The ATX Television Festival borrows a vocabulary and a set of customs from its subject matter. Each edition of the festival is a new “season”; the biggest get of any season is usually a reunion of a TV show from days gone by, the live-and-in-person equivalent of ratings-grabbing primetime events like Mary And Rhoda, The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A., or The Harlem Globetrotters On Gilligan’s Island. And in 2015, the festival that bills itself as “A Television Experience” gained the distinguishing mark of any self-respecting TV enterprise: A theme song, performed by alums of festival favorites like Friday Night Lights, My So-Called Life, Parenthood, and Rectify.
In surveying its own television experience at the fourth season of ATX—which took place in Austin, Texas June 4-7—The A.V. Club is taking a page out of the festival’s own script. From the highs (the Gilmore Girls reunion, Friday Night Lights in a hotel parking lot) to the lows (getting into the Gilmore Girls reunion, playing favorites with beloved TV series) here are the things about ATX that we think should be renewed for future seasons, along with those we’d like to see canceled.
ATX managed its first-ever sell-out with season four, an achievement built largely on the appeal of the festival’s closing-night centerpiece: A reunion of cast and creators commemorating the 15th anniversary of Gilmore Girls. In gathering the show’s key players and giving them a forum in which to reflect and reminisce, ATX didn’t disappoint, staging a lengthy celebration of Gilmore Girls that was split into two acts and bridged by a touching video tribute to the late Edward Herrmann, who played Gilmore grandfather Richard. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino kicked off the festivities by recapping the origins of the show alongside leads Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, and Kelly Bishop, who’ve maintained their bantering interplay in the eight years since Gilmore Girls left the air. (Recounting her audition for the role of Rory, Bledel noted it was her fifth or sixth acting tryout, to which Graham added a sardonic “ever”—all these years later, she’s still finishing her TV daughter’s sentences with a dash of perspective.) Joined later by a dozen of their cast mates and Sherman-Palladino’s co-showrunner/husband Daniel, the core quartet led a lively, rambling panel discussion that couldn’t help but go long—fitting for a show whose scripts often ran 20 pages longer than the average hour-long teleplay. With Sherman-Palladino denying the ever-present rumor of a sequel movie, there wasn’t much new information to share, leaving the event to float pleasantly along on the cast’s residual chemistry. At least the last question of the Q&A, posed by a kid who couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13, ended the evening on a note of hope: Yes, both Lauren Graham and Scott Patterson believe that Lorelai and Luke eventually got married.
The Gilmore reunion was the weekend’s hot ticket, one of a handful of festival events to which actual tickets were sold. Add to those individual tickets the limited number of “Fast Pass” reservations made by badge holders and the swath of the Paramount Theatre set aside for VIPs, working press, and other guests of the festival (full disclosure: including the author of this piece), and you get the organizational nightmare/societal meltdown that occurred outside the Paramount Saturday night. Demand for seats far exceeded supply, with the dice loaded against the average badge holder (not all of whom could be satisfied) and the festival (which couldn’t satisfy all of its attendees) from the start. Long lines, extreme temperatures, and over-burdened volunteers created a perfect storm of angry tweets and IRL frustrations, vocalized in the direction of those over-burdened volunteers and their overwhelmed supervisors. The festival makes it plain that a badge does not guarantee entrance, but it also set up a hierarchy that all but denied entrance to a number of attendees, some of whom were specifically drawn to ATX by the Gilmore Girls reunion.
Another contributing factor in the Gilmore Girls kerfuffle: Those who were turned away had nowhere else to go. The night before, attendees could choose between a presentation of FX summer comedies or an outdoor screening of Friday Night Lights’ “Mud Bowl,” but if you weren’t in the Paramount and you hadn’t RSVP’ed for the ATX-sanctioned Rick And Morty event at the Alamo Drafthouse, you were shit out of luck. ATX has grown in stature and reach in its first four years, but it’s not yet at the point where it’s setting up side-stage alternatives to its headlining act. There’s still room for improvement for one of the best aspects of the festival—greater visibility and louder publicity for the undercard events would go a long way next year.
One place the festival could’ve found those alternatives: In the thick of its Saturday-afternoon agenda, which packed a panel of Dawson’s Creek writers, “The Evolution & History Of The Simpsons,” a Hannibal double bill, and a “Canceled Too Soon” retrospective on the time-traveling drama Journeyman all into the 3 o’clock hour. Even if I wasn’t moderating the Hannibal panel, I would’ve been torn between attending it or attending the Simpsons discussion—and that’s not taking into consideration the Justified postmortem that started an hour later. As with any festival, ATX conjures chronic FOMO, so attendees must be comfortable with making priorities, skipping a panel they’d otherwise attend to wait in line for the event that could make the whole weekend worth it. Flexibility is key for anyone looking to see as much as they can: I ducked out of the Rectify screening 20 minutes in, and had to ditch the presentation of James L. Brooks’ ATX Achievement in Television Excellence award in order to make my appointment with Hannibal.
