Archive for the British Shows on American TV Category

The Tommys 2015

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Culture with tags , , , , on September 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s that time of year again when those we trust with the responsibility of deciding what makes good television publicly demonstrate they have no idea what makes good television. Yes, The Emmys. As with every year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences make two glaring errors. Firstly, they overlook the best TV of our time in favour of academy pets like Modern Family (Just a side note: Unlike most television critics, I rather like Modern Family. I just don’t happen to think it’s the only sitcom of the last six years worthy of celebration). Secondly, they create convoluted, counter-intuitive categories of awards that prevent the finest shows from being recognised because they don’t tick a bunch of weirdly shaped boxes. To rectify this, I’m starting my own annual television awards ceremony (yes, it’s going to be one of those articles!) called The Tommys with the sole purpose of demonstrating that you can still recognise the best TV around even when you have bullshit categories.

Best Shaving of Iconic Facial Hair in an FX Series, Zombie-Based Comic Book Adaptation, or Timely Political Commentary

Winner: Sam Elliott for Justified

tommys

Nominated: W. Earl Brown for American Crime/Andrew Lincoln for The Walking Dead/Kathy Bates for American Horror Story: Freakshow (disqualified for chin curtain)

Least Mentally Prepared Husband in a Housewives Franchise, Vanity Project or Marriage Experiment

Winner: Vincent ‘Garage Face’ Van Patten for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

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Nominated: Hank ‘The tranny’s hand walked into my penis’ Baskett for Kendra on Top/David ‘Golem’ Beador for The Real Housewives of Orange County/Mohammed ‘It’s against my religion to express genuine affection for my wife’ Jbali for 90-Day Fiance

Most Impatient Response to a Format Change in an Anthology Series, Prequel Spin-Off, or Homeland

Winner: True Detective (aka Noir is Supposed to be Urban, Idiots!)

Nominated: Fear The Walking Dead (aka Before They Were Zombies)/Homeland (aka Awayplace)/Better Call Saul (aka How The Lawyer got his Spotty Morality)

Most Overrated Drama, Sitcom or Tonally Confused Variation upon The Two Previous Sub-Categories featuring Martin Freeman, Kevin Spacey or Andy Samberg

Note: In this category, the award will be collected by an actor better at playing the role than the actor who actually did*

*Even if Kevin Spacey is in the audience doing his ‘I’m the first ever person to talk to a camera in a TV show’ schtick

Winner: Sherlock (award collected by Lucy Liu)

Nominated: House of Cards (award to be collected by the ghost of Ian Richardson)/Fargo (award to be collected by William H. Macy)/Brooklyn Nine Nine (award to be collected by whoever is near)

Biggest Load of Horseshit Onscreen Explanation of Something That is Clearly an Offscreen Issue in a Trumped-Up Soap Opera, Underrated Popular Literature Adaptation or Reality Show on a Bottom-Feeding Network

Winner: Scandal for the end-of-season held-at-gunpoint cliffhanger and season premiere cold open funeral of Harrison Wright during the domestic abuse court case of Columbus Short.

Nominated: Elementary for the complete absence of LGBT housekeeper Ms. Hudson in the third season while actress Candis Cayne became a visible activist for transgender rights/Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars for Hank Baskett’s ‘magic penis’ theory of how he could be caught red-handed in a transsexual three-way and yet not have participated

Worse Kept Secret in a Deathcount-Oriented Drama, Television Awards Show or Publicity-Loving Satire of Advertising

Winner: The Tommys 2015 for revealing multiple spoilers in TV shows not yet caught up on by most viewers by simply listing the nominees

Nominated: The Walking Dead for posting news of Beth’s death on social media the day that the episode aired/The Emmys 2015 for spoiling the series finale deaths of Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, Zeek Braverman in Parenthood, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Bill Compton in True Blood and Raylan Givens’ hat in Justified/Mad Men for having a series ending that was tiresomely ambiguous

