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[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.]
Probably the biggest breakout acquisition from Sundance’s inaugural Indie Episodic slate last year was Mr InBetween, which had a critically adored run on FX. While FX didn’t formally pick Mr InBetween up until after Sundance, the show had already produced a full first season for Australian TV, attaching at least a small asterisk to its success.
After doing six Indie Episodic “programs” in 2018, Sundance tightened its focus to a pair of slates consisting of nine shows, with both programs premiering back-to-back on Tuesday afternoon.
It was the second of the two programs that brought both of the shows I’d like to champion most aggressively this year, even if one of them probably didn’t belong in this particular Sundance section at all.
Created by Abby McEnany and Tim Mason, starring McEnany and directed by Mason, Work in Progress is actually a terrific template for an ongoing series, which really ought to be the bare minimum for what qualifies a show for the Indie Episodic section. Do I have a sense of what the second episode is? Am I curious what the 50th episode is? If I can’t say “yes” to both of those questions, it’s not a pilot and it’s probably a short film instead. And that’s OK!
McEnany, a Chicago-area comic and actress I’d never seen before, plays Abby, a self-described 45-year-old “queer dyke” with insecurity about her weight and building depression. After an incident with a mean co-worker, Abby decides that she’s giving life 180 days to get better. If it doesn’t, she’s going to kill herself. Abby makes this announcement to her psychiatrist, who dies mid-session. Hope begins to emerge in unexpected forms, thanks to a flirtation with a trans male waiter half her age and a chance meeting with Julia Sweeney. Yes, that’d be former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney, whose Pat character was the bane of Abby’s youth.
Work in Progress, which includes Lilly Wachowski among its executive producers, probably wouldn’t fit in on just any network, but I’d like to think a Sundance TV, IFC or maybe an Amazon might be intrigued by a show that has a darkness on the surface and real sweetness and humor at its heart. McEnany makes Abby recognizably flawed and instantly empathetic, and she and Germaine have an appealing chemistry that I’m not sure I’ve seen before on TV, whether it ends up being romantic or friendship. Abby has a fun lesbian game night group of pals and a mean-yet-loving sister (Karin Anglin), and it’s a pleasure to see Sweeney as herself. With Abby’s 180-day deadline, represented by long rows of almonds, Work in Progress has an extended character arc already in place and the world, with a nicely represented Los Angeles setting, has lots of room to grow, especially since we know Abby needs a new shrink.
Unlike Work in Progress, It’s Not About Jimmy Keene probably isn’t really a TV pilot, no matter what anybody says. I don’t know what a second episode would be, much less anything beyond that. Still, even if you just approach it as a short film, it’s a stunningly mature debut for Caleb Jaffe, who wrote, directed, co-edited and stars in a project he basically financed by dropping out of college.
Set in 2015 in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, It’s Not About Jimmy Keene centers on Ivan, a young man uncertain of his place in the world as his two sisters (Gabrielle Maiden and Okwui Okpokwasili) bicker about racial identity, his father (David Warshofsky) returns from a recent hospitalization and the family and the neighborhood and the nation are on the brink of an uprising after the shooting of a young black man in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Everything in this short speaks to a confidence you’d never imagine seeing how young Jaffe is. The film begins with a potent image of Jimmy Keene’s floating body and moves straight into a bravura, single-shot performance art monologue from the great Roger Guenveur Smith, who also produced. The staging of the rest of the pilot is mostly in a single house, and that lets Jaffe show off a gift with performances and carefully escalated emotion. Okpokwasili brings a searing screen presence and she’s more than matched by Maiden, whom I’d like to recommend to Julie Dash for her newly announced Angela Davis biopic.
These two pilots (or shorts) were so good that they made the first pieces of the program that preceded them fade a little.
Robb Boardman, Cory Loykasek and Donny Divanian’s The Dress Up Gang really stretches the definition of “indie,” since it was financed (and then left homeless) by TBS. Already a successful web series, it’s got a laconic tone that takes a little getting used to, but I appreciated its mixture of childlike simplicity and expertly timed collective deadpan. Two of the episodes were squished together as a pilot here and the second, with a group of friends engaging in an annual “New Look Day” when they try out overhauls to their images as part of a potluck fast-food dinner, was hilarious and featured Andie MacDowell as herself.
The low-key levity of The Dress Up Gang grew on me and there’s a chance I’d have been significantly more enthusiastic if it had played either last in this program or as part of Indie Episodic Program 1, which was all comedy.
Timing also did no favors for Delivery Girl, from writer-director-star Kate Krieger (sister of ubiquitous TV pilot director Lee Toland Krieger). Coming off of six straight Indie Episodic comedies, I had a hard time getting a read on the tone of Delivery Girl. It isn’t really funny and yet there’s an initial broadness to Krieger’s performance, with a thickly laid-on New England accent, that made me keep waiting for punchlines.
Instead, it’s really a simple story about a young woman who hopes to escape her conservative, Catholic hometown with her friend Leroy and with the person she secretly loves. Shot in Rhode Island, the locations feel right and, especially when she isn’t going for a SMILF-style working-class bluster, Krieger is wounded and watchable.
For me, there’s nothing here that speaks to a vision for an ongoing series and, as Delivery Girl ended, I said, “Sure, that’s a nice short film.” It’ll be a calling card for Krieger and leaves her with room to grow as a versatile multihyphenate.
The Dress Up Gang
Creators: Robb Boardman, Cory Loykasek, Donny Divanian
Director: Robb Boardman
Creator/Director: Kate Krieger
It’s Not About Jimmy Keene
Creator/Director: Caleb Jaffe
Work in Progress
Creators Abby McEnany and Tim Mason
Director: Tim Mason
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)
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