The 10 Biggest Takeaways From Variety’s 2023 TV FYC Fest

Variety’s annual TV FYC Fest was packed with big names and your favorite stars from the small screen. Christina Applegate (“Dead to Me”) made a rare appearance to accept the Legacy Award, Brooke Shields spoke passionately about the reality of co-existing in the world of social media and Kerry Washington (“UnPrisoned”) joined a collective of equally hilarious actresses including Elle Fanning (“The Great”), Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”) and Gina Rodriguez (“Dead To Me”) to discuss forging vanity for laughs and embracing the “messy” woman.

The all-day discussion also tackled the state of television today amid a writers strike and an ever-changing landscape of streaming. We’ve rounded up the standout moments from Variety’s TV FYC Fest panels and presentations which brought out important — and at times hilarious — conversations about this season of shows.

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Unscripted TV For the Soul and How Nostalgia Sells

When it comes to unscripted television, nostalgia is always a sure bet. Reviving game shows like “Password,” “The $100,000 Pyramid” or “Match Game” helped reel in older audiences who felt a connection to these programs.

“There’s a nice nostalgia thing going on, it’s almost like chicken soup for the soul or a nice warm blanket,” said Rod Aissa during the Visionaries of Unscripted TV Programming panel moderated by Variety’s Michael Schneider. Aissa is EVP of entertainment unscripted content at NBCUniversal.

In addition to game shows, broadcast networks can dip into their personal IPs to bring iconic faces back to the screen. A-listers are always a good route as well. “I’ve always had A-List pitches. They know the importance of branding and keeping themselves relevant, but they’re not gonna come with a bad idea,” said Aissa, who was a producer on MTV’s “The Osbournes.”

Niecy Nash-Betts Leaned on Hilarious “Reno 911!” Reboot to Get Through Shooting “Dahmer”

Niecy Nash-Betts recently took on two very monumental but very different projects. She reprised her role as Deputy Raineesha Williams in the upcoming “Reno 911!” movie, and at the same time, played the neighbor of an infamous serial killer for Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Some days, she was shooting both projects back to back. Taking on such a heavy role for “Dahmer” often took a toll on Nash, but she had “Reno” to help get her through.

The cast is just as hilarious as they were in “Reno” Season 1, which they proved during their “Reno 911!” 20-Year Reunion panel. At the mention of the now-dead streamer Quibi, Cedric Yarbrough broke out singing Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday” while Mary Birdsong and Thomas Lennon poured some out for Quibi into the plants on stage.

“Reno” was a unique show, in that the actors were able to build their characters through the on-screen improv comedy. When Yarbrough auditioned, he did an Aaron Neville impression by dipping a Reeses into some peanut butter and fashioning it as a mole on his face. “He had a peanut butter cup sliding down his face and a baby gap outfit, and we were like, ‘We have no more questions, you got it,’” said Lennon.

“I made him do that routine at my moms funeral. And it killed,” said Kerri Kenney-Silver.

Bringing Reality Back to Reality TV: Why Stars Need to Be Their Authentic Selves

Some of reality TV’s biggest stars discussed the state of the genre during the Reality Trailblazers panel moderated by Variety’s Emily Longeretta. Hannah Brown, star of the “Bachelorette” Season 17, said that there’s an ongoing decline of authenticity. “People were starting to see that they could make a career out of going on these shows,” Brown said. Using reality TV as a ticket to fame can take away from the success of some programs, especially dating shows, she believes.

Johnny Bananas, star of MTV’s classic reality game show “The Challenge,” weighed in on what the genre was like at the start. “Reality TV back in the day used to be the wild West. They would cast people based on how unhinged and crazy they were,” he said.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Trixie Motel” star Trixie Mattel says the same of doing drag. “Doing drag just to do ‘Drag Race’ is like a little spooky. It’s like singing to do ‘American Idol.’ Authenticity always reads through,” she said.

“Fans, they’re like Sherlock f—king Holmes. If you aren’t being the authentic version of yourself on reality TV, they will sniff if it out and call you out,” said Bananas.

The Cannibalism of “Yellowjackets” Was Dark, But Not the Darkest Part of the Show

Stars of “Yellowjackets” Samantha Hanratty and Courtney Eaton gave an in-depth look at some of the show’s most gruesome moments during the Behind the Scenes with “Yellowjackets” panel moderated by Variety’s Michael Schneider.

“Jacky was made out of jackfruit,” said Hanratty, who plays Misty on the show. “So when we dug into her leg, that’s what it was.” This gave most of the cast a serious aversion to the common meat alternative, which can be a problem if you don’t eat meat. “A lot of the cast is vegan — for real,” said series director Karyn Kusama. “So it’s an added challenge to depict what we’re depicting.”

Still, eating their friends is not the most harrowing part of the show.

“The cannibalism, as dark as it is, will not be the darkest thing they go through in this show,” said Eaton. The show tackles the ailments of womanhood, finding and losing trust and how hard it can be to as a young woman to find support.

