As we start to approach the end of the year, I began to prepare my annual article on the top ten best indie films of the year (you can read last year’s article here). However, as I mapped out my list and what I planned to say, I realized a major imbalance: the commentary for my #3 choice was much longer than anything else in the article, even surpassing my #1. What was meant to be a write-up had turned into a major critique and it deserved its own article. So what is my choice for the #3 best indie production of 2015, which also happens to be the highest ranking American production on my list? Well, it’s actually two separate webseries, produced by the independent studio powerhouse Hanging Charlie Productions, that I refer to as The Matthew Van Vorst Duology: TRI-STATE and HOW TO NOT BE A JACKASS AND COMPLETELY SCREW-UP YOUR RELATIONSHIP. Both these webseries premiered in 2015 and I consider them to be a single work. Obviously the fact they come from the same director makes them easy to pair together, but they are also thematic counterparts. Each has strengths and flaws on its own but forms a stronger tapestry when viewed together. I was actually shocked to learn that, aside from abandoned amateur films, Van Vorst had never directed before. This is one of the strongest directorial debuts of the Internet age.
TRI-STATE is a light-hearted romp about three roommates played by three strong leads, one of whom, Amanda Mikhail, deserves to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award. JACKASS is a much darker, perverse series of one-off gags highlighting absurd or insensitive things people do in various forms of relationships, in the format of a comic-strip. What you have are two opposing examinations about how various relationships function; the former is THREE’S COMPANY while the latter is MAD MAGAZINE.
Before I proceed any further, there is something I feel I should disclose: I have been dealing with a personal tragedy this past week. Someone who I knew for over a decade and watched grow up was “found dead” at 19 of a drug overdose. I was initially going to begin this article by telling you all about Chris and the sequence of self-destructive events that led to his death before realizing “Wow, that’s like the absolute worst way one could possible open an article that’s supposed to be reviewing a comedy.” I will just say this: Chris’s death has devastated me because I know it could have been prevented, and because I know his father gave up on him. This tragedy, coupled with the medical issues I have been having the past ten months, has left me in a very sombre and detached state, contemplative of relationships. Relationships are nuanced, complicated, and each minor interaction from one party carries weight in the lives of the other. Van Vorst’s directorial work examines the heart of interpersonal relationships. Perhaps part of the reason I responded to Mikhail’s performance so well is how much she reminds me of Chris during the last two years of his life.
TRI-STATE’s main strength is the dynamic of its trio of leads (in contrast, check out another Van Vorst-directed project, TINY FOR TWO, which I didn’t care for at all. TINY FOR TWO is basically TRI-STATE without characters you care about). Yet given TRI-STATE’s strong start, it sadly suffers from the lack of a seasoned screenwriter. It has all the right ingredients yet never fully lives up to its potential. The energy, music, characters, and fast-paced humor are all there, but somehow, the ten-episode series never fully gels and comes off feeling underwritten. There are no consequences to anything. The three leads are each intentional cliches of their respective state: Meredyth is from Connecticut and represents an upper-class, conservative, goody-girl, Daniela is a Jersey girl and is vapid, superficial, and mostly into herself and dating, and finally Skylar is the quintessential New Yorker with a “Whatever, fuck you!” attitude. Putting these three State Representatives in one apartment should lead to some major personality clashes and hilarity. But the end result just feels so…small-scale. For all the build-up, there’s never really a solid conflict or arc. The formula is generally consistent: Meredyth’s uptight, religious, and innocent personality is tested against the reckless and worldlier behavior of the other roomies, but nothing ever happens and then they’re always friends again.
-Meredyth gets over-excited about watching Daniela put makeup on, to the indifference of the others.
-Meredyth gets over-excited about teaching Daniela Spanish, to the indifference of the others.
-Meredyth gets over-excited about cooking, to the indifference of the others.
-The girls get jealous over the cute-looking repair-man (which is a rehashed joke from FIND LOVE, NYC).
-In one episode Meredyth freaks out that her cleaning chart has been ignored, a fight appears to escalate, then Skylar sucks in helium and everything is okay again. “That’s it!!! I am done!!!” Meredyth screams, yet by the time the next episode has started, they’re back to being friends and worrying about trivial matters like texting etiquette. Any sense of rising action is completely killed.
Meredyth never really affects Daniela, nor do either affect Skylar. Each of the three is set in her own ways and the relationships don’t build. Perhaps part of the reason #OliveInThat is my favorite episode is because the entire first half is just about Daniela and Skylar and their dynamic, which is not greatly explored otherwise. #TriAgain is another episode with much great interaction between the three, but all built around a non-climax. The musical score, very reminiscent of MAGNOLIA, is truly fantastic in that episode particularly as it nears the end.
Part of the problem might also be that while Meredyth and Daniela are funny, they feel like caricatures more than characters. Obviously the entire aesthetic of the series is intended to be heightened and exaggerated and Van Vorst uses frequent montages, fast-paced transitions, and Grady Christopher‘s charming score to his narrative advantage. But all the while, Skylar is a real character, grounded more in reality and tragedy, whose personality conveys backstory and weight. Skylar wears her pain as plainly as Daniela wears makeup. The pilot episode explains she needs to escape living with her mother; I wanted to see this mother and her dynamic with Skylar. Then the series would become about the relationships of not only roommates but mothers and daughters.
