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Why The Independent Spirit Awards Make For Such Great TV

Fun and scrappy, Hollywood's annual beach party is everything the Oscars aren't.
  • SNL's Melissa Villaseñor hosts this year's Film Independent Spirit Awards. (NBC/IFC)
    SNL's Melissa Villaseñor hosts this year's Film Independent Spirit Awards. (NBC/IFC)

    In the awards season economy, one of the most oft-peddled takes is that Oscar years where the majority of the nominated films are indies tend to bring in the lowest ratings. Part of this gets blamed on the fact that indies make less money and are thus unfamiliar to the majority of the TV audience. Another part is the tenor of indie films themselves, which tend to be characterized as slow, contemplative, sad, challenging, or impenetrable, when what TV viewers want to see is a giant ocean liner thrillingly sink into the sea. Which is probably why the annual Film Independent Spirit Awards (the Indie Spirits, colloquially) sound like they'd be a bummer for anyone who isn't deeply plugged into indie film or who hasn't actually seen a Spirit Awards telecast.

    The Independent Spirit Awards have been broadcast on IFC since 1996, airing before the Oscars from a tent set up on the beach in Santa Monica. The dress is casual, the vibe is fun, and the hosts and presenters have always tried to emphasize just how unlike the Oscars they are, even as, in more recent years, the overlap between Oscars and Spirits winners has become more of a thing. The Indie Spirits are a beach party, and they've consistently provided some of the best and most fun moments from awards seasons past. Here's why.

    The Hosts: While the Oscars hosting gig has been described as a poison chalice, a prestigious gig that invites far more scrutiny and criticism than praise, the Indie Spirits hosting gig has been a chance for the kinds of edgy and outrageous personalities who'd never get to host the Academy Awards to do their thing. John Waters truly put his stamp on the role, hosting four consecutive times in the early 2000s. Since then, the ceremony has been hosted by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Eddie Izzard, Andy Samberg, and, for the last two years, Aubrey Plaza. The two years before that were hosted by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, whose outsider status within the film industry, paired with their sharp pop culture insights, made them ideal hosts for piercing the inherent back-patting nature of Hollywood film awards while still celebrating the nominees and supporting the films. This year, Saturday Night Live star Melissa Villaseñor will host.

    The Comedy: Inserting comedy into an awards show is always a dicey proposition. You risk prolonging the show's run time, killing the vibe in the room, or just bombing. The Indie Spirits break for comedy a lot, and what tends to work about the way they do is that the comedy breaks — sketches or songs, usually — end up being incredibly literate about the films and celebrities they're parodying. Take the following two examples: one is from the 2016 Spirit Awards, when hosts Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani did a parody of the Todd Haynes film Carol that took hyper-specific focus on the "clandestine glove lunches" required for gay women of that time period. It's hard to parody indie films because the risk of punching down on a piece of art that likely had to struggle to get made in the first place is high, but McKinnon and Nanjiani delivered a lovingly observed tribute to a great film:

    And here's last year's performance by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles that begins as a tribute to the LGBTQ films of 2019, but quickly morphs into a laundry list of more esoteric gay-appealing things about that year's films, before finally building to a crescendo of praise for that icon for gay cinephiles everywhere: Laura Dern. The references are so incredibly specific (Idina Menzel in Uncut Gems, the concept of a cursed bird from The Lighthouse) to both queerness and indie films that it plays like a love letter to both.

    The Winners: The winners of the Spirit Awards have begun to align more closely with Oscar winners in recent years, which does undercut the — no pun intended — spirit of the show's framing as an alterna-Oscars. But that's mostly a reflection of the Oscars themselves becoming more indie. And the Spirits still manage to get ahead of the Oscars on occasion. Like how the Spirits gave Matthew McConaughey their award for Best Supporting Male for Magic Mike, the year before the McConaissance crested with his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club. Likewise, Chloe Zhao is poised to win the Academy Award for Best Director this year for her film Nomadland, but three years ago the Spirits honored her with an award for her work directing her previous film, The Rider.

    Those moments when the Spirits most sharply diverge from the Oscars are always the most rewarding. Like when they awarded Mya Taylor Best Supporting Female, for Tangerine or when an exuberant Molly Shannon took the stage to accept her Supporting Female award for Other People. The gold standard of this, however, will always be Ally Sheedy. The former Breakfast Club actress won raves for her 1998 comeback role in director Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, and when Sheedy won the Best Female Lead award for it, she delivered an epic ten-minute speech that was simultaneously unhinged but also needle sharp about the prospects for actresses in Hollywood. It's an all-timer (it's not available in short form, but YouTube is streaming that year's full show — hosted by Queen Latifah — and you can watch Sheedy's moment at the 1 hour, 23 minute mark below).

    There are so many little things that go into making the Independent Spirit Awards so much fun to watch. The Golden Globes have a reputation for being boozy, but there are few things better than watching celebrities day-drinking on the beach. This year's ceremony — delayed, along with the Oscars — is airing on a Thursday night for the first time ever, and while the show's usual beachy fun will have to wait until we're clear of the pandemic, one can only hope that some of that signature Spirits spark will be present as the show goes virtual for this year's ceremony.

    The Film Independent Spirit Awards air on IFC Thursday April 22 at 10:00 PM ET / 7:00 PM PT.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Independent Spirit Awards, IFC, Ally Sheedy, John Mulaney, Kate McKinnon, Kumail Nanjiani, Laura Dern, Melissa Villasenor, Nick Kroll