Archive for the Touring TV Category

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.

%d bloggers like this: