Archive for the TV Criticism Category

Peak Hours (Part 7)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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In a week where the absurdity of Washington has reached its zenith (for the week) I’m reminded of a political satire that pre-dated the era of Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump and yet eerily prophesized the swathes of talked-up men-children that came to occupy the highest office in the land. Hal Ashby’s Being There tells the story of Chance, an elderly gardener with learning difficulties whose employer dies, leaving him to go out on his own and obliviously rise through the ranks of Washington until he reaches the Vice Presidency. What does this have to with Twin Peaks: The Return?

One of the biggest surprises of The Return was that when the “good” Dale returned from the lodge (or Judy, or whatever it is now) he came back in the body of Dougie Jones, who when cosmically switched out with a somnambulist version of Cooper (I think), begins to strongly recall Chance’s characterization and story arc in Being There. Dougie is reminiscent of Chance in his childlike reaction to and pleasure in the world and the way that his speech vacantly mirrors what he hears from others. But it’s what happens to Dougie that makes this cinematic allusion absolutely unmistakeable.

Just as Chance is assumed to be a political savant after he offers basic horticultural tips to high-level diplomats, Dougie is viewed as a maverick genius by his boss Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) when he doodles over some claims in the course of his job as an insurance agent. The people who Chance and Dougie talk to read whatever they want into the most simplistic of utterances and reward them for bringing hidden truths about the world into light. The press exalt Chance for providing a solution to the economic crisis while Dougie is cited for exposing a fraudulent application.

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There’s nothing unusual about Twin Peaks delving into cinematic history. The original series had a fetish for film noir that resulted in characters taking their names from genre classics like Double Indemnity, Laura and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, it’s Dougie identifying the name of his FBI boss Gordon Cole (David Lynch) from a broadcast of Sunset Boulevard on TV (Lynch putting himself in esteemed company with director Cecil B. DeMille, who played a character with that name originally) that triggers the discovery of his secret identity. Referencing the work of a director from the American New Wave is a departure.

Perhaps Lynch is saying that American cinema of the 60s and 70s is to today’s generation of media artists what Hollywood of the 40s and 50s was to his. It’s impossible to watch David Simon and George Pelecanos’s The Deuce without thinking of Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Ashby’s own The Last Detail. Stranger Things is a riff on the Spielberg-Lucas canon while Ashby’s dark comedy exemplified by Harold & Maude hovers over dramedies like Girls and Transparent. Being There is never far away from TV satires of the dumbing down of the Washington political scene like Veep and Alpha House.

It remains curious because Lynch has typically avoided adaptation and remake in his canon (there are exceptions like Dune) but is nonetheless revealing about the shift to social satire from Twin Peaks to The Return. The less intelligent Dougie becomes, the more he begins to succeed at building his fortune, career and family. He climbs the corporate ladder and wins over the criminal element in Las Vegas by exhibiting a distinct lack of consciousness in his actions. He reveals the American success story for what it is; a blind stab in the dark whose outcome depends entirely on external factors.

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In a revival full of detours, none was perhaps more circuitous than having Kyle MacLachlan play the iconic Dale Cooper as an infantilised simpleton for the vast majority of the series. I’m sure it was a far greater challenge to the actor than even reprising a decades-old role as indeed it was for Peter Sellers to play Chance and break with his repertoire of larger-than-life comic characters. Ashby was taking a familiar face and channelling them through a new dimension of performance, which is very similar to what Lynch is doing here with MacLachlan by reimagining Dale through Dougie Jones.

We weren’t expecting Dougie Jones, especially not as a surrogate for Agent Cooper. But Lynch made the best of the situation, invoking another fine auteur director whose work still casts a long shadow over subversive media in the mainstream. It’s an association that helped The Return bear its satirical claws.

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Peak Hours (Part 6)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Strictly speaking, Twin Peaks was not teen television. But while the majority of nineties quality TV for adults focused on the lives of thirtysomethings (like the show … um … thirtysomething), Lynch and Frost’s series had teenagers at its core and made an effort to address issues facing young people in America. Iconographically, the teenagers of Twin Peaks harked back to the fifties but were mired in drugs and violence in such a way that they spoke to contemporary anxieties. The Return shows some of these teenagers as adults but the relaunched series did not ignore the youth of today.

