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Indie Spirit Stirs Up TV Territory

Smallscreen becomes home for unique visions

If Sundance Channel’s limited series Top of the Lake from director Jane Campion and drama skein Rectify — a deliberately paced character study — signal anything, it’s that the cross-migration of independent film and TV is here to stay.

With studios increasingly focused on tentpole extravaganzas, the indie film market hurting and television in a new golden age, it’s no wonder more arthouse names are creating TV: Lena Dunham, Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, to name a few.

On one level, says Vogue and Fresh Air critic John Powers, it’s the fruition of something that started in the ’80s when visionary David Lynch shocked everyone by making Twin Peaks for broadcast television.

“People watched that and said, ‘Oh, TV can be a lot more interesting,’” says Powers.

Sundance Channel exec veep Sarah Barnett says Rectify embodies the independent approach on television right now because it so completely reflects creator Ray McKinnon’s vision for the series.

“He has a distinct artist’s point of view,” Barnett says. “And some of the best shows we’ve seen in this much vaunted golden age have come from that dogged, persistent, singular perspective.”

The influence of indie film is already apparent. Breaking Bad and its criminal protagonist hit edgy indie territory all the way. A big reason Damian Lewis landed Homeland was his nervy performance in Lodge Kerrigan’s little-seen micro drama Keane. (Kerrigan was ultimately hired to direct a Homeland episode.)

FX, meanwhile, has tapped A Better Life star Demian Bichir and the director of the visually arresting Mexican film Miss Bala for its grim border thriller The Bridge. The network is also turning indie classic Fargo into a limited series, in conjunction with the film’s creators, Joel and Ethan Coen.

Even comedies have broken molds lately with indie-like traits: the documentary feel to The Office, the soulfully idiosyncratic stretches of Louie and the offbeat romantic quirkiness of Girls (from indie darling Dunham) and New Girl (which has occasionally hired director Lynn Shelton for episodes). Indie film writer-director Mark Duplass has been a regular on FX’s The League and recurs on Fox’s The Mindy Project.

FX president John Landgraf — who likes to call many of his network’s series “90-hour movies” — says as long as television continues to shed restraints and foster artistic visions, it’ll be what indie film was in the ’80s and ’90s, what United Artists was in the ’70s and what Broadway was in the ’50s: the place to be for cutting-edge human interest narratives.

“What we’ve always tried to do is, rather than be a factory, is be a sort of artisanal colony where people come and make their particular works,” says Landgraf. “You look at the people who are in our office” — Alexander Payne and Charlie Kaufman each have shows in development at FX — “and that’s a reflection of the fact that filmmakers are going to go where they can get their stories told.”

Rectify and Breaking Bad executive producer Mark Johnson sees success parameters in movies and television draw more indie talent to TV. “A feature, to succeed, has to do big business,” he says. “A TV show can succeed and still only (get) 2 million pairs of eyeballs.”

The upshot, he believes, is that filmmakers won’t view television as an also-ran anymore. Says Johnson: “I think people coming out of film school are as apt to turn to television as to features, and 10 years ago, nobody was doing that.”

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