Archive for the Touring TV Category

Baking The Waves

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Touring TV, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not an unreasonable assumption that Americans prefer to know about Britain’s heritage than the way it is today. So it will come as no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that a Great British Bake-Off spin-off (which can be contracted to The Great British Bake-Off) called The Great Holiday Baking Show is airing on ABC primetime over the Christmas season. The Great British Bake-Off is a cooking competition celebrating British culinary traditions against a landscape idealizing Britain as the green and pleasant land of yore replete with signifiers of our imperial past, like the bunting-lined parties we used to host for wartime victories and royal events. Though if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that cultural fascination has triumphed over commercial interest, it’s worth remembering that in the UK this year the finale of The Great British Bake-Off was the most-watched program of the year, that past seasons of the show currently occupy peak Sunday airtime on PBS, and that a US version of the format called The American Baking Competition debuted in 2013 but was cancelled within a year following poor ratings. It’s both too lucrative and too particular to attempt anything other than a spin-off.

Bake Britain

Bake Britain

Americanizing the brand has proved difficult. PBS had to re-name the US airings The Great British Baking Show not because of cultural misunderstandings – as surely ‘Bake-Off’ is a term friendlier to the American spirit of competition than ours of miserable make-do – but America’s corporate hegemony. Girth-romanticising pastry company Pilsbury hold the trademark to the name ‘Bake-Off’ since it is the name of their patented annual cooking contest. The American Baking Competition continued the tradition of American reboots of British reality shows exporting celebrity judges, but it backed the wrong horse. Perhaps they were expecting some latent movie star glamour to suddenly burst forth from baker Paul Hollywood when he was brought into geographical proximity with his namesake – or more likely they wanted another British villain – but there was less gel than the sour scouse keeps in his hair when they brought him into the show. Though far sweeter and lacking the negativity that reality TV bottom-feeds off, The Great Holiday Baking Show has made a far better choice in calling upon veteran food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry to handle the judging, especially since any successful translation of the format requires as much exploitation of British icons as possible.

As is usually the case in television, the biggest factor affecting the success of The Great Holiday Baking Show is time. The Great British Bake-Off is shown over ten weeks and, while it is clear from the preponderance of sunlight and the frequently-used excuse of it being a ‘hot day’ that it is filmed in Summer, the baking is not linked to any particular season of the year. As the title states, The Great Holiday Baking Show is very clearly themed around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to reflect the period of the calendar year in which most baking is done and/or consumed in the US. The producers have evidently latched on to the seasonality of baking as justification for a short-run December-long series which also conveniently prevents them from having to commit to a full season in programming terms. Conversely, the configuration of cake-eating with sunny countryside settings in the British original has almost made it seem like an exclusively Summer activity in the UK, not a happy by-product of taking refuge from the cold of Autumn and Winter as it is in the US. Finding what is culturally equivalent about an imported show is often the key.

Baking in the Free World!

Baking in the Free World!

The subject matter and presentation of The Great British Bake-Off is twee and backwards but it gestures to the diversity of post-colonial Britain. Though by no means proportional, there is a range of ethnic, racial, sexual and regional representation in the contestant base. To wit, the 2015 winner was Nadiya Jamir Hussein, a British-Bengali women identifying as a Muslim. I’m glad to see that The Great Holiday Baking Show has followed in these footsteps, though in both cases it’s difficult to tell whether this is selection strategy or merely that it’s an inclusive enough application process for minorities to make it through. What makes the difference is the ability to use the original format and continue to have Mary Berry on board, although why they would make her a judge for an American spin-off only to patronise her like a cigar store Indian in a parallel universe is beyond me.

 

Bridging The Map

Posted in Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I address Americans as a separate entity – at least not since I went native – for that way lies cultural imperialism. But in this case I feel vindicated because I know it’s for your benefit. Besides, I come from a land with a tradition of broadcasting that tells you what you need rather than giving you what you want. I’m not going to tell you to watch British TV, because you’re already doing that and it’s a problem. Instead, I’m going to ask you to embrace television from countries where you don’t – theoretically – share a common language.

...and brains!

…and brains!