Most Unconvincing Justification of a Blatant Freakshow in a Bafflingly Popular Horror Anthology Series, Footage-Shy Reality Show or Modern-Day Version of Public Hanging Entertainment

Winner: Botched for claiming to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about plastic surgeons

Nominated: American Horror Story: Freakshow because if it’s about an actual freakshow, we can’t get upset at the title/America’s Got Talent for exploiting the lack of a substantive mental health care system in the US

Reality Contestant who Looks Most Like a Popeye Character

Winner: Josh Altman (Wimpy) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

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Nominated: The Situation (Popeye) for Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars/Josh Altman (Alice The Goon) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

Doctor No

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Tom Steward

Last night, new episodes of Doctor Who began airing in Britain and America. This is not a review of the season opener because I didn’t watch it. I didn’t watch it, because for the first time since the series re-launched in 2005, I won’t be watching Doctor Who. I don’t – like some fans – have an aversion to Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. In fact, I’ve said here before I think he’s probably the best actor to have played the role. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had serious issues with the direction that the showrunners have taken the series in, or some of the casting. And I’m not so naïve as to think that the ‘classic’ series – which I greatly prefer – wasn’t at times just as unwatchable as the new series is today. So why am I boycotting it now? Well, it’s for the same reasons that I don’t eat at McDonalds or (knowingly) use Nestle products. There are just too many reasons not to.

'What do you mean you're not watching?'

‘What do you mean you’re not watching?’

The main reason, of course, is Steven Moffat. Still showrunner and head writer after six years – with his creative control increasing annually – Moffat’s scripts and season arcs are incoherent, ramshackle rubbish and his dialogue is formed of soundbyte-friendly non-sentences. You can count the good ideas he’s had during his time on Doctor Who on one hand, and yet they do the job of keeping him afloat while he peddles plagiarism of everything from Source Code to That Mitchell and Webb Sound inbetween lightbulb moments. That’s before we get on to his politics. Moffat is incapable of writing strong women without sexualising them, sabotaging the progress made by breakthrough characters like transgender Timelady Missy with nymphomaniacal nonsense. His treatment of the material is invariably tasteless and perverted, encompassing romanticized suicides, desecration of dead Who actors like Nicholas Courtney, and treating time travel as some sort of incestuous gangbang! It was bad enough when this was in the name of change, now it’s billed as a return to the classic formula.

Much as I would like to, I can’t blame Moffat for all that’s wrong politically with Doctor Who. The series has had two women writers since 2005, a record easily beaten during the classic era which is often held up for being unfair to women and stretching back to the tenure of showrunner Russell T Davies, who supposedly opened the show up for a female audience. That said, Moffat did do a Lorne Michaels when it came to the issue of hiring women as writers, claiming that the entire gender did not have the appetite (nor presumably the talent) to take on the job much as the Saturday Night Live did when confronted with the absence of women of colour on the late-night comedy institution. Missy is not enough of a concessionary flip-flop, and certainly not when she’s this badly written. The Bechdel Test and various academic studies have singled out the sexism of Moffat’s era, though Davies set the idea of women talking adoringly about The Doctor in motion.

If I’m being honest, it’s actually the way that Moffat has tried to rectify the female companion’s Adam’s Rib relationship to The Doctor that has made Doctor Who so difficult for me to enjoy. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara has a domestic and work sphere independent from The Doctor and his TARDIS, albeit one that still centres around her romantic interest in another man. The upshot of this is that one of the most shoddily conceived – and irritatingly portrayed – lead characters in the series’ history is at the heart of the concept in virtually every episode. There’s nothing innovative about The Doctor being The Companion’s sidekick, for that’s the status William Hartnell had when Doctor Who began, and it is a good bit of Bechdel-proofing, but for Clara to get that privilege – and, crucially, not Amy, the previous companion – is a kick in the teeth. For the past couple of seasons, Moffat has been working back from Clara’s original introduction as a mere plot device, and still can’t make her sufficiently human.

