Community and Cocktails in Austin, Texas

Well! Here is a post about things that happened two months ago — some of which you can still enjoy!

From Dark Winds' Austin premiere: cast member Jessica Matten, cast member and executive producer Zahn McClarnon (Joe Leaphorn), cast member Kiowa Gordon (Jim Chee) and cast member Deanna Allison (Emma Leaphorn)

I had meant to put this post up much earlier this summer, but I’ve been finishing the writing and reporting for my first book — Burn It Down, due out next year from Mariner Press. As you can imagine, this project has been pretty all-consuming, in the sense of “spent several recent weeks/months chained to my laptop while appearing increasingly unkempt.” On that front (and some others), the last few months have been pretty hardcore, but I’m pleased about where the book stands. Going forward, there will be adjustments and edits and so forth, but a lot of the core writing has been done, and I’m more excited about the whole endeavor than ever. Excited and more than a little tired. At one point, when I got very punchy, I generated this bit of necessary For All Mankind/Deep Space Nine content. You’re welcome!

Jessica Matten (Bernadette Manuelito)

Anyway, I will be diving back into a major round of edits soon, but until then, let’s enter the wayback machine! In June, my husband and I went to the ATX TV Festival, which we first began attending around 2016 or so. Right from the start, we dug just about every aspect of the gathering. The fact that it’s in Austin, which has so much good food and music and all the excellent things Austin is known for, is very much in its favor. Austin has changed a lot since our first time there — visiting the set of Friday Night Lights in 2007, a truly life-changing trip — but it’s still a cool city, and seeing friends who live there is another big plus.

In any event, the folks who organize and run the ATX Fest set a chill, kind, considerate tone, which is another big reason we keep going. Every year, we see a lot of the same people (and many are among my favorite people in the industry), and we often meet new people who seem pretty great. This past June, it was once again enjoyable to watch a very specific look dawn on some industry folks’ faces. It’s an expression that goes on a journey: “Hey, wait, is this … actually fun? Is this… not stressful like many other Hollywood events? I think I’m having fun? Am I definitely having fun?! Dammit, I'm having fun!” This is not to shade any other industry promotional/panel/convention situations, not at all; I participate in and/or derive benefits from many of them. But other events can be more crowded, difficult, logistically trying or challenging on various fronts. By the last day of ATX, however, across many years, I have heard a lot of folks talking about trying to come back the next year, which is a good sign.

But there was an added element to this year’s fest. Normally I go to LA and New York two or three times a year, to see friends and family, and to do interviews and attend events like the Television Critics Association press tour. I have not done those things for a long time (this year’s summer TCA was going to be in person, but understandably, it was switched to virtual). It’s not as though I was unaware that I missed being with people I care about, a number of whom I have not seen in going on three years. I have taken small trips here and there, but those were usually quite brief and I was rarely with large groups of people (not intentionally, anyway). Those trips were not about being in community with a range of folks I like, might like or would be interested in talking to or hanging out with.

Dark Winds actor Amelia Rico (Ada Growing Thunder), wearing a wrap by J. Okuma and an earring by Tochtli Wear. 
Dark Winds actor Amelia Rico (Ada Growing Thunder), wearing a wrap by J. Okuma and an earring by Tochtli Wear. (Every panelist at the premiere brought their fashion A-game, but I loved this look so much I had to ask who the designers were!)

What provoked strong emotions more than once during our time in Austin was this: I didn’t fully realize how much I’d needed to be with my community. It was as if I had been thirsty so long that I got used to being thirsty, to the point where I kind of forgot about it. And then someone put a glass of water in front of me, and it was one of the most refreshing glasses of water I’d ever consumed.

I’ve primarily worked from home for more than 15 years, and those trips to NY and LA were often the way that I got to be around groups of peers, friends, frenemies, professional contacts and other folks I like or enjoy (or enjoy talking about over drinks). This is by far not the worst thing to endure in these pandemic times, I fully realize that, but here’s the thing: I think I’d stuffed down my need for certain kinds of community so deeply, for so long, that I forgot that these were actual needs. They have always been a vital one for someone who largely lives inside her head, works from home and for whom a trip to Costco is, like, exciting.

Zahn McClarnon

Holy shit, did I need some community time. Not all of the communities I'm part of were in attendance in Austin, but, in the realms of reporters/Hollywood/TV/etc., a lot of folks I knew were there. I got to hang out with friends, meet new people and have great, interesting, thoughtful, funny, gossipy conversations. Sometimes bat cocktails were involved. It just felt so good. Having spent so long in in various forms of lockdown, and then on top of that, spending many months inside the dark tunnel known as Actually Finishing the Damn Book, hanging out in person with people who care about what I'm writing about – and just shooting the shit and having drinks with friends old and new – it was all a real pleasure. There was much to savor. And I felt something like relief.

Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon, Jessica Matten, Chris Eyre, Graham Roland, Deanna Allison and EP Vince Calandra

For the book, I talked to director Silas Howard, and tried not to fangirl him too much about Dickinson (but of course I totally fangirled him a little bit). I did a panel that was just me and Judy Reyes of Scrubs and Claws (and so many other projects) talking about her journey in the industry and what’s changed and what hasn’t in Hollywood. (The conversation with Judy will be out later this year as a podcast. You should absolutely check out the ATX TV Campfire podcast feed and YouTube channel for many of the fest’s great conversations, past and present). I sat in the audience for a terrific panel of Station Eleven folks from many different departments talking about how they put together that absolutely enthralling show. I’m not going to enumerate every panel I attended, but another interesting one was the Justified reunion, which was as thoughtful and smart and funny as the show was.

I was fortunate enough to moderate two panels about excellent shows that are vitally interested in the complexities of the communities they depict.

Rutherford Falls cast members Jessie Leigh and Dustin Milligan

Rutherford Falls is about a small town full of eccentric, earnest, silly and delightful characters. The second season dropped on Peacock June 12, and I hope you enjoyed the love triangles and deeply awkward funeral-home moments and Halloween party hijinks and all the rest as much as I did. I absolutely adored Episode 5, “Adirondack S3,” which mercilessly and hilariously eviscerated the ways Indigenous people are usually depicted by Hollywood. The writers and cast clearly had a blast putting the industry on blast in this way, but the show does many different things well. It’s hard to pick what I enjoy most, honestly.

EP, co-creator and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas and EP, cast member and co-creator Ed Helms of Rutherford Falls

One thing I love is that each person on the show displays a community of qualities: Terry Thomas is a businessman, a father, a husband, a mentor, a friend and also an outstanding dancer (for more on Michael Greyeyes, who plays Terry, check out this interview). Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) is an ambitious professional, a woman juggling various romantic prospects, a guardian of her tribe’s identity and history, a friend, a boss and a goofball who isn’t sure where to set boundaries. Nobody's just one thing, and everybody's changing all the time (not least Nathan Rutherford, who's played by Ed Helms). I hope Rutherford Falls keeps on going for quite some time, in part because, by the end of the season, there was clearly so much more story territory to be explored.

Sierra Teller Ornelas, Ed Helms with cast member and writer Jana Schmieding

You can watch the Rutherford Falls panel on Youtube or here. My deep gratitude to the cast and EP/showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas for a truly delightful, illuminating conversation.

Dark Winds, which is on AMC (and the streaming service AMC+) is another show about the collisions that result from the conflicting agendas in a specific community. Chris Eyre, who is an executive producer and directed several episodes, did an incredible job of shooting the show, which is filmed in New Mexico. A lot of people had to fight for a lot of years to get Dark Winds made, and I’m glad they persevered. The show has an evocative atmosphere, a brisk pace, memorable character dynamics and an outstanding cast led by the truly gifted Zahn McClarnon. If you like well-crafted, highly specific mystery tales and you love how Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul depict the majestic Southwestern landscape, you are probably going to dig this show. I’m so glad it was renewed for a second season.

The Dark Winds panel is here and below. Huge thanks to the cast, Eyre and EP/showrunner Graham Roland for being so perceptive, funny and fascinating to talk to.

It matters that these shows were created and brought to life by casts and creative teams that were dominated by Indigenous folks. That is still very rare, and it shouldn’t be. Reservation Dogs, which just returned for a second season on FX (you can stream it on Hulu), just won a much-deserved Peabody Award. The movie Prey is one of the most successful projects Hulu ever launched. I’m glad these projects are getting the eyeballs and the awards and the media attention they so richly deserve. But one thing I worry about a lot is this: The industry is — not everywhere and not as much as it should, still — cracking open the door to voices and creative visions that have long been minimized, mistreated and excluded.

How do we make sure that, in a year or three or five, that door doesn’t slam shut again? How do we make sure that the kind of long-overdue changes the industry needs on many fronts go deeper, become more authentic, enduring and sustainable? There’s no one answer to this question (sorry to hype the book again, but I do get into these questions in Burn It Down). In any event, the conversations I had on stages and elsewhere at ATX made me feel some hope on these fronts. No, the industry is not fixed – far from it – but I’m more aware than ever that many people not only share these kinds of concerns but are committed to doing something about them. There has been progress, but the industry is still a brutal place and more likely than ever to give TV shows overly short runs, and, in doing so, it’s making careers for many kinds of artists not just difficult but unsustainable. So ... I don’t know.

But at least I got to be in community for a few days with people who care about this stuff, and, between taco runs, we chewed on those questions and many others. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the chance to do all that in person was meaningful for me. I feel fortunate that I was able to go. And I want to thank so many people and communities — especially Judy Reyes and everyone who makes the magic of Rutherford Falls, Dark Winds and ATX itself — for making me feel welcome. For making a long summer weekend feel like home.

(A few bits of housekeeping: I recently started this newsletter, which you are quite welcome to sign up for, and I have a personal site also, which has links to a lot of my work (some of which you can also find here). Too Many Sites! But also, so much to savor, amirite? Finally, there are bound to be typos in this. I apologize in advance. I will try not to over-obsess about them, and I will, of course, fix them in post.)