Has the Paley Festival lost its way?

02.18.09 9 years ago 3 Comments

Miranda Penn Turin/FOX

The William S. Paley Television Festival may be the best thing going in Los Angeles for fans of television. It brings together regular viewers with the people responsible for the best the small screen has to offer and the resulting panels and discussions are often franker, funnier and more informative than anything else the public or even press would otherwise have access to.

I’m going to repeat this, both because it’s true and because I hope to cover PaleyFest09 for HitFix this spring:  The William S. Paley Television Festival is a stellar event and a valuable asset to Los Angeles’ cultural landscape.

But that being said, the lineup for PaleyFest09, a lineup announced on Wednesday (Feb. 18), is a disappointment and makes me wonder at the mandate being expressed by the programmers from the Paley Center for Media.

[My problems after the bump…]

I’m actually a fan of the two selections most likely to create confusion in the media.

“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is not a TV show and did not air on TV and even if the Paley Center for Media has changed its title to be more all-encompassing, this remains a Television Festival by name. In that respect, this looks like little more than an easy opportunity to boost ticket receipts by bringing in the Joss Whedon fans who packed the Cinerama Dome for last year’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reunion and will also pack the theater for this year’s “Dollhouse” panel.

But just as I included “Dr. Horrible” in my Top 10 for 2008, I think that saluting Whedon’s online miniseries recognizes the direction the industry is trending and recognizes the idea of new profit sources and new ways of doing business, making art outside of the traditional channels. It’s a forward-looking panel and I’ll be looking forward to it.

On the surface, I also think there’s something perversely intriguing about doing a panel for “The Hills.” No, this is not a celebration of the best that TV has to offer per se, but displays an awareness that televisual storytelling has changed and that MTV’s “dramality” series, with their mixture of fact and fiction, are reshaping ideas about documentary and narrative, influencing both television and movies (look at the Sundance award winner “American Teen,” for example). This is a panel that will hinge 100% on who the Paley Center gets to moderate it. If the moderator is a giggly fan who just wants to ask about fights and romances and who views “The Hills” only as a guilty pleasure, it will be a disaster. But if they get a smart moderator — a communications or media professor from USC or UCLA maybe — to take the show’s process seriously, Audrina and Spencer may be confused, but the answers could be illuminating.

There will be other good Paley sessions. The fanboys and fangirls will love “True Blood” and “Fringe” and all of the Whedon-based fun. The “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” crew is never less than lewd, rude and entertaining.  “Big Bang Theory” and “The Mentalist” are young shows with growing fanbases.

My disappointment is less with what is being presented than what’s missing. The Paley Festival has always been nearly as much about celebrating television past as television present, honoring iconic industry figures and trailblazing shows from six decades of the medium.

I’ve been covering Paley Festival events since 2003 and as enjoyable as the contemporary panels are, they’re rarely the most memorable because for the people involved with those shows, the process is ongoing and reflection and candor are harder to come by.

The first year I did the Fest, there were panels for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Columbo” and “Sabado Gigante,” plus a Creating Comedy panel with Judd Apatown, Norman Lear, Garry Shandling, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Darren Star and Larry Wilmore, a Creating Drama panel with J.J. Abrams, Steven Bochco, Aaron Sorkin, Tom Fontana and Dick Wolf. That year had an assortment of new and shiny shows, but also respected TV history. In subsequent years, there have been hugely entertaining nights dedicated to William Shatner, Michael Palin, Judd Apatow, Sherwood Schwartz and Angela Lansbury, plus reunions and retrospectives for “Buffy” and “The Golden Girls” and “In Living Color.”

See? I’m not talking about exhumed dinosaurs or 40-year-old chestnuts, though those would have value. I’m only asking for a little time to have passed. For the new shows, Paley runs the risk of just being another promotional opportunity, another stop between press tours and Comic-Cons. When you get together castmates who haven’t seen each other for a decade or pay homage to a partially forgotten legend, you’re actually doing a service to the entertainment community at large, you aren’t just perpetuating a news cycle, you’re making the news.

The only shows on the Paley slate that won’t be on the air at the time of the Festival are “Pushing Daisies” and “Battlestar Galactica,” plus “Swingtown,” subject of a closing night event.

Although I don’t understand their sentiments, I know “Swingtown” had a passionate fanbase. But under what circumstances does a generally dismissed CBS summer dump that aired for only 13 episodes deserve a celebration or the distinction of being a climactic event at a Festival this respected? Have six months of hindsight been that kind to the legacy of “Swingtown”?

Out of the spirit of keeping the conversation fresh, the Festival has generally preferred not to repeat active shows, but the 2009 lineup is glutted with returning favorites. While this year’s special matinee screening event will be about airing those remaining episodes ABC would be content to sit on, “Pushing Daisies” had a lively panel just last spring. And while the panel’s real focus may turn out to be “Caprica,” “Battlestar Galactica” was featured at the 2006 Paley Festival. With “Desperate Housewives, no provisos apply, since Marc Cherry and company also appeared at the 2005 Festival.

Since the preliminary Festival schedule doesn’t include a single confirmed panelist for “Desperate Housewives,” maybe this would be a good time to quietly replace that Saturday, April 18 slot with an evening focused on some show that’s been off the air for a decade or two, or a writer-producer or star who hasn’t been given a lifetime achievement award for a few years, somebody who isn’t quiet forgotten, but deserves to be remembered more.

Somebody needs to remember that The Paley Center for Media and the PaleyFest aren’t just publicists for TV’s present. They’re caretakers of the medium’s legacy. This year’s PaleyFest falls short on the latter responsibility.

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