3/17/2008

Indie TV?

Is there such a thing as indie TV? Yes and no. Producers shoot pilots and series independently, i.e., without a studio or network deal. They might call themselves independent. Marshall Herskovitz likes to position his quarterlife experiment in indie terms. But culturally, no one thinks of television comedy and drama, whether on the networks or the cable channels, in terms of Hollywood vs. indie. This isn't the logic of TV culture.

And yet, in the post-network era, the boutique cable channels are functioning in relation to the networks as art house theaters function in relation to megaplexes. Small audience vs. big audience, class vs. mass, art vs. trash. And I have noticed that in form, some of the shows on HBO go for an indie sensibility, especially Tell Me You Love Me, which could easily work as an upscale film drama in the vein of Friends With Money. TMYLM is low key, stylish in its art direction, not very tightly plotted, and addressed to a sensitive viewer who is expected to appreciate subtle thematic connections among the characters. Its explicit sex scenes fit the "adult" construction of the art house audience too.

Another point of comparison would be in conventions of production and expectations about artistic autonomy. The indie sector of the film biz prides itself on being less commercial and more authentically artistic, allowing the indie auteur room to express him or herself. The fact that cable shows like The Wire give creators more autonomy--by ordering a whole season rather than a pilot and a few episodes and by letting the whole season run rather than waiting for a pick up depending on the ratings--would help position boutique television as independent. This post at the TV writer Kay Reindl's blog Seriocity is a rare instance I have seen in which this comparison is made explicit. She quotes John Slattery saying that the production of Mad Men (which you may recall was my favorite thing of 2007 in any medium) is like an independent film. And Reindl makes clear that she sees working on an AMC show like Mad Men as an alternative to "the system" of network production. It's a "passion project." She even calls it "quirkier." (Reindl doesn't mention that the show is produced by Lionsgate, one of the few powerful indie film/TV companies that is not a mini-major.)

It's such a cliché to say that TV is in another golden age. But there are significant differences between today and yesterday. The biggest one might be that technology enables the fragmentation of the audience into niches, and that some of these are upscale. It's only by being able to appeal to a small, affluent audience that HBO, AMC, and the other outlets pursuing a more "artistic" conception of television have been able to promote the kind of distinction that television now offers, as art house cinema has since the years after WWII.

3 comments:

Jason Mittell said...

I agree that the comparison to indy film is interesting, but complicated. Even the "boutique" channels show a fairly wide range of stuff - HBO has its elite "Not TV" series, but also Real Sex, Hookers at the Point, etc. exploitation stuff. FX does high-end drama next to reruns of Fear Factor and Cops. It's like most of these cable channels are simultaneously Miramax & Dimension, pitching highbrow and lowbrow under the same umbrella.

And then the indy sensibility can show up on the major networks - often in shows that don't last long, but I'd argue that Seinfeld and Simpsons were both cross-over indies in tone and the outsider status of their creators. And on-the-bubble shows like Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights seem like indies stuck in the multiplex.

kaywood Hopkins said...

We are indie TV :) (just search google for "indie TV")

Hey you should check out us, indieTV.tv we are a Seattle, Washington based website, run by indie filmmakers, for indie filmmakers, and it's all free. indieTV.tv seeks out the top indie shows on the Internet, and brings them to you.

oakling said...

I'm happy to go with the cliche at this point. The stuff I'm seeing on TV now is so much more adventurous, innovative, and interesting than what I grew up with in the 80s....