Archive for the TV Criticism Category

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

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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!

Peak Viewing Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

There are TV shows we talk about too much. But Twin Peaks isn’t one of them. I’d say the endless chatter about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early 90s ABC drama by those besotted of the show (whom I suspect have cherry-pie-picked episodes and not endured the interminably drawn-out final quarter) was better spent on less-discussed yet equally worthy TV from this era…if it weren’t for how crucial Twin Peaks is in the history of television. Unusually for a show that ran for only two years and thirty episodes, no-one has ever shut up about it. The supreme production values and self-conscious artistry have ensured that there is never a reason not to re-air and re-box set the programme. Even compared to other 90s TV shows, which generally stand up well visually (especially compared to the previous decade), the colour, focus and cinematography are configured in such a way that HD could not possibly improve upon it. There’s been more talk recently because it’s the 25th anniversary of the series (although there always seems to be an excuse for a retrospective!) and plans are afoot for a revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. However, if the public statements of Lynch and most of the cast are anything to go by, the revival might have as much to do with Twin Peaks as 10 Things I hate about you does with The Taming of the Shrew.

A title colour only used in 90s television!

A title colour only used in 90s television!

Twin Peaks set in motion models of television storytelling that have been influential ever since it was on the air. Small-town quirk and paranormal procedural would dominate American TV throughout the 90s, through the ‘twin peaks’ of Northern Exposure and The X-Files. The legacy endures to this day with series like Parks and Recreation, Wayward Pines, Fringe and Grimm. The long-form murder mystery has been a staple of quality television internationally in recent years, with Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, Britain’s Broadchurch and America’s True Detective. Indeed, if HBO opened the floodgates of American quality television with The Sopranos, then Twin Peaks’ dream states and cine-literacy were an important precedent for the show. More broadly, Twin Peaks cemented many ideas that we now take for granted. It showed us that fantasy and realism can live alongside one another in TV without contradiction and that every character in an ensemble (no matter how ridiculous) deserved an inner life and a separate storyline to boot. Twin Peaks remains the benchmark for what constitutes good television. When Louis C.K. tried to generate an art movie feel for his sitcom Louie, he went to none other than David Lynch as guest star (and director in spirit) for a 3-part season finale. In 2010, mystery drama Psych aired an episode called ‘Dual Spires’ featuring cast members and storylines from Twin Peaks, acknowledging the longevity of the show’s mythology as TV to aspire to.

If we dwell too much on the originality of Twin Peaks (as a recent Radio 4 documentary did), we are in danger of forgetting how much the show took from television. References abound to classic American series from Dragnet to The Fugitive (complimenting the mid-century Hollywood intertextuality). As the meta-show Invitation to Love indicates, the characters and storylines in Twin Peaks could have easily come out of a daytime soap. But Twin Peaks was also acknowledging how soaps had graduated to primetime in the previous decade, with shows like Dallas and Knots Landing. In fact, the season one cliffhanger bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ storyline in Dallas that captivated TV audiences exactly a decade before. For all that is made of David Lynch’s ‘cinematic’ influence on the show, Twin Peaks was co-created by Mark Frost, whose formative experience had been writing for television, notably on Steve Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s soap copera Hill Street Blues. Twin Peaks is as remarkable for its adept handling of serial narrative arcs and gradual character development as for its experimental audio-visual style, and there is a clear lineage from Frost’s work on the continuing ensemble drama Hill Street Blues to his teleplays for Twin Peaks. But Lynch and his signature composer Angelo Badalamenti clearly understood the importance of sound to television, creating a soundscape that both compliments perfectly and stands terrifyingly alone from the image.

...or sooner!

…or sooner!

For better or worse, Twin Peaks stands for something bigger than it is. It is the nucleus of a fine art television and a prism through which to see the medium. Laura Palmer said she’d see us in 25 years. She was 25 years over.

