'Quarter Life Poetry' and 'Don't Hug Me I'm Scared': TV Reviews | Sundance 2019

Michelle Lawler/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'Girls Weekend'
There's a lot of comedy potential here.

Sundance's Indie Episode Program 1 included naughty puppets, postpartum comedy, Kyra Sedgwick directing and five shows created or co-created by women.

[For the second straight year, Sundance 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 2019 Indie Episodic slate includes Sundance TV's State of the Union, Showtime's Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men and two "programs," featuring four or five indie series-starters.]

I previously wrote about the second Indie Episodic program at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a group that included Abby McEnany and Tim Mason's sad-yet-hopeful-yet-funny Work in Progress and Caleb Jaffe's preternaturally mature It's Not About Jimmy Keene. Both projects arrive with such a clear, fully developed sense of their characters and their worlds that a network or streaming service could acquire them either confident of ongoing series elements, in the case of Work in Progress, or confident with the limitless upside of the assembled talent, in the case of Jaffe and his Jimmy Keene cast.

My enthusiasm about this second Indie Episode group shouldn't take away from the reasonable potential from the first Indie Episodic program. All five shows — Girls Weekend, Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, Bootstrapped, Maggie and Quarter Life Poetry — offer some laughs and several offer original ideas I'd be curious to see more of. All five shows in the first Indie Episodic program were created or co-created by women, a few have recognizable names attached and a couple have already achieved some success in online forms.

Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.'s Quarter Life Poetry has gone from Tumblr to Instagram to a book, and the show's website says that some form of the project is coming to FX. The cabler doesn't appear to have announced anything formally, but that doesn't mean that Jayne's sometimes whimsical, sometimes mortifying, generally relatable view of work and life and the choices therein wouldn't be at home on FX. Actually, it'd be hard to imagine a place Quarter Life Crisis wouldn't be a reasonable fit, making it easily the most purely commercial project in the Indie Episodic section.

Quarter Life Poetry plays as a truly effective collaboration. Jayne is a sharp writer and she has a wide-eyed expressiveness that calls to mind a Jayma Mays or Judy Greer. The titular poetry is a little spoken-word, a little hip-hop and a little pop, mixing punchlines and catchy hooks for amusing glimpses at things like performative Friday night party attendance, embarrassment in workplace bathrooms and the tensions of emailing your boss after-hours. It's soft and approachable.

Perez's direction may be what keeps Quarter Life Poetry from feeling too commercial, and I mean that fully as a compliment. He gives the show an edge and a visual signature, working with cinematographer Drew Daniels to add a heightened reality to Jayne's accessibly "everyday" scenarios.

Offering less of a clear connection to reality, but probably a greater dose of mad humor, is Becky Sloan, Joseph Pelling and Baker Terry's Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, an adult puppet-model-animation program that looks like it's for kids, but definitely isn't for kids — unless they're prepared for a dark meditation on media manipulation, political scare tactics and the occasional duck boner.

Sundance screened 23 minutes cobbled from the series of short films focusing on the colorful town of Clayhill and characters named Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck, who share a manic-depressive house and a friendship with their neighbors and the local mayor. Not quite on a Meet the Feebles-level of grown-up puppetry, but surely too adult for your basic casual Sesame Street fan, Don't Hug Me is a nutty, absurdist treat that would seem perfectly tailor-made for Adult Swim or even the more mainstream climes of Comedy Central or a TBS, since Conan O'Brien is among the executive producers. I watched the presentation with a perpetual simultaneous raised eyebrow and smile. I loved the songs and the droll voices and the very reasonable "lesson" that the episodes ended up teaching.

Two shows with potential that only screened snippets at Sundance were Girls Weekend and Maggie.

Girls Weekend was created by star and Transparent veteran Ali Liebegott, who makes a distinctive impression as the heavily tattooed, perpetually uncomfortable queer daughter of a family of suburban Las Vegas conservatives. The pilot, directed by Kyra Sedgwick, co-stars Linda Lavin, Ken Jenkins and Amy Landecker and runs a brisk 11 minutes, which was exactly enough to have me saying, "OK, I would watch a full pilot of this," but not enough to sign on for a full series. The humor and characters are all a little broad and the scenario — mother's cancer returns and bickering kids have to reconcile — a little thin, and Girls Weekend also doesn't benefit from feeling a lot like Work in Progress, only a bit more sitcom-y.

Of course, as showcases go, 11 minutes for Girls Weekend feels positively luxurious compared to the only eight minutes for Maggie, from creator Sasha Gordon. It focuses on a new mother and musician who skips a postpartum support group and, instead, goes to a stand-up comedy class and … that's apparently the premise. It's a fine premise! And with stars Christine Woods and David Walton, Maggie would be a perfect NBC comedy circa 2013, when it would also would have been canceled after 10 episodes. Kidding aside, I like Woods and I like Walton, and eight minutes really isn't enough to serve the purpose Sundance wants the Indie Episodic pilots to serve.

Finally, writer-star Danielle Uhlarik and director Stephanie Laing's Bootstrapped is completely and totally a gender-swapped Detroiters, only set in Kansas City and focusing on a pair of aspiring cyber entrepreneurs working out of a garage in the Midwest. Detroiters co-star and co-creator Sam Richardson even plays a key supporting role.

Uhlarik and Maribeth Monroe are good as the aspiring fashion-app creators, and Richardson and newcomer Kezii Curtis are terrific as their garage-dwelling co-workers — and nothing with Nancy Lenehan can be bad.

I liked Detroiters and would probably watch Kansas Citiers. In an ideal world, if somebody decided they liked Bootstrapped, they'd give them money to go reshoot some on location in Kansas City, because the location work was probably my favorite part of Detroiters — and Bootstrapped has none of that.

We'll see if any of these Indie Episodic shorts can find wider-reaching homes. I would be fine seeing more of any of them, but I'm not going to campaign for any of them over Work in Progress and It's Not About Jimmy Keene.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)

Girls Weekend

Creator/Star: Ali Liebegott
Director: Kyra Sedgwick

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared

Creators/Stars: Becky Sloan, Joseph Pelling, Baker Terry

Bootstrapped

Creator/Star: Danielle Uhlarik
Director: Stephanie Laing

Maggie

Creator/Director: Sasha Gordon

Quarter Life Poetry

Creator/Writer/Star: Samantha Jayne
Creator/Directors: Arturo Perez Jr.