The difference in approach from the original’s depiction of American youth is crystallised by Michael Cera’s cameo as Wally Brando, the son of Deputy Andy Brennan and receptionist Lucy. A mere foetus in Twin Peaks, in The Return a young adult Wally is living out a Marlon Brando fetish, parodying with grotesque comedy the anachronistic depiction of nineties teenagers in the first incarnation of the show. If ever there was a sign that The Return would observe its young in context, it was the sight of Cera dressed as The Wild One mumbling about honor codes inherited from The Godfather.

For the first time in the series, we see young people suffering from the socio-economic deprivation of small-town life. Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) is first shown losing out on a white-collar job (after interviewing with cougar-loving former jock Mike, no less), spiralling downwards in a coke-fuelled nightmare before a suicidal stand-off in a neighbouring trailer park. The drugs were always there in Twin Peaks but whereas previously they helped peel away a veneer of wholesome family values in the town, here there seems to be no alternative lifestyle, either real or imagined, for the young. It’s a wholly systemized decline.

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A tangent from Part 1 of The Return seems to suggest something of the dehumanisation young people suffer in the Amazonized workplace. Watching a glass box and changing out the cameras in a bare loft at the behest of an unknown billionaire benefactor, Sam (Ben Rosenfield) has the kind of remote and menial service job performed by most young people in the contemporary economy of casual corporate labour. As soon as he deviates from the banal protocols with heavy doses of coffee and sex, Sam is eaten alive by a demon passing through a wormhole just vacated by Agent Cooper.

Not that all the young adults in The Return are victims, but it’s pretty certain they will become so. Some occupy a vacuum of morality that seems ingrained in their generation, or is at least a mutation of previous ones. Take Richard Horne (Eamon Farren), Audrey’s son and Ben’s grandson, who thinks nothing of abusing women in bars, fleeing the scene after mowing down a child in the road and victimising his grandmother and disabled uncle. Richard is Ben and Audrey’s ambiguity multiplied to the point of sociopathy. His cruel demise is less of a comeuppance than a tragic cycle.

The interplay of generations in The Return is what makes its portrayal of youth so multi-faceted. While condescending to Becky (Amanda Seyfried) for dating Steven, Shelly (Madchen Amick, who was frozen in time since the last one) gleefully dates weapons-grade psychopath Red, after having been with bad-boy (turned Sheriff’s Deputy) Bobby in the original series. Wally Brando is as much the product of Lynch’s self-parody (or Frost’s parody of Lynch?) as he is of his kooky parents, who channel the simplicity of an earlier era in American life. Richard seems to be all that the Hornes have hidden about themselves.

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There’s admiration for the younger generation too. At least Lynch digs their music. Most of the young people we see are the fun-loving, hard-drinking clientele of The Roadhouse, who have turned this backwater dive into the nexus of American alternative music, as long as it is somewhat retro in style. Most of the young people we meet simply flesh out the climactic musical numbers set in the bar, and never blossom into fully-fledged characters. But there’s an uncharacteristic warmth (at least where younger characters are concerned) to the way they’re presented, which betrays a discordant note of optimism towards youth.

The young people in The Return are not the mid-century archetypes that we saw in Twin Peaks. They’re informed by them insomuch as their parents and predecessors have shaped who they are. But The Return’s generation are more recognizably contemporary, though the teenagers of Twin Peaks were hardly shrinking violets.

 

 

 

Peak Hours (Part 5)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV History, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Twin Peaks features the most food and drink of any non-culinary show on television. The original series became synonymous with references to “damn fine coffee” and “cherry pie” and not an episode went by without food or beverage items being the focal point of at least one scene. It was a mechanism by which the show could conceal (at least temporarily) its dark heart. What little joy was experienced by the characters of Twin Peaks always centered on eating and drinking and it was prominently placed during their moments of redemption. So what does The Return add to the menu?

In short, something seems to have gone wrong with food and drink. A weakness for shop-bought lattes condemns a young couple to a gruesome death at the hands of an inter-dimensional demon. The contents of a deep fat fryer are just as likely to contain firearms as sticks of potato. More importantly, the quality of Norma’s pies is in jeopardy after her Double R Diner is franchised. The respite that a good meal washed down once provided from the violence and chaos in the town of Twin Peaks looks to have disappeared. Now it seems to be a harbinger.

Oranges in The Godfather and eggs in The Sopranos. Here the mere fact of opening a bag or pouring a glass of something can get you killed. Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s junk-obsessed assassins suffer demises as messy as their diets. Diane and Sarah Palmer, who are human manifestations of tragedy in this reiteration, are cosmically corrupted in a deep well of dependence drinking. To consume was once a pure act of pleasure, one that transcended the sickness of the world around it. Now it seems more like a symptom of the world’s illnesses that then attack the consumer.