A Missied opportunity!

A Missied opportunity!

It’s no surprise that the creator of Sherlock and writer of The Adventures of Tintin re-boot can’t organize a piss-up in a brewery when it comes to Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has inherited perfect pop fiction formula time after time, and always drops the ball. So when he finally goes – and providing Jenna makes good on her recent promise – I’ll come back to the best concept on TV. Because we Whovians live to be disappointed.

Equal Opportunity Knocks

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one thing Dancing with the Stars is in dire need of – apart from a decent house band, a competent co-host and, y’know, stars – it’s an equal opportunities seminar. I don’t know how many sensitivity courses you’ve been on, but they’ll all tell you (and if they don’t you should) that equality isn’t about treating everyone the same. One of the best teachers I ever had, the film writer and sociologist Richard Dyer, once explained equality to me using male and female public toilets. Men rush in and out, while women take longer. So while giving men and women a bathroom each with the same number of facilities might superficially seem to be giving them identical resources, the sexes are not being treated equally.

I'll give it 5.

I’ll give it 5.

This struck me two seasons ago when Judge Len Goodman told contestant Amy Purdy, who has prosthetic limbs below both knees, that he was going to score her like everyone else in the competition, and that she’d prefer it that way. For the entire competition, Purdy was judged against able-bodied dancers (and Billy Dee Williams) rather than on a scale of achievement that befitted her unique body type. It wouldn’t have been easy for the judges, especially as Purdy herself kept changing the rules of what was possible with her body week by week, but they never had any intention of taking her different abilities into account. To not even attempt this, and to assume Purdy wanted this kind of judging, is to ignore equality.

The Judges have continued to score disabled contestants in this fashion, even when they are physically prevented from competing at the same level as the other dancers. This season features Noah Galloway, who has both his left leg and arm missing. While the Judges are happy to gush and cry for the cameras over Galloway’s overcoming of the odds (and he’s a veteran too, so nothing but conspicuous sentimentality will do), they give him decidedly average scores, reminding us that that they are painting two more limbs on his body in their minds. The Judges’ rhetoric seems to have some idea of how equality works. Carrie Ann Inaba talked of how Galloway ‘challenged’ her judging. But there’s no evidence of this in the competition itself.

But Dancing with the Stars is already a show that seems designed to give Shami Chakrabarti nightmares. It asks people of different ages, genders, bodies and professional dance experience to compete against each other, with no consideration given to how there should be different judging criteria for each group. Doubtless there is some ideological undercurrent of the cream rising to the top regardless of adversity here and whoever said entertainment was a level playing field? However, if the show wishes to bask in the glory of giving a national TV platform to minorities and a diverse range of people (as it has referred to itself doing on several occasions) it cannot simply work around the fact that democracy is just as much about positive discrimination.

I’ve talked about the show’s objectification of female bodies before – and it’s getting no better – but in recent weeks we’ve actually seen feminist perspectives on Dancing with the Stars being written off live on air as ‘cyber-bullying’. Contestant Charlotte McKinney received harsh criticism and, let’s face it, personal abuse from social media after the star of sexist Carl’s Jr. commercials appeared in the season premiere. Her experience was the basis of the pre-dance ‘package’ (although why we have to all use the industry term here, I don’t know) in Week 2 and following her dance, the negative Twitter comments read-out on air were all dismissed as body jealousy by the judges Julianna Hough and Bruno Tonioli and then as body fascism by co-host Erin Andrews.

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Now, I’m not saying that the sinister forces of the internet comments feed weren’t at work here and I don’t approve of targeting someone who is as much a victim of the sexist culture as the women it leaves out (as opposed to, say, the people who sit down and write the Carl’s Jr ads). That said, it’s clear to me that many of those comments, however personally directed they were, were aimed at McKinney’s participation in advertising that demeans and degrades women, and to disregard all the criticism directed at her as troll-grudge is to silence a protest against television’s ongoing celebration of women as sexual objects. Dancing with the Stars cannot continue to swim in these choppy waters without changing its body politics.

