New York Television Festival, Day 3: Everybody hates drama
In the current TV landscape, the big deal is drama. There are a lot of great comedies on the air, but the shows that really get TV fans talking, that get those "I don't own a TV people!" to fess up to watching something, are dramas. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. Sons Of Anarchy. Boardwalk Empire. Hell, even True Blood and Fringe. Those are the shows that seem to inspire the most mad passion from people, even if they all draw audiences much, much smaller than NCIS does. But at the New York Television Festival, the big deal is comedy. There are eight whole blocks of comedic content here, with 22 of the 42 pilots screening self-identifying as comedies (not to mention all of the animated pilots and the drama and nonscripted pilots that include "comedy" somewhere in their descriptions).
I get why this is the case. There are probably more comedic submissions than anything else because most of the submissions come from the world of Web series, where the funniest shorts are often the ones that survive. So it makes sense to load up on comedy to stiff drama and reality programming (which gets but one lousy block, which I will get to tomorrow). But at the same time, the festival's drama blocks are scheduled to fit into the same space as a comedy block, which means that the festival absolutely cannot accept a drama more than 30 minutes long. This means that the people who actually bring drama pilots to the festival have to cut them in half, which results in strange, stilted episodes that don't play nearly as well as they must play with the rest of the material there. One borderline case I watched today, Rising Above, could have really been helped by the extra 15-30 minutes of material. Instead, it felt more chaotic than it probably had to.
The festival is a fairly small operation. It has a lot of technical issues in its screenings. And, obviously, the theater the pilots are screened at has just two screens. NYTVF needs to be out of the theater after tomorrow night, the better to let the theater lure lucrative weekend traffic, so that means that all 42 pilots are crammed into three days (and every pilot is screened twice). The festival is clearly a labor of love that the people involved in organizing it throw together with some spare change and a ball of twine (and I'll be talking about ways it could go to the next level in my final post), but some of the compromises they've made to attract content have stunted some of their competitors. If I've made a drama pilot, why take it here, when I could take it to a lesser TV festival that actually lets me screen the whole thing?
Anyway, Steve and I screened 20 pilots today, so in the interest of time, these will (hopefully) be briefer than yesterday's write-ups.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Clay Keller, Russell Ford, and Andrew Merrill/Los Angeles/22 minutes
Cast: Russell Ford, Mike McNeal, Clay Keller, Jackie Smith
Headline: It's Always Sunny In Los Angeles.
Todd's take: The creators of A Okay are fairly active in the online sketch-comedy scene, but I'm pleased that for their submission to the festival, they didn't just cut together a bunch of online sketches and call it a day: They actually conceived of a full, darkly funny sitcom pilot that meshes together what kind of feels like three sketches but does so in a way that feels organic to the proceedings. In the best storyline, roommates Sam (Ford) and MG (Keller) embark on a quest for a $75 table that ends in them hanging out with a disturbed old man, then having to concoct a plan to steal the table after he dies. At this point, the two meet a cute girl (Smith), and seducing her becomes a key point in acquiring--you guessed it--the table. In the other storyline, other roommate Mike (McNeal) tries to save his children's TV show from getting the ax. A Okay has some great laughs throughout, though its structure leaves something to be desired. (It basically melds two lengthy, shaggy-dog tales together, but does nothing to connect them thematically.) The table story is much better constructed than the TV show one, which has its moments but feels throughout like an afterthought, designed to pad out the running time. Still, this show has a laconic, scruffy charm, and it made me laugh as hard as anything I've seen at the festival. Grade: B
Network this is perfect for: I could see this being a big hit on MTV, so long as the network gave the creators control over the finished product.
Cooking With Werner
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: John Webb, William Maier, and Garth Mueller/Los Angeles/seven minutes
Cast: William Maier, Scott Rodgers, Gian Molina
Headline: Finally, a show Scott Tobias will laugh at!
