headline: Scrubs on a movie set.
Todd's take: Of the pilots in the comedy competition, Rolling is unique as it's one of the few that was actually conceived as a pilot and not a Web series first. That means this first episode has an actual storyline, more or less, rather than just a tease of what's to come. Main character Danny (Miller) has graduated from film school and moved on to his first job as a PA on the set of a popular TV show, Citizen's Arrest, along with his best friend Harry (Vega). As the first day proceeds, Danny grows more and more dispirited with the process, while Harry, who's much less of a believer in the dream of making movies, becomes more and more popular with the various crew members. Will Danny finally do something so bad that he gets sent to do a job way off set? Will he meet the girl of his dreams? Will Harry become more and more popular? The answer to all of the above is "yes." Sadly, despite the fact that it feels like an actual episode of television, there's not enough to recommend Rolling. It wears its influences too much on the sleeve, foremost among them Scrubs. There are jokes in this episode that I could swear I've heard almost identical versions of on Scrubs, and the basic character breakdown is the same. Danny's overwrought voiceovers are fairly similar to J.D.'s on Scrubs, while first assistant director Brian is basically Dr. Cox if Dr. Cox made movies. There's a lengthy soliloquy on how a movie set is like high school that feels taken from some of the more visual gags Scrubs would do. Hell, the episode even has awkward cutaways, including one Jaws-inspired fantasy sequence that serves no real purpose. Rolling is loose and flabby and never finds a way to settle down, even as it seems to think the one thing America most needs is another comedy set in show business. Despite some good performances (particularly from Pei as Brian), Rolling feels about three years past its prime, and a closing-credits gag reel makes it seem even more amateurish. Grade: C-
Network this is perfect for: The ABC of 2003 would love this show.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Janine DiTullio and Kelly Kimball/New York City/16 minutes
Cast: Andy Blitz, Andrew Secunda, Elsa Hansen, Alana O'Brien
Headline: Rear Window meets the loopiness of an Adult Swim show.
Todd's take: Though The Stalkers is a series of Web shorts stitched together, it never really feels like it. I was surprised when the creators mentioned that fact after the screening, since all of the vignettes hook so naturally into each other that they feel like scenes in a shambling sitcom. Kirby (Blitz) and Sam (Secunda) own a guitar-repair service that works out of Kirby's apartment (and offers clients who provide convenient underscoring). Kirby's obsessed with the girl who just recently broke up with him, to the degree that he and Sam spend all of their time watching what she does through a telescope... until Sam spots the hottest woman in the world in another apartment in the same building. Well, she'd be the hottest woman in the world if she weren't 15. The Stalkers was written by professional comedy writers--including Janine Ditullio, who's written for everything from Metalocalypse to Late Night With Conan O'Brien--and that may make some question its independent bona fides. But this is a vastly amusing show with at least a dozen solid, hearty laughs throughout its run-time of 16 minutes. The central characters are both great and deftly played, Ditullio and writing partner Kimball have a very fine understanding of obsession, and Hansen is terrific in a completely wordless role where she's always in a wide shot (by design). Wedding laughs to some sort of thematic purpose is always a good idea, and though I have no idea how The Stalkers would continue as a series beyond the pilot--I guess they keep stalking the same girl?--this engaged me more readily than anything else I saw today. Grade: A-
Network this is perfect for: IFC is trying to establish an identity as a provider of scripted content. This feels like it would fit perfectly.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Marc D'Agostino/Philadelphia/15 minutes
Cast: Paul Maginnis, Krista Apple, Matt Pyle, Carlos Candelario
Headline: Stanley Kubrick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Lost.
