Archive for the TV Culture Category

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.

peaks 10

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.

 

 

 

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Stage Set

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History on March 29, 2017 by Tom Steward

Stage 1

I’ve spent a lot of time away from this blog because I’m building a career in theatre. However, I’m finding that the playwrights I come across when I’m reading plays or looking for audition monologues are many of the same names I’m seeing in the writing credits of the TV shows I watch. In a previous career as a TV historian, I observed many instances of theatre artists crossing over into American TV – or vice versa – and each time emigres were brought in to help shape or re-define the medium, carrying with them the necessary cultural cache to do it.

And here they are doing it again. Louis C.K’s web experiment Horace and Pete used the internet to deliver a fusion of TV and theatre which was hitherto unseen in the US, and he enlisted the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker in the process. While Baker declined the offer to be a staff writer on the project, the author of The Flick and The Aliens was instrumental in bringing her trademark edge of masochistic naturalism to the third episode of the mini-series (which begins with a 12-minute monologue by Laurie Metcalf), where she is loosely credited as consultant.

Louis C.K. eventually succeeded in getting an award-winning playwright to join his writing staff when he hired author of The Whale and A Bright New Boise Samuel D. Hunter to pen episodes of Baskets, a dramedy starring Zach Galafianakis that he produces for FX. Though far more conventional than Horace and Pete in form, Baskets nonetheless confounds expectations of tone for a series which led strongly with broad physical comedy before existentially breaking down each of the absurd characters. Hunter’s episodes go a long way towards this analytical deepening of the (sometimes literally) massive stereotypes established in the opening episodes.

Stage 2

Orange is the New Black writer Jordan Harrison is also a renowned playwright, with Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime under his belt. It’s interesting that a playwright concerned with digital technologies which change human-machine relations should be involved with a series that’s at the cutting edge of the electronic televisual experience. Having seen the play along with his Amazons and their Men, I can see how (for better or worse) the clipped art of TV writing has affected his theatre pieces, with both feeling like they cut away from a scene too early or, more importantly, that they need follow-ups.

Gina Gionfriddo is the playwright of Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn. She also wrote for Law & Order and Cold Case. Given the obscenity and offensiveness of her plays, it’s a safe bet she had to self-censor when it comes to satisfying the still-draconian standards of network television, at least where words were concerned. However, if you follow John Mulaney’s thinking (and who wouldn’t?), the two procedurals with their graphic depictions and explications of heinous crimes would be the perfect dwelling place for a writer concerned with the underside of human behaviour. But these are by no means pioneers.

The play format of early American television resulted in the employment of writers who both came from and subsequently went to the theatre, including Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose. Much of the immediacy we still associate with television came from it being written as a live, continuous experience by theatre-savvy artists in those years. Even when TV eschewed theatrical trappings, playwrights continued to enter the medium, such as Neil Simon, who worked on comedy vehicles for Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar in the late 1950s. Simon would later theatricalize this for Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Stage 3

While we’re used to talking about writers from the movies coming to TV, we’ve traditionally overlooked stage playwrights who moonlight in the medium. In the 1980s, another Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, was ahead of the game when he penned an episode of the transformative cop show Hill Street Blues, before following this up decades later with military drama The Unit, which he co-created with Shawn Ryan of The Shield. The Hill Street Blues episode was before Mamet made the jump to cinema and well before great writers flocked to US quality TV. It’s easy to see playwrights who come to TV as Greek Gods who deign to push us mere mortals in the right direction, but the truth is much messier and speaks to exchanges of ideas between the two art forms which have always been around and are still in development.

 

 

On Your Marks…Set…HBO!

Posted in American TV (General), Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by Tom Steward

I hate to use the word adulting – primarily because it’s not a word – but it now seems that every major TV network in America has at least one program that is mature and sophisticated in content, execution or both (except NBC, who are labouring under the delusion that a Ryan Seacrest police procedural is somehow acceptable). It may be true that the best (non-pornographic) adult programming these days comes from basic cable networks like FX (Fargo, The Americans) and AMC (Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead) but that doesn’t mean they got there first. Subscription network – and Adam Sandler movie buyer – HBO has been adulting since the late nineties, when arty prison drama Oz and revolutionary crime drama The Sopranos heralded a wave of complex, experimental and provocative television that has yet to subside. This was politically and artistically reinforced by Six Feet Under and The Wire in the naughties, but overall the network that is an alternative to itself has re-defined just about every genre of TV you can think of, from post-feminist rom-com to news satire. But is it possible that HBO is finally entering a period of arrested development, and might that actually be a good thing?