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Lynch and Frost developed an orthodoxy based on an inverted snobbery idealizing American junk and diner fare. Now they seem to find something inherently toxic about such diets. Their attitudes towards food are, once again, translated through the body of Dale Cooper. Reborn into the (noticeably paunchy) body of the “manufactured” Dougie Jones, Dale rediscovers his love for coffee and pie with an infantile simplicity that seems to represent a desire to return to the roots of classic American dining. Another storyline featuring a beloved character from the original series puts a socio-economic spin on some of the same thoughts.

Yes, Norma now has a chain of Double R diners across the country. But rather than sacrifice the quality and authenticity of her pie recipes, Norma opts out of ownership to retain control over the original location. A re-telling of the origin story of the McDonald’s franchise with a (far) happier ending for the lineage of home-style cooking in America, it seems that Lynch and Frost’s malaise at the state of American food is tied up with a protest against the forces of corporate capitalism which dilute and disturb its uncomplicated bliss. Although David Lynch loves his Big Boy!

Maybe nostalgia is the difference. When Sinclair (memorably played by the buffoonish Tom Sizemore) tries to bribe Dougie to conceal his part in insurance fraud, he takes his co-worker to a coffee shop in the lobby of a Vegas business complex that seems to have been transported back into the 1950s. The waitresses have mid-century hair and uniforms, pies are on display stands, and your gal promises to bring a piece to your table while you enjoy your coffee. Clearly this is nothing like the Starbucks shacks that would really inhabit such spaces, yet there we are.

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In other parts of the show, it appears that Lynch and Frost have simply become more modern and mature in their tastes. Dougie Jones’ primal relationship with food and drink passes off such predilections as childish folly, while Lynch himself (in the barest of guises as FBI director Gordon Cole) swigs fine Bordeaux and one of Dougie’s co-workers finds a green tea latte a perfectly acceptable substitute for a decent cup of coffee. There are many commentaries on the cultural changes that have taken place since original airing, but democratization of fine food and drink is perhaps the most telling.

There’s a lot of talk about The Return missing so many qualities from the original. The truth is much more complicated. The themes and preoccupations of Twin Peaks are largely present but register differently, and this is true of food and drink. In food language, you might call it “elevated”.

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Peak Hours (Parts 3 & 4)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by Tom Steward

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When Mulholland Drive topped the BBC’s list of the 21st Century’s Top 100 Films last year, Time Out film editor Geoff King was interviewed about David Lynch on BBC News. King was subjected to the kind of bullyboy pedantry that has infected BBC journalism since the era of Jeremy Paxman, and apparently now taints its arts coverage. The reporter banally badgered King about whether or not he understood Lynch’s movie, a question which the critic sensibly dodged by challenging its relevance to an appreciation of the film, adding “I think I’m getting everything that Lynch is putting out there”. I couldn’t have said it better and it’s a sentiment that should inform any attempt to write about Twin Peaks: The Return.

I’m not suggesting I’m any better than those who try to make literal sense out of Lynch’s work. I recently clicked on a YouTube video that was doing the rounds on social media called “David Lynch comments on the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return” which turned out to be a montage of the finale with Lynch as Gordon Cole edited in for comic effect, asking “What the hell?” In spite of myself, I still feel the need to rationalise what Lynch (and, in this case, Mark Frost) puts up there on the screen. Yet I genuinely believe that the critical reception of the series focuses far too much on meaning and not nearly enough on feeling.

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Looking for plausible explanations of what happens in The Return immediately reveals its own futility. Take any of the series’ unsolved mysteries, for example: “What happened to Major Briggs’ head?” The question itself is so absurd; it renders any answer moot. I’m more interested in talking about the sublime image of Don S. Davis’s head floating through space like an early cinema moon. Critics are on firmer ground when they ask legitimate questions about cliffhangers from the original series. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, these storylines would most likely have been resolved, while here they are surrounded by even more uncertainty. The continuation of Audrey Horne’s story arc from the third season finale is a case in point.