Todd's take: I didn't really like the_source, but it's more or less exactly the kind of show this festival should exist to promote. Rather than being a showcase for writers--like most of TV--it's a showcase for the nimble director Marc D'Agostino, who does everything, seemingly, on this pilot. Unlike The Stalkers, the_source doesn't even bother to do anything about hiding its Web roots. Every time a new scene begins, D'Agostino brings up a title card indicating a new episode of the "interactive Web series" has begun (the interactive portion comes from an online game attached to the project). Frankly, the writing here is greatly disappointing. There's a lot of portent and build-up of a post-apocalyptic world where soldiers chase scavengers and pretty girls sleep in pup tents, but there's no sense of where any of it is going. It's all a bunch of pretty images. But what images! D'Agostino directs like no one on television right now, letting himself get lost in long, dreamy shots of clouds rolling by or nightmarish visions of exercise bikes gone horribly wrong. There's a lot of potent symbolism lurking in the edges of his frames (or so I'd like to think), and it's that embrace of purely visual storytelling that has me thinking this could be exactly the kind of thing this festival was created to promote. Plus, the use of Philadelphia locations to stand in for post-apocalyptic Earth is genius. Grade: B-
Network this is perfect for: I suspect this would be quickly canceled on SyFy, but at the same time, it would have made a handsome match for Battlestar Galactica.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Dan Williams/Los Angeles/7 minutes
Cast: Dingani Beza, Sophie King, Carey Fox, Darrell Phillip, Beth Triffon
Headline: Somebody sure wrote some interesting fan fiction for that one episode of House where he was in a mental hospital.
Todd's take: Asylum's another handsomely shot oddity, only this one doesn't bother stitching together episodes of a Web series. It just presents one, then asks us all to tune in in October to see the rest. Based on the odd collection of footage here--there's basically no story, and the shifts between medical procedural and weird, sci-fi opus are jarring--that's asking a lot of viewers. Even a Web series' first episode has to establish a few ground rules, but the only ground rules Asylum wants to establish are that the show takes place in an asylum where something very bad is going to happen at some point and don't you worry because it will all be awesome. I'm not immediately convinced. Where the_source was nicely understated, relying on barely present scoring and natural light to create a sense of mounting dread, Asylum just keeps piling shit on the audience. The actors (save the very good Beza) all head over the top, the storyline makes no sense if you've never read the DSM-IV, the final twist is ludicrous for a show that's only seven minutes, and the soundtrack is positively filled with zither. But I'm a sucker for this stuff, so I'll probably tune in when the other episodes go up in October. Grade: C
Network this is perfect for: Fuck, this is already pretty much The Event in seven minutes. Let's just hand it to NBC.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Josh Bernhard/New York City/22 minutes
Cast: James Rich, Matthew Foster, Alexandra Blatt
Headline: I'VE GOT AN AWESOME IDEA! Let me take 20 minutes to tell it to you.
Todd's take: When the final puzzle piece that Pioneer One was assembling snapped into place, it made me grin like nothing else today. Hell, the central idea behind the pilot is so good, it's much, much better than any of the sci-fi pilots the networks put on the air this year. And in those last three minutes or so, when the series takes on a kind of heady grandeur, it's easy to lose sight of just how boring everything leading up to the reveal is. Again, this sure feels more like the first act of a movie than the first episode of a TV show, but Bernhard insists he has five seasons planned out, and who am I to judge? (You'll burn through it all in a year, dude.) But the final twist at least suggests some ways this could be a good series (or miniseries). The bigger problem is that this is cut down from a pilot that's closer to the actual length of an hourlong TV drama (and available over BitTorrent), but it feels far, far too long as is. In the version of the pilot screened, some sort of satellite or space capsule crashes, scattering radiation over the Pacific Northwest, and it has something or other in it. But the episode spends most of its time dealing with the politics of getting the craft back to the U.S. from Canada rather than, y'know, the deformed man-people found inside an ancient space capsule (who can't be shown for budgetary reasons). There's no sense of TENSION here, and the cast is pretty uniformly awful, sapping the excitement out of the story. There's a lengthy scene where an old guy tells main character Tom Taylor the story of how nuclear war was averted in 1983, and it's supposed to be a key moment, but, instead, it just sits there. Bernhard's not a bad writer, but he and director Bracey Smith have basically no idea of pacing and/or directing actors. This thing is a lump until those last three minutes. But oh, man. Those are some pulpy awesomeness. Grade: C+
Network this is perfect for: Screw the_source, SyFy. Pick this up, put Ron Moore on it (it's right in his wheelhouse), and give it a huge budget.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Nipper Knapp/Los Angeles/22 minutes
Cast: Nipper Knapp, Marija Thomas, Jack Knapp, Alex Quijano, Steven Miranda, Matthew Letscher, Nikki Hayden, Amelia Hayden, Michael Manuel, Elena Vallez, Sadie Stratton
Headline: You know who's crazy? White people. You know who else is crazy? Hispanics.