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Well, people would have liked it a lot more!

HBO now looks to re-define quality television for children, mostly by making parents pay – or wait – for it. Last year the network struck a deal with PBS to co-produce the  iconic educational television show Sesame Street so that the show would air first on the subscription-based provider and then on free-to-air TV months later. It’s perhaps the only time I can think of (maybe you can do better) that HBO has exploited an established commodity rather than making an improved version of it and it’s one of the few signature series the network has that doesn’t rely on obscenity to make audiences spend to see it. HBO has now added the football-themed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Ballers to its roster of original series, which seems to be playing to the Fast and Furious-watching, sports-loving element of its demographic. Even a critic’s darling like Game of Thrones which is certainly distinguished by heavy and explicit levels of sex, violence and offensive language resembles the kind of mediaevalesque fantasy stories beloved by the nerdy young and is perhaps the first time that a HBO series with a continuous narrative arc has seemed more like a children’s matinee serial than a novel.

It’s rare that a HBO series goes over its audience’s head – though we all remember the debacle of John from Cincinnati – but last year the high-profile misfire of True Detective Season Two suggested that viewers weren’t always going to lap up the most extreme, idiosyncratic television that the network could produce. Vinyl is just beginning but it’s hard to see where this Scorsese creation detailing the record industry of the seventies will go in exploring the organized criminal elements of historical American leisure that Boardwalk Empire didn’t. The network has cancelled Looking and put a time limit on Girls, which will curb its claim to have the most socially incisive, funniest and best-written comedy-dramas on TV. If it is to continue its unwritten policy of having a maximum of six seasons of every show, then we know that Game of Thrones can’t last much longer, though the saga’s literary predecessor suggests otherwise. So what is the future of HBO? Will the network start to polarise its appeal by producing television that is either infantile or avant-garde, with nothing inbetween? Perhaps the open access of HBO GO and HBO NOW is doing something irrevocable to the adult remit of the network.

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‘Finish the series, George, I have indie movies to make!’

I’m sure many have written these ‘death of HBO’ articles before, and I’m sure they were as premature then as this is now. But I’m worried about the point of HBO changing, not the quality. Game of Thrones is wonderfully compelling and I admired True Detective a great deal, but at its best HBO always gave us innovative, game-changing television that never seemed too slight or too weighty. That balance may be in jeopardy as HBO diversifies into a Netflix-style online video service, or perhaps FX and AMC have found the mean when it comes to quality television, without needing to resort to pornographic shock tactics or take too much cash out of viewers’ pockets. Last Week Tonight and Silicon Valley suggest that a change in direction is not necessarily a bad thing, and that HBO is still finding the best people and concepts in television. But for how long?

The Ch-Ching Crowd

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , on November 16, 2015 by Tom Steward

Last week, Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a characteristically sarcastic video in which he is heckled by Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot over his appeal for money to make a show famous for its low budget. Crowdfunding compliments a cult program like this, but it’s becoming a reality for all kinds of television. As the way we watch TV changes, so does the way that it’s financed. In fact, I’m currently involved as an actor in a TV project that needs a crowdfunding campaign before it can get off the ground.

It's a mystery...why they need money!

It’s a mystery…why they need money!

I’m talking about The Cast Members, a sitcom in the great American tradition of the comic ensemble about the employees of a cinema/theatre (delete depending on whether you’re saying it rightly or wrongly), created by Aaron David Roberts. Even though the concept is so good you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before, the scripts are as tight as those trousers David Bowie wore in Labyrinth, and it features some of the best onscreen and stage talent in San Diego – and in L.A., for that matter – without the backing of a production company or network (in whatever broadcast or digital form they exist now), it’s the audience that has to pay upfront to make the program they want to see. A crowdfunding campaign will start next year and my work for the project so far has been to shoot a promotional video that takes the form of a condensed pilot.

Crowdfunding is common enough when it comes to reviving a show that’s been cancelled by a network, as the Kickstarter campaign that brought Veronica Mars back to our screens as a feature film illustrates. It’s a relatively new concept for launching TV shows, however. Nat Geo’s global pub crawl Chug is considered the first Kickstarter-funded series and that starting airing in 2014. In most crowdfunding campaigns, success is determined as much by the incentives for donating as the product. These ‘perks’ – as they are known – range from bonus material (a callback to the DVD extra and Easter Eggs that made us pay twice to watch TV the first time round) to branded merchandise only available to donors, and usually only by donating a specific amount. It’s easy to see how this form of financing would work in the current TV climate, which is driven largely by multi-platform intertextuality and consumption.

