Archive for the Internet TV Category

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

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Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

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Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

On Your Marks…Set…HBO!

Posted in American TV (General), Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

I hate to use the word adulting – primarily because it’s not a word – but it now seems that every major TV network in America has at least one program that is mature and sophisticated in content, execution or both (except NBC, who are labouring under the delusion that a Ryan Seacrest police procedural is somehow acceptable). It may be true that the best (non-pornographic) adult programming these days comes from basic cable networks like FX (Fargo, The Americans) and AMC (Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead) but that doesn’t mean they got there first. Subscription network – and Adam Sandler movie buyer – HBO has been adulting since the late nineties, when arty prison drama Oz and revolutionary crime drama The Sopranos heralded a wave of complex, experimental and provocative television that has yet to subside. This was politically and artistically reinforced by Six Feet Under and The Wire in the naughties, but overall the network that is an alternative to itself has re-defined just about every genre of TV you can think of, from post-feminist rom-com to news satire. But is it possible that HBO is finally entering a period of arrested development, and might that actually be a good thing?

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Well, people would have liked it a lot more!

HBO now looks to re-define quality television for children, mostly by making parents pay – or wait – for it. Last year the network struck a deal with PBS to co-produce the  iconic educational television show Sesame Street so that the show would air first on the subscription-based provider and then on free-to-air TV months later. It’s perhaps the only time I can think of (maybe you can do better) that HBO has exploited an established commodity rather than making an improved version of it and it’s one of the few signature series the network has that doesn’t rely on obscenity to make audiences spend to see it. HBO has now added the football-themed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Ballers to its roster of original series, which seems to be playing to the Fast and Furious-watching, sports-loving element of its demographic. Even a critic’s darling like Game of Thrones which is certainly distinguished by heavy and explicit levels of sex, violence and offensive language resembles the kind of mediaevalesque fantasy stories beloved by the nerdy young and is perhaps the first time that a HBO series with a continuous narrative arc has seemed more like a children’s matinee serial than a novel.

It’s rare that a HBO series goes over its audience’s head – though we all remember the debacle of John from Cincinnati – but last year the high-profile misfire of True Detective Season Two suggested that viewers weren’t always going to lap up the most extreme, idiosyncratic television that the network could produce. Vinyl is just beginning but it’s hard to see where this Scorsese creation detailing the record industry of the seventies will go in exploring the organized criminal elements of historical American leisure that Boardwalk Empire didn’t. The network has cancelled Looking and put a time limit on Girls, which will curb its claim to have the most socially incisive, funniest and best-written comedy-dramas on TV. If it is to continue its unwritten policy of having a maximum of six seasons of every show, then we know that Game of Thrones can’t last much longer, though the saga’s literary predecessor suggests otherwise. So what is the future of HBO? Will the network start to polarise its appeal by producing television that is either infantile or avant-garde, with nothing inbetween? Perhaps the open access of HBO GO and HBO NOW is doing something irrevocable to the adult remit of the network.

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‘Finish the series, George, I have indie movies to make!’

I’m sure many have written these ‘death of HBO’ articles before, and I’m sure they were as premature then as this is now. But I’m worried about the point of HBO changing, not the quality. Game of Thrones is wonderfully compelling and I admired True Detective a great deal, but at its best HBO always gave us innovative, game-changing television that never seemed too slight or too weighty. That balance may be in jeopardy as HBO diversifies into a Netflix-style online video service, or perhaps FX and AMC have found the mean when it comes to quality television, without needing to resort to pornographic shock tactics or take too much cash out of viewers’ pockets. Last Week Tonight and Silicon Valley suggest that a change in direction is not necessarily a bad thing, and that HBO is still finding the best people and concepts in television. But for how long?

I Capture The Castle

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2015 by Tom Steward

Delivering seasons of TV programs through internet streaming has made writing a conventional review an even more fruitless enterprise than it already was. It’s impossible to determine – or even average – where those watching a season currently are in the run of episodes and it’s possible that they’re already done with it. A review makes no sense in either context. For want of a better solution to the futility of internet TV journalism, I’ve decided to formulate my response to Amazon Prime’s original series The Man in the High Castle as a list of what I’ve learned from the first season:

 

Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Churchill?

Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Churchill?