The Apprentice’s Apprentice

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…’

I’m quoting Joni Mitchell not (only) because I’m reading Morrissey’s autobiography and have the urge to paste song lyrics into prose when I’ve run out of things to say but rather as a description of the way I feel about The Apprentice. It’s rare in our culture to prefer the re-make over the original but even rarer that we admit to preferring another country’s version of an idea to ours, regardless of which came first. It’s this paradoxical thinking that draws me to the BBC adaptation of The Apprentice and makes me resent the NBC original. Now that I live in America, the latter is my bread-and-butter and the former feels too distant from my daily existence to be relevant viewing anymore. As I sit writing this on a winter’s day with the sun beating my back, I don’t ask for sympathy. But I do rather feel like the person who bought the last painting before they discovered perspective.

From the arse's mouth!

From the arse’s mouth!

Like most shows sold overseas, the format remains largely unchanged. But there’s something about the translation of American corporate-speak and aspirational diatribe into the laughably misjudged self-esteem of Britain’s business classes that gives The Apprentice on the BBC an ironic quality which bends a celebration of capitalism into a critique of the ideology. Goebbels once said that no-one could watch an Eisenstein film without becoming a communist. Well, I severely doubt anyone could sit through an episode of UK version of The Apprentice and still think capitalism is going to last. It’s not hard to believe we have economies based on nothing because The Apprentice UK tells us the people who front it are never less than vacuous. While the American original has the product placement and commercial saturation of a major US network in its arsenal, the BBC version is broadcast on a British public service station which prohibits advertising. The former is mired in a web of cross-marketing, while the latter seems inhospitable to the idea of a TV programme as a commodity.

Go waste the President's time instead...

Go waste the President’s time instead…

This is not to say that The Apprentice UK is some sort of subversive attempt by the imagined leftist conspiracy at the BBC to undermine British entrepreneurship. It’s more accurate to call it ‘private service television’, a mode of broadcasting addressed to a society dominated by privatised industry and designed to make the best of it (even that is being a touch generous!). But neither does it use its airtime to consolidate a corporate empire through media exposure, like its forbearer. The Donald Trump Apprentice never misses a chance to tell you how powerful and glorious the various business enterprises of the Trump family are, whereas the Alan Sugar counterpart (which sounds like the greatest 80s garage band that never was!) makes his company look like a loosely connected network of 1940s-style spivs and barrow-boys. The tasks assigned by Trump are publicity-centric busywork (especially in the current Celebrity variant) but Sugar’s are about the hard graft of street selling and face-to-faces with customers. You’re the apprentice of a swindler learning how to avoid being swindled.

Sugar doing my job for me!

Sugar doing my job for me!

Perhaps this is because ivory-towerism doesn’t sit so well with the British public, while it taps into the ultimate aspirations of many Americans. The British version is certainly not intended as satire (though the directors do like to puncture with visual gags anyone who takes self-assessment as business elites too literally) but it is playing to a crowd who like sarcasm, wit and darkly awkward comedy. Sugar and his associates are fans of linguistically inventive cruelty, the directors eek every ounce of uncomfortable voyeurism out of the documentary filming (in a style borrowed from pioneering UK sitcom The Office), and the show itself is framed as a sadistic prank played on those who applied to appear. It’s marginally better now the prize is a sizeable investment in a business venture a la Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank (delete monster and monster holding cell as appropriate) but I remember when winners were rewarded by an internship at a digital signage company amid the electro-magnetic subjugation of Tottenham Court Road. Somnambulist losers of Touch the Truck have it better. No-one expects Donald Trump to say anything intelligent, funny or creative (even his racist metaphors lack flair) and the verbal garbage emerging from the Ridley Scott-alien mouths of his children is a generation stupider. Mavericks are praised not parodied and the mere act of aspiring is deemed worth the risk.

