J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Sundance ’17: Assorted Pilots

After years of waiting, we will finally get new episodes of Twin Peaks in May. Considering the real thing is almost here, you would think most fans will just sit tight rather than starting a Twin Peaks knock-off. Nevertheless, at least two pilots transparently “inspired” by the David Lynch cult fave screened during the various television showcases at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

By far, the best pilot following in the Twin Peaks tradition was When the Street Lights Go On, presented as part of the Independent Pilot Showcase. During the course of episode 1 (or is it episode 0?) a popular high school student and one of her teachers are murdered at a particularly compromising moment. Oh, the scandal. What really distinguishes Street Lights are the spot-on early 1980s production details, including the era appropriate soundtrack. It is also nice to see the brooding teen lead is actually played by a teenager—the nineteen-year-old Max Burkholder, who could easily pass for sixteen.

Streets Lights might be hoping viewers will be asking “who killed Chrissy Monroe,” but there will be no question who murdered Cecily’s parents in Shit Kids—assuming she and her meathead boyfriend ever get the job done. In fact, we might assume fools’ luck will protect her admittedly annoying and utterly clueless ‘rents, establishing a certain absurdist pattern for the prospective show. Whether S-Word Kids can sustain itself will or won’t be answered over time, but its eighteen minutes were the highlight of the Independent Pilot showcase. Grace Van Dien (daughter of Casper) makes a hot mess of a femme fatale and series writer-director Kyle Dunnigan scores consistent laughs as her painfully square (and completely un-self-aware) father.

Over in the Midnight Episodic Showcase, Pineapple was also trying to channel Twin Peaks, but less successfully. Most of the first chunk screened during the festival focused on the guilt resulting from the sexual assault of a miner’s young daughter and the resentment of the company’s decision to close the mine. However, it is hard to blame them, since it seems some sort of predatory monster lives in the shaft. Frankly, Pineapple is even murkier looking and slower paced than Street Lights, which does not exactly leave viewers eager for more.

In contrast, Snatchers (the other part of Midnight Showcase, trailer here) is all energy and attitude, with more than a bit of gore splattered on top. Shallow, approval-seeking Sara Steinberg finally gives it up to her oafish on-again-off-again boyfriend Skyler, but rather alarmingly wakes up the next morning mega-preggers. Presumably, he picked up something nasty while on Spring Break in Mexico. Understandably freaked, Steinberg turns to Hayley Chamberlain, the childhood friend she had been “ghosting” in her time of crisis. Of course, it is even worse than Steinberg realizes. She is actually carrying twins—and what little monsters they are. As a further complication, one of them still isn’t ready to leave her.

In all honesty, Mary Nepi’s Steinberg is royally unsympathetic, but she is surrounded by a sharp, peppy cast, including Gabrielle Elyse as Chamberlain and J.J. Nolan as her former teen-mother Kate. It would also be nice is Nick Gomez could survive the first episode as Officer Ruiz, but it would be unwise to get too attached to him or anyone else in Snatchers. Regardless, the mayhem is nutty in the right ways and the dialogue cuts just as much as the parasite’s claws.

Not surprisingly, the festival’s mixed episodic showcases were indeed mixed bags. Without question, Snatchers is the one most likely to catch on, with Shit Kids also earning a second look, following their screenings at this year’s Sundance.

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