If a long weekend in the Mile High City can be considered a fair barometer, Denver’s tourism board owes residents a cut of its ad budget: Denverites slip easily into the role of civic booster, extolling its public parks, craft beers, and liberal politics at the first opportunity. And yet, in late June, speaking with locals during the fourth edition (or “season”) of SeriesFest—the still-growing Sundance of episodic storytelling started in 2015 by Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook—I also detect, if not unease, at least uncertainty. At least three bring up, unbidden, Denver’s recent growth, and with it the concomitant growing pains. (The city has added more than 100,000 people in the past seven years, according to census estimates, nearly 20% of the 2010 population.) As in most urban areas in the U.S., the subject on everyone’s lips is housing, though whether one describes it as “development” or “gentrification,” “boom” or “crisis,” likely depends on one’s ability to reap its benefits. In this sense, at least, Denver is the perfect site for SeriesFest, at which it becomes clear that TV’s most recent “Golden Age” has in turn produced a gold rush: The medium, like the Mile High City, is enjoying an unprecedented bull market, but the speed and haphazardness of that growth mean some are in for hard landings when the bubble inevitably bursts.
“It’s true in any gold rush: Not everybody makes it,” says Jeremy Gold, the co-president (with Marci Wiseman) of Blumhouse Television, when we meet one morning on the ground floor of the Halcyon, in Denver’s tony Cherry Creek neighborhood. “And that’s what we’re in. We’re in a gold rush, and not everyone’s going to survive the gold rush. Both buyers and sellers will slip away.” Blumhouse, building on the successful feature film brand behind Get Out, The Gift, and horror franchises from The Purge to Paranormal Activity, has emerged as one of the prospectors: In addition to HBO’s highly anticipated Sharp Objects (a co-production with Entertainment One) and Sacred Lies, an impossible-to-synopsize “handless girl show” (Gold’s words, not mine) that premieres on Facebook Watch on July 27, the company has The Purge TV series, Hulu horror anthology Into the Dark, Showtime’s Roger Ailes limited series, The Loudest Voice in the Room, and three true crime docuseries in the pipeline.
“The big picture question” Gold says, “is ‘How do we break through in this 500-show universe?’”
That question shadows the latest edition of SeriesFest from stem to stern. On the one hand, there are more platforms than ever for the creators of the festival’s strong slate of independent pilots—Mike Roma’s Danny the Manny, about a twentysomething gay man who discovers his six-year-old ward dressing in women’s clothing; Australian supernatural drama Jade of Death, from Erin Good and Taylor Litton-Strain, which follows a woman who can hear when and how people are going to die; and digital short Hug It Out, starring creator Kincaid Walker as a professional snuggler, to name just three whose makers I encounter over the course of the weekend. On the other, pinning down what combination of factors is necessary to make any of SeriesFest’s offerings the next hit TV show—or, for that matter, what constitutes a “hit” in the first place—is near-impossible, not least because the industry itself seems to be frozen in an era of flux. Forget the independent pilots, even the marquee offerings on the schedule are all over the map: In addition to Sacred Lies, there’s AMC’s beachy, blissed-out fraternal order dramedy, Lodge 49; Paramount Network’s modern cowboy epic, Yellowstone, and NBC’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink medical drama, New Amsterdam.
“An idea has a place,” says Katie O’Connell, CEO of Platform One Media, during a panel on “The Golden Age of Television,” referring to the fact that platforms—the “buyers” Gold mentions—are eager for episodic storytelling with a specific point of view and a strong voice. And yet, she adds, “it’s become a little chaotic,” relating a story about pitching a TV project to 17 outlets, not including the broadcast networks. As in any boom, whether in gold, oil, real estate, or TV, suppliers (production companies) have raced to keep up with demand (from platforms and audiences), and as in any boom this disequilibrium can lead to sharp corrections. We’ve already seen a number of platforms shutter (Seeso, Pivot, go90) or face substantial cutbacks (Crackle) in the face of stiff competition, and as I wrote late last year, this consolidation has also spread to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, at least in terms of which scripted originals come to fruition. The “experimental” phase of the Golden Age is slowly being supplanted by the profit-taking logic of the gold rush: by pre-sold properties, from podcasts to comics; by remakes and revivals, from Queer Eye to Roseanne; and by the modern star system. (Meryl Streep singing on to Season Two of Big Little Lies seems to have been the moment of critical mass, if the “Golden Age” panelists are any indication.)
Even on apparently unassailable ideas—the need for more TV by, for, and about women, LGBTQ people, and people of color—SeriesFest reveals a medium riddled with profound contradictions. At an admirably frank panel on “The Diversity Pendulum,” moderated by Everybody Hates Chris creator Ali LeRoi, the frustration is palpable. “Wrong representation is worse than no representation,” says Native American actress MorningStar Angeline (Yellowstone, Longmire), pointing out the profoundly damaging depictions of Native peoples to be found in film and television. And where the (white) guests on the other panels I attend won’t go anywhere near the controversy sparked by Roseanne Barr’s racist invective, ABC’s cancelation of her series, or its swift revival in the form of The Conners, sitcom veteran Bentley Kyle Evans (Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show) lays it out as clear as day.
If Martin Lawrence had made similarly offensive remarks during the run of his TV series, Evans says, “There’d be no more black people on that network for at least 10 years.”
In fact, by the panelists’ reckoning, Hollywood’s halting progress, which I reported on in more depth as it relates to Latinx representation last year, might be attributed to the fact that a number of its most fundamental ideas about race and ethnicity on screen remain more or less fixed: That the success of a TV series that de-centers whites is a unique event, and not evidence of an untapped market; that creators of color (particularly women of color) need to prove themselves again and again; that bursts of, say, black sitcoms are simply a passing fad.
As LeRoi notes, developing an audience organically will always attract even the most dismissive of executives (“Greed is your agent,” he says, quoting Chris Rock), but in the main, any looming retrenchment is likely to come down on creators from marginalized communities first, and hardest. This is especially true given that several of the TV series to have “broken through” to larger audiences in recent years have had writers’ rooms and directors’ chairs dominated by white men—see The Walking Dead and, most especially, Game of Thrones. Jessika Borsickzy (House of Lies) brings up this gnawing disconnect between theory and praxis during a panel on women showrunners, moderated by Variety executive editor Debra Birnbaum.
“People like the idea of women directors, but in execution it makes some people very, very uncomfortable,” Borsickzy says, describing forms of resistance to her authority she’s encountered from men on set. “Just pretend I have a penis,” she adds with a laugh, “and I’ll say it one more time.”
Ultimately, it seems that the medium is awaiting a tipping point—its VHS versus Betamax moment, as it were, clarifying winners and losers and directing a way forward. Something akin to the New York billboard for The Sopranos Gold remembers seeing before the series’ premiere, with a picture of Tony in the middle of his wife and kids and his fellow made men: “Meet Tony Soprano. If one family doesn’t kill him, the other one will.” In other words, for all the opportunities the current ecosystem affords (certain) creators, for all the promise of the push for “inclusion” on screen and off, for all the sense that the ongoing gold rush has made TV the Wild West, the tipping point, the clarifying moment, most often arrives like a slap in the face, and with similar reverberations. The only undeniable fact on the ground at SeriesFest Season Four is that no one can anticipate the market, and that with every boom there must come a bust.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.