We learn that Audrey fell into a coma after being the victim of an explosion at the Savings & Loan while she was handcuffed to the vault. We also surmise that she gave birth to a child, Richard, fairly soon after. That is exactly as much as we know, and we don’t learn any of it in the scenes in which Audrey features. In those scenes, Audrey appears to be caught in a loveless marriage and has taken a lover. But there’s an odd doctor-patient vibe of her relationship with husband Charlie and the denouement of her storyline has Audrey clearing the dance floor of The Roadhouse as she slow-dances to her eponymous leitmotif, followed by a last-second jump-cut to an expressionistic close-up of her face inside a mirror surrounded by clinically coloured and lit walls.

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In Audrey’s story, there’s a perfectly rational explanation of her fate, a completely fantastical one, and everything inbetween. Viewers can latch on to the “fact” of her coma and ascribe her appearances to an elaborate fictional life created in unconsciousness, which is then broken in those final few seconds as she comes out of it. The reverse works just as well. At any point, we may be in the real world or the realms of fantasy, and they could switch at any time. This is an openness of storytelling seldom seen in television. I also suspect this may be a satirical comment on the trope of “retconning” in TV revivals, as information previously understood to be true in a show is unconvincingly revoked or revised by future versions of it. Here Lynch and Frost become the least reliable sources for what has happened to the characters they themselves created.

The Return keeps original Twin Peaks characters dancing on the edge of cliffs in an entertaining holding pattern that promises more resolution than it can ever deliver. At times, Lynch and Frost (my instincts tell me mainly Frost) pay heed to the viewers’ desire for closure but these are hollow gestures, with the exception of Norma and Ed’s happy ending. As the series drew to a close, it appeared that Cooper might return to his original status in the show, but all the different variations of the character seen in The Return coagulate into the muted, half-speed version of the Dales we encounter in the finale episode.

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One thing Lynch is putting out there that I’m definitely getting is the casting. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, the cast comprised largely of Lynch favourites (Kyle MacLachlan and Jack Nance, the protagonists of Blue Velvet and Eraserhead respectively), teen pin-up eye candy (Sheryl Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, James Marshall), veteran actors from Hollywood movies of the 50s and 60s (Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Piper Laurie) and those selected for bodily attributes (The Dwarf, The Giant, The One-Armed Man). The mix of old and new in The Return is already complicated by a pre-existing cast that looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. The dual sense of history and youth is retained but, once again, that means something entirely different in casting The Return.

Lynch’s 21st Century films are represented here by the leading ladies of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern. Though, along with Harry Dean Stanton (in his final television role), Dern connects The Return with Lynch’s oeuvre of the 80s and 90s. She does more than that. By casting her as Diane, who remained offscreen for the entirety of the first run, Lynch has entrusted Dern with giving life to a character that never had one. It really speaks to the idea that Diane is a figment of Lynch’s imagination manifested in the body of his favorite actress. The way Diane’s story plays out onscreen and the agency that Lynch (as Gordon Cole) has in her scenes eerily mirrors their professional relationship.

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Like Twin Peaks, The Return is unashamedly sexy in its selection of actors. But there’s a different aesthetic here. While the original titillated viewers with the eroticism of preppy high-schoolers and teenage beauty queens embracing the darker sides of their sexualities, the revival finds the same quality of desire in adult femininity. Agent Tammy Preston’s hourglass figure, hip-slinking walk and lithe chic is the object of Lynch’s lust. Were this not obvious from the way he shoots her, Lynch’s Cole is also the voyeur in front of the camera. We can draw similar conclusions from Cole, the character once again interchangeable with the director, talking about “one of his Monica Bellucci dreams”, a fantasy which the actress gamely indulges for Lynch. The sexualisation of Diane’s hard drinking, smoking and swearing is another indication of Lynch’s fetishes achieving maturity.

With over a half-century gone since the era of Hollywood that Lynch and Frost plucked their Twin Peaks stars from, it’s remarkable that Beymer and Tamblyn remain to keep the torch of movie nostalgia alight in The Return. This is topped off with the addition to the cast of Don Murray, whose brushes with mid-century Hollywood glamour (having acted alongside Marilyn) and character actor chops make him the perfect Peaker. But The Return also pays homage to the Indiewood cinema and quality television that has dominated American popular art since Twin Peaks first went off the air. Think of Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s pair of assassin lovers as American indie cinema’s Prom King and Queen, with Michael Cera and Amanda Seyfried the first-grade pretenders to the crown. Robert Forster as Sherriff Truman manages to straddle associations with both mid-century Hollywood and the nineties US indie boom.