The Rest Of The Year’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Unsung Heroes, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Tom Steward

There’s a formula for writing annual ‘Best Of’ TV lists. First it’s compulsory to observe how pointless a task it is making such a list for a vast and varied medium like television, then talk about how your criteria will be completely different, before naming the SAME EXACT shows as every other critic. Well, I don’t think it’s pointless, at least no more futile than doing it for books or films (where critics don’t seem to have the same anxieties about habitually omitting factual and lifestyle titles). I have no wish to create an opaque ratings system that will lead me back to shows which come pre-ordained as the best of TV. But I do want to ensure that the titles I choose won’t appear on anyone else’s list, something which gets harder and harder as critics begin to fawn over the nichest possible television. So don’t consider this the year’s best TV (see I’m doing it in spite of myself!) but rather good TV that has been overlooked simply because it doesn’t get listed.

Botched (E!)

...what if he dies first?

…what if he dies first?

Real Husbands Dr. Paul Nassif (disguised as Moe Syslak from The Simpsons for ease of viewer identification) and Dr. Terry Dubrow (other two-quarters of Heather Dubrow, who must always be named twice) are L.A. plastic surgeons who specialize in fixing botched jobs. There’s some emotional hard luck stories but basically it’s the best excuse ever for social voyeurism and with patients like a Human Ken Doll and a 33-year old man with the face of an early-teen Justin Bieber it’s about as visually mesmerizing as reality TV gets. The show is also indispensable body horror, with its drop-in circus of malfunctioning and distorted anatomy. Even E’s glossification can’t mask the raw psychological distress.

90-Day Fiancé (TLC)

A show close to mine and G’s hearts, since I arrived in the US on a marriage visa. This observational documentary follows six couples during the 90-day window for visitors to the US to marry on the K-1 visa. It’s as compelling for its cartoon parodies of loving marriage as it is for reaffirming the borderless beauty of the institution. So extraordinary and bizarre is the experience for these culture-clash couples that the network barely needs to meddle in the melodrama, as it does for its other reality shows, giving it a more natural (if no less extreme) flow of real events than heavily devised TLC docu-soaps like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

Muppets Most Wanted (Disney)

Variety at heart!

Variety at heart!

Probably more likely to be dismissed on grounds of not being a TV show, this was nonetheless the movie that in 2014 most thoroughly blurred distinctions between film and television. The Muppets are a creation of television, stars Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey are all television personalities, and the legacy of The Muppet Show is privileged at the expense of the movie franchise (the latter self-consciously in comic acknowledgements of the diegetic amnesia around popular movie characters and sequels). The movie is a joyous celebration of the achievements and talents of television past and present, reminding us of how far the medium has come. And it’s full of commercials!

LIVE With Kelly And Michael! (ABC)

A show that will doubtless elude recognition for its monotony and ubiquity, but this doesn’t change the fact that host Kelly Ripa is by several miles of open country the funniest, smartest, wittiest and most multi-dimensional presenter in daytime. Her work in morning television is more akin to what Conan, Colbert and Craig Ferguson have done with the late-night form than the platitudinous moron-making of virtually everybody else on TV at that time, and until about 11 in the evening. This is an everyday occurrence, which makes it all the more startling, but her essential impersonation of Laura Linney in the Halloween parody of PBS Masterpiece Theater speaks volumes.

The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (CBS)

Not like any other late night show!

Not like any other late night show!

Dare I say that Craig Ferguson’s departure from late-night talk shows will leave an even bigger hole than David Letterman? While Letterman innovated within the format, Ferguson created a new late-night form that was genuinely subversive, avant-garde and experimental, importing a brand of British vaudeville surrealism reminiscent of Reeves & Mortimer and The Mighty Boosh. Like those acts, Ferguson meshed light entertainment with serious art, carved out an absurd fantasy using television grammar, and delivered alternative culture disguised as broad comedy. It was a rejection of all that was bland and formulaic about one of American TV’s most intransigent genres, and a complete reinvention of its possibilities.

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