 

  1. The program doubles as an instructional video showing employers how to treat Amazon workers.

 

  1. There is no ‘Reich’ pun beyond the writers.

 

  1. I learnt what happened in the post-war world by the show telling me what didn’t happen in the post-war world.

 

  1. You will say the words: ‘I want Hitler to come back’.

 

  1. In a parallel universe where Philip K. Dick didn’t exist, people would have a lot less respect for Ridley Scott.

 

  1. I am still not convinced that the Trade Minister isn’t Hiro.

 

  1. South America is now a haven from Nazis.

 

  1. There is a moment where you will believe that Hitler’s apocryphal ‘one ball’ will become a plot point.

 

  1. The opening sequence is like Dad’s Army on rewind.

 

  1. There are British spies in The American Reich.

 

  1. All it took to teach Rufus Sewell restraint was playing a Nazi.

 

  1. It contains the best scene of an African-American man teaching a dwarf to fish outside of an epilogue of Walker, Texas Ranger.

 

  1. Berlin is still cool.

 

  1. We’d have had colour TV a lot sooner if the Nazis had won.

 

  1. Hitler must have been really affected by post-war European art cinema since he now prefers avant-garde documentaries to American B-movies.

 

  1. In Japan, morality is measured in spectacle rims.

 

  1. The Man in the High Castle is not Julian Fellowes, though they share a lot of the same political views.

 

  1. Hitler is way ahead of home theaters.

 

  1. The Smith & Jones sketch outlining the five Nazi General archetypes is still the standard for all screen portrayals.

  1. It’s basically Sliders.

 

 

Bad Morning Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

Thai TV

Posted in BiogTV, Internet TV, Local TV, Reality TV, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure Thai people are as baffled that we spend our evenings watching millionaires shoot ducks (I’m talking about both Duck Dynasty and Downton Abbey here) as I was with some of the curious and absurd programmes I saw in the country while I was visiting last month, so please take what follows with a pinch of cultural relativism. As I’m pig-ignorant about much of Thai culture, I’m going to stick with what I know and talk about Thai TV’s engagement with English language and culture.

Ridiculing Southeast Asian television is a rite of passage for popular TV critics. In my childhood, there were at least two (probably more) shows like Clive James on Television and Tarrant on TV where westerners who should know better giggled and guffawed at clips of Japanese game shows (now British TV from that era is our source of the very same mockery). I’m not much interested in this glasshouse criticism – though it’s hard to let go of the Thai TV show where they did nothing but pick up pens for half-an-hour – but I still have that same voyeuristic fascination as those orientalist broadcasters did when I was watching Thai television on my recent trip to the country. Bizarrely (though maybe not to Edward Said), it’s those moments of overlap with the English language and culture that are the strangest.

A case in point is English Delivery, a primetime educational programme using the comic talents and general enthusiasm of its hosts to teach English to viewers, and teach it well. It not so much about learning English words (and my limited experience of Thai people suggests they already know a lot) but getting the drop on misunderstandings resulting from translating Thai into English. To wit, the hilarious consequences that might ensue from confusing ‘pig’s balls’ with ‘pork balls’. As you can see from the examples they use, it’s more about conveying aspects of Thai culture to English speakers so they can understand it than learning about the culture or customs of English-speaking nations. That’s more than likely because so much of the Thai economy depend on tourists who speak English, or those that speak it so they may be understood by Thais.

I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture (well English culture, well English sport, well English football, well Manchester United) isn’t a big deal in some parts of Thailand, like Bangkok where we visited, but more often it feels like a policy of ‘do what you want…but give it an English name’. I was alerted to Don’t Lose the Money because I could read the title (and even when I know the Thai word it often isn’t recognizable in writing) but the show itself was simply a succession of contestants running back and forth between piles of money and empty boxes trying to carry one to the other with the use of head magnets. Increasingly we have game shows like this but we ruin their uncomplicated fun with ironic snark or over-complicated rules, or Richard Hammond.

I wasn’t surprised that when we got to the touristy island of Ko Samui there was so much European and American TV in our hotel satellite services. What did take me by surprise was the exchange of movie channels like HBO and Cinemax for a feed of someone’s laptop playing jittery, low quality streams of recent American blockbusters simply called ‘Island’. This became increasingly evident when we would return to our room to find a Windows shutdown message on the screen, and we knew exactly how long each movie had run for because whichever tech-savvy teenager was running it left the arrow and all the player information on the screen. With the trade in pirate DVDS they do in Thailand, it makes business sense.