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While James Belushi might seem a curious choice, for the TV connoisseur his presence puts Twin Peaks into a quality television timeline that acknowledges early nineties virtual reality thriller Wild Palms and then culminates in contemporaries such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, whose stars make punchy cameos here. Lynch and Frost seem to recognise that the paradigms of pop art have shifted with time. Actors are still cast on the basis of their different bodies (though refreshingly not made to play mythical creatures this time) but there’s a few nice twists on the theme. I was particularly enamoured of the three Las Vegas detectives, all named Fusco (and possibly all brothers), who have a heavyset uniformity that makes them seem like actors all waiting to audition for the same part.

In short, there are ways to appreciate Twin Peaks: The Return that don’t involve interpreting it. We should enjoy the freedom that Lynch and Frost give us to experience the characters without the burden of story arcs hanging over them. Sometimes, the significance of characters is not related to their role in the story but is closer to the actor playing them, and what they mean to the world of the show. I don’t feel cheated and I hope others don’t either.

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Queen Me

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s Christmas so TV is all about messages. Though if you know your McLuhan, then you’ll already be aware that TV itself is the message. Far be it from me to buck seasonal television trends, so as this is the final blog post of the year I’ve prepared a Christmas message. As I hail from the land of tea and war (where do you think we got the tea?), the message will be delivered as if it were Queen Elizabeth II’s televised Christmas address to the nation, which all British subjects watch devoutly each year without ever ignoring it completely.

What are all you people doing in our house?

What are all you people doing in our house?

In the House of Commons this November, MPs debated whether to change the symbol of Britain from a lion to a hedgehog or, to put it another way, whether to write off the country by tying its fate to a species with a rapidly declining population. We are reminded of our long-lost children in the colonies who this year lost iconic hosts of late-night on their moving billboards. Like changing a lion for a hedgehog, the replacement may not seem as strong as its predecessor – and more difficult to pick up – but the more they stick out their noses and appear at our doors each night, the more the infants of the new world will grow to love them. We are also reminded of this because a couple of the new hosts look like hedgehogs.

Nocturnal hedgehogs

Nocturnal hedgehogs

If Britain does decide that it’s only economic salvation – following the debacle of a government I could’ve stopped if I had wanted to – is Beatrix Potter brand synergy, then we are reassured by the success of spin-offs in the living room magic lantern shows of the Europe’s emancipated teenager. As hedgehogs to lions, such derivations seemed paltry and incidental creatures yet they possess a unique quality all of their own that has been resting in the shade of bigger animals for so long it comes to light as soon as they shift their lumbering rears from view. Except CSI: Cyber.

There is always the possibility of reinvention – look at us, we’re much more cheery than we used to be – as the recent trend in the wall-mounted viewfinders of Columbus’s Indies for season-long anthology series reminds us. It is difficult to adjust to change – especially if one writes for HitFix – but we should remember that, like that bloody hedgehog we wish we’d never used as a metaphor in the first place, transformation has the potential to preserve a species that would otherwise have died out a lot sooner, or ended up on Hulu. It takes a true detective to see the worth in exchanging a tried-and-tested point of pride for something offbeat and challenging, but we must fargo our trepidations in order to save what we love while it still has a slim chance of survival.

The year of my lord – well he is technically my employer – 2015 was the end of an era, although not for me as we became the longest-reigning British monarch, of which we would like to say on record: ‘suck it, time’! But those less fortunate than us, such as everyone, have had to endure the loss of the many sinful delights that sit within the devil’s hatbox, especially those that hail from the land of not-having-one-of-me-in-charge. We are justified to feel sadness though we would be mad men if we didn’t notice that Parks & Recreation was just shit now.

Lions – for my speechwriter says that you’re simply all too stupid to handle more than one metaphor per message – are lazy and parasitic as well as strong and proud, so it is not with complete regret that we see two and a half of these individually wrapped entertainments make way for an animal that isn’t quite so boring and doesn’t steal from others…like a mentalist! There are those who say it is a scandal that those animals with such a grey anatomy should get away with murder, but here’s the catch. The ecosystem needs every animal – no matter how much it feeds off a rotting carcass – so, however much they induce dread, the lions of this world are just as important to the hedgehogs and, yes, my butler does mix drinks that badly as well.

To play us out, we have the Christmas TV movie carol ‘Edelweiss’ which this year reminds us of a world which my uncle would have been proud of. A very happy Christmas to you all… except those of you who want me to pay taxes.

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

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!

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