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This is Outkick’s second year covering the annual ATX Television Festival in Austin, and somehow, our schedule was even busier this time around. Friday was packed full of events, so much so that I never had an opportunity to stop for lunch. Two popsicles were all that stood between me and a very unhappy stomach.
Luckily, the time was well spent. Similarly to last year, I’ll be publishing a digest of all three days at the Festival. In addition, the Outkick the Culture podcast is finally ready to launch. Episode One hits next week, and will feature my round-table interview with Alison Brie and the ladies from Netflix’ new comedy, GLOW.
But, this is about ATX, so here’s how Friday went down.
My day began at the famous Alamo Drafthouse with USA’s Playing House, which meant listening to co-creators and co-leads Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. Playing House hasn’t been a ratings juggernaut, but what it has been is an excellent comedy without the tropes that often make these kind of shows obnoxious. After screening the Season 3 premiere, which releases later this month, Parham and St. Clair took the stage.
The most important takeaway here is that these two women met one another through Improv, and remain best friends to this day. It’s something that they demonstrate continuously, and something they have precisely zero interest in hiding. It informs upon Playing House as well, which they explained. It’s a show that won’t feature sniping and backstabbing, “any argument between the two characters is because of a mistake.” Many shows do the betrayal stuff well, but Jessica said, “That’s not what we do.”
These two ladies are hilarious, and didn’t even need much in terms of prompting or questioning. They candidly discussed St. Clair’s cancer diagnosis and how they managed to work it into the new season. It was tough, but there were ways to use it as catharsis, for example the hot nurse and picking a new breast to match the old.
Lennon and Jessica were asked to do the “Proud Mary” dance that will be a part of the Season 3 finale. They spent much of the episode with drag queens, and broke out some Tina Turner. St. Clair took a funny dig at Trump, to which Parham said, “That’ll be the pull quote from this panel,” rolling her eyes. Lennon worked in a few comedic shots at Iggy Azalea, including “Fancy” being “always Reba, never Iggy.” It was all in good fun, but showed the Improv chops that led the two women both to each other and eventually to Playing House.
It’s a show most haven’t seen, but all should, and though it’s geared more to a female audience, it exceeds classification and ends up just being a great series. Even without top-line ratings, USA has kept it alive, and the stars made it clear the passion of the fan base is why that’s been possible. A lighthearted panel featuring two very talented women was the perfect beginning to our day.
FROM SNICK TO SPLAT
Just based on the number of tweets and comments I received during and after this panel, our readership grew up in the 90s and remembers when Nickelodeon branched into a new style of scripted programming. The first entries were The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Hey Dude, and Salute Your Shorts. In a panel moderated by Entertainment Tonight’s Jessica Aguilera, all three of those shows were represented at ATX.
Pete and Pete is returning for a two-night event next week, so Michael C. Maronna and Danny Tamberelli were certainly center stage, and both were incredibly engaging and true to who you might expect them to be. The focus of the panel continually returned to wholesome entertainment, with just enough edge to remind the audience these were REAL kids.
One of the goals of the SNICK phenomenon was to get away from the neat, perfect looking children that inundated young adult programming, and instead concentrate on reflecting what actual kids saw in their neighborhoods and schools. It’s for that reason, said Salute Your Shorts creator Steve Slavkin, that these shows resonated then and still remain relevant today. Shows over 20 years old that stay with us are rare, especially when the storylines weren’t deep, the acting not memorable, and the run-times short.
However, these three, along with the original animation properties, still hold special places in the hearts of those that discovered them two decades ago. Today, those kids have become parents, and now it’s their kids that can relive the good, family entertainment, the positivity, the lack of cynicism, and the human-to-human interaction that’s been lost in modern society. Teen Nick runs the classics each weeknight, and they’ll be the home of the Pete and Pete “Strongest Reunion in the World” on June 17 and 18.
Hey Dude‘s Kelly Brown pointed to the abundance of screens, and even watching characters on television holding screens themselves, as a major disconnect and temporal shift in entertainment and general expectation. Nickelodeon broadcast the entire panel on Facebook Live in real time, which certainly didn’t hurt her point. Far too often, we live behind glass, rather than in the moment.
Her costar, David Lascher, mentioned the non-jaded nature of the SNICK properties, saying his children have access to shows like Pretty Little Liars, which isn’t filled with nice people, and portrays a much different reality for those growing up in 2017. It was a different time, but maybe it shouldn’t be. He also said anytime he sees someone engage in physical comedy, he thinks to himself, “I could do that.” He was constantly being pushed into troughs on Hey Dude, so he’s used to the abuse.
Graham Yost, who produced and wrote for the show, said Ben Ernst was “pretty much Raylan,” when Aguilera asked if Justified was merely the version of Hey Dude he always wanted to do. Yost has become a rockstar in the industry, and there’s some irony that he went from Hey Dude to Justified, Sneaky Pete, and other…well, not Hey Dude kind of shows.
All of these people were very funny, with Danny Cooksey, known for his portrayal of Bobby Budnick on Salute Your Shorts, cracking wise several times and playing off Marona and Tamberelli in particular. It was a panel filled with hope, jokes, and smiles. The stars and creators of each series appeared overjoyed to be a part of the festival, and told stories of being recognized in public. Tamberelli has run into his share of Petunia tattoos on the street, and Cooksey has heard fans sing the Salute Your Shorts theme while trying to eat a 2 AM meal at Denny’s.
Maronna said his wife had never, and perhaps has never seen an episode of Pete and Pete, but Danny Cooksey had a different response to the question. “My wife did. She was a fan. I scored.”
The line of the panel came from Pete and Pete creator Chris Viscardi, who talked of Iggy Pop’s appearance on the show. “You got any more lines for me?,” Iggy asked. “I THINK he was talking about dialogue,” was Chris’ response.
What would these characters be doing now? Cooksey said Budnick would be a camp counselor living in a conversion van that also worked as a sound mixer for a dive bar. Maronna’s “Big Pete” would be a TV narrator (which makes total sense of course), Tamberelli would be a bass player, probably in Budnick’s dive bar. Brad would own the Bar None ranch, and Ted would work for her.
These people were all so positive, so happy to be on this panel, and all seem to be in good places in their lives. That energy drove what was a very entertaining, fun, light hour.
THE PRESIDENTS OF THE STATE OF TV
This is one of those events that just doesn’t happen very often. Five extremely powerful executives, each in control of a network’s programming, speaking about their process, their successes, their failures, and the current state of the industry. HBO’s Casey Bloys, NBC’s Jennifer Salke, FX’s Nick Grad, Hulu’s Craig Erwich, and Gary Levine were all candid and open about where they stand in an increasingly overpopulated world called Peak TV.
Salke spent much of her time talking about This Is Us, 2016’s biggest network triumph, and how it might not have originally felt like a network show, but was very much on point with NBC’s hopeful new brand. It turned Chrissy Metz into a star, among others, and the five all agreed that television has proven through shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones that the “big” name doesn’t mean much. They’d rather make new stars than rely on what’s already been done. Audiences love to be responsible for it as well.
When does a show get canceled? Salke says for her, it’s when a series is “upside-down financially” and the showrunner is struggling with the vision for the future. She did mention Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal as an example of a show she hated canceling and regrets today.
Gary Levine, when asked what his executive order would be for TV, was very matter-of-fact and blunt. “Mine would be to ban series orders based on pitches. Let’s develop something.” He pointed to the variety of the Showtime brand, citing the opulence of Billions juxtaposed with the rampant poverty of Shameless, plus what’s come from shows like Homeland and The Affair. He said he’s proud of the variance and the balance that Showtime has created, which has taken them from an American-centric network to one with international offices, futures, and aspirations.
For Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale has changed the conversation and set a new bar for Craig Erwich. He says the service’s goal is always based around one word: Relevance. They want to matter in the television space, and Handmaid’s has forced a new group to take notice. Also, reviving a series like The Mindy Project, which Hulu saw success with in previous seasons while it was still running on Fox, is the kind of thing he wants to see continue. It’s all about finding the proper opportunities and making the right decisions.
FX’s Nick Grad joked with Erwich, asking him when Handmaid’s is submitted to the Emmy Awards, would it be offered in the scripted or non-scripted category. “Documentary” was the response, reflecting the widespread (erroneous) conclusion that the series is in danger of coming true due to the current administration. It was still a good line. All four other executives on the stage praised Handmaid’s, saying it was a prime candidate for the series they most wish they had gotten for themselves. The People v. OJ Simpson was another show brought up to answer that question.
Grad mentioned FX’s newest hit, Atlanta, saying Donald Glover’s series became a legitimate hit in its first season, which is incredibly rare, especially for FX. Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Archer all clicked in the second year, but Atlanta took hold immediately and staked its claim as one of television’s best. He also said that when it comes to Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story, he simply waits for Ryan to tell him what the newest installment of the anthology will be and says, “That sounds great.”
When it comes to giving showrunners, writers, and directors notes, no one came out and said the process was extensive. In addition to Grad talking of the laissez-faire approach to Ryan Murphy, Casey Bloys made it pretty clear HBO continues to trust the people behind its originals. Gary Levine did say that in the original spec script, Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison had no personal problems whatsoever, and that adding that layer led Claire Danes to become one of the biggest stars on television.
Overall, this was more information that you would expect these people to provide, and although not much was shocking, almost every word was interesting.
After an advanced screening of the Year Three penultimate episode, which was excellent (review here on Wednesday night), The Hollywood Reporter’s Dan Fienberg welcomed Fargo showrunner and creator Noah Hawley, John Cameron (who directed “The Law of Non-Contradition,” the most un-Fargo episode in history), Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mary McDonnell, whose widow Goldfarb remains shrouded in mystery.