Americans, you need to end your embargo on television subtitles. European TV drama is now so good you cannot afford to ignore it just because of an outmoded preference for television in your (our, sorry!) native tongue. You know this because you’ve spent the last five years remaking European TV shows, from Scandinavian police drama (The Killing, The Bridge, Those Who Kill) to a litter of official and unofficial remakes of the French horror series The Returned (yes, I’m looking at you Damon Lindelhof!). You might assume that TV drama from another culture will lose something in translation, and that’s why it’s better to remake them in American settings. Well, not only are these English-language remakes invariably inferior, in my experience they tend to ham up their European origins to the point where they seem more foreign than their forbearer. And that’s beside the point. It’s just a waste of resources. Get over having to read instead of listen (and you can still listen – the soundtracks are always gorgeous) and simply cut out the middleman.

It’s not as if you don’t already have subtitles on TV. Though it copped out of subtitling in Russian in its pilot episode, FX’s The Americans soon switched to subtitles for all the dialogue between native Russian speakers, and it helps the atmosphere and realism of the show no end. Even ABC’s sitcom Fresh off the Boat feels its Tuesday night audience can handle a beat or two in Mandarin without rushing to cancel their cable subscription. You might think that greenlighting European remakes and co-productions, like NBC’s sold-short summer experiment Welcome to Sweden, is meeting the demand halfway, but it’s actually more like going off at the deep end. As far as content goes, there’s nothing American audiences haven’t seen before: Obsessive police detectives, serial killers, cat-and-mouse games, labyrinthine murder investigations. The Returned is just dead people walking and you can’t move for them in American TV currently. It’s not new, just done extraordinarily well, and once you acclimatise to the foreign accents on your screens, nothing else will jar with your TV experience.

British TV imports might seem like a happy medium, since the country is close enough to continental Europe to share similarities with this new wave of television drama (which shows like Broadchurch and The Fall attest to) and yet can be more or less understood by speakers of American-English. British shows are certainly more popular than ever in the States and fill the vacuum for foreign TV that everyone’s told they should watch. Historically, I’d defend British TV drama but when it’s the dire Sherlock, overrated Broadchurch, and diminishing The Fall against what Denmark, Sweden and France has produced over the past few years, there really is no contest. There’s a level of comfort about British TV in the eyes of American audiences that outweighs quality. The memories of cosy sitcoms and period pieces on PBS Sundays cannot be brushed aside in one stroke, no matter how successful the replacement. And that’s the other advantage. TV drama from continental Europe is far more conducive to the American taste for procedurals and portentous horror than Britain.

The Walking Dead en francais!

The Walking Dead en francais!

Hopefully, this argument will soon be moot. Internet video-on-demand services like Hulu and Netflix sell themselves to subscribers – at least those who have been profiled as viewers of sophisticated drama – on the basis that European series are available in bulk. Some of the arthouse movie channels like Sundance and Showtime have found ways to incorporate subtitled TV drama into their remit. And don’t discount the viewer’s desire to bypass network boycotts of foreign-language imports with simple, straightforward piracy. But there really are shows for everyday television. Inevitably, censorship will be a problem but what’s shown wouldn’t be too much trouble for one of the big cable networks like FX and AMC. There really is no reason compelling enough to hold back the revolution…sorry la revolution!

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.

Watching Century With Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by Tom Steward

You know when anniversary shows try to make out that the second part is different from the first, even though it’s just another set of clips with a new (but equally banal) gimmick? Well, now you get the point of this introduction. It’s somewhat fitting, however, as what I’m most proud of about this blog is that it is different from one week to the next, even if my obsessions do tend to re-surface like a pardoned 24 terrorist. It’s a freedom writing about American TV that you can’t have making it. Here’s some more re-runs before normal service resumes:

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that's...erm...crazy like a fox?

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that’s…erm…crazy like a fox?