Todd's take: Very few sitcoms have ever really tried to be definitive about living in Los Angeles, even though most sitcoms are produced there. Gentrification, despite some problems around the edges that could easily be smoothed over, pretty much nails the tone of living in a multi-cultural wonderland and not being sure how to feel about it. Well cast and breezily written, it's the pilot I saw today that worked the most ably as a pilot. It's an efficient introduction to the central characters--two upwardly mobile white couples and the various long-term Latino residents of their neighborhood--but it also tells a fairly funny story in its own right, about the couples trying to get their children into an expensive preschool (yeah, you've heard this one before). There's an awkward misstep at the conclusion of the storyline (and, actually, an awkward misstep at the end of the B-storyline), but most everything leading up to that ending is very, very funny and self-assured. And unlike with every other pilot, it's quite easy to see how this show could become a series. The title needs work--it's less about gentrification and more about a neighborhood that was in the process of being gentrified before that process stopped--but this is a show that pretty much any network could slap on the air almost exactly as is. My one little quibble besides the ending is that I'm not sure Knapp understands the Latino characters nearly as well as he does the white ones. If this were a series, I'd want to see more of their point of view. But never mind that. Of the shows I've seen so far, this is the one I'd be least surprised to see a network pick up. Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: I'm shocked at how well this would fit in the ABC Wednesday night family comedies block.
Creator/Point of origin/Running time: Jonathan Nail/Sherman Oaks, Calif./16 minutes
Cast: Jonathan Nail, Michele Boyd, Jason Burns, Jay Caputo, Amol Shah, Melissa Dalton
Headline: I AM THE FUNNIEST MAN ON EARTH. WATCH ME DANCE!
Todd's take: Solo appears to have quite the cult audience from its online episodes, just based on the way the crowd erupted when it was announced. But what works online doesn't work nearly as well when blown up to the big screen, as the stony silence that greeted much of the pilot attested. There's a cool germ of an idea here--a man hired to star in a reality show about the first mission to Mars is dismayed when the show is canceled and he still has to go to Mars--but it's ruined by lack of focus and Nail's relentless mugging in the lead role. The guy seems to think he's mid-'90s Jim Carrey, but, instead, he's that guy at every party in the mid-'90s who thought he was Jim Carrey. The one unique and funny character here--the computer that's the guy's sole company on his way to Mars --is severely underused, and far too much time is spent on a boring plotline back on Earth about the reality-show producer trying to get his show back, rather than the man back. Nail and his actors seem sincere about their passion for this project, and they've been able to raise enough money from fans to continue production online. But what the show is at present is an unfunny mess full of mugging. Grade: D
Network this is perfect for: I can see a version of this show that would rest comfortably on Adult Swim.
Greg & Donny
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Matt Yeager and Jeff Skowron/New York City (but really, Johnstown, Penn.)/seven minutes
Cast: Jeff Skowron, Matt Yeager, Kim Cea, Tamera Gindlesperger Fisher
Headline: Condescending comedy done right.
Todd's take: Anyone who's been reading my pilot reviews this week knows this to be the case already, but I might as well state it again: I'm not much of one for comedy that derives its laughs from laughing at characters, rather than laughing with them. Sure, it can be funny when written and performed well (see: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia), but there's usually too much of a temptation to simply lean on making the characters idiots and not doing the hard work of crafting smart comedy. All of this is an elaborate preamble to say that Skowron and Yeager are very much making a show about laughing at two rural, redneck doofuses in western Pennsylvania, but the characters are so perfectly thought out, the script is so well written, and the characters around them are so nicely drawn that I was eventually able to overcome my resistance. For one thing, Skowron and Yeager are looking at a region of the country that hasn't really been profiled before, and they're bringing a nice level of regional specificity in that portrayal. (This is one thing independent film brings to the film world that TV doesn't have - that level of understanding of regions of the country not on the coasts.) For another, their female characters are both well written, a nice offset to the idiots they play at the show's center. The pilot is more of a sketch than anything else, but it's a funny one (about the characters trying to craft the perfect answering-machine message). As an introduction to these characters, this works, even if it mostly picks up steam in the last half. I want to see more. Grade: B
Network this would be perfect for: It's hard to see a home for this on TV as it is. Sundance has shown a willingness to show documentaries from outside of coastal areas. So maybe there? Adult Swim might be another good fit.
Patrick And Molly And All The Small Things…
Creator/Point of origin/Running time: John Brookbank, who also writes and directs/LA/nine minutes
Cast: Ryan Reyes, Nellie Barnett
Headline: A live-action Life & Times Of Tim if every character was Tim.
