'I'm Poppy' and 'The Passage': TV Review | Sundance 2018

The line between "shorts" and "episodics" is sometimes blurry.

Sundance's Indie Episodic 5 program featured an internet woman come to life, a globe-spanning silent comedy, two bickering sisters and death by farting.

[This year, for the first time, the Sundance Film Festival has dedicated a special section to the episodic format, recognizing the variety of independent episodic short-form programming for online as well as traditional television. The Indie Episodic slate includes Steve James' docuseries America to Me and six "programs," featuring multiple shows.]

The four entries in Sundance's Indie Episodic 5 program are possibly unified by a self-conscious artiness, but it's much more likely that they were put together because they didn't fit with anything else in the program and perhaps to distract from at least three of them feeling like they belong more with a Shorts program than Indie Episodic. So maybe susaneLand, I'm Poppy, The Passage and Cherries are together to prove that in 2018, "episodic" doesn't really need to imply a serial episodic structure?

The show it's easiest to imagine wanting to watch more of was the show we actually watched the least of, Susane Lee and Andrew Olsen's susaneLand, which screened three extremely brief vignettes, 12 minutes in total. It takes just that long for Lee and Olsen to establish a clear sensibility with each episode basically telling a single, dark joke. How dark? In one, Susane farts in the elevator and kills an old lady. Sounds low-brow, right? Somehow, it becomes an almost Kafka-esque story of inner torment (either preceded by the deadly fart or symbolized by it) and the alienation of modern life, in which sometimes the only way you meet the people closest to you is by killing them in the elevator with flatulence.

Lee is also the star of the series and, having seen how cleanly her perspective fits in this format, I'd love to see what she could do in 22 minutes or several connected episodes taking a joke and building on it. Mostly, these felt literally like episodes from Lee's life, and therefore I see why they were in Indie Episodic.

The YouTube Red entry I'm Poppy had almost the exact opposite problem from the rest of the section, in that I found its bizarre 24-minute pilot inspired, distinctive and it made me giggle maniacally and can't imagine it holding up for another episode, much less as a series, even though it sets a series up.

I'm Poppy is the story of internet sensation Poppy. She's literally from the internet and she comes into the real world to make a TV show from a director played by Samm Levine. Modeled, intentionally or otherwise, after Ivanka Trump, Poppy speaks in helium-voiced platitudes like, "The best part of being alive is when someone subscribes to your YouTube channel" and "I want to be famous so I can share my high-quality content with the entire world." And her best friend is a box of rosewater. Trust me, it's much funnier in a context that includes a possibly satanic secret society and a mannequin named Charlotte who's jealous of Poppy's fame and yearns for her level of social media success. 

Writer-director Titanic Sinclair has a visual style that mixes futurism with the mundane, like Her or Sim1ne, and there are enough elements to set up an ongoing series, but I don't know how long I'm going to find amusement in Poppy — played by Poppy Chan, in what seemed to be an extended piece of performance art — say things like, "I just want the world to be happy and cute."

Philip Burgers is also doing strange performance art in The Passage, which he co-wrote with director Kitao Sakurai. In a completely non-speaking role, Burgers plays Phil, a guy being pursued by two thugs of some sort. The Sundance notes say he's on the run from a cult, but I don't know where I was supposed to get that. With the broad expressiveness of a silent film comic, Phil's need to escape takes him through a series of ethnic enclaves in which he doesn't speak the language, but if welcomed into a cultural experience that maybe gets him one step closer to freedom or maybe closer to death? There's a Japanese bath house and a big African family and a Scandinavian fishing boat, and I can't say that I always knew what was happening in The Passage, but Burgers' wide-eyed scruffiness and good-natured embrace of different was consistently appealing, as was Sakurai's absurdist approach.

The end of the pilot for The Passage suggests that Phil will continue to be on the run, and maybe with additional episodes I could actually make sense of what he was running from. Burgers definitely has the physical comedy chops to maintain the character's interest for a bit longer, and there are countless more countries for Phil to explore. I'd watch more.

The most grounded of the Indie Episodic 5 shows (if we assume that Lee has never actually killed somebody by passing gas) is Diaz Jacobs' Cherries, which is about two estranged sisters (Shannon Plumb and Melora Walters) and the man who apparently came between them (Robert Maffia). While not quite as sparse as The Passage, Cherries is light on dialogue and relies on the interplay of Plumb and Walters to convey the nature of this sisterly relationship, which is sometimes loving, sometimes tense and occasionally even violent.

To some degree, Plumb is also giving a silent performance, suggesting a character who has lots of unexplored issues threatening to bubble to the surface at all times. She's so watchable that I remained engaged by Cherries even when I wasn't getting into its droll-drab-depressing tone. If you told me that Cherries was a short, I think my review would be more enthusiastic. It has something to do with worlds I'm comfortable with settling into for 26 minutes versus worlds I think I'd want to return to on a regular basis. Cherries just didn't make me think, "Boy, I want to see what passive-aggressive things these sisters will do to each other next week."


Director: Andrew Olsen
Writers: Andrew Olsen and Susane Lee
Cast:  Susane Lee, Robert David Hall, Ken Takemoto, Mimi Cozzens, Travis Coles, Caitlin Kim

I'm Poppy

Writer-director: Titanic Sinclair
Cast: Poppy Chan, Samm Levine, Dan Hildebrand, Brad Carter, Kofi Boakye, Madison Lawlor

The Passage

Director: Kitao Sakurai
Writers: Philip Burgers and Kitao Sakurai
Cast: Philip Burgers, Chad Damiani, Krystel Roche, Juzo Yoshida


Writer-director: Diaz Jacobs
Cast: Shannon Plumb, Melora Walters, Robert Maffia, Lora Witty