Archive for the TV Criticism Category

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.

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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!

The Tommys 2015

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

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

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

Winner: Sam Elliott for Justified

tommys

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

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

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

tommys 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Sherlock (award collected by Lucy Liu)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Contestant who Looks Most Like a Popeye Character

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

tommys 3

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

Doctor No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Missied opportunity!

A Missied opportunity!

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

The Endless Summer

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, hiatus, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m back after being away for the summer…just like TV! Or so I thought. Summer used to be a dumping ground for cancellation fodder, but something has changed. Many of the year’s most important programmes now air over the summer and momentous TV events are just as likely to play in the spring and summer as fall and winter. No doubt some of this is down to cable channels disrupting the old network seasonality, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that TV critics can’t take summer off any more if they want to stay current. So what’s been happening?

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

True Detective Season Two

Another reason why TV critics can’t go away for summer is because they’d all miss doing their favourite thing – bashing the follow-up to a universally praised piece of television with no particular motivation other than convention. Season Two of HBO’s anthological police procedural was torn to pieces by most critics, with so-called fans and lovers of quality television just as vociferously negative. It really has nothing to do with the season itself, just a tired old game that critics like to play, one that immunised us against the self-evident pleasures of Treme simply because it followed The Wire and even made us question the quality of The Wire when it entered its second season. Worryingly, it suggests critics and viewers of the serial age have serious trouble evaluating television when it deviates from formula, and really aren’t ready for the anthology revolution happening in TV.

Jon Stewart leaves The Daily Show

After fifteen years as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart could simply be remembered as the person that brought the art of fake news – cultivated in Britain by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris – to the US. But he leaves behind him an even greater legacy. When TV news polarised into partisan platforms with MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, Stewart’s Daily Show was just about the only source of news that had any semblance of objectivity (as rocky a term as that is) left to give. He was trumped by his own protégés. First Stephen Colbert, who transformed himself into a living doll of satire, viscerally exposing the ugliness of the media conservative while manifesting the winning naivety that makes them attractive. Then John Oliver who – with the help of HBO’s unsegmented formats – brought satirically slanted news reporting into the realms of investigative journalism and political activism.

Cilla Black/Rowdy Roddy Piper (delete as nationally appropriate) died

It’s only accident that these deaths occurred in summer, but taken together they are tantamount to transatlantic television tragedy. The British light entertainment host and Canadian WWF star died within a week of each other, which means nothing until you put together that their stretches as reigning TV personalities from the 1980s to the early 2000s is virtually identical and that they generate the same fuzzy nostalgia (in warmth and confusion alike) from the generations that grew up watching them. For me, it was a sharp reminder of how separate American and British cultures can be. Nobody mentioned Cilla – a contemporary of America’s beloved Beatles – stateside. Roddy Piper remains unfamiliar to me…and to all 90s British kids who didn’t have Sky.

Netflix Summer

The charms of hyper-inflective prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black continues to elude me, but it’s Netflix’s most valuable commodity and the June release of its third season was not an anomaly. The star-studded prequel series to cult comedy movie Wet Hot American Summer was made available in July as was season two of the critically acclaimed cartoon BoJack Horseman. Orange is the New Black was even streamed a few days early, just to remind Netflix subscribers that they can do shit like that. It’s pretty cocky behaviour, and somewhat backfired when fans who had booked time off work to binge-watch the season found themselves in a socially impossible situation. I don’t think this surge of summer activity at Netflix (nor the summer-theming of its releases) is at all a coincidence, more an attempt to dominate TV distribution in these months of the year. For all their talk of liberating viewers from the tyranny of scheduling, Netflix keeps subscribers under the yoke of its idiosyncratic calendar.

Fear The Walking Dead is set in LA...it's going to be a short show!

Fear The Walking Dead is set in LA…it’s going to be a short show!

Fear the Walking Dead Series Premiere

The unwanted spin-off of AMC’s The Walking Dead debuted in the last days of summer. As True Detective also switched from a rural southern locale to the L.A. metropolitan sprawl, I wouldn’t expect any glowing reviews forthcoming…

Info a Treat

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , on June 17, 2015 by Tom Steward

TBS’ late-night talk show Conan features a segment called ‘What am I Watching?’ in which titular host O’Brien flips through the cable channels with the aid of the info button on his remote. Pressing the button reveals skewed descriptions of each show encountered, such as ‘Entertainment Tonight: Two lifelike cyborgs are programmed to think everything Hollywood does is fantastic’ and ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: Guy Fieri plays an out-of-work party clown who is addicted to lard’. There are two diametrically opposed laughs here. One is the absurd – yet entirely truthful – inversions of the straight-faced synopses that info buttons on cable remotes give us about TV shows. The other (which sadly nowadays may be as socio-economically discriminatory as those jokes in The Sopranos about Kierkegaard) is about people who have cable recognizing how close these summaries come to the real thing.

All you need to know...

All you need to know…

The descriptions contained on info buttons are not as openly critical as the fake ones on Conan but they do often make you wonder who the authors are and what their criteria is. Whatever possessed the person that wrote the digital synopsis for Jaws: The Revenge to question the scientific plausibility of the storyline when they wrote ‘Disregarding the behaviour typically exhibited by the rest of its species, a revenge-minded shark follows a woman from New England to the Bahamas’? What is to be gained from listing the events that take place in the 1920s surrealist avant-garde short Un Chien Andalou – including a woman’s eye being cut and ants spilling from a wound in someone’s hand – as if it were an episode of Columbo? And these are the ones that actually get the descriptions right.

The buttons struggle noticeably with anything resembling emotional complexity. They can’t seem to get around the fact that Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie isn’t a good person and doesn’t find redemption each week. TCM’s button writer needs an education in film noir – one incidentally that the network will provide in association with Ball University – if it thinks that anyone in The Glass Key is in any way moral or decent. As misleading as they can be, info buttons are impossible to do without. With shows on cable now mired in the mud of endless re-runs and encores (which are re-runs that run on from the first run, like a bad sequel), it’s essential to have something to distinguish individual episodes, and sometimes the description on the info button is the only way to be sure.

This new technology has created a completely different experience of watching television, one that we’re perhaps less willing to recognize because it doesn’t involve a computer screen. It’s just on our TV rather than our phones and devices but that in itself is significant. We have much less need for TV listings or paper guides, which means that journalistic commentaries on TV shows has been supplanted by anonymous synopses. While before, viewers would read a critics’ review to get a sense of whether they wanted to watch a programme or not, now they have to go off the plot, and be less informed about the success of the project than its aims. Maybe it’s clearer now why the description of Jaws: The Revenge was so unfavourable. Button writers don’t rate TV, but nor should they have blood on their hands.

Info buttons only skim the surface of how cable remotes alter our perception of television. Every time I try to erase an episode of Conan, the remote asks me ‘Are you sure you want to erase Conan?’ as if the host himself will be vanquished from history once I press ‘Ok’. Whenever I do, I genuinely believe that Conan O’Brien has disappeared into the ether. All right, that’s not true. But making me think twice about whether I want to keep a show or not has made me re-evaluate what in TV is worthy of a second or third viewing.

I’ve made lots of assumptions here about the people who write the descriptions on info buttons – as well as assuming that this is a dedicated profession and not an intern’s copy-and-paste job – so anyone who knows anything about how these show summaries get written, please get in touch with me and I’ll write another post about it, with whatever level of anonymity you wish. Poverty and convenience may one day render cable obsolete, so I want to learn what I can about this phase of TV history while I can. I also want to know who wrote that Jaws blurb!

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