Many of the series funded by Kickstarter campaigns are intended to stream on the web rather than ever make it to air, although the distinction between the two is closing as some of the most highly-regarded TV of our time now begins online and stays there. Chug eventually found a major cable network, despite the fact that it was their collective ambivalence that compelled producers to go the crowdfunding route in the first place, and can’t be seen as representative. The Veronica Mars feature film was streamed on Amazon Instant Video but I doubt whether the decision to add the film to their stores posed much of a quandary for the online shopping giant given that it was a known quantity and that production had already been paid for. I’m sure it’s not normal to exceed funding goals in the way the campaigns for Veronica Mars and Chug did either.

There’s usually some kind of trailer for the project requiring funding to launch the campaign. The Kickstarter for Veronica Mars assembled actors from the series and had them perform their launch video in the style of the teen noir. You might also say that the three seasons of the show were the trailers for the feature remake. For The Cast Members, Aaron decided on a mini-episode, which made the most sense since the actors had already been cast and storylines devised for the first season. It also meant that the Kickstarter could act as a shop window for the series and its stellar cast, as well as a fiscal means to an end. Mounting a pre-pilot also suggests that the ‘starter’ bit of the campaign website’s name is misleading, as projects need to be in an advanced stage, both conceptually and in finances, to even launch a campaign at all.

By all accounts, the Kickstarter to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing well, as did the one for Veronica Mars, while Chug demonstrated that it’s possible to get a brand new show on the air using crowdfunding. It’s still a high-risk, high-reward strategy that may bankrupt you before launch.

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!

Tarantino on TV II

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

Once again – and just as unintentionally – Quentin Tarantino has re-opened the debate about TV and film. Speaking on the release of The Hateful Eight in dual versions, one complimenting a 70mm Panavision format, the other more conducive to multiplexes and subsequent TV airings, the director observed:

‘The 70 is the 70. You’ve paid the money. You’ve bought your ticket. So you’re there. I’ve got you. But I actually changed the cutting slightly for a couple of the multiplex scenes because it’s not that. Now it’s on Showtime Extreme. You’re watching it on TV and you just kind of want to watch a movie on your couch. Or you’re at Hot Dog on a Stick and you just want to catch a movie.’

A 70mm shotgun!

A 70mm shotgun!

Tarantino has always been a lone voice in the debate, distinguished by an unerring respect for television as an artistic medium and his belief that there is still a tangible distinction between TV and cinema. There are few commentators on either side that can keep hold of both these ideas. Some of Tarantino’s finest work as a director was in television – in ER and CSI, no less – and it’s clear from his movies that TV falls under his muse. But he’s a filmdamentalist and his staunch refusal to acquiesce to the digital industry standard is also an outright denial that TV and cinema have conflated. Tarantino’s vivid descriptions of two experientially different media are more compelling than most critics’ vague sense that TV is becoming more like cinema.

The auteur reserves his derision for the cultural no man’s land of mall-adjunct multiplexes where, as Jackie Brown’s Max Cherry once observed, you see ‘something that starts soon and looks good’. It’s here that film is simply an afterthought of conspicuous consumption, not a thing of grand beauty and spectacle or part of a boutique outlet delivering sophisticated cable programming. There’s an all-or-nothing-at-all fatalism about Tarantino’s views on cinema, a regression to the mid-century belief in a divergence between TV and movies based solely on the size of the screen. It’s a welcome counterpoint to the ubiquity of convergence rhetoric, but perhaps in the end just as misguided and myth-driven as its opposing view.

Another coincidence is that Tarantino’s remarks were reported in the same week that FX began airing the new season of Fargo, a series that asks questions about the relationship between TV and cinema. The series is a spin-off from the 1996 movie directed by Tarantino’s indie contemporaries The Coen Brothers, but once again this season is elusive about its status in regards to the cinematic source material. Actors in the series are frequently costumed and posed to look like characters from the movie, even though they’re playing completely new roles. This season is set during the Carter administration and has the crumpled golden look of late seventies movies, yet the split screen techniques speak more to TV title sequences of the era, not to mention a much more recent breakthrough in televisual narration, Fox’s own 24.

The previous season of Fargo – an anthology of season-long stories, which doesn’t make eliciting its cinematic and televisual qualities any easier – seemed at first a remake of the movie’s storyline with similarly Manichean characters and labyrinthine plotting yet by its end, it felt more like a sequel, having been found in and extrapolated from the timeline of the original. With Kieran Culkin’s uncanny resemblance to a young Steve Buscemi and in the very first episode a visual homage to the late Harve Presnell, whose implacable moustache loomed large over the movie, I suspect we might have just as ambiguous a play with the cinematic mythology this time around. The stars don’t help. Ted Danson has long been identified with television. Meanwhile there’s a Culkin in the cast and plenty of actors who are split exactly evenly across the two media. It’s almost as if Fargo wants to create a new hybrid creature that is neither and both.