The Rest Of The Year’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Unsung Heroes, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Tom Steward

There’s a formula for writing annual ‘Best Of’ TV lists. First it’s compulsory to observe how pointless a task it is making such a list for a vast and varied medium like television, then talk about how your criteria will be completely different, before naming the SAME EXACT shows as every other critic. Well, I don’t think it’s pointless, at least no more futile than doing it for books or films (where critics don’t seem to have the same anxieties about habitually omitting factual and lifestyle titles). I have no wish to create an opaque ratings system that will lead me back to shows which come pre-ordained as the best of TV. But I do want to ensure that the titles I choose won’t appear on anyone else’s list, something which gets harder and harder as critics begin to fawn over the nichest possible television. So don’t consider this the year’s best TV (see I’m doing it in spite of myself!) but rather good TV that has been overlooked simply because it doesn’t get listed.

Botched (E!)

...what if he dies first?

…what if he dies first?

Real Husbands Dr. Paul Nassif (disguised as Moe Syslak from The Simpsons for ease of viewer identification) and Dr. Terry Dubrow (other two-quarters of Heather Dubrow, who must always be named twice) are L.A. plastic surgeons who specialize in fixing botched jobs. There’s some emotional hard luck stories but basically it’s the best excuse ever for social voyeurism and with patients like a Human Ken Doll and a 33-year old man with the face of an early-teen Justin Bieber it’s about as visually mesmerizing as reality TV gets. The show is also indispensable body horror, with its drop-in circus of malfunctioning and distorted anatomy. Even E’s glossification can’t mask the raw psychological distress.

90-Day Fiancé (TLC)

A show close to mine and G’s hearts, since I arrived in the US on a marriage visa. This observational documentary follows six couples during the 90-day window for visitors to the US to marry on the K-1 visa. It’s as compelling for its cartoon parodies of loving marriage as it is for reaffirming the borderless beauty of the institution. So extraordinary and bizarre is the experience for these culture-clash couples that the network barely needs to meddle in the melodrama, as it does for its other reality shows, giving it a more natural (if no less extreme) flow of real events than heavily devised TLC docu-soaps like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

Muppets Most Wanted (Disney)

Variety at heart!

Variety at heart!

Probably more likely to be dismissed on grounds of not being a TV show, this was nonetheless the movie that in 2014 most thoroughly blurred distinctions between film and television. The Muppets are a creation of television, stars Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey are all television personalities, and the legacy of The Muppet Show is privileged at the expense of the movie franchise (the latter self-consciously in comic acknowledgements of the diegetic amnesia around popular movie characters and sequels). The movie is a joyous celebration of the achievements and talents of television past and present, reminding us of how far the medium has come. And it’s full of commercials!

LIVE With Kelly And Michael! (ABC)

A show that will doubtless elude recognition for its monotony and ubiquity, but this doesn’t change the fact that host Kelly Ripa is by several miles of open country the funniest, smartest, wittiest and most multi-dimensional presenter in daytime. Her work in morning television is more akin to what Conan, Colbert and Craig Ferguson have done with the late-night form than the platitudinous moron-making of virtually everybody else on TV at that time, and until about 11 in the evening. This is an everyday occurrence, which makes it all the more startling, but her essential impersonation of Laura Linney in the Halloween parody of PBS Masterpiece Theater speaks volumes.

The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (CBS)

Not like any other late night show!

Not like any other late night show!

Dare I say that Craig Ferguson’s departure from late-night talk shows will leave an even bigger hole than David Letterman? While Letterman innovated within the format, Ferguson created a new late-night form that was genuinely subversive, avant-garde and experimental, importing a brand of British vaudeville surrealism reminiscent of Reeves & Mortimer and The Mighty Boosh. Like those acts, Ferguson meshed light entertainment with serious art, carved out an absurd fantasy using television grammar, and delivered alternative culture disguised as broad comedy. It was a rejection of all that was bland and formulaic about one of American TV’s most intransigent genres, and a complete reinvention of its possibilities.

