Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

New York Television Festival, Day 4: Everybody wants some of that filthy A&E lucre

As the New York Television Festival's pilot-screening process draws to a close, I'm struck by how many different projects seem to have picked up some buzz among the relatively small audience that has been attending these things. Despite the fact that every screening is free (unless you buy a ticket at the site, where there's a $4.50 one-time printing charge), there are very few passers-by who just happen to wander in, unless they know someone involved with the project. From talking to long-time hands, the festival has been shrinking for a few years now, which may account for its personality crisis, wherein it seems unable to know if it's an independent TV festival or a panel-discussion series about TV. And yet the quality of the submissions is usually pretty high. I've been reasonably entertained by almost everything and gobsmacked by the quality of a few programs.

And yet everyone who's been checking out the different pilots has a different favorite. That speaks to the quality of the entries, but it also might speak to how everyone has a different idea of what independent television might look like. The old-school guys tend to list pilots that feel like pilots. The Web-development guys tend to list things that resemble Web series. And the people in charge of the festival tend to say that they just like everything (though, admittedly, that's their job). This is clearly still a festival that's finding itself, but as soon as it does, it's going to break through. Because the content is already there. It's just looking for distribution.

Bush Cooking
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Christopher Cannucciari/New York City/Eight minutes
Cast: Hosted by a Malawi tribesman named Vincent.
Program: Nonscripted
Headline: No Reservations, if Anthony Bourdain got off camera and went WAY out into the sticks.
Todd's take: I was dreading the nonscripted program, which consisted of five different reality pilots stuck together in a 75-minute block. Reality shows are far from my favorite kind of programming, but we promised we'd see everything, and this was included in everything. Fortunately, the first program, Bush Cooking, was from the guy who brought everyone those delightful Great Depression Cooking shorts in 2009, and his new project blends travel show and cooking show to create something fairly unique, a show that digs into a cuisine most Americans will never experience. There's a vibrancy that few cooking shows have, and it resides in the infectious editing and the sense of play that Cannucciari and his main subject bring to the idea of making a traditional Malawi meal. There's nothing too high concept here—it's just a guy traveling to other lands and watching people prepare meals—but the show is fascinating nonetheless, and I could easily see it working on cable. Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: Travel Channel should snap this one right up and send Cannucciari out on a variety of trips to sample cuisine in remote parts of the world. I can't wait for the Nepal episode!

American Surf Design
Executive producers/Point of origin/Running time: Benjamin Scott, Adam Wiesner, and Jason Martinez/Santa Monica, Calif./Five minutes
Cast: JP Holeman, Andrea Holeman, Wyatt Henderson, Derek Dunlop, Rob Falkan Mary McCormick, Joey Medina
Program: Nonscripted
Headline: I can make a boring A&E show, too!
Todd's take: The problem with the nonscripted competition is that fully three of the entries were very short demo reels seemingly designed to show various networks that the people behind the reels could perfectly replicate the look and feel of a basic-cable workplace reality show like L.A. Ink or Blow Out. These shows have never appealed to me on any level, so watching non-professional examples of them promised to be pretty pointless. American Surf Design gets the look just right, and it certainly has a vivid setting on the beaches of Southern California. But the personalities in the surfboard design shop owned by the Holemans just aren't very interesting, and a show like this lives and dies based on the kinds of people the producers can scrounge up. The whole vibe is far too laid-back and stereotypically surfer dude to be as engaging as it could be. It's handsomely shot, but it feels more like an extended commercial for the shop than anything else. Grade: C
Network this is perfect for: Honestly, this does ape the look of an A&E reality show fairly well. But if A&E is looking to pick something up here, there's a better option coming up shortly.

Training Day
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Flo Vinger/Los Angeles/Six minutes
Cast: Flo Vinger, Alvin Jones, Dub Huntly, Brandon Adams, Ramiro Del-cid
Program: Nonscripted
Headline: The spinoff from 48 Hours you've been waiting  for.
Todd's take: Here's another show that doesn't seem to have a clear reason for existing. In attempting to chart the rise of a boxer who's hoping to compete at the 2012 Olympics, Vinger inserts herself into the storyline for no apparent reason and spends much of the time aping the look and feel of a segment on a news magazine. Stuff happens, there's some hardcore exercise, and the thing is over before it even begins. Vinger isn't a bad presence, but it's not clear why she's here at all, since this is supposed to be something like a reality-show biopic. Instead, there's a lot of footage of boxers training and not much else. Central character Brandon Adams is an appealing figure, but Vinger tries to make the whole thing about herself a little too often, and it comes off as somewhat crass. Grade: C-
Network this is perfect for: Get Vinger out of there, and you could put this on ESPN pretty easily.