‘Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible’

‘It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me’

‘The Food Network could run Chard Week featuring all the best appearances of the vegetable in the mystery box on Chopped, including the time someone drizzled it with a gummiworm-infused vinaigrette’

‘If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen’

‘It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe’

‘One of the places I was surprised to find TV on the air was in the air’

‘The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing’

‘Unlike other game shows, The Bachelor(ette) likes to invite its losing contestants back to occupy more senior roles in the programme, like Juan Pablo who was sent home in a previous season and is now The Bachelor. It’s like losing Final Jeopardy and then next day replacing Alex Trebek’

‘Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years’

‘American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy’

‘Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss’

‘After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle’

‘I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began!’

‘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?”’

‘Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?’

‘With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie...or as they call it a 'self-portrait'.

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie…or as they call it a ‘self-portrait’.

‘At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it’

Window on the World Cup

Posted in American TV (General), Touring TV, TV channels, TV Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2014 by Tom Steward

This is the first time I’ve not been in Britain during a World Cup. The point would be moot were I virtually anywhere else in the world, be it Europe, Africa or even Latin America. But I’m in the United States, where the following for football/soccer (delete as inappropriate) is cult at best. The US team did well in their World Cup qualifiers and they’ve started the tournament with a big win over bogey team Ghana (if you’re not sure what I’m taking about at this point, it’s probably not worth going on…) so they’ll be some bandwagoning, but, unlike most nations, it will be driven more by patriotism than love of the game. But I’m starting to realise that television makes a World Cup.

ESPN replaces match coverage with cooking shows!

ESPN: football in the wrong place!

You might wonder what the difference is since a game’s content doesn’t change depending on where you watch it. It’s not some animated blockbuster that has local celebrities dubbing the characters’ voices. Except it sort of is. I don’t need commentary and coverage by my countrymen any more than I need an Englishman coaching the national team (because that always works out so well for us) but I need pundits who can talk about the game with some degree of sophistication. That’s not to say that British TV guarantees this. ITV’s nickname-driven football bloke-in always fell short yet the statistic-based monotone of Spanish language network Univision’s World Cup commentary hits the spot. So let’s call a spade a spade, or let’s just call ESPN shit!

In some ways, ESPN’s World Cup coverage feels very familiar. Commentator Ian Darke is English and previously worked for Sky Sports, and has that voice that only British football pundits and inflammatory talk radio DJs have the rights to. He’s backed up by a renowned ex-Premier League player, Liverpool’s Steve McManaman, whose years in the sport somehow haven’t resulted in the ability to read a match. Just like ITV, the coverage is heavily commercialised and avowedly lowest common denominator, with a line in metaphor that makes the poetry written by contestants on The Bachelorette seem avant-garde. But if this were all that was wrong, it wouldn’t be any more disappointing than being forced to watch football in the company of Adrian Chiles, Britain’s highest-paid pumpkin.

But it is much worse. The commentary is idiot-friendly to the point of baby-talk. During USA vs. Ghana, pundits referred to the US closing the game down as ‘parking the bus’ so many times, I actually thought the handbrake on the team coach was off. Conversely, the self-evident rules of the game are discussed with a depth and ambiguity that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wire. Behind this I’m sure there’s some nobly futile effort to broaden the appeal of football to US sports fans, but it insults our intelligences from ear to ear. The studio segments are so short they’re more like game shows where pundits have to come up with a repeatable three-syllable analogy before the clock runs out. Reports from the city have been replaced by pseudo-Steinbeckian monologues.

The other culture-shock (although does it count if it’s just one country holding out?) is that ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup doesn’t include all the tournament’s games and events. The opening ceremony featuring a kidnapped Jennifer Lopez was shunned in favour of the US Open and though I’m not one for race-baiting, it does tend to be the games featuring the whiter parts of the world that are covered. In cultures where football is taken seriously, TV channels broadcast a continuous World Cup flow but ESPN’s coverage is sandwiched in-between Nascar races and miscellaneous college sports tournaments. It’s jarring not to have every broadcaster on TV crowbarring the World Cup into every studio segment. Never have I longed more for a bloated pre-match show.

Univision: football coverage you can count by!

Univision: football coverage you can count by!