It has become something of a tradition that every year I gush over a female performance of a damaged, vulnerable girl. Last year I wrote that Corsica Wilson deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for THE LENGTHS. The year before I wrote that Dasha Kittredge deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for GREEN EYES. Now here I am saying the same thing about Amanda Mikhail, which might seem odd as this is a webseries and a comedy while the other two were features and dramas. Yet Skylar is every bit as fascinating and well-realized a damaged character as those two. For an example of what I mean, watch the opening 30 seconds of the episode #HardToGet. Skylar smokes her cigarette on a Astoria fire-escape against a metropolitan backdrop like a scene out of THE 400 BLOWS. Imagine how different it would be if Skylar didn’t put out that beautiful cigarette, crawl in through the window, and have the texting conversation that ensues. It would have been nicer to have just stayed on that fire-escape and watched Skylar be a figure of pure cinema against that New York of the movies.
Or consider the final episode #Rose, for which Daniela is strangely absent (for a show that was supposed to be about the relationship of a trio, ending it with an episode that doesn’t even feature all three characters is one of the oddest and most bizarre narrative missteps I’ve ever known. It’s almost as if the show is flat out admitting “We ran out of stuff for Daniela to do”). Just watch Mikhail’s face throughout her entire conversation with Meredyth and then the bartender. Watch the subtlety with which she switches from awkwardness to bemusement to seductive. It’s every bit a piece of strong comedic acting as anything by Herbert Lom. The epic saga of the three State Rep roommates ends not with any roommate shenanigans, but with Mikhail giving a smile the camera loves and Skylar getting a date!
After reading all this, it probably sounds like I am very critical of TRI-STATE. Not at all. I was entertained every moment of it. Mikhail, Van Vorst, and Mr. Grady all elevate the material. And again, compared to the misfire TINY FOR TWO, which has a pilot twice as long as TRI-STATE’s and not single ounce of its charm, I appreciate Meredyth, Daniela, and Skylar much more as protagonists.
Now let’s move on to JACKASS, which in many ways, is the organic continuation of TRI-STATE. In fact, I suspect it’s no coincidence that Mikhail is the only member of the TRI-STATE trio to also appear on JACKASS; this is a Skylar-oriented series. If TRI-STATE’s main flaw is its lack of consequences, JACKASS is all about cause and effect. WIth no episode going longer than three minutes, each one captures conflict in an instant. Take for instance the episode “Pee,” which is almost a tribute to the cinema of Blake Edwards. The joke happens offscreen but is conveyed entirely from what we hear. Every couple can relate to this; what man hasn’t accidentally urinated all over the toilet seat?
I actually did it just this morning!
In a sense, while TRI-STATE was naively optimistic, showing three different personalities always getting along and always being friends again by the next episode, JACKASS is starkly pessimistic, showing every relationship being strained to a breaking point by chronic failures of communication. Even simple setups like “Tickling” and “Dinner” show the effects of isolation.
And by spreading its canvass out to include everything from gay couples to over-the-top farce (“Bad News” is deliciously dark), its scope is enormous. If Skylar was a character that wore pain openly, JACKASS embraces pain, makes misery the root of all comedy.
So what are JACKASS’s flaws? One is the use of stock music that doesn’t always fit. The lack of Mr. Grady is sorely missed and the royalty-free Kevin MacLeod has become a name appearing in the credits of far too much indie projects these days. Because JACKASS by its nature is not focused on character development, the quick characters it offers have to deliver right off the bat, which can be hit or miss.
The series has only produced one truly bad episode: “Milestones.” Aside from the fact that the entire episode revolves around a pretty lame joke, more like something you’d see in a GARFIELD cartoon, its setup and execution feel artificial, and the use of stock music only adds to the inauthentic feel. The characters do not even attempt to react realistically when the belch occurs. “Milestones” lacks gravitas and is the only episode to not, on at least a basic level, offer any real insight into a relationship. Perhaps the fact it is the shortest episode of the series plays a role in this as well.
TRI-STATE needs JACKASS and vice-versa. As I said, they are a single work that compliment each other perfectly. Will either series produce more seasons? My ideal continuation of either series would be Skylar getting her own spin-off. Van Vorst, Mikhail, and Mr. Grady are a perfect storm of talent, comparable to François Truffaut, Antoine Doinel, and Jean Constantin.
Binge-watching through these shows as a way of coping with Chris’s death, I’ve had a lot to chew on. Relationships are multifaceted: between boyfriend and girlfriend, boyfriend and boyfriend, mother and daughter, roommate and roommates, director and actress, director and composer, director and script, and between the detached individual and the world. Like Skylar, I sometimes live out on a fire-escape, wanting to isolate myself from the “texting marathon” that seems to consume everyone indoors in the social world. As for Van Vorst, I hope he grows as a director, showing us more mature relationships, and, much like Wes Anderson in the following short, makes art that reminds us that life does indeed go on. Beyond tragedy, beyond screwed-up relationships, beyond isolation, beyond the roommates that come and go in our lives…life goes on.
Stay tuned in the weeks to come when my full list of the Top Ten Indie Productions of 2015 will be disclosed.
Gabe Rodriguez is a writer, filmmaker, critic, and SAG-Eligible actor. He enjoys Apple Martinis, hand-rolled cigars, arthouse & independent films, good books, and Caribbean & South American history. You may see some of his work here.