SXSW 2021’s TV offerings span various genres, levels of promise

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The 2021 South by Southwest, or SXSW, Film Festival featured two categories for upcoming television series — one for exhibiting pilots that have already been picked up by networks and one in which unattached pilots competed for the jury prize. Here is a guide to some of the more notable entries, as well as a heads-up for which shows will be worth watching when they hit the airwaves this spring.

“Made for Love”

HBO Max’s “Made for Love” clearly aspires to be the half-hour dramedy equivalent of Netflix’s zeitgeisty “Black Mirror,” taking aim at the bleaker corners of technological advancement. Cristin Milioti stars as Hazel, the downtrodden wife of Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) — you know, like Google? — whose God complex is so advanced he makes her complete performance reviews on her own orgasms with his subordinates.

The show’s pilot opens on Hazel’s escape from life with her husband, offering the depressing details of Hazel’s day-to-day after a “record scratch” flashback to 24 hours earlier. “Made for Love” lays its intended themes bare from the get-go; he’s a tech bro control freak, and she’s seeking liberation. For the most part, this commentary lands artlessly. The ideas are there, but the straightforward script and drab visual style don’t do much to elevate the concept beyond its inherent appeal. Milioti’s performance is charming, though — perhaps that’s reason enough to tune in when the show premieres April 1.

Grace Orriss

“Cruel Summer”

If a show set in the mid-90s that combines “Heathers,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The Lovely Bones” sounds too haywire to be true, that’s because it is — but on Freeform, the dark teen drama “Cruel Summer” has found a perfect home. Starring Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt, the pilot of “Cruel Summer” follows high school student Jeanette Turner (Aurelia) over three summers as she transforms from a frizzy nobody into one of the most popular girls in school. There’s something sinister about her metamorphosis, though: Her new friends, new boyfriend and new life once belonged to former queen bee Kate Wallis (Holt), who disappeared without a trace at the end of the first summer. 

The pilot takes a while to find its footing, especially due to its jumbled chronology — if following the time jumps in “Little Women” based solely on the characters’ hairstyles proved a challenge for you, “Cruel Summer” might be utterly illegible. Still, the premise is exciting, if a bit shallow, and the performances are more earnest and rooted than most teen dramas these days. “Cruel Summer” will premiere April 21, and it’ll be one to watch.

— Matthew DuMont

“Them”

Contemporary horror properties derive their scares from social ills — “Get Out,” “Midsommar” and “Ready or Not” are just a few of the trendiest examples. Little Marvin’s “Them” snugly positions itself within the same vein as these other efforts, telling the story of a Black family who moves to an all-white neighborhood in 1953 as part of the larger movement of the Great Migration. Throughout the pilot’s foreboding runtime, it’s clear that the evils of racism and the supernatural will provide the basis for the series’ central metaphor. 

When Livia Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) moves her family to California, she’s quickly met with insidious resistance: Her new neighbor Betty Wendell (Alison Pill) leads a cavalcade of hateful housewives who pointedly sit outside her house all day and whose husbands plot to kill the Emorys’ dog. Adding to this atmosphere are the otherworldly elements that seem to have come with their house — a boilerplate jump scare sequence in the first episode does most of the work here, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The pilot sets up some intriguing central mysteries and showcases some great central performances — Ayorinde is wonderful — but it remains to be seen if this new anthology series will continue to expand on its social commentary in novel, meaningful ways.

Grace Orriss

“Pretend Partners”

Despite being draped in the aesthetic of a stylish 2010s dramedy, “Pretend Partners” has, at its core, the sensibility of a rejected mid-2000s Judd Apatow project. The debut episode, part of SXSW’s Episodic Pilot Competition, introduces us to Michelle (Kristin Erickson) and Rob (Ron Najor), two single people with no chemistry who decide to fake being in a relationship with one another because their married friends apparently only hang out with other couples. 

Unfortunately, Erickson and Najor — who also created and wrote the show — don’t have enough charisma to bring the thin premise to life. Where previous works such as “To All the Boys I Loved Before” have succeeded by producing a believably awkward, yet endearing will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic between their leads, it’s difficult to root for Michelle and Rob to stay platonic friends, let alone develop real feelings for each other. This as-yet unattached pilot might work well as a Hulu original series, but it has a ways to go before it develops into something truly special. 

Matthew DuMont

Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.