Hispanic TV networks have been my sanctuary. I may only understand a quarter of what’s said but the pundits’ innate football knowledge and enthusiasm is palpable. All possible scenarios within the match have their own catchphrases, bellowed in one continuous breath by the commentator. Seemingly every show on Univision, regardless of genre, cuts away to live coverage in Brazil like a transmission test card and it’s not uncommon to see news being presented in football strips. It’s not a home away from home; it’s an extended stay with a mad moustached uncle. I never thought there was anything worse than ITV Football, but there is and it’s ITV Football for beginners. I’m just grateful there’s enough Latinos in the US to give me an alternative.

Live Another UK

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Perennial bad penny of television 24 returned to our screens last week, four years after the show’s cancellation, which everyone – other than flagging network Fox it seems – felt was already long overdue. Along with being cut in half (12 must not be a sellable number these days), one of the more remarkable changes to the series, sub-titled Live Another Day, is its re-location to London. In the later years of the series proper, 24 left America’s centre of terrorist activity L.A. to tour the East Coast with seasons seven and eight set in Washington and New York respectively. The show only ever ventured from U.S. shores when its many presidents would harangue middle-eastern statesmen by phone to reveal their country’s official secrets in order to avert a nuclear attack they know nothing about. African-set spin-off TV movie 24: Redemption is the exception here, but everyone concerned would I’m sure like to write that abomination out of the show’s history along with ER’s excursion into the dark continent of television. Besides, 24 was always characterised more by rampant xenophobia than cosmopolitanism. So why on earth would the producers of 24 want to re-launch the series in The Big Smoke?

24 solves mystery of London's traffic problem.

24 solves mystery of London’s traffic problem.

Well, the official explanation is that setting Live Another Day in London pays tribute to the UK TV audiences and critics who championed 24 in its early years when the US was still ambivalent. The first and second seasons of 24 were essential cult viewing when they aired on the free-to-air channel BBC Two in the early 2000s, gaining a large and devoted viewership, incessant national media attention and even a digital BBC sister show in a mould recently revived by AMC’s Talking Dead. The Guardian’s TV critic Charlie Brooker even had to be asked by his editors to stop writing about the show in his weekly column. 24 was lost to the nation as a watercooler show once premium satellite channel Sky One bought the exclusive rights to air the series from season three onwards, but Britain doubtless helped to ensure renewal in the years before the show was a signature Fox mainstay, and became too big to cancel. If this is the case, then speaking for the entirety of the UK – which as an ex-pat I do daily – we’re flattered. But will Britain end up resenting 24 in a manner previously reserved for Dick Van Dyke?

Three episodes in, it’s too early to tell but the signs are encouraging. Live Another Day has so far conspicuously avoided the axis of bobbies, minis and red phone-boxes that still dominates the representation of Britain in American popular culture. Sometimes, it even looks like it was conceived by someone who knows London, or has at least obsessively Google-street-viewed it. The season premiere opened with an East-London street market scene that authentically captured the area’s large Asian population, a fact of our diversity that Americans often miss. Whether or not the Prime Minister would have been a caricature of the privileged classes anyway I’m not sure, but that’s what we currently have, and Stephen Fry’s neckless bumbler is a suitably Cameronesque figure. Apart from some tourist traps like assuming that someone could pursue a Tube train through Central London by driving, the show is pretty faithful to the city’s geography and infrastructure and, at the time of writing, we’ve seen way more of London’s liminal council estates and industrial wastelands than its tourist hardware. We don’t see natives often, but when we do they have the sarcasm and cynicism towards America’s intelligence melodrama that I expect from my fellow Britons.

Jack's in a pickle again!

Jack’s in a pickle again!

Sadly, the cinematographers have CSI’d the show’s colour palette, making London more grey than it actually is, which I didn’t think possible. As revelations about the origin of the attacks unfold, I’m beginning to worry that we’re about to be portrayed as a country that harbours and sympathises with middle-eastern terrorism, rather than one that benignly questions the motives of US foreign wars from time-to-time. Given 24’s scapegoating of anyone East of Alaska, I’m not sure those Asian and Eastern-European Londoners are going to stay innocent bystanders for long. Of course, this London layover is symptomatic of a broader reverse-colonization of American television by UK popular culture, with a quota of British acting in every new show. It comes at a time when Bravo is launching the reality show Ladies of London looking at the city’s transatlantic socialites. As self-appointed visual archive of the rich and famous, Bravo is hardly likely to offer us a London in accordance with social realities. Preview material of a barrow boy speaking entirely in cockney rhyming-slang more or less confirms this. So at a time when American TV is obsessing over Britain without ever attempting to understand it, should we be grateful for Jack?