ATX is uniquely positioned to get the most bang out of its panelist buck: Because the festival focuses on ongoing series and bygone shows alike, its panelists aren’t beholden to promoting their latest project. If Danny Strong comes to town to talk about developing Empire (as he did this year), he’s then available to participate in the Gilmore Girls reunion, too. Never at a loss for words, Amy Sherman-Palladino had two speaking engagements in addition to the big Stars Hollow revival, booking a “coffee with” discussion on Saturday morning and a look back at Bunheads on Friday. Any opportunity to hear Sherman-Palladino extemporize, kvetch, and curse about TV is can’t-miss, and she got especially frank while detailing the demise of Bunheads for the Alamo Drafthouse audience. ATX could stake future endeavors in the output of similarly charismatic showrunners. Joss Whedon would hit the festival’s WB sweet spot, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly could topline Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (though not necessarily in that order). Marta Kauffman was a 2015 guest, talking about her career in general and Grace & Frankie and Dream On in specific, but season two of her new show gives her a timely peg for a 2016 return, and a relationship with ATX opens the door for what would likely be the festival’s untoppable reunion: Friends. (Though, in the titular words of Kauffman and David Crane’s long-running HBO sitcom: dream on.)
The theme-song schtick gave the 2015 festivities a charming throughline, but it also left weekend badge holders to be pummeled by the same two clips of past and present ATX stars reciting classic TV themes. Parenthood’s Mae Whitman belted Growing Pains while Allison Tolman (Fargo) and Derek Phillips (Friday Night Lights) bluffed their way through an improvised verse, but the bumpers receiving the most play (at least at the venues I was in) featured a Sean Gunn (Gilmore Girls) rendition of Animaniacs and Abigail Spencer (Rectify, Suits) performing a modified Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. By Saturday, escape seemed impossible: Show up early enough to a screening and you were sure to see Gunn building to a Wakko, Yakko, and Dot-inspired crescendo or Spencer delivering the words of Will Smith with faux-theatrical gravity. It wore me down so much that by Saturday night, my sincerest hopes for the festival hinged on the crowd at the Paramount spotting Gunn onscreen (due to a film commitment, he couldn’t join his fellow Stars Hollow residents) and erupting in a rousing spin through the Animaniacs theme. But there were no bumpers at the Gilmore Girls reunion—just the show’s intro sequence, which brought the stars to the stage to the sound of a thousand or so people singing Carole King’s “Where You Lead.”
“As close to heaven as a fan can get / like living inside your TV set” goes one couplet of the official ATX theme, a notion taken to heart during the best, most surprising moments of the festival. Not in a sense of reenactment or live-action role play, but in ways that made the shows being honored feel more tangible and vibrant. A gender-flipped reading of the Dawson’s Creek pilot (with Mae Whitman as Dawson and Suits’ Patrick J. Adams as Joey) breathed new life into 17-year-old dialogue, while the roar of the crowd at the Friday Night Lights tailgate made it easy to forget that the Dillon Panthers’ come-from-behind victory in “Mud Bowl” was all scripted. Reuniting as the Gilmore Girls band Hep Alien, Keiko Agena, Todd Lowe, and John Cabrera further blurred the line between fantasy and reality, performing a set of other people’s songs in the guise of fictional characters. These types of events can’t be the foundation of ATX, but they’re crucial to the festival experience, connecting fans with the shows and each other. On the first night of the festival, one attendee described ATX to me as “Twitter in real life,” a place where the big-tent living-room feel of watching and tweeting is translated to physical space, where you can actually hear a fellow viewer laughing at You’re The Worst or gasping at Hannibal. The fourth wall isn’t the only barrier that ATX can knock down.
ATX responds most strongly to the television of a certain era—namely broadcast network content from the mid-to-late-’90s—but it maintains a healthy reverence for the medium’s entire history. Nowhere was that more evident this year than in the festival’s tribute to James L. Brooks, conducted with fannish enthusiasm by Everybody Loves Raymond creator Philip Rosenthal. Rosenthal was behind one of the most popular sitcoms of the past 20 years, but even he seemed awed as he walked the audience through the career and credits of his friend and colleague Brooks, who offered stories about paying his dues on shows like That Girl and My Mother The Car, working with Andy Kaufman (and Tony Clifton) on Taxi, and wincing his way through a laugh-less screening of the Mary Tyler Moore classic “Chuckles Bites The Dust” in Cannes. (In an example of art imitating life, the situation made Brooks and company so uncomfortable, they succumbed to their fits of Mary-at-the-funeral-style laughter.) An event like ATX is made possible by the feeling that TV is better than it’s ever been before, but that makes it all the more important to provide periodic reminders that The Sopranos didn’t invent good TV. People like James L. Brooks were making it long before then—before he helped create The Simpsons, even.
The other side of that coin, however, is the dreaded “they don’t make them like that anymore” argument, which crept into both the Brooks conversation and the Gilmore Girls reunion. Brooks and Rosenthal both expressed concern about what the departures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will mean to the quality of Comedy Central’s programming; the Drunk History panel conducted the day before could’ve assured them that humor on cable will not cease to exist when Stewart leaves The Daily Show. Meanwhile, Drunk History’s Comedy Central companion, Inside Amy Schumer, would like Brooks and Rosenthal to know that people are still making sketches like the Tracey Ullman Show excerpt Brooks presented at the festival. Just as ATX shouldn’t forget the shows that came before the festival, it also shouldn’t forget the contemporary shows it’s celebrating and encouraging, because there will be no future television festivals if there are no future television shows worth talking about.