On Monday night at the 25th annual Gotham Awards, the Independent Film Project's celebration of independent filmmaking, two categories were added to the list.
Awards for Breakthrough Series (long and short form) extended the juried competition's reach to television and the Web — an acknowledgment, first, that the corporate medium once called the "boob tube" has entered its own maverick, even auteurist phase, and second, that it is not all cats and babies on the Internet.
It also reflects the fact that the walls between film and television, and all the other audio-visual things that might be called television, are porous and crumbling, and that the historical antagonisms between the mediums — not too strong a word — are becoming merely history, as TV grows officially hip, opportunities for expression multiply and makers of independent film become makers of independent TV. Where once success in talking pictures meant graduating from television to film and never looking back, more and more it means working wherever good work can be done.
"For years, I've been telling people that TV is where it's at," said presenter Mariska Hargitay of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," now in its 17th season and in no sense a candidate for these awards. "And now people are finally catching on."
Independence in the arts is in part a matter of economics: not the freedom that riches bring but the invention that necessity mothers. The bigger the budget, the more corporate the producer, the less likely the radical gesture, the sideways thought. Success, and the big paydays it betokens, paradoxically breeds conservatism; failure, which good art courts, is not an option.
Television, once a fairly monolithic proposition without a substantial independent wing, is now a place of nooks and crannies and corners. Many tributaries feed the river. There is, from the creative side, room to experiment, and, from the business, more than ever a need to stand out.
Accordingly, none of the nominees for Long Form Series — all new to 2015 — came from the bigger broadcast networks: "Jane the Virgin" from the CW (a minor major); "UnREAL" from Lifetime; Jill Soloway's "Transparent" from Amazon; Tina Fey and Robert Karlock's "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," first developed at NBC, from Netflix; and the winner, Sam Esmail's what-is-reality cyberthriller "Mr. Robot," from USA. It's worth noting how little alike they are in subject and tone and form, some rooted in television traditions, some, like the winner, aspiring to cinema, but taking advantage of the extended length and episodic beats a series affords.
(The award was limited to newer series, putting "Broad City," whose stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, hosted the live-streamed ceremony, outside the competition.)
On the theatrical side, the Gothams honor works "where the vision of an individual director, producer, writer or writer/director is abundantly evident, and where the film cannot be classically defined as a 'work for hire.' " And while this would seem to leave out most of what's on television — arguably including some of the nominees — it describes what the medium increasingly has to offer, and what makes it now seem so "golden," the common employed term for this new age.
Of course, you can find the independent spirit, and makers of independent film, operating on television back beyond the "The Sopranos." Note Jonathan Demme's 1982 PBS adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Who Am I This Time?" with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken; Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theater," which ran on Showtime from 1982 to 1987; David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," which managed a couple of seasons on ABC at the dawn of the 1990s. Even Sam Raimi's syndicated "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," which brought Saturday matinee, B-movie aesthetics to Saturday afternoon TV later that same decade.
But those were, for the most part, exceptions. Now the exceptions are setting the rules. Much of the struggle of the big broadcast networks in recent years is how to import some of that spirit into their own prime-time schedules — though it turns out what they're good at are comedies about quirky functional families (and families of friends) and series whose titles start with "CSI" or "Chicago."
The Web, for its part, is a vast network of nooks and crannies, and much of what comes out of it is even more personal and less conventional. The Short Form winner, "Shugs & Fats," about two Muslim immigrants adapting to life in Brooklyn, which might be described as "Broad City" with headscarves, is not nearly the strangest thing you can find there.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd