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‘The Rehearsal’ and ‘The Porter’ Nods Show the Indie Spirit Is Alive and Well, Even If the Awards Aren’t

The Film Independent Spirit Awards' TV nominations featured a handful of exciting, under-the-radar selections, but the TV honors remain flawed.

The Rehearsal

“The Rehearsal”

Allyson Riggs / HBO

I’ll admit: Even as a professional television critic, I had to look up what cable or streaming service released “The Porter” this year. The CBC original series from Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsey landed two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations Tuesday morning, and in order to be eligible, a TV show “must be available [in the U.S.] via network, basic cable, pay cable, pay television, pay-per-view, interactive cable, broadband, or digital distribution through streaming platforms.”

So where did the organization’s nominating committees dig up a series with only seven reviews on Rotten Tomatoes? BET+!

As a fan of television, not just a critic, these are the kind of nominations I love to see — and you should, too! Not only is the awards machine a duplicative endeavor, where the most popular picks get spotlighted so often it’s easier to tune them out than recognize why they’re winning this time, but elevating a show like “The Porter” may actually steer a few viewers toward a period piece that has been largely overlooked here in the States. (Credit to Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune, who called it “the best-kept streaming secret” of the year.)

“The Porter” was one of five nominees in the Best New Series category. Its second nomination went to Aml Ameen, for his portrayal of transcontinental railroad porter Junior Massey, in the newly altered Best Lead Performance category. For the first time, the Film Independent Spirit Awards have implemented gender-neutral acting categories, with 10 nominees in Lead Performance (including smart surprises like KaMillion in “Rap Sh!t” and Sue Ann Pien in “As We See It”) and 10 more in the inaugural Best Supporting Performance category (which wisely features Jeff Hiller in “Somebody Somewhere” and Gbemisola Ikumeloin “A League of Their Own”).

It’s an overdue adjustment that more awards bodies should embrace, but it’s far from the only change needed at the Film Independent Spirit Awards when it comes to honoring television. For one, another eligibility requirement is that a series must be “new”; only first seasons qualify, including seasonal anthologies (in case you’re wondering where “The White Lotus” love has gone), and even reboots and revivals. (Certainly, an exception would’ve been made for “Twin Peaks: The Return,” had television been part of the 2018 Spirit Awards.)

Only recognizing new television refutes a fundamental strength of the medium: longevity. TV has always involved a process of adapting and improving, whether it’s episode to episode or season to season. It doesn’t matter if the story is serialized or episodic. Either way, writers and producers are constantly evaluating what works and what doesn’t to hone their programs going forward, and how series develop over time is part of what makes the creative process so special. It’s one way TV is distinct from film, yet Film Independent insists on only seeing the similarities.

Still, awards shows can (and should) serve different purposes. Perhaps by only focusing on new series, the Spirit Awards intend to elevate shows that really need it. In an age where productions aren’t safe even when they’re nearly finished, giving audiences an extra nudge to watch (and networks an extra impetus to honor a renewal) is vital to hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs. In that regard, it’s thrilling to see such prominence given to “Pachinko,” which not only snagged a Best New Series nod but also was named the winner of Best Ensemble. While critics flocked to the Apple TV+ drama, awards voters have not voiced similar adoration. The Emmys nearly shut out Soo Hugh’s drama entirely, and the Globes (which tends to gravitate toward international fare) didn’t include it at all. The TCA Awards, AFI, and Gothams all got onboard, and seeing the Indie Spirits added to the list helps round out an awards resume needed to bolster the show’s multi-season ambitions.

Pachinko Episode 8

“Pachinko”

Robert Falconer/Apple TV+

The other three nominees, however, don’t need Indie love in the same way. There’s “The Bear,” FX’s most-watched comedy ever; “Severance,” the Apple TV+ drama with 14 Emmy nominations, two wins, and none other than Ben Stiller among its primary creative team; and then there’s “Station Eleven.” As a critic who would’ve included “Station Eleven” on my Best TV list of 2021 (had I seen it in time) or 2022 (had it been eligible), I sympathize with voters wanting to highlight a remarkable and uniquely powerful limited series. What Patrick Somerville and his team were able to accomplish with an extremely tricky adaptation deserves all the accolades it can get, and it’s especially satisfying to see Hamish Patel and Danielle Deadwyler given their due among the year’s best performances.

It’s just… “Station Eleven” aired seven of its 10 episodes in 2021. The rules only require three episodes to have been released during the eligibility window for a series to qualify, which means the HBO Max original (still streaming, at least for now!) could’ve been honored either year. This year may even be more fitting considering recent news about low-performing streaming programs getting plucked off the service; perhaps this will help keep “Station Eleven” on the platform, though it’s still a bit odd to see it ranked alongside a comedy in the middle of its second season right now.

Still, the limited series’ three nominations helped propel HBO/HBO Max to the most nominations among TV networks at a time when everyone at HBO/HBO Max needs to be reminded what made them so successful in the first place: quality original programming. Apple TV+ finished second, with five nominations, though it would be topped by Disney if we count FX and ABC’s nominations together (four and three, respectively).

If it strikes you a bit odd that such massive conglomerates — including the richest company in the world and the second-largest entertainment company in the world — are dominating the Independent Spirit Awards, take a number. There’s no funding ceiling for TV shows, unlike the film side, where a movie’s budget can’t exceed $30 million. Such a cutoff provides a kind of baseline parity, where even with massive marketing machines behind them now, each film was once working within at least one similar confine. No such parity exists for TV, where without any insider knowledge, I can assure you the cost of “Pachinko” and “Severance” seasons exceeded that of “Somebody Somewhere,” “This Fool,” and plenty more contenders.

Perhaps that’s why “The Rehearsal” feels like the nominee that best represents the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 2023. Nathan Fielder’s docu-comedy has earned an intense cult following to go with its rave reviews. It’s the kind of show where it seems like the whole internet is talking about it, but if brought up in casual conversations, people haven’t heard of it. While HBO renewed it for a second season, “The Rehearsal” still feels like an artistic risk that needs support in order to keep going.

Throughout its initial six episodes, Fielder repeatedly mentions how he used (or abused) a budget given to him by HBO. He recreates Brooklyn’s Alligator Lounge on a soundstage and then moves that bar from one coast to the other just “because I didn’t want to throw it away.” He flies around the country for different rehearsals and establishes his own “school” to teach “The Fielder Method.” In the finale, he stages a fake party with background actors to save $15,000, even though the eerily silent celebration doesn’t make for the most convincing recreation of a kid’s birthday.

These conversations give the impression Fielder is getting away with something; that he’s working under financial constraints, even when he’s spending exorbitant amounts of money on (great) jokes. In reality, “The Rehearsal” couldn’t crack the Top 10 most expensive HBO originals. The return-on-investment has to be huge, if social media buzz and press coverage mean anything. It’s doubtful executives pushed back on the $15,000 necessary for guests to be able to speak at the birthday party, and more likely that Fielder saw an opportunity for a great gag and took it.

So is “The Rehearsal” a prime example of the independent spirit? Or is it yet another nominee that doesn’t really belong in this grouping? Maybe it’s both. After all, the exceptionally deceptive series unquestionably excels in its “innovation, uniqueness of vision, and original, provocative subject matter” — two of the criteria listed in the Spirit Awards’ nominating guidelines. If that’s all that matters, then give it the nod. But perhaps it’s time to consider a few internal innovations at the Spirit Awards.

The 38th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards will be held Saturday, March 4, 2023 at the Santa Monica Pier. Film nominations can be found here.

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