The world of independent television is pretty chaotic right now, largely because, unlike the indie film scene, there’s no clear trajectory to success. Some shows threw all their money into shooting a pilot. Some shows have shot multiple episodes. Some shows have found alternate distribution opportunities already. Some shows remain unseen. All of them, though, want to go beyond their current status.
As an attendee of SeriesFest 2016, I had the opportunity to see a large percentage of the pilots screened as part of the independent pilot competition. Some of these pilots were not world premieres, but all of the ones I saw represented the impressive state of independent production today; where a shoestring budget can still produce content on a level equal to what you might watch on TV. Below are just a few of the pilots that impressed me most, but that’s not the limit to great shows on offer.
Harry Lloyd was only on “Game of Thrones” for one season, but he was one of the show’s most compelling early villains, and apparently was a nice enough chap in real life to maintain friendships with Maisie Williams and George R.R. Martin. The extremely meta pilot “Supreme Tweeter” takes on the brutal problems of an actor’s life with much wit, all spiraling from a pretty unpredictable twist. Just remember that social media won’t solve all your problems.
This fun lark plays with familiar tropes: A fish-out-of-water scenario features a magician from another realm (Tahmoh Penikett, named Best Actor in a Comedy by SeriesFest) who finds himself running around modern-day Toronto with a sassy reporter (Erin Karpluk) who thinks this guy is crazy, but can’t help but like him (and not just for his really muscular… personality). The sort of Canadian sci-fi that anyone raised on “The X-Files” or “Star Trek” might adore, “Riftworld Chronicles” is one we definitely hope we come back to. (In the meantime, you can check out the web series version online.)
Who doesn’t love magicians? Okay, surely some people don’t. But this story of illusionists-turned-con-artists, despite some sound issues, was the sort of first episode that not only told an entertaining story, but established what kind of show we might look forward to watching, should it get more episodes. I genuinely felt excited for more, which is always the highest praise you can offer for a pilot.
“The Donovan of Civilization”
You want adventure? You want excitement? You want the embodiment of run-and-gun filmmaking? “The Donovan of Civilization” is a scripted series filmed on location by Gabriel Fleming, starring Donovan Keith as a young man whose global vagabonding gets interrupted by a global conspiracy. The pilot is largely set in India and Vietnam, and future episodes (already shot) travel to Cambodia, Laos, Egypt and more. It’s a far cry from your typical show, and the story is genuinely intriguing to boot.
A bit of a slow build, this German pilot has a premise even Vince Gilligan might envy — an Iranian refugee wants to get his medical license, but a paperwork issue leaves him without any use for his decades of education, or a way to provide for his family. So, as the title might imply, he finds less official ways to use his training. Mehdi Nebbou proves to be an incredible lead, and while the pilot doesn’t immediately hint at what exactly might happen next, there’s so much potential to mine.
“It’s a Hit”
Produced by The Orchard and Burn Later Productions, this assassin comedy features some extremely grounded work by Abby Elliott, not to mention some fun stuff with Tim Matheson. The concept — professional assassins doing their job with the “benefit” of corporate structure — is fun, but beyond the conceits of the concept, the fact that the pilot revolves around the existential crisis of Samantha (Elliott) makes the series surprisingly relatable.
Not a diamond in the rough but a real gem, “Truth Slash Fiction” is more than just a show that captures a fascinating element of the zeitgeist. Ostensibly about the adolescent women who turn their obsession with boy bands into erotic fan fiction, this incredibly well-produced pilot also managed to capture an authentic teenage voice on a level beyond your typical CW drama. As just a teenage drama, “Truth Slash Fiction” would be enjoyable. As just an examination of fanfic culture, it would be accurate and valuable. But the combination proves irresistible.