Til Death Do Us Parts
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Frank Mosca, Joe Ferrer, John Morena, and Stephen Franciosa/New York City/15 minutes
Cast: Joe Ferrer, Juan, Hector
Program: Nonscripted
Headline: Workin' in a fuckin' auto parts store is fuckin' harder than it fuckin' looks!
Todd's take: Technical problems plagued the screening of Til Death Do Us Parts, but this scabrous, hilarious look into the heart of a Bronx auto-parts emporium is a fairly thrilling dive into the life of a bunch of working-class guys who love their jobs and love working hard and love yelling at each other. The creators of Death learned the most important lesson of this kind of reality show: Find a workplace that's full of real characters. Joe Ferrer is an imposing, foul-mouthed figure, striding through the narrow aisles of his little store and bellowing at anyone who might get in his way, but he's also remarkably funny and filled with the sorts of wisdom that used to get people classified as "salt of the earth." His coworkers, meanwhile, all pop as well, particularly short-fused young dispatch manager Hector, who blows up at seemingly every other employee over the course of the 15-minute segment. This is a fun batch of people to hang out with, and even if there doesn't seem to be a lot of drama in hanging out in the same store all of the time, it makes a nice calling card for the producers. Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: Here's the show that A&E should pick up and take to the bank. I think there's at least a six-episode season in these guys.

Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Ethan T. Berlin and Eric Bryant/New York City/21 minutes
Cast: Kurt Braunohler, Jeremy Beiler, Ethan T. Berlin, Eliza Skinner, Gabe Gronli, Scotty Landes, Patrick Grant
Program: Nonscripted
Headline: The greatest late-'90s Comedy Central show Comedy Central never produced.
Todd's take: About halfway through Pointless, I had a weird realization: I had no idea what I was watching. One part game show, one part improvisational comedy, and one part heavily scripted multi-camera sitcom about contestants trapped in a sort of game-show purgatory, Pointless is like nothing else on TV. The basic idea is that this is a game show that bears all the trappings of a game show but has rendered them utterly meaningless. Points are given out but are given in units of dinette sets or putting greens. Categories are less about answering questions and more about showing the three comedian contestants a photo of a person being injured and asking them to add an insult or two to that injury. And the lightning round is like a weird psychology test. Not everything in Pointless works, but it's thrilling to watch nonetheless, as the controlled chaos  starts to bubble and bubble, never boiling over but coming close. As the host, Braunohler offers jocular lines about how if the viewer changes the channel, he'll come and break their fucking hands, and the comedian panelists (Beiler, Berlin, and Skinner) seem utterly baffled by what's going on, even though one of them created the show. I had literally no idea where the scripted content ended and the unscripted content began (though a fleet of writers are credited in the closing credits), but I do know that virtually everything about it made me laugh like hell. As a bonus, this show understands the inherent grammar of multi-camera editing (and how to deconstruct it effectively) better than many recent sitcom pilots. This deserves a pickup. Grade: A-
Network this is perfect for: Comedy Central, this has you written all over it.

The Horrible Terrible Misadventures Of David Atkins
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: David Atkins, Brian Lindstrom, and Andy Brown/Los Angeles/16 minutes
Cast: French Stewart, Jenn Shagrin, Sarah-Jane Satow, Mike French, Jenny Robertson, Antoinette Spolar, Tom Lennon, Gary Coleman, Orlando Jones
Program: Comedy
Headline: Entourage, only about has-beens and filmed mockumentary style
Todd's take: Honestly, it's surprising it took this long to get to a mockumentary block. The format—utilized for The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Modern Family—is popular on television, and it's fairly easy to replicate. Much easier than, say, Scrubs, which everybody else seemed to be trying to recreate. David Atkins is also something like the only all-star pilot at the event, with a surprisingly moving lead turn by French Stewart as a director who has one feature to his name and a sense that the world is slipping away from him. The show probably spends a little too much time setting up who's filming the title character—it's two teenage girls doing a class project—particularly if it wants to go on to future episodes. At the same time, the shaggy charm can't be denied. There aren't quite as many laughs as the creators are going for, but there are just enough. The cameos—Tom Lennon's in particular—are all very funny as well, as is a lengthy sequence where David looks for Gary Oldman at a bowling alley. Though it's yet another comedy about show business, there's likely a future for David Atkins. Grade: B
Network this is perfect for: This could work on IFC.