Watching TV With Britons Part 2: Same Same Same

Posted in Americans watching British TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

The second part of my exile’s guide to British television looks at the unwelcome familiarity of the programmes I watched during my recent visit to the UK, as any vain hope of something changing for the better while I was away is quickly crushed under my muddy, slushy Wellington boot:

The Royal Variety Performance (ITV):

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

As both variety (our version of vaudeville) and royalty are anachronisms in British popular culture, this annual broadcast of theatrical entertainment staged in front of members of the monarchy seems to exist for nostalgia alone. Tellingly, there’s no variety on offer but merely alternating stand-ups and singers. The addition of William and Kate – presumably as a reward for breeding – meant that the event was no longer attended by a couple famous for their dislike of showbusiness but they still couldn’t help appearing like a benign Statler & Waldorf. It’s hard to believe that host – and redefinition of the term ‘comedian’ – Michael Mcintyre remains popular in Britain but given the programme’s commitment to the regression of our culture, artist and medium have never been better matched.

The Railway: First Great Western (Channel 5):

Public transport documentaries have been the saving grace of British reality television in the past few years, but the UK’s TV network-in-the-attic Channel 5 has, by focusing on this year’s closure of the Dawlish rail line due to storms and flooding, turned it into weather porn – one of the less commendable reality genres to emerge on British TV after the advent of climate change! Still, it was interesting to see that Home Secretary Theresa May is as inept at forming sentences as she is at politics.

Black Mirror: White Christmas (Channel 4)

A Christmas Hamm!

A Christmas Hamm!

British TV critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker exists in a categorical limbo between Clive James and Rod Serling, alternating parodic weekly TV review shows with anthology sci-fi horror. This festive (in genre alone!) edition of techno-fear playhouse Black Mirror was, in keeping with the British Christmas special, more conventional than we expect from the series. The formulaic storytelling was partly a satisfying return to the Christmas TV horror plays of old but also revived some rather retrograde attitudes to gender and race that I’m sure we’d all have rather left in the TV of the 70s. A surprise Christmas gift came in the form of an outstanding star turn by Jon Hamm, leading the effort to turn British migrant labour in American TV into a hostage exchange (P.S. You keep James Nesbitt, we’ll have Steve Buscemi!), which, as Mad Men comes to a close, more than proved – at least to doubting Thomases like me – that he could credibly be something other than Don Draper.

It Was Alright in the 70s (Channel 4)

Several people told me I should watch this programme, which runs clips of contemporaneously controversial British TV from the 1970s alongside commentary from the people involved as well as aghast modern-day viewers. The clips themselves have the requisite shock and entertainment value, but I was uneasy with the tone and project of this documentary. It seemed to suggest that the bigotry and exploitation that appeared in 1970s television was somehow a thing of the past and that all the problems of representation had subsequently been resolved, whereas I saw plenty of examples, if perhaps more latent than pointed, of prejudice and cruelty in the TV I watched while in the UK. It’s also a very selective history of 1970s television in the UK which continually declines to mention how experimental, challenging and innovative a great deal of TV was in that era, perhaps more than now, and certainly with more frequency. When this is acknowledged, it’s usually passed off as the inconsequential ramblings of a cultural historian in the editing, and only ever associated with content that would be hard to defend on a representational level, such as The Goodies’ (literally!) savage attack on apartheid involving racial slurs and minstrelry. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the programme is its lack of originality. It’s a cursory spin on a clip-based nostalgia format that’s been around since the turn of the millennium, and almost matches the exploitative tendencies of the TV it lambasts by offering recent revelations about the sex crimes of 70s British celebrities as a unique selling point.

Autopsy: The Last Days of Elvis Presley (Channel 5)

briton 6

Dr Richard Shepherd, Graduate of The University of Stating The Bleeding Obvious!

Like asking which bullet killed a person shot 24 times. Worth seeing for the Elvis curl on the lips of the actor portraying Presley whilst dying on the toilet.

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