Hawley understands what an anthology series should be, and as he described what he wants from a Fargo season, it became perfectly clear. The audience is supposed to know they’re watching Fargo, but that’s about it, with the notable exception of Wes Wrench, who somehow finds his way into each story in some way. That’s not intentional, but it’s worked out, and without spoiling Wednesday’s episode, he plays a huge role in the proceedings.
Fienberg asked Noah about the similarities in theme between the third year of Fargo and HBO’s final season of The Leftovers, to which Hawley said it’s a testament to Carrie Coon that, as someone not caught up on the series, she was able to play Nora and Gloria in similar ways external of anything he might have requested. The ideas of persistence, purpose, and truth each factor into both shows.
Speaking of truth, Hawley says he didn’t write the year with Donald Trump in mind, but the “alternate facts” we see from the season’s first scene do coincidentally match the current political climate in the country. That Stasi sequence, where a German man in his mid 20s is mistaken for a Ukranian murderer in his mid-40s, “would be hilarious if it weren’t so terrible,” according to Hawley.
Furthering the Trump questioning, Fienberg spoke to David Thewlis’ performance as VM Varga. Hawley said for the first time in a Fargo season, there’s really just one solitary villain. Almost everyone else is at worst sketchy, but not antagonistic to the viewer. Dan asked whether Varga would be more likely to employ Trump or vice versa, which Noah navigated away from, but not without a grin.
One recurring point from the ATX Television Festival that should surprise no one is the anti-Trump sentiment expressed from the moderators, the panelists, and the attendees. The ACLU was prevalent at the Parks & Recreation Harvest Festival celebration, and people took numerous shots at the current administration. The Presidents of the State of TV panel began with Debra Birnbaum of Variety saying, “Let’s talk about the Presidents we like.” She then joked that her biases might have been showing with that statement.
Mary McDonnell was very interested in joining the show, as was Coen veteran Michael Stuhlbarg, who many know from television for his portrayal of Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire. As to whether there was pressure on them from the success of the past, the anthology aspect diminished it. Stuhlbarg said this is a completely new story, so the bar that may have been set really doesn’t factor into anything. These are fresh performances and plot lines, which Mary agreed with, but both did admit the strong writing made Fargo a project both wanted on their acting schedules.
How about those accents? Noah Hawley recounted a story about Jeffrey Donovan from season two. Donovan, a Massachusetts native, actually held his jaw in place to learn the proper Midwestern accent for which both the show and the Coen Brothers film are known. He was good at it, but Hawley laughed as he said right after Fargo, Jeffrey went to play John F. Kennedy in a movie, and the Boston accent was terrible, because he couldn’t get out of the Fargo mode. Stuhlbarg added that doing the accent takes some getting used to, but once it’s learned, it’s hard to shake after the fact.
Killing Ray so early was hard for Hawley, who said the two episodes after Ewan McGregor lost one of his two roles were difficult to write. He also said that Ewan and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were sad about it, and didn’t want to end that on-screen relationship. Both loved playing those scenes together, but in this case, Noah said it had to be done to take the story where it needed to go in advance of the final act.
Fienberg pressed Hawley for the potential Varga-Goldfarb tie-in, which is something I’ve speculated about this season as well. Noah didn’t take that bait, however. We’ll know in the next ten days.
One final tidbit that was the most newsworthy thing that was said all day. When Dan asked about the future of the series, Noah Hawley made it clear this might be the last season of Fargo. It will take the perfect idea, but FX executives appear prepared to hear the showrunner tell them the concept is complete. He pointed out his aversion to “overstaying our welcome,” and although this season (and both that preceded it) has been superb, he may be ready to move on to other projects.
Time will tell on that one. It was an 18 month break between Seasons 2 and 3, so if the right idea hits him, there could be more “true” stories to come.
ODDS AND ENDS
Day One ended with a Parks & Recreation celebration, which included beer, episodes on the big screen, an ice cream truck, live music, and a ton more. But, the only thing that mattered from the Harvest Festival party was this…Li’l Freaking Sebastian.
I also attended a packaging and adapted content forum, but that baseball is way too inside and deep to try and recap in a few paragraphs. We’ll talk about it on the debut edition of the Outkick the Culture podcast, which is on the way next week.
Be on the lookout for my recap and analysis of ATX Days 2 and 3 coming up tomorrow right here on the site. My events and interviews included panels on The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, The Comeback, GLOW (chatted with Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and co-creator Liz Flahive), Alias, Sweet Vicious, and the star-studded Battlestar Galactica Reunion at the Paramount Theater. Plenty of great information headed your way in 24 hours.
I’m @JMartOutkick. It’s hot in Austin. It’s humid in Austin. You walk a lot in Austin. But Austin is still fantastic. And the queso is ridiculous.