Blame it on my Catholic upbringing, but guilt is my near-constant companion. At work, there’s guilt for not covering more television, which leads to guilt at home for spending too much time watching TV. Even when I can separate from these millions of screens, guilt often rises from having too much fun — or not enough. There’s lingering guilt over childhood misdeeds (too irrelevant, and thus embarrassing, to admit remembering here), and there’s growing guilt right now for spending this review’s lede talking about myself.
The point being: Guilt can come from anywhere. Right or wrong, useful or obstructive, immutable or fleeting, the feeling that you’re doing something wrong (and the ensuing anguish spent wondering just how bad it was) can lead people to do any number of things, and in this year’s otherwise disparate crop of Indie Episodic entries at the Sundance Film Festival, guilt is a driving narrative force — even in its absence.
Take Richie Mehta’s true-crime drama, “Poacher.” Based on a 2015 investigation into the biggest elephant ivory poachers in the history of India, the eight-part series (three of which were screened at the festival) follows a handful of Indian Foreign Service, Non-Governmental, and police officers tasked with bringing these wildlife terrorists to justice.
Mehta, who last premiered the similar “Delhi Crime” at Sundance in 2019, sticks to genre staples. Mala (Nimisha Sajayan) is a top IFS agent who’s called out of exile to work the case. She can be stubborn, forceful, and doesn’t always play by the book — but she gets the job done. Alan (Roshan Mathew) is her number-crunching partner. While not officially an officer, his knowledge of snake venom makes him a popular contact for doctors and forest workers alike, and soon his data skills help him into a much bigger case. (Yes, he’s a computer nerd and a snake expert.) They both report to a chief (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) who has to call in a lifetime of favors to solve one last case before retirement.
While no one says “I’m getting too old for this shit” or turns in their badge in outrage (at least, not yet), “Poacher” wears its clichés with pride, serving up satisfying thrills while toning down the violence that dominated Mehta’s last series. (Episode 3 does start with a brief, gruesome shot of a de-tusked CGI elephant.) But what keeps his latest from curdling into a modern spoof of ’80s cop movies is its characters’ motivation. Mala, Alan, their colleagues, and most civilians express an acute outrage at anyone harming elephants, but it’s not vengeance that drives our two heroes; it’s guilt. Mala and her team were tasked with protecting India’s native creatures, and they all believed elephant poaching had been eliminated nearly two decades earlier. When they find out it’s been going on under their noses — and at unprecedented rates — they’re angry at the poachers, sure, but they’re just as angry at themselves.
In one monologue, Mala expresses a nationally internalized guilt: The Indian people are so ashamed of the country’s poaching history, they feel an added responsibility to the world’s largest existing land animal. This layered incentive helps ground “Poacher,” but it muddles another Indie Episodic entry. “Chanshi,” created by and starring Aleeza Chanowitz, centers on the eponymous twenty-something who flees her life in Brooklyn to start over in Israel. Chanshi is introduced on the flight into Tel Aviv, dreaming of Israeli soldiers who want to have sex with her. Turns out, her subconscious is rather literal, and from the second she steps foot in the Holy Land, all Chanshi wants is to sleep with any and every “tall, dark, Mizrahi” man she can find, preferably in uniform.
That would be all well and good, except she’s ostensibly there for her best friend’s wedding — oh, and Chanshi herself is already engaged. Though she’s told her Orthodox fiancé, Mendy (Dor Gvirtsman) and family back in New York that Noki (Marnina Schon) needs her help with wedding prep, Chanshi is actually in Israel to abandon her American life entirely. What she doesn’t count on, however, is pressure to return from Noki, her extended family, and even the men she’s trying to sleep with. As she plans to make Aliyah, Chanshi is reminded of her obligations — obligations she desperately wants to forget via a parade of hot Israeli lovers — and her ambitions are twisted into a stalled knot of indecision. It’s clear she hoped her actions — flying to Israel and sleeping with other men — would sever all ties, but it turns out Orthodox Jews aren’t so quick to cut ties with one of their own.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Still, especially as a lead, Chanshi goes under-explored through four episodes. Her quest initially feels one-note and more than a little cruel, since Chanowitz doesn’t offer up any backstory for her character’s “escape” and revels in Chanshi’s parade of selfish choices. Noki is a much more accessible and engaging way into what appears to be a story about repression and loss, but her arc is also too slow to form, leaving the series adrift nearly halfway through the first season.