Steve's take: Of all the pilots I saw, this one—slice-of-life scenes from a couple's life—felt the most like a series of video sketches cobbled together to fill some time. It was especially noticeable given how short a few of them were. In one, Molly returns home and sees/hears camera flashes behind the bathroom door; Patrick peeks his head out and says, "I didn't know you'd be home so early," and Molly walks away as the flashes continue. That's it. But cohesion came as a byproduct of solid sketch work: Each vignette had strong character choices and a point-of-view. In another one, Patrick and Molly exchange anniversary gifts (fittingly, it came after a sketch where Patrick purchases a fist as a gift for Molly—a sexual fist), first with Molly giving Patrick a sweetly made memory book of their time together. Patrick brushes it aside with, "I'll definitely have to look at that later." Then it's on to his gift to Molly, a lamb made out of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, with the credits rolling just as Molly starts licking it. Both characters are comically unenthused, so some little throwaway moments, like Patrick having trouble tearing into the wrapping paper, get big laughs for the contrast. No more words, or filler, were necessary, and my only quibble with the show is that by trying to be lean and mean, every extraneous bit felt magnified.
Network this would be perfect for: Throw it after Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim—another study in economy of words and character exaggeration.
Craig & The Werewolf
Creator/Point of origin/Running time: Brett Register/Sherman Oaks, CA/15 minutes
Cast: Craig Frank, Brett Register, Haley Mancini, Katy Stoll, Angie Cole, Daniel Norman
Headline: Werewolves and vampires are people, too.
Steve's take: Craig arrives home one day to see his roommate Brett chowing down on a person's hand. He's a werewolf now, he tells Craig, who doesn't believe him because he's yet to see it. Later, Brett walks in on Craig eating a hand, because being a werewolf is very easy to contract. Cut to Craig on a date trying to explain why he can't take forceful cutie Haley back to the bedroom (fear of werewolfing her to shreds). That's the first half of Craig & The Werewolf, and it feels hastily thrown together—the creator admitted as much during the post-screening talk-back. The second half picks up a little when it turns out Haley is a vampire whose clan wants to take down the werewolves using Haley as "bait" of some kind. Meanwhile, Craig wants to be with Haley and his werewolf buddies won't allow it. The characters are pretty much simple pawns to the claustrophobic plot, as little is done to set them apart from each other besides different tones of yelling. Humor comes from when deathly serious things are treated lightly, like when a werewolf friend comes over to show Craig the post-coital position he should adopt with a vampire to allow maximum space for stake-stabbing. Those moments are few and far-between, as Craig & The Werewolf is dominated by the opposite, seemingly unimportant things treated very seriously, and without a character or plot foundation the show falls flat.
Network this would be perfect for: Could be a nice palate-cleanser on SoapNet.
Hello, Dum Dum.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Landline TV and M.A.D./New York/17 minutes.
Cast: Mackenzie Condon, Abra Tabak, D'Arcy Erokan
Headline: Office hijinks, always.
Steve's take: A lot of the humor in Hello, Dum Dum comes from the fact that most of the office isn't in on the joke. Two girls bound into a conference room while it's in use, one fighting to remove a key from the other's mouth; everyone just blankly looks on. The show tracks three receptionists working side-by-side (doing, from what I can tell, the exact same job) who alternate between fighting with one another and scheming together. In one vignette, they meet the new office hottie, and the three use their lunch break to get tan, apply mascara, and acquire new blond wigs to look exactly like her. Another has the girls serving a sad looking cake for the office; one employee gets sick and the girls stage an intervention for her supposed bulimia. The girls heighten each other's ridiculousness: One dresses like Luigi to woo a man; another tries to mail herself in the hope of catching the postman's eye. Hello, Dum Dum captures the kind of misplaced effort you'd afford things if you were bored senseless at your job, heightened to the point where no one else can quite figure out what you're doing. It's slow at times and often not as outrageous as it should be, but always picks up with big jokes to tie everything together.
Network this would be perfect for: Slot this as part of HBO's Funny Or Die Presents… and let it become a recurring segment.
Tomorrow: Steve checks out the highly buzzed narrative sketch-comedy pilot (yeah, we don't know how it works either) My Mans, while Todd heads over to see a 1920s period dramedy done on a Web budget.