“It’s supposed to be a very difficult, disturbing exploration of how we experience being pushed to the edge of survival,” said Kusama. “It’s about how women can find these alliances but also these hierarchies that can be really damaging to our souls, as well as to how they collaborate and find a way to survive together.”

Max is Not Too Keen on Using AI in the Creative Process

Casey Bloys, chair & CEO of HBO and Max content, spoke with Variety’s co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton about advancements in technology and their place in entertainment.

“I’ve been at HBO for 19 years,” said Bloys. “And I have never tested a pilot to decide whether to pick it up or not. We just don’t use all of the things other places do.”

“So my take on AI, the idea that AI would be involved in any sort of development or the creative process in the kinds of shows that we do at HBO, that’s not something I want to be a part of,” he said. The use of AI in the creative process is a key issue raised by the WGA prior to their strike, and has yet to be agreed upon by both studios and writers.

Brooke Shields Doesn’t Think Social Media Gives Women in Hollywood Enough Agency

Actor Brooke Shields sat down with Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister to talk about her lifelong career in entertainment as shown in the her documentary “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.” Wagmeister discussed the differences between then and now: how tabloids once controlled the story of stars lives, but that social media now gives a woman the ability to control her narrative.

“Can you though?” Shields asked. “I don’t know if you can. This is a fraught topic,” she said. “I have two daughters, one is 20 and one is 17 and they are under the impression that they own their narrative, but they don’t necessarily understand the nuance of it.”

“I’m not sure don’t know I could have survived social media,” Shields said. “I was in a bubble. My nature was sweet, so I don’t think I would have been able to handle it.”

Finding a Place for Documentary Filmmaking On-Screen and in Awards

Amid this golden age of docs, documentarians Alex Pritz (“The Territory”), Allen Hughes (“Dear Mama”), Ondi Timoner (“Last Flight Home”) and Zachary Heinzerling (”Stolen Youth: Inside The Cult At Sarah Lawrence”) spoke with Variety’s co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton.

“We’re very curious people and we’re just going to keep making documentaries whether you like it or not,” said Timoner. “My film ‘Last Flight Home’ wasn’t motivated at all by a marketplace. It was something I felt I had to do.” Making documentaries takes people beyond the headlines into stories that might not have been told otherwise, and there lies their vitality.

If there is any slow down in documentary creation, directors like Heinzerling believe it’s because of how cheap they used to be to make. Now, he believes more effort and care are being put into them, which makes them more time-consuming and expensive.

Allen Hughes says that awards are important because they give documentaries more power. “If a documentary doesn’t get acknowledged, most people won’t see it unless there’s incredible word of mouth,” he said.

“And the press, you guys are important too,” said Heinzerling.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner Says Longevity Is a Key Focus in His Career

Malcolm-Jamal Warner recently starred on crime anthology series “Accused,” but he’s been a star since long before that. As a kid, Warner starred on “The Cosby Show,” and since the start of his career, his mom has constantly brought up the importance of longevity in the entertainment industry.

“Being able to navigate these waters and still have my head on my shoulders, still have my soul intact and still be a good person,” said Warner. “I’ve always attributed so much of that to my mom.”

“When I was 14, my mom sat me down and said, ‘Listen, it’s great that this show is the phenomenon that it is, but you know how this business is. This show could be over next year. I can type, so I can always get a job. What are you gonna do when this show is over?’” he said. His mom was sitting front row at the event.

Warner done 10 shows since “Cosby,” and wants people to pay attention to the journey that he and other actors go on throughout their careers.

Christina Applegate Receives TV Fest Legacy Award

Living with MS has not taken away Christina Applegate’s sense of humor and love for her career. As Jean Smart went to pass the award to Applegate, she stopped Smart, telling her she can’t really hold things.

“Unfortunately it will be dropped by the little cripple. It’s ok, you can laugh, I’m allowed to say that,” Applegate said.

Christina Applegate received the TV Fest Legacy Award which was presented by Jean Smart. “I ahte it so muhc, but thabk you so much for being so supportive. I don’t know if I can continue to act. I miss it so much,” she said. “But I’m so happy I ended with a show like “Dead To Me.”

“In coming out of the words of Judy in the last epsisode: ‘I’ve had a lot of fun.’ So thank you,” Applegate said through tears.

Emmys: Consideration for Category Changes?

Variety editors Clayton Davis, Jazz Tangcay, Emily Longeretta and Michael Schneider held a meeting of the minds about the upcoming Emmy Awards and the updates that have been made in voting and categories. Using their extensive knowledge and love for television, the editors shared the changes they would propose to make the Emmys just a little bit better.

“Do you have an hour?” Schnieder said.

Davis felt categories should expand to 10 program slots as more TV shows get added to broadcasting and streaming. In addition, he said the nuances between shows like desk comedies and sketch shows need to be better acknoweledged, otherwise, shows in different ballparks are being pit up against one another. Even factors like episode length and number of episodes in a series should be considered, the editors explained.

Tangcay, Variety’s senior artisans editor, would like to see some changes in the makeup categories, which is juried.

“If there would be a way remind people that broadcast TV is still in the game, that would be good. Twenty-four episodes? These people are putting in the work,” said Longeretta.

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