Braking Bad

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Touring TV, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

 

We’ve got some haz-mat suits in the van’

 

Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the celebrated AMC crime drama Breaking Bad was set and shot. During my time there I went on a tour of the show’s locations. This consisted of an informal convoy of cars parading the city which, with its walkie-talkies, cyclical movement and talk of ‘herding’ and ‘getting separated’, reminded me of another AMC series, The Walking Dead. The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing. It turned out I had been to several of the locations earlier in the week, including The Grove Restaurant, one of the recurring set-pieces in Season 5, which just happened to be opposite my hotel. In that instance, I was there not as a fan but as an aficionado of oversized baked goods.

Making Mad Money!

Making Mad Money!

Everyone on the tour was struck by how close the locations were to each other. Film and TV locations are usually discontinuous – even if they are supposed to be within the same area – and tend to be arbitrarily stitched together to form an entirely new map that suits the logic of the programme or movie. Except for a few jarring instances, Breaking Bad seems to choose its locations according to the geography of Albuquerque. That doesn’t mean, however, that the show’s directors weren’t adept at transforming locations to fit the tone and meaning of the story. In Breaking Bad, The Grove is a soulless, empty corporate coffee shop whereas the real spot is a bustling, cheery local produce market and café. The Whites’ family home always reeked of lower-middle class suburban compromise but in life it is a desirable piece of real estate in a pretty, upscale neighbourhood.

What soap are they using at the car wash?

What soap are they using at the car wash?

It was clear from the array of visitors to the Breaking Bad locations that the show has created a demand for tourism in Albuquerque. It was less clear how interested the natives of Albuquerque are in making a fully-fledged tourist industry out of it. We were chased off a couple of properties, both politely and impolitely, and in other places which were working businesses you got the impression that they didn’t mind having you look around but nor did they particularly care you were there. A few plaques and souvenirs from the show were scattered here and there, like the gloriously kitsch sign for the fictional Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant in the branch of Twister’s which subbed for it, but nothing extravagant or mercenary. I applaud their effort to maintain identities and existences independent from their appearances in Breaking Bad and I liked being in them more because of that.

love 125

The sign is there, the restaurant is not.

As we saw with mixed local reactions to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, it’s not how much a place is onscreen that matters, it’s how that place is represented. Breaking Bad certainly gestures to what makes Albuquerque a place of beauty – its inspiring urban murals, its mountain-lined vista landscapes – but it’s somewhat undermined by being identified as a run-down, crime-ridden city where an opera of meth and death can credibly play out. This may be at the root of the locals’ ambivalence. It’s no coincidence that the most adverse reaction we got from a local was from the owner of The Crossroads Motel, depicted as a hangout of meth addicts, dealers and hookers in the show where it is nicknamed ‘The Crystal Palace’. The most business-sensible of the proprietors use Breaking Bad as a hook. At Twister’s, I arrived thinking about Breaking Bad and left dreaming about their breakfast burrito.

The Nazi compound.

The Nazi compound.

Albuquerque is a far-cry from Hobbiton or Highclere Castle though in some ways Breaking Bad is more rooted in the reality of the city than either The Hobbit or Downton Abbey is in their tourist-trap theme parks. At the disused rail-lined storage facility that housed the Nazi compound in which the denouement of Breaking Bad takes place, there are the remnants of a public-made shrine to Walter White. But however much you wish to imagine it a place of fiction and imagination, it remains a place of foreboding and sinister feeling irrespective of its meaning in the show. Being there you fear real Nazis, or worse. Turning around – and crucially away from the show for a second – you’re faced with a scene of Albuquerque in all its natural southwestern glory. That’s the difference. It’s Breaking Bad, for sure, but something else, and something just as effective, maybe more.

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