Todd's take: Cooking With Werner has a one-joke premise. Fortunately, it's a very funny joke. In it, acclaimed director Werner Herzog (Maier) decides to host a cooking show, wherein he tries to bring his dish closer to the truths of eternity by finding just the right honey. His special guest? Well, that would be Jim Jarmusch (Rodgers). Cooking With Werner sends Herzog on a quest to Peru to get just the right honey, and while I have no idea how this would be a series (Maier suggests Herzog can and will host several different types of TV shows every week), I like how incredibly, incredibly weird it is. Maier's impression is spot-on, the jokes are all surreal, an advertisement for beer crowds the screen at inopportune moments, and a laugh track punctuates essentially dramatic moments. This is TV made for a very specific audience, but I'm pretty sure I'm in that audience. The only reason I didn't laugh as hard as I did at some other things was because it was so short. (But I'm definitely tuning in for a future episode Maier pitched wherein Klaus Kinski returns from the dead to terrify and host an automotive repair program with Herzog.) Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: I honestly don't know. It may be too out there even for Adult Swim. I just want someone to pick this up and put it on at 3 in the morning, so everyone up at that point will wonder what the hell is going on.
Octane Pistols Of Fury
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Chris Prine and Greg Stees/New York City/15 minutes
Cast: Andrew Pifko, Greg Stees, Chris Prine, Aldous Davidson, Trevor Williams, Mitch Magee
Headline: Why can't Quentin Tarantino make a short comedy out of a Grand Theft Auto load screen?
Todd's take: There are scattered laughs in Octane Pistols Of Fury, but in general, the pilot tries far too hard to be something edgy and hip. The creators list Tarantino and Guy Ritchie among their influences, and it shows, as Octane Pistols blatantly apes Pulp Fiction's non-chronological structure (for no real reason) and has the same obsession with gangsters and the surface level of organized crime that Ritchie does. But after an amusing opening monologue that rapidly takes the audience through a line-up of gangsters with goofy names like "The Filthy Paddy" and "Tina Turnpike," the pilot loses some of its edge. These are, essentially, the kinds of caricatures of organized-crime members you see on the cover of a Grand Theft Auto game, and they never go anywhere beyond that cartoonishness. This would be fine if the jokes were funny, but most of them fall flat. Despite taking notes throughout, I now remember almost nothing about it, whereas I can recall whole gags from A Okay and Cooking With Werner. Grade: C
Network this is perfect for: I could see Spike TV taking a whirl at this.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Brian Frager and Alex Pearlstone/Los Angeles/25 minutes
Cast: Phillip Pruitt, Nick Ballard, Matt Russak, Joey Sylvester, Scott Landgraf, Lauren Marini, Jessie Nickson, Wendell Duppert, Kelsey Mitchell, Julie Alexander, Erica Von Trapp
Headline: Good lord, people. Did you watch a comedy OTHER than Scrubs in the last decade?
Todd's take: After Rolling was Scrubs on a movie set, Off Campus is Scrubs in the world of college life, or, at least, the college life of cliche-filled movies about going to college. Despite being a pilot that was actually conceived of as one, Off Campus has many of the same problems Rolling did, though its debt to Scrubs is less obvious. (It's still there, with everything from whooshing sound effects when the main character turns his head to lots and lots of voiceover atop an alt-rock soundtrack.) Hell, Off Campus even has an irritating set of B-roll footage to play over its credits sequence, just like Rolling. The pilot follows the adventures of five guys who live together in an apartment off campus at a California college. Eventually, it loses track of one of the guys all together, and two of the others are strictly there to provide easy stoner/drunk jokes. The focus is on J.D.-alike Jake and confident sex fiend Nick. The plot reduces college to a drunken haze, and it revolves around Jake hooking up with a girl who's seen in exactly two scenes. The casting is well done, but none of the characters rise above the level of cliche, and the writing is hackneyed when it's not dull. This is better than Rolling, but only just. Grade: C
Network this is perfect for: I honestly don't know. Again, Spike TV has some shows like this, but there's no real sense of what this would be in the pilot.
