Why ATX Television Festival Means So Much To Me

Two years ago, the job that I thought was my dream job completely fell apart and I was hurled into freak-out mode, facing a barrage of daunting questions about my future. It was a reality I wasn’t quite ready to face, but there it was, every day, haunting me.

I know that sounds dramatic but I can tell you that the way in which this particular misfortune came about was painful, shocking, faith-shaking stuff.

In the midst of this, I was aware that ATX Television Festival was about to head into its third year with Roswell and Everwood reunions among the festivities. Stuck in Virginia, there was definitely a part of me that would see every announcement about that year’s festival pop up online and wish I had the power to teleport there, away from questions that I didn’t have answers to and problems I didn’t have the will to face some days.

That’s when I heard from Tina.

Tina is a long-time friend who has the reputation among my group of friend as being the only person as obsessed with TV as I am. She actually started as a friend of a friend and didn’t even live in the same state as I did growing up (Florida, if you care), but every year, she’d come down for a couple weeks around New Year’s and we’d all hang out and our friend, Jerry, would torture us by throwing out names for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon because he knew that our compulsion to answer was too great to resist and it amused him to no end.

Tina texted me around the time of this life meltdown telling me she had an extra badge for the festival, already had a place to stay and if I could find a way down there, it’s mine to enjoy. She even ended up letting me use some of her points to take care of some of the flight costs. I know that thinking back to that time when my life felt like it was unraveling, I’ll forever be grateful for her generosity and for the fact that when I went to my wife and said, “Hey….I know our life’s blowing up right now but do you mind if I run off to Austin to hang out with Tina and attend a TV festival?” she enthusiastically encouraged me to take our friend up on her offer.

It was an incredible time. Like, seriously. Ridiculously fun in a way that I really can’t imagine experiencing somewhere else.

I’ve never been to a “con” before and don’t immediately feel drawn to that sort of thing because massive crowds and hysteria can sometimes be a bit much for me. I also don’t find the cattle line approach to getting a pic with celebs to be all that appealing. I’d still probably welcome the opportunity to attend something like that but what drew me to ATX (besides the fact that I grew up on The WB and I feel like they just “get” me) was that it felt much more intimate and personal.

So I went and it exceeded every high expectation I had set for it. The Roswell panel was so much fun, wonderful nostalgia, revisiting a show that was an absolute obsession of mine in middle school when I first started getting into television on a larger scale (before that, The X-Files–which I started watching way too young–was the only necessity). The Everwood panel just felt like a big family event and the sincerity with which each of the cast members, writers, etc, talked about the show really moved me as a fan. Chris Pratt facetiming in from the set of Jurassic World was pretty fun too.

From the Friday Night Lights tailgate party to screening early episodes of Fargo and The Strain (followed up by cast interviews), I was in TV fan heaven.

So of course, I had to go back.

The following Christmas, I didn’t really worry about gifts so much as asking everyone in my life to fund a trip back to Austin for another year of ATX.

Little did I know, the professional downfall I had experienced prior to my first trip would be the sort of long, drawn-out torturous affair that isn’t taken care of in a matter of months. The weeks leading up to my trip back were filled with false hope, an incredible opportunity and some of the most crushing disappointment ever conceived. It sucked. Things really sucked.

But when I went back to Austin, I left those worries behind and got to catch up with the Gilmore Girls, a show that I gladly endured ridicule for liking as a high school guy because I knew it was brilliant and it was made by brilliant people who I’m happy to have just shared oxygen with for a couple hours. Speaking of brilliant, I got to sit in on a The Leftovers panel with Damon Lindelof, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Mimi Leder and Christopher Eccleston. I mean, seriously, are you kidding me!? Getting to spend an hour in their minds, hearing them talk passionately about this beautiful show they all work on together was a treat no words could do justice.

The casts of You’re The Worst and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (not to mention Denis Leary, displaying zero chill) showed off genius of the comedic persuasion and I got to share an elevator with Art Mullen and get my picture taken with Hep Alien!

So what am I saying? Did ATX save my life? Well, no. There were a lot of days during those incredibly difficult two years where I wasn’t at ATX. I was facing life. It was my faith, friends, family and a wife that is stronger, more patient, understanding and encouraging than I can begin to describe that helped pull me through the deep end of disillusionment, but ATX did provide an essential escape that came right when I needed it, two years in a row.