Sugar Babies
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Eric Pearson and Ryan Judd/New York City/Eight minutes
Cast: Ryan Judd, Larry Schechter, Jim Connor, Zach Steel
Program: Comedy
Headline: The only comedy you'll see all year with a diagram of the male reproductive system over the closing credits.
Todd's take: I thought I had been lucky to see only one truly terrible pilot during my time here, in Solo. For the most part, these have been wryly amusing little one-offs, great series waiting to happen, or ill-conceived misfires that were, nonetheless, watchable. Then came Sugar Babies. A weird My Name Is Earl ripoff about a man who wants to get rich by going to find out of any of the women who used his sperm from a sperm donor clinic had his child, Sugar Babies wears its influences on its sleeve but still doesn't make any sense. How many women has this man impregnated via his frozen sperm? How does he think he's going to have a child legally declared his, so he can collect the money his rich father left to any children the main character will have? And where the hell are the laughs? There were one or two polite chuckles throughout this thing —which was more the opening eight minutes of a sitcom pilot than a pilot proper—but the overall sense was confusion as to why this even exists. It played out in stony silence for a good reason: It's awful. Grade: D-
Network this is perfect for: Please never let this end up on a network. If it must, Spike TV.

Jack In A Box
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Michael Cyril Creighton with Marcie Hurne/New York City/20 minutes
Cast: Michael Cyril Creighton, Beth Cole, Marylouise Burke, Lusia Strus
Program: Comedy
Headline: A sharply drawn, occasionally poignant comic strip, ported to the real world.
Todd's take: Jack In A Box was the perfect way to close out screenings at a festival like this. Light and spry, it borrows the rules of classic comics or cartoons to create a story about a theater graduate who finds himself working in a box office and hating every minute of it. Broadway vets fill out the supporting roles (like the very funny Burke as a doddering old woman), but the real story here is Creighton, who's created an almost perfect comic character in Jack, an irrationally bitter young man who occasionally shows weird shoots of personal growth poking through the blackness. This was yet another Web series edited together into a pilot (though at least it didn't try to hide its roots), but what makes it all work is how confidently Creighton holds the screen as an overly dramatic malcontent. As the four episodes shown progressed, the series grew more and more confident in its vision and bolder in its idea of the Jack In A Box universe, concluding with a note-perfect gag wherein Jack encounters some doppelgangers. I don't know if this is a great series, but this is a great, great comedic character. Grade: A-
Network this is perfect for: I kind of wish that Bravo or A&E were still showing arts programming, because this character would work great for little promos in between programs. As it is, IFC is probably the only logical home for the character.

Copy & Pastry
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Tory Stanton, Scott McCabe/Berkeley, CA/nine minutes
Cast: Tory Stanton, Scott McCabe, Rana Weber, David Weise, Casi Maggio
Program: Comedy
Headline: Spaced-style sitcom, minus most of the pop-culture references
Steve's take: It was hard to pin down the style of Copy & Pastry. The first few minutes felt a lot like Spaced: Tory and Scott are trying to sell their pastries on a street corner when they're confronted by territorial hooligans in pizza outfits. The boys "sweep the leg," fight, then finish off the head pizza slice by yanking a slice of pepperoni like it's his heart, watching it beat in front of him. The jumpiness doesn't really continue, though, as the remainder of the episode tracks the guys bribing the town's permit giver-outer and doing a blind pastry taste-test with actual blind people. The action is playful enough, but the show seems timid with its jokes—when the guys decide to try and seduce the permits lady, it's a long time coming. And they never so much as mention why they want to open the pastry shop so badly.
Grade: B-
Network this is perfect for: Could break up the programming on Food Network, actually.