Another funny-looking guy.

Another funny-looking guy.

Fargo’s messy intertwining of TV and film consciousnesses works at cross-purposes to what Quentin Tarantino is saying about the continued separation of the two. When we watch Fargo, we’re unsure about how much of what we’re watching belongs to which media. As Tarantino suggests, seeing a movie at a multiplex as a food court folly could lead to the same confusion, while watching it projected wide on film stock would absolutely not. The couch brings together movies and TV, often in the same flowing package, but does it always clarify which is which?

Late Risers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

Over the summer, two of the most important seats in late-night television were vacated. Unlike last year, when NBC’s The Tonight Show promoted Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ The Late Late Show traded like for like – to maintain the quota of British late-night hosts at exactly one – each of the replacements was not the heir apparent. Host of CBS’ Late Show David Letterman was succeeded by Stephen Colbert, who came in from Comedy Central, having been host of The Colbert Report and contributor to The Daily Show, and not long-time Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Letterman’s protégé who had, like his mentor, smashed the orthodoxy of the genre. At least Colbert was recognized as a great innovator and radical presence on TV – as well as a nifty enough entertainer – when he was awarded the Late Show crown. Utterly unlike newcomer Trevor Noah, who was bumped several pay grades when he went from Daily Show contributor to taking Jon Stewart’s job as host. In fact, Colbert was the more likely of the two to take over The Daily Show. Former contributor and frequent guest host John Oliver was a shoo-in to take over until HBO made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After that, the choice was anyone’s guess. But Noah was no-one’s.

That's Colbert baby!

That’s Colbert baby!

Noah and Colbert have wildly different briefs. To emulate Letterman, Colbert is obliged to be as challenging and groundbreaking as possible while Noah is the steward of a culturally necessary ritual, and cannot dismantle its beloved format. As such, Noah might seem to have the harder job. But Colbert’s fluent presentation masks his deft deconstruction of late-night talk formula. He has replaced the monologue with political analyses. Guests tend to be public figures with cultural significance rather than celebrities hawking their wares. It’s a forum for news and current affairs and a showcase for high culture. Fallon’s breakthroughs by contrast have been primarily vaudevillian and even Ferguson’s reinvention of the genre as burlesque slapstick went in the opposite direction to Colbert. It’s not just the fluency with which these changes have been implemented, but also how assured, joyous and endearing Colbert is while doing it. This he may have learnt from Fallon’s head-start, but Colbert pursues it the name of something far more significant. The sad irony is that Colbert is exactly the personality The Daily Show needed to preserve its legacy, while Noah is not. Two weeks in to Noah’s reign and the added value of Jon Stewart’s easy-going charm has finally been calculated in full. A solid comic mind is simply not enough.

Stewart covered a multitude of sins with his asides and interludes of self-mocking, and without them we can see just how little content there is in the average Daily Show news item. Noah has exposed this, but I don’t level the blame at him. It takes a particularly kind of host – a Letterman or Carson, for example – to engage the audience without losing them when holes appear in the format. Noah has his long, pregnant smile, but to the live studio audience and the viewers at home, it reads as a stumble or a stall, even in the strongest segments like his brilliant mash-up of the Trump mythos with that of African dictatorship. Moments like this reassure us that the quality of mock-journalism has not dropped off, but in this case a pair of safe hands will not suffice. We need someone who can convince us they’ve revolutionized The Daily Show when nothing has changed, not a competent caretaker. Conversely, Colbert’s Late Show coup seemed bloodless, yet was a conceptual genocide. Fallon has proved it’s possible to succeed in late-night television by being a vessel for the greatness of others, and indeed Stewart leaned on Oliver and Colbert in exactly that way when they were Daily Show contributors, so Noah cannot be written off yet.

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

The Daily Show and Late Show are probably the two late-night talk formats that matter most culturally – with the possible exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. The former is so because it is the closest America has to a reliable news source; the latter because Letterman made it a hotbed of comic artistry in the 90s. But because American TV is an inherently commercial animal, they require a certain kind of salesmanship to help audiences buy into them. Colbert’s hate-resistant persona is the perfect medium while Noah’s workmanlike anonymity may not be, at least not in the long-term. But can Colbert sustain these unimaginable highs?

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