“The Night Logan Woke Up,” on the other hand, is acutely focused. “Mommy” and “I Killed My Mother” filmmaker Xavier Dolan returns to maternal territory in his first TV series, a mystery-soap where a Quebec family’s secrets come to light after the death of — you guessed it — their mother. Like the grim twin of Pedro Almodóvar, the Larouche family is captured with black edges and a faded color palette, foreshadowing dire events to come, as well as plenty past transgressions yet to be revealed. Affairs, nightmares, secret siblings, and a literal mystery box are just a few of the juicy facets unveiled within the first two hours, as Dolan — in adapting Michel Marc Bouchard’s play — introduces each key player, hints at their tortured histories (both shared and personal), and blows apart a group of loved ones who are just barely holding on as it is.
Even before Madeleine (Anne Dorval) passes (an inevitability promised within moments of meeting her), “The Night Logan Woke Up” peers into its character’s disturbed sense of self. Denis (Éric Bruneau) may be the de facto family patriarch, but he has nightmares of his mother’s suicide and surrounds himself with old clutter. Julien (Patrick Hivon) brims with intensity, whether he’s scared of a looming figure chewing ominously behind him in class or racing to his mother’s bedside before it’s too late. Elliot, played by Dolan himself, is the black sheep and mama’s favorite boy; a contradiction that sent him into rehab 120 days prior, from which he’s only released so he can say his conflicted goodbyes to a dying parent. Chantal (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau) may be the family’s “backbone,” but she can’t get through to her husband, Julien, anymore, and the weight of accountability pushes her gaze elsewhere.
At only five total episodes, “The Night Logan Woke Up” hums through its first two hours, seemingly destined for big payoffs and operatic tragedy. Its tight-knit yet deeply troubled family makes for an emotional spectacle as arresting as it is jarring, and couldn’t be farther removed from the final Indie Episodic entry, “Willie Nelson & Family.” The only documentary in the bunch, Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman’s five-part series bounces casually through the life and career of its singer-songwriter star. Nelson talks about his love for old westerns, his intolerance for ass holes (Nelson describes his philosophy through three rules: “Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a goddamn asshole.”), and, most of all, his deep love for God and family.
Timothy D. Easley / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
His daughter, Lana, and son, Lukas, are among the reverent talking heads helping to chronicle the artistic and personal endeavors of their dear old dad, though Zimny and Moverman balance out the music icon’s wider impact with the likes of country star Kenny Chesney and Texas Monthly writer John Spong. (Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson, and many more also appear.) “Willie Nelson & Family” rarely tries to be anything more than a loving ode to a beloved figure and can be scattershot in its structure, jumping from topic to topic and decade to decade without much by the way of transitions. (It’s got a real “five-hour-movie” feel to it.) But at its best, the series embodies Willie’s trademark rhythm: not trying to follow the beat, but bending the music to his meaning.
It’s also the antithesis of guilt. Willie surrounds himself with family and friends. Other famous musicians tell multiple stories of the famous singer popping into their recording sessions or dropping in for one of their shows, simply because he likes playing their music. He comes across as informal as he is inviting, and walks the walk of a man too high on life (and so, so much weed) to waste it by sweating the small stuff. Even Nelson’s infamous IRS scandal — when, in 1990, he owed $32 million in unpaid taxes — is framed as little more than disappointment in his handlers’ bad advice, a bit of extra work for the singer (he produced a double album titled “The IRS Tapes” with all the profits going toward his bill), and an illustration of how family takes care of family. (When the IRS seized his assets and put them up for auction, his cherished guitar, Trigger, was smuggled back to him by close friends and many of his favorite properties were gifted or leased back to him for a nominal fee.)
Whatever you credit for Nelson’s country music stardom and loving family life, his morally sound demeanor (as depicted in the docuseries) serves as an antidote to the turmoil coursing through “Poacher,” “Chanshi,” and “The Night Logan Woke Up.” It doesn’t necessarily make for better TV, but it sure seems like a better life.
The 2023 Sundance Indie Episodic Lineup is available to stream through January 29.