It allowed me to sneak away to a community of people passionate about the same things I am. Most TV fans as enthusiastic as I have probably been dismissed or belittled by someone with the opinion that TV is nothing more than an idiot box. Of course, we all know that there’s so much more to this medium and that, when in the right hands, it can be such a powerful work of art; resonating emotionally, aesthetically, culturally, spiritually  etc.,

I certainly haven’t faced any kind of marginalization that many groups have faced that find solace and community in television that speaks to and represents them, but I’ve always responded to television stronger than most anyone in my life and sometimes that can make you feel weird. The connection I feel towards episodes like Buffy’s ‘The Body” or Man Men’s “The Suitcase”, Scrubs’ “My Screw-Up”, Everwood’s “Episode 20” the entire second season (and much of the first) of The Leftovers (and the list goes on) is deep and meaningful in a way that is probably not typical. There were a lot of days in the past that made me feel really strange. Now….I’m okay with it.

I’d gotten okay with it before my first trip to ATX but it was certainly a significant experience to be in room after room with people who feel the same passion towards this medium that I do and to hear from the people who help create it. Often times, these panels end up feeling like a sanctuary of sorts; a safe place for “TV geeks” to just embrace the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the way genre fare makes you grin (while also somehow touching your very soul), the way the Greendale study group makes you laugh (and kind of feel like your best friends) or the way a great performance can stir, inspire and haunt you for weeks (or longer).

We’re all weird together (and weirdness is strongly encouraged in Austin).

Everyone connects with different things. For some, it’s sports. For some it’s music (which does it for me too) or some other kind of art. For others, it’s….I don’t know. Crafting. Hiking. Cooking. The list goes on. Whatever makes you feel something and shakes something up inside of you is worth investigating and if it’s something that ends up making you a better, more enlightened person, then go for it. And I do feel that connecting with television in the way I have has absolutely helped me to understand people different than I better, it’s inspired me in my own work (as I continue to pursue writing myself) and challenged me in countless ways.

There’s a lot of people that aren’t gonna connect with TV the same way we do. For many, UnReal is just gonna be a show about a fake Bachelor, The Flash is just about a superhero and The Americans is….well, never mind, if you watch The Americans there’s no way you’re missing the point there. You’ve got a smart and sophisticated pallette. Congratulations.

I’ve enjoyed online conversations about great TV, but getting to experience that buzzing excitement in person was even better and something I won’t soon forget.

Partly because I’m going back this year.

Last year while I was at ATX, I received an email asking me to come in for a job interview at the place I’m currently employed. In fact, the two months after ATX were a complete and utter whirlwind and it’s been pretty amazing; I’m happy and fulfilled and excited about what’s going on in life.

So this year, I’m going as a new man of sorts, with a new anticipation that doesn’t come out of some need to escape but with love and excitement for a place that I’ve come to feel is so special.

I don’t know that I can keep going every year–I’m in Ohio now and that’s still quite far from Texas–but I hope to keep ATX a part of my life. What the festival founders, Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gibson, have created is a TV haven unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard about and I so appreciate what they do every year and I’m glad to have gotten to experience it.

This year, I’m thrilled to be catching up with The West Wing administration (who I would vote for in a heartbeat this election), gleaning wisdom from some of my favorite TV critics, attending panels touching on everything from faith on TV to burying tropes and pulling off stunts, catching early screenings of Pitch and The Exorcist, checking in on a Preacher panel, witnessing a conversation between Jerrod Carmichael and Norman Lear and attending a tailgate on Panther Field.

Wow. And that’s not even all of it.

I’m especially excited this year that Tina and I will be joined by some first ever ATX-attendees. My brother Brandon and our friend Daniel (who hosts the podcast with me when we do it) will be driving from South Carolina to partake in the festivities. Like any normal people, they’ve decided to liven up their road trip by listening to “Geronimo” by the band Sheppard on repeat for 17 hours straight and live-streaming it. If you want to watch that this Wednesday, June 8th, you can.

I’m excited for the week ahead, for ATX existing and being the awesome, unique thing that it is, and grateful that I was able to find reprieve there during some really crappy times. Whether it’s the best of times or worst of times for you, it’s worth attending. This year. Next year. Every year. As early and as often as you can. This thing is special.

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