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Film Independent’s First-Ever Spirit Award TV Nominations Successfully Figure Out What ‘Indie TV’ Is

I May Destroy You (Courtesy of BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery)

When Film Independent announced last fall that it would add several TV categories to this year’s Spirit Awards, perhaps the biggest question was, “What is Indie TV?

Ultimately, with no budgetary cap (unlike the $22.5 million limit in film), and with most TV projects coming from major networks and studios, Film Independent president John Walsh told me at the time that it would come down to a “smell test”: “aesthetic, original provocative subject matter, unique voice and diversity. The types of work that we celebrate on the film side, and TV side, they’re going to look very similar. … Somehow these singular voices are finding their way into television and making a mark on the culture. We are remiss if we don’t celebrate that.”

On Tuesday morning, the organization somehow managed to pull it off. Michaela Coel’s deeply moving HBO series “I May Destroy You” seemed like an obvious frontrunner the moment that Film Independent decided to get into TV this year, and it indeed has already won the first-ever best ensemble cast in a new scripted series award.

“I May Destroy You” is also up for best new scripted series, alongside FX on Hulu’s “A Teacher,” Apple TV Plus’ “Little America,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Small Axe” and Netflix’s “Unorthodox.”

If there’s a through line with the 2021 noms, it’s that all five projects tell uniquely personal stories: “I May Destroy You,” about sexual assault and trauma; “A Teacher,” about exploitation, grooming and abuse; “Small Axe,” stories about West Indian immigrants in 1960s to 1980s London; “Little America,” stories about the immigrant experience in the United States; and “Unorthodox,” about a young woman fleeing her strict Hasidic Jewish community.

But here’s another similarity: The fact that all five nominees come from streaming services (give FX an asterisk, but “A Teacher” launched on its Hulu streaming portal) is telling. These are multi-billion dollar corporations, not scrappy little indie distributors. But premium cable and streamers — free of the need to satisfy advertiser demands for the broadest audience possible — have long been able to run smaller, more narrow and targeted projects that are also some of TV’s most original, and yes, “indie”-minded fare.

Film Independent took this mandate seriously. Potential Emmy frontrunners like “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Ted Lasso” and “The Undoing” were likely considered too mainstream or large for the Spirits. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any crossover: “Unorthodox” won an Emmy last September for director Maria Schrader, and was also nominated for limited series and lead actress (Shira Haas).

Also, Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” — which he has touted as a series of films, something that is likely catnip to Film Independent’s big screen aficionado members — is aiming for Emmy love this year, as are “A Teacher” and “I May Destroy You.”

The list is quite a contrast to the AFI TV Programs of the Year honors, announced on Monday: Only “Unorthodox” appears on both. Otherwise, AFI’s honorees are also fantastic programs, but perhaps a little more broad: “Bridgerton” and “The Mandalorian,” for example.

But then there are programs like Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” and HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” both of which might have passed Walsh’s “aesthetic, original provocative subject matter, unique voice and diversity” smell test. But both were also big productions with lavish sets and effects, and Film Independent wisely steered clear of the “what is indie” question by sticking with the series it did.

Also, as I noted in September, the decision to allow only first-year shows in the competition is a recognition that so much of “prestige TV” is now found in the one-and-done world of limited series — and indeed, this year’s best new scripted series category consists only of either limited series or anthology series. (“Little America” will not be eligible in future years, should it return.) The decision eliminates the problem of the same series dominating the awards every year.

And the Spirit Awards avoided the comedy vs. drama classification debate by eliminating genre splits all together.

Meanwhile, where the Spirit Awards’ first TV nominations also shined was with the diversity in the male and female performance categories. (It is perhaps odd that Film Independent shied away from genre distinctions, but still felt a need to create antiquated gender-specific categories, however.)

Both categories boast mostly fresh faces, particularly in the male category (Conphidance, “Little America”; Adam Ali, “Little America”; Nicco Annan, “P-Valley”; Amit Rahav, “Unorthodox”; Harold Torres, “ZeroZeroZero”). The female category includes a few slightly more familiar faces, but still mostly newcomers (Elle Fanning, “The Great”; Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”; Abby McEnany, “Work in Progress”; Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, “Never Have I Ever”; Jordan Kristine Seamón, “We Are Who We Are”).

If there is such a thing as a “snub” in the Spirit Awards’ TV race, it’s perhaps that Luca Guadagnino’s “We Are Who We Are” only received a nod for Seamón, and not for best new scripted series.

There’s also still a question of how Film Independent might handle the influx of international series now available to U.S. audiences via streaming. Amazon’s Italian series “ZeroZeroZero” made a surprise appearance on this year’s nomination roster via Torres; will more find their way on the list in the future, and should there be a “best international series” category like there is in film?

As for the best new non-scripted or documentary series, the mix ranges from the joyous (HBO’s “We’re Here) to true crime (Showtime’s “Love Fraud”) to current events (Netflix’s “Immigration Nation” and Nat Geo’s “City So Real”) and the tragic (HBO’s “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children”).

It’s unclear whether the first-ever Spirit Awards for TV will have much of an impact on other races, as even the Peabody Awards will throw a few more mainstream entries into the mix. But for what Film Independent set out to do, it’s mission accomplished.

Variety's Michael Schneider contributed to this post.


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