Permanent Stakeout
Creator/Point of origin/Running time: Dan Redmond/LA/eight minutes
Cast: James Bonadio, Al Thompson, Donnabelle Mortel
Program: Comedy
Headline: Just the talking parts of Reno 911!
Steve's take: These sorts of bottle shows—loosely scripted and highly conversational—are tricky. Normal chats take a while to get going, but when you're filming them, you've really got to get to the point quickly. There were three episodes screened, each titled after a general statement like "I'd rather be…" in which the two cops, stuck in a car together staking out who-knows-what, talk about what they'd rather be doing at the moment. ("The worst way…" was about dying.) They cover some fun ground, like when one cop claims he'd rather be fucking his ex-wife and the other chimes in, "I feel ya, man." But there's a whole lotta wind-up to get to that part. The concept is promising, though, and they did something smart by introducing a third character, a prostitute walking by, in the final episode. There's definitely room to hone and tweak this one.
Grade: B-
Network this is perfect for: I'm not sure this could last more than 15 minutes at a time, so I have to once again say Adult Swim if only because they're the only ones regularly airing shows at that length.

Illuminati Brothers
Creators/Point of origin/Running time: Matt Fisher, Alden Ford, Justin Tyler/Brooklyn/20 minutes
Cast: Justin Tyler, Matt Fisher, Sydney Hollis, Thomas Middleditch, Will Hines, Andrew Secunda, Claire Rothrock, Dave Bluvband, Malkia Stampley, Dan Bittner
Program: Comedy
Headline: The DaVinci Code, the comedy
Steve's take: There's a lot of comic gold to mine from secret societies, and Illuminati Brothers turns in a solid take on the topic. The leader of a secret organization—a world-controlling one—dies and passes on his power to his two grandsons, a failed exterminator and his dead-beat brother. The two abuse the power for a bit (wearing the fezzes out as they try to mack on girls) but quickly begin the initiation process. Meanwhile, the government pulls them aside for suspicious behavior, and warns them that getting involved with the organization will lead to them becoming "persons of interest." Illuminati Brothers smartly plays up the ridiculousness of the secret society, with members claiming, with pride, "I was there when Justin Bieber was built" and one old member saying, "I created Chatroulette!" The show also makes the government operatives clueless ("I'm an exterminator." "You're an ex-terminator, like from the future?") meaning the two hapless brothers are suddenly the smartest ones in the series. It's a promising premise simply because the guys are figuring things out as they go, and everyone else is forced to go along for the ride. There are some slow parts in this episode, but plenty to get excited about.
Grade: B+
Network this is perfect for: Comedy Central has these sorts of spoofs every once in a while.


Festival notes:

  • I dropped in on a screening of some shows from Brazil late, so I won't write them up in full. I appreciate that the festival shows programs from other countries, but what I could glean from U Model, Aventura y Descoberta (a reality show about a dude who fixes up a motorcycle and drives it from Brazil to Milwaukee) and Os Descasados (a creaky sitcom about three newly single brothers living together) was that other countries can make boring reality shows and sitcoms as well as the United States can. U Model had its moments and was beautifully shot, but Os Descasados was mostly a bomb, though it had an unexpectedly great theme song wherein the singer is crushed by crippling depression.
  • Steve: Last night I attended the late-night TV panel, where the head writers of Letterman, Fallon, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report were grilled by SNL's Jason Sudekis. The panel was interesting enough, but took a long time to get going, as each person talked about their daily schedule in detail, all of which sounded similar. The Q&A portion only had time for two questions, and I was lucky enough to ask the first one: Do they think of the competition when making a joke that they fear someone else will make? Turns out, no, they don't really have time to think about that, and if anything they inadvertently rip themselves off more than anyone else. It was cool to learn that these shows all operate in silos that are constructed so similarly to each other, and that there wasn't a typical way to get involved as a writer on any show. The only sure-fire piece of advice they had was to write, write, write. Wish it'd been longer; it's rare all those guys get in the same room.

Tomorrow: A few panels, final thoughts, and possibly some Channel 101.

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