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[This year, for the first time, Sundance has dedicated a special section to the episodic format, recognizing the variety of independent episodic shortform 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.]
Indie Episodic Program 1 could probably be subtitled “Conventional pilots made outside of the studio and network system,” as both Halfway There and Paint look and feel like the sort of shows that you might see on cable if they had slightly bigger stars or were slightly more mainstream.
AIR DATE Jan 23, 2018
The two dramedies were sandwiched around a single eight-minute episode of the digital series Franchesca, featuring The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore veteran Franchesca Ramsey and, for this episode, hilarious rising comic Michelle Buteau. The format is part cultural documentary — Ramsey and Buteau get elaborate Japanese gel manicures — part fact-based skit commenting on Ramsey’s online persona and the trolls she attracts and part “Let’s hang out with two funny people” banter between host and guest. I think Buteau was the standout in the lone episode screened here, but I’ve liked Ramsey in the past, and this definitely feels like the sort of thing Comedy Central might air in the 10:30 p.m. slot after repeats of South Park and I’d probably watch it periodically.
But back to the indie dramas.
Halfway There offers the most star power of anything in the Indie Episodic slate, presumably the product of director Rick Rosenthal’s clout after a 30-plus-year film and television career that has included the Sean Penn feature Bad Boys and the pilot for Life Goes On. Matthew Lillard plays Jimmy Bishop, a recovering addict operating a struggling sober-living facility. Blythe Danner plays his wealthy, boozy mother. Esai Morales is a resident and part-time custodian at the facility. Sarah Shahi plays Jimmy’s famous musician/actress ex, whose combination of money and addiction demons may be the facility’s financial salvation. The pilot, which was written by Nick Morton, features several other recognizable actors in supporting roles, as well as a cinematographer and a supporting actress with the last name “Rosenthal,” making me suspect this is a “friends and family” production, which is entirely in the Sundance spirit. [Apologies for profiling if either Rosenthal is unrelated.]
TV hasn’t lacked for stories about recovering addicts and their support networks, which almost always play like the creators think the familiar tropes of repentance, temptation and relapse are being put on display for the first time. There’s a lot of that here, with the sober living facility serving as the fresh twist. It’s a good environment for story-generating and for both recurring and rotating characters.
Lillard is in the middle of career redefinition that has seen him go from manic young adult breakout to a solid Everyman character actor, tamping down his outsized comedic instincts and embracing his inner schlub. He was a standout in Twin Peaks and adds a lot of value to NBC’s midseason dramedy Good Girls. This is a good role for him and also for Morales, looking relaxed away from the silver-haired seriousness I feel like he’s been asked to do a lot lately on TV.
Because Danner is an actress capable of playing at any volume she’s instructed to play, her broad and uneven performance in Halfway There points to the broad and uneven tone of the entire pilot. Every group scene has actors who think they’re on three or four different shows, and the score is almost constantly spiking dramatic moments with comic melodies and vice versa. There’s some bad language and one fleetingly graphic sex scene that practically scream, “We think we’re aiming for cable,” but the setting and attempted genre blend may lend themselves to something closer to ABC.
There are good elements here, but “indie” categorization aside, Halfway There could easily be a network pilot that came close to getting picked up and just didn’t make it.
Paint is definitely more cable-ready, with its cast of unknowns and some aesthetic roughness compared to the 100-plus hours of TV professionalism that Rosenthal brought to Halfway There.
Written and directed by Michael Walker, Paint is the story of three art-school grads (Joshua Caras, Olivia Luccardi and Paul Cooper) realizing that their degrees and artistic ambitions haven’t necessarily prepared them for the real world and putting themselves in positions to confirm that darkness and pain are necessary to produce great art.
There’s definitely some “Oh look, struggling white people in Brooklyn” fatigue that Walker tries to confront early on when one character, living off his parents’ money and having an affair with an unreasonably gorgeous married woman, admits that he has only white-people problems and it isn’t his fault his problems aren’t more serious. His solution to add more adversity to his art is to pitch his mother (Amy Hargreaves, the cast’s most recognizable star) on an experimental project that is a bad, bad idea for many predictable reasons.
At 36 minutes, Paint feels much longer, and six minutes of repeated beats and clunky dialogue on the nature of art could be trimmed at no risk. There are some actually funny lines that are getting buried here, along with promising performances from Luccardi and Cooper, as well as a revealing (literally, I guess) turn from Hargreaves.
Paint also has a great opening credit sequence featuring monkeys painting. I wouldn’t mind an IFC or something taking an interest just so I could see the monkeys again.
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Writer: Nick Morton
Cast: Matthew Lillard, Blythe Danner, Esai Morales, Sarah Shahi, Nishi Munshi, Paige Hurd
Director-writer: Michael Walker
Cast: Joshua Caras, Olivia Luccardi, Paul Cooper, Amy Hargreaves, David Patrick Kelly
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