HBO Thailand!

HBO Thailand!

Not all my jarring experiences of watching Thai TV were in English. At certain, seemingly random, points of the day, whatever was on TV was suddenly interrupted by choirs of fidgety schoolchildren singing in tribute to ‘The National Council of Peace and Order’, which is the name by which the military junta that has run Thailand since mid-2014 goes. It’s a startling reminder that you’re in a country under military rule, something G and I didn’t get a sense of as tourists – until we went to places where military officers were being served and the waitresses reacted like they were all Justin Bieber – and that TV is still (overtly) a propaganda medium in many countries. Come to think of it, the titles were in English.

Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

Oscar The Couch

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last Sunday was the first time I’ve watched the Academy Awards ceremony on TV live and continuously from start to finish. In Britain, the time difference means that if you want to watch the Oscars you have to stay up all night, which sounds fun but in reality resembles an inventive form of torture designed to give the re-opening of Gitmo some Hollywood pizzazz. In recent years, the ceremony hasn’t even been broadcast live on any of the UK’s free-to-air channels but rather on subscription-only cable movie channels as if it were an experimental art film where people open envelopes for five hours.

This year’s Oscars were so chocked full of embarrassing gaffes and faux pas that I was able to see the value of watching the ceremony as it went out. Not that the cringing diminishes upon repeat viewing after the fact, far from it in the case of John Travolta, whose creation of an entirely new name for singer Idina Menzel was prefixed with ‘one and only…’. But there’s something uniquely thrilling about seeing these disasters as they unfold in front of the world in the knowledge that they cannot be taken back or censored (even though anything truly provocative would be edited out with delayed transmission).

But this year TV wasn’t just the relay of the Oscars, it was part of it. Host Ellen DeGeneres is a creature born of television, with her celebrity coming entirely from talk shows and sitcoms, and Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey (not a typo, time travellers from the 1990s!) was awarded as much for his part in the celebrated HBO cop series True Detective than his underwhelming (in every sense of the word) performance in The Dallas Buyer’s Club. TV’s assured standing in America both culturally and artistically seems to be getting harder and harder for the Academy of Motion Pictures to ignore each year.

‘I’d like to thank television’

2014 also marked the year that the Oscars took note of the long-standing links between TV and the internet. Of course the web has been reporting news from the Oscars as it happens for decades now, but the Academy’s publicists are finally coming to realise that this is happening in tandem with the live TV coverage and not necessarily in a vacuum from it. This was the first year that Oscars’ coverage was offered as a live internet stream on the ABC website, a long overdue acknowledgement of how TV can be watched without a TV. DeGeneres’ Twitter-breaking celebrity selfie perfectly complimented the live-tweeting of the TV broadcast.

Even with the slightly more sociable option of live-pausing – for those that have a cable service – the five to six hours of television that the Oscars eats into can still be a slog if you’re going all the way to the Governor’s Ball. Television is medium of repetition to be sure, but even it cannot contain the mechanical monotony of the ceremony and the grinding formula of its acceptance speeches. The land of series marathons and genre channels is still not able to cope with the conformity that the Oscars produce. TV’s unending transmission is about the only way a bloated ceremony like the Oscars could be brought to the world but they’re still pushing at the limits of what even the most entrenched TV viewer can handle.

Oscars Admits Internet Exists!

TV gets its money’s worth either side of the ceremony as well. Hours of broadcast prior to the official start time of the Oscars are taken up with reporters transmitting live from the red carpet-lined entrance as stars rotate their bodies more slowly than a Virgin Trains toilet door and answer existential questions like ‘who are you wearing?’. Following the ceremony, various incarnations of Ryan Seacrest try to get the clearly traumatised Oscar guests to talk about what they witnessed before they repress it forever. Then there are the Oscar-themed talk shows and post-show analysis programmes. It’s past midnight before anyone in TV admits there is a world outside the Dolby Theatre. It’s surprising that politicians aren’t block-booking venues for press conferences on embarrassing indiscretions all day on Oscar Sunday.

Despite these torments, I’d watch the whole thing through again next year. It certainly beats trying to piece together fragments of information about what happened from rolling news stations the next day, which tends to take the same amount of time as the live coverage anyway. And now that TV is playing a far bigger role in the Oscars than ever before, it’s the obvious place to start.

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