Independent Spirit Awards Define What’s ‘Indie TV’: ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘Unorthodox,’ for Starters

Heading into Thursday’s Spirit Awards, Film Independent’s inaugural foray into recognizing television had already passed the so-called “smell test.” That’s because, at the very least, HBO’s “I May Destroy You” had already been recognized as best ensemble cast in a new scripted series.

And if there was any TV show that embraces the independent spirit, it’s absolutely “I May Destroy You,” the deeply personal series created by and starring Michaela Coel.

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“I May Destroy You” also picked up the first-ever award for best scripted series, giving it a nice boost as the Emmy For Your Consideration season gets underway. The show was heralded last summer as one of the best new series of the year — but it premiered last June 7, which feels almost a lifetime ago. The show was shut out of the Golden Globes, much to the chagrin of critics.

Honestly, perhaps it’s Coel and “I May Destroy You” that finally convinced Film Independent to get into the TV biz.

Well, that, and the fact that TV is creating and airing some of the most daring, provocative and critically acclaimed entertainment fare out there. Longtime film talent have been trying their hand in episodic storytelling. (Although they gratingly still like to refer to their TV series as “ten-hour movies.” Stop it.) TV talent are now making amazing film content, like “One Night in Miami” helmer Regina King, the winner of this year’s Robert Altman Award — but sorry film twitter, they’re ours.

And let’s face it, this year, even the top movies were all mostly seen on the small screen.

The question of what “indie TV” means will remain a question mark, of course, as the award ironically required entrants to run on an official broadcast, cable or streaming platform. And where “indie film” usually starts out without any corporate involvement, TV development usually begins with a major network or studio attached.

Also unlike on the film side, where there’s a $22.5 million budget cap, there was no similar limit on the TV side.

But of course, the line of “indie” vs. popular fare has long blurred in film, as most Oscar-nominated fare these days is more of the art house variety than big-budget popcorn flicks.

“Independence is a state of mind,” director Oliver Stone once said in an old clip featured on this year’s telecast.

Host Melissa Villaseñor recognized the addition of TV to this year’s ceremony joking, “If there’s one note awards shows keep getting, it’s ‘make the show longer!'”

Or, as Villaseñor, in character as Kristen Wiig, quipped, “If something made you more sad than happy, that’s the indie, baby!”

But the Independent Spirit Awards did manage to find a unique niche in the ever-growing TV awards space, honoring new shows (and new shows only!) that succeeded in showcasing that “state of mind.”

So besides “I May Destroy You,” did the Film Independent voters get their first-ever TV categories right?

Sort of. Because of the limited number of categories, and the decision to honor “I May Destroy You” as both best ensemble and best series, there wasn’t room for many other shows to receive attention. And this year, “Unorthodox” received both acting prizes.

There’s a bit of an irony that the Indie Spirits recognized “Unorthodox” star Shira Haas (as best female performance in a scripted series) several months after the Emmy Awards nominated her. Amit Rahay picked up the best male performance in a scripted series award — clearly the Netflix limited series resonated with the Film Independent crowd. But as noted, the show was eligible for last year’s Emmy cycle, meaning Haas’ and Rahay’s awards won’t factor into this year’s contest.

In the other TV category, best new non-scripted or documentary series, Netflix’s “Immigration Nation” won the top prize, giving it a boost as it too enters the Emmy race.

As we wrote when Film Independent announced this year’s nominees, it’s a work in progress — but the Indie Spirits are off to a promising start in recognizing TV.

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