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Philip Connolly/London, U.K./19 minutes
Cast: Christopher Hatherall, Jamie Richards, Jack Klaff, Chizzy Akudolu, Nathanael Wiseman
Headline: Better off James Bond
Todd's take: It took quite a while for Agent X to get its hooks in me, but once it did, it did with a vengeance. There's some very funny stuff in this British pilot, and there's an immediate suggestion of just how this could work as a series. It takes place at an intelligence agency where the two main characters, Edwin and James, are assigned to care for their boss' dog, rather than perform anything like a difficult mission. Naturally enough, the two botch this up and have to come up with a way out of the situation. The tone of Agent X was so dark that it made some people in my screening gasp in shock, but I kind of liked that about it. It was brushing cheeky humor right up against stuff that could cause many an audience member to revolt (or maybe just throw up). The storytelling is kind of a mess--there are frequent cutaways to one of the characters under the influence of a hypno-ray for no reason--but once the main story about the dog gets going, the episode is borderline genius. It's too bad that it takes that long to get going, or this would get a higher grade, for the conclusion alone. Grade: B
Network this is perfect for: I think the BBC should probably handle this one.
Baby Daddy Memoirs
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Al Thompson/New York City/Six minutes
Cast: Al Thompson, David Spates, Jordan Hill, Gilleon Smith
Headline: If a drunk man who'd never seen a Spike Lee movie but had read the Wikipedia summary of one made a live-action version of an animated short.
Todd's take: Inexplicably, the festival was filled with people today who were buzzing about the night's debut of Baby Daddy Memoirs. Much of this was ginned up by publicists, but the pilot--the shortest in competition--drew a healthy crowd, many of whom wore the free thick-rimmed glasses handed out by the publicity crew. At the end, people involved with the film snapped photos of Thompson and other cast members and recorded the question-and-answer session, as though this were a real film festival or something. As a matter of fact, the piece actually inspired something like controversy, when one viewer stood up and angrily asked Thompson if he thought he was contributing to the continuation of harmful stereotypes of black men. (The thoroughly perplexed white, suburban host kept comparing the film to Bugs Bunny shorts.) What was all of this fuss for? Well, it was for a cute but slight comic sketch about a man named Slice (Thompson) encountering a former flame, her husband (who was once Slice's friend), and her son, who looks just a BIT like Slice. The central idea of the series would be that Slice has to deal with one of his 28 different baby mamas every week. As a peg to hang a series on, it's pretty weak (even for a Web series), but the pilot has a certain charm to it, and Thompson's script is full of amusing imaginary words, like "ba-noodles." The direction, by Lyn-Don McCray, heightens all of the colors and performances, until this really does feel like a live-action cartoon, and many of the gags are fairly funny. Baby Daddy Memoirs probably didn't deserve any of the fuss it stirred up, but it has a healthy sense of humor about itself, making it hard to hate. Grade: B-
Network this is perfect for: Of all of the Web series I've seen thus far, this is the one that seems like it would work best on the Web, where Thompson won't have to stretch it past its breaking point.
Gelber And Manning In Pictures
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Jesse Gelber, James Lester, and Kate Manning/New York City (but really New Jersey)/11 minutes
Cast: Jesse Gelber, Kate Manning, Mark S. Armstrong, Carson Grant, Noah Forrest
Headline: "I like Mad Men!" "Well, honey, I like Glee!" "Guys, guys: What if you could have BOTH?"
Todd's take: I was fairly apprehensive about this one. It's a 1920s set musical-drama with heavy mob overtones done on a Web series budget. There were so, so many ways it could go wrong. Yet, for the most part, Gelber And Manning In Pictures carries off its central conceit--about a musical duo moving closer to the big screen in the era of silent film--with surprising panache. Much of this is thanks to Lester's direction, which is flashy without being overtly so. A sequence in which the titular duo performs in front of a bunch of big-time mob wheeler-dealers, with Gelber and Manning communicating about their existence entirely through facial gestures and visual cues, is pretty great and smashingly edited. Fittingly, Lester keys much of the pilot's appeal to the silent films of the era, making things as visual as possible. And he's able to rely on an existing 1920s recreation scene to make this all feel vaguely authentic (only obviously modern telephone poles spoil the illusion). Manning is a real find with her dynamite voice, though Gelber tries a little too hard to pull off a "golly gee!" kind of tone in his performance. What holds this one back is the fact that it feels like the first act of a cool pilot, just before everything really gets going. Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: The similarities to Boardwalk Empire will likely prevent this from ever getting a pickup, but I could see this working on AMC.
H The Great
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Jay Rogers/New York City/17 minutes
Cast: Hamza Makonnen, Dion Sapp, Natasha Telesford, Cactuz Tree, Curtis George, Eric Mckensie
Headline: Let's do an improvised drama about rappers, because why the hell not?
Todd's take: After Baby Daddy Memoirs, this prompted the most vituperative response of the festival so far. Though the audience seemed to mostly be into the pilot, laughing frequently, afterward there was a sense of shock that this improvised music drama/broad comedy emanated from a bunch of old, white guys, who saw a local kid peddling his rap wares and decided to build a series around him. And seen from that point of view, it does become a little more problematic, what with the insincere African-American music producer, the whiny, shrewish girlfriend, and all of the rappers, who are certainly not portrayed subtly. Yet at the same time, there's an incredible sense of local flavor to H The Great, and the scenes where H (Makonnen) tries to hand out free CDs to people on the New York streets are just nice and easy, establishing the main character with a minimum of fuss. The scenes between H and the other rappers could be troubled, but the improvisation always stayed true to life, with a great rhythm to the dialogue. This is a very funny show, and while I can't wholly dismiss the detractors, I strongly suspect it's the series that was most hurt by having to cut down an hour-long episode to under 30 minutes. I think there's something here, particularly in the core character, who's portrayed with real sympathy. I'd be curious to see the full version. Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: This is kind of a stretch, but how about FX? They have a very similar drama about a white, working-class boxer coming up after the first of the year, and this one has a similar arc (from what I can tell).
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Allison Del Franco and Kirsten Moore/Orange, Calif./22 minutes
Cast: Cody Parr, Kyra Groves, Michael King, James Sweeney, Zach Tennant, Will Kasson, Vanessa Hidalgo, Chicago Jones, Philip Bushell
Headline: Borderline case hurt by nonsensical pilot cut.
Todd's take: I almost feel bad even giving this a grade, because it's clear that whole pieces of information were removed clumsily to get the thing down to 22 minutes. It's clear that Del Franco and Moore (who made this as a student project) have a real sense of the perils of addiction and the world of rehab--though there are some twists that are unrealistic and ludicrous--and directors Melissa Kosar, Robert Amidon, and Chase Carnahan get moments of real, raw power out of most of their actors. But in all cases, the writers and directors let down the material as well. (It should be noted Mac Brown wrote the script with Del Franco and Moore.) The narrative's kind of a mess, and moments within the pilot will take place with a complete lack of tension (there's one fight that the head of Rising Above has to break up, and she couldn't sound less interested in what's going on in front of her). For every interesting moment or character beat, there's one that feels ripped from a made-for-Lifetime movie (like when the main character returns home to get money to get some heroin and ATTACKS HIS MOTHER). Plus, the closing twist is one of the worst I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of bad twists. (The project could also do with more of a sense of humor about itself.) Still, though, I'd like to see the full cut. Grade: C+
Network this is perfect for: It needs some spit and polish, and it would need to be made much less profane and violent, but weirdly, I think this could work on ABC Family. Or if the creators feel the grime is necessary, it might fit on Starz.
Four Angry Men
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: The Maxwell Brothers/Chicago/7 minutes
Cast: Gregory Hollimon (from Strangers With Candy), John Maxwell, Nate DuFort
Program: Animated comedy
Headline: Eccentric billionaire-meets-The Punisher
Steve's take: Some of the animated series' were so short it was hard to get a read on them. This one was a prime example, clocking in at a mere 7 minutes. There are three scenes: Johnny Megabucks, the CEO of the most powerful corporation in the world, remembers the night he lost his wife to four supervillains. It's a dream, and he awakes in a plane on the way to his office, where his assistant details the identities and whereabouts of his wife's killers. Then there's a scene in which the four meanies—robot, skeleton, pirate, fancylad—bicker about inane things. The art is stunning, like when Megabucks steps onto his office balcony and surveys the city, stretched in front of him like an oil painting. There are also little comic touches in the animation—a dead cat on the mast of the villains' ship, for example. And even in such a short amount of time, it's clear this could actually be a series with a clearly established objective and interesting kooks to round things out. My only complaints are that I wish the humor had been more consistently sprinkled throughout, and I was left wanting to see just a little more.
Network this is perfect for: Adult Swim, all the way.
Tomorrow: Screenings wrap up with a whole mess of reality-show pilots and something called Illuminati Brothers. You know you want to hear about that!
Today's blatant comments bait question: New York: Most attractive city overall?