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ATX S4: Day one starts shakily, but day two ends with a bang

ATX S4: Day one starts shakily, but day two ends with a bang

ATX S4 Complications pilot Q&A

Season four of the ATX Television Festival (A Television eXperience, as they prefer to be called) kicked off Thursday, June 4th in Austin, TX, with a line stretched ‘round the corner for the sole opening night event, the premiere of ATX partner USA’s Complications. The double-length pilot of the series screened to a packed house and afterwards, Mark Peikert of Backstage Magazine moderated a brief Q&A with the series’ creator, Matt Nix, stars Jessica Szohr and Beth Riesgraf, and creative Mike Horowitz. From the very start, the atmosphere in Austin has been a relaxed, positive one. Badge pickup, at least when I was there, was straightforward with helpful volunteers steering the process and the line for Complications, which started forming well over an hour before the event, was friendly and low-stress.

The screening itself was underwhelming. I am confident there are many who will enjoy Complications, but I am not one of them and while the audience was receptive, this felt more like enthusiasm for the festival, rather than the project. With only one event the opening night and attendees excited for the fest to begin, pretty much any panel would have had the same healthy turnout. Any disappointment from this lackluster start to the weekend was wiped away later that night, however, with a trip to Ego’s for karaoke, where ATX goers and Austin natives belted some pretty fantastic tunes, a highlight for me being the duo who provided the first Gilmore Girls-inspired moment of the weekend when they sang its theme song.

It would be wonderful if ATX was inspired by this budding tradition—last year’s karaoke excursion, featuring an appearance by ATX favorite Kyle Killen, was among Season 3’s most buzzed-about events—and ran with it next year. Why not set up TV-centric karaoke at the ATX lounge, with theme songs, songs from TV musical episodes, and memorable soundtrack choices, organized by TV series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan? Then choose between “Once More With Feeling”, “Wild Horses” (featured in “The Prom”), “Goodbye to You” (featured in “Tabula Rasa”), and more. More of a sitcom fan? Why not bust out the incredibly popular—at least based on reactions to Abigail Spencer’s delightful take in the ATX Season 4 promos—theme for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? ATX is dedicated to celebrating TV and TV fandom, embracing the communal experience and doing so with unabashed joy and love. It’d be great to see the creators find a way to allow more audience participation, especially opening night, through singalongs or other musical events.

Bunheads at ATX TV FEST 2015

Day two started early for many, but thanks to the ATX Fast Pass system—each attendee can register for three tickets that guarantee their entrance to a given panel, assuming they can make it through the ordeal of securing them online—I was able to sleep in a bit, getting in line at 9:30am for the 10:00am Bunheads panel, moderated by Jarret Wieselman of Buzzfeed and featuring series creator Amy Sherman Palladino and stars Sutton Foster, Kelly Bishop, and Stacey Oristano. Already at 9:30am, non-Fast Passers were being turned away from the line.

ATX’s official policy is that attendees can only start lining up one hour before any particular event (with the exception of this year’s star attraction, the Gilmore Girls reunion), but from the perspective of an SDCC alum and fangirl of many a series in my time, that seems incredibly foolish. Those who want to line up ahead will do so unofficially, and a line will form behind them, and as a significant part of ATX’s charm is its tone of laid-back acceptance, the negativity that comes with breaking the social contract and disrespecting the line will keep people from doing so. For its most sought after events, an SDCC line culture seems inevitable at ATX and denying it or overselling the venues (an LA Times article states 1700 tickets have been sold this year—according to its website, the sellable capacity for the venue for the Gilmore Girls event, which has no counter-programming, is 1270) will only exacerbate the situation.

Those turned away from Bunheads missed out on a wonderful panel, which rather than sticking to the screening-followed-by-Q&A format opted for a panel discussion of the series, with clips from the series curated by Sherman Palladino. This gave the panelists much more time to talk and reminisce, sharing memories and opening up about the frustrations creating, getting cast in, and having to say goodbye to, the series. A few particularly fun details to come out on the panel: Stacey Oristano, who played non-dancer Truly, neglected to tell Sherman Palladino (while the show was in production) that she can tap dance. Sherman Palladino is still entertainingly bitter about this. Sutton Foster worked with Kelly Bishop in Anything Goes on Broadway before Bunheads and had a fangirl moment or two when Bishop joined the cast—Foster’s a big fan of Gilmore Girls. Bishop visited a medium a year or so before filming the Bunheads pilot who told her that her deceased mother was standing beside her, holding red heeled shoes (as opposed to red pointe shoes); she had quite a moment when she got her costume for the pilot and saw that her character, Miss Fanny, would be wearing red heeled shoes.

Its Debatable- 2015 ATX TV Fest

After the lovely Bunheads panel, which prompted more than a few pangs of loss from this attendee for the canceled-far-too-soon series (seriously, if you haven’t seen Bunheads, do yourself a favor and do so. Then check out the Televerse DVD Shelf segment about it, recorded back when we still hoped that maybe, just maybe, it could squeak out a season two), I headed over to the Google Fiber space to see TV critics Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, Tara Ariano of Previously.TV, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox, and Daniel Fienberg of HitFix discuss the ins and outs of TV criticism. The panel was fun and lively, with entertaining insights from all, including their thoughts on binge viewing, the future of streaming, and the depressing reality that even in a room filled with TV fans, only a handful had seen the highly acclaimed first season of Fortitude.

Friday Night Lights ATX TV FEST 2015 (Hep Alien)

While Bunheads turned people away, there were still seats in the back for this panel. Similar inequities popped up elsewhere throughout the day—according to the rumor mill, the Queer as Folk (US) reunion had open seats as did Power, but Drunk History had to turn people away. Programming for festivals is always tricky, but hopefully the counterprogramming for Saturday (which is forcing some hard decisions on attendees) will keep things a bit more balanced. That approach seems to have worked for Friday night, as FX presented an evening of comedy, with panels for You’re the Worst, Married, and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, while myself and many others headed to the technically unaffiliated, but heavily populated by ATXers, Friday Night Lights tailgate.

Friday Night Lights ATX TV FEST 2015

Fans of the series, both badge-holders and not (as well as some FNL cast members), milled about in a parking lot, eating, drinking, and chatting with neighbors while we waited for the sun to set. Then at 8pm, surprise guests Hep Alien (the fictional band from Gilmore Girls) came on to play a half-hour set. It was a blast, with the band rocking out to everything from the Gilmore Girls theme to “Single Ladies”, and as the sun went down, Louanne Stephens, beloved to fans of FNL as Grandma Saracen, took the stage to introduce the episode of the evening, “Mud Bowl”, with a bizarre, but effective, impression of fighting cats and dogs. The fan-favorite episode went over well, with cheers and applause at particularly effective moments, including the Panther’s underdog triumph (is there any other way with them?), making for a lovely end to a long first full day. There are definitely irritating aspects of ATX—more on this in my end of festival overview—but so far, experiences like the Bunheads panel or Friday Night Lights screening make enduring the frustrations worthwhile, giving TV fans a space to express their love of television, surrounded by people who understand and share that passion.

Check back over the next few days for more coverage of ATX S4!