Archive for the TV Dreams Category

The Music Box

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.

God only knows why they picked that song!

God only knows why they picked that song!

There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.

Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!

A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.

May you stay forever Dylan!

May you stay forever Dylan!

The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.

Zappy Holidays

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

Like the most innocuous word in the English language, the phrase ‘holiday TV special’ means something very different in Britain and America. Christmas specials on UK television are typically bloated extrapolations or unwanted revivals of popular programmes while in the US they tend to be family-friendly entertainment specially made for the occasion. In Britain, the runs of TV series are normally over by Christmas meaning that each show is unnaturally forced back into the schedules. However, in the US Christmas falls slap-bang in the middle of the network season, allowing for a festively-themed episode preceding the mid-season break that incorporates the holiday rather than the other way round. American holiday specials tend to go straight for spectacle and showmanship, something we’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate with musical versions of our soap operas and star performances where you text the Bee Gees for no apparent reason. I’m sure we Brits used to do this better in the days when vaudeville ruled our airwaves but US TV remains far less hesitant and bashful about pure, uncomplicated show. With the help of my wife G, who has been willingly indoctrinated by American holiday TV fare since childhood, I’ve been watching some classic specials.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

 

The oppressed in 1960s American society.

 

What begins as a music video for the beloved Christmas song soon transforms into a scathing indictment of racism, homophobia and sexism. Appropriately for a TV movie made in the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed, Rudolph’s ostracision is an issue of skin colour. There’s also Hermey, a gay elf (acknowledged by seldom-used codeword ‘Dentist’) whose good hair, handsome looks and ambitions for a white-collar career make him a social misfit in the North Pole. It’s one of the few occasions in mainstream entertainment you’ll see a gay man as our closest link to normality. Such prejudices are shown to be a symptom of the stagriarchal society in which women are kept out of decision-making processes. The bare bones of the song are fleshed out with references to every children’s story and American myth you can think of: The Abominable Snowman, The Gold Rush, Narnia. There’s also a scene with disabled toys that could keep Pixar in court with the Rankin-Bass estate for the rest of existence. Add in transcendent stop-motion animation and wonderfully offbeat characters (like the prospector looking for silver and gold in the North Pole) and you have a deserved classic.

 

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

 

Stomach pump, please.

 

Having some of the best jazz piano riffs ever, ever, ever (courtesy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio) would be enough to destine this cartoon for greatness. But it’s so much more. A Thanksgiving variation on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, the special has that perfect blend of wit and slapstick that distinguishes the very best cartoons. The combination of intelligent adult humour and childish situations sets an enduring template for some of the finest animation of the last thirty years: The Simpsons, Rugrats, King of the Hill. Schultz’s genius premise of a child with the malaise of a middle-aged man and friends who act like dinner party guests in a Woody Allen movie has one of its most memorable outings here, as Charlie tries to avoid social awkwardness by hosting an en-masse Thanksgiving dinner. Helped immeasurably by the wistful score, there’s a deep-seated melancholy here, which gives the special an unusually dark adult tone for family entertainment, making it the heir of troubling holiday movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and appropriate for Conan O’Brien’s deleted suicide scene parody. The painful deadpan on Charlie’s face was my own expression after a Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far gone…

 

A classic of you’ll-think-you-dreamt-it television, this Thanksgiving spectacular featuring characters and actors from the original Star Wars movie was never re-broadcast and recordings were suppressed for decades by creator George Lucas in his ongoing quest to change history. Thanks to fans’ recordings of the original broadcast that can now be shared via the internet, we’re able to see the special in all its eminently bizarre glory. It’s the only time you’ll ever see an elderly wookie orgasming watching a helmet porno of Diahann Carroll, Golden Girl Bea Arthur tossing drunks out of the cantina, and a space drag queen TV chef cooking bantha meat while spinning her bosom. There’s a nice idea in here somewhere about using TV to bring the domestic verisimilitude of everyday life to the Star Wars universe but it gets drowned out by the tonal confusion and unintentional avant-garde of the execution. It also features some of the oddest dramatic choices in the history of TV (probably culture) such as dialogue-free, grunt-based scenes of Chewbacca’s family at home. At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it.

Watching TV with Americans will return in January…Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

You Don’t Have To Be Mad Men To Work Here

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m sure the last thing you all want to read is another blog post on the Mad Men Season 6 premiere and there are lots of people who read this blog who won’t want to know what happens in the episode. So instead of a review with spoilers, I’ve compiled a list of unconnected observations about the feature-length opener:

 

Giving nothing away as usual!

 

1. Despite being a pointedly metaphysical episode, the mystical flow associated with the series is absent and it feels quite choppy, almost like an extended ‘Previously On’ re-cap.

 

2. There are so many non-sequiturs and sections focusing on a single character that you keep expecting it to be revealed that we are watching a montage of everyone’s dreams.

 

3. We get a glimpse of what catching up with TV was like in the days before DVR.

 

4. Unsurprisingly Roger has the best scene, another one in which he is comedian and straight man simultaneously. And we learn that his knowledge of Pacific Island culture comes straight out of From Here to Eternity.

 

5. Harry walking up stairs in a huff is hilarious.

 

6. The opening twenty minutes is like the film spin-off of a sitcom.

 

Mad Men on tour

 

7. Burt is better with buildings than people.

 

8. Don falls back into old habits…and it’s not (just) what you think.

 

9. Peggy ruins New Year for Freddy Crane.

 

10. Nothing is more tense than not knowing how Don will react to a situation outside his comfort zone.

 

11. In male grooming style in late 60s America, you were either a Morrison or a Zappa.

 

12. Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce storyboard the titles for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

 

13. Joan gets more screen time in her Johnnie Walker commercials than in the episode.

 

 

14. Don enters the cast of Scooby-Doo.

 

15. Megan is forced to take work as a maid but turns to violence against her employer after her hours increase substantially.

 

16. Betty stars in her own version of Trading Places but it isn’t her face she’s blacking.

 

17. A shine box makes a better heirloom than a ring.

 

18. Ken’s conversation at funerals is on message.

 

19. Don nearly finds out what it’s like to die.

 

20. Who the hell knows what is going to happen next, if anything?

Where Feebles Dare!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2012 by Tom Steward

Last week I was in Mexico and then I came back and got a little sick (and then I rode the cups again…). My body only started to resemble a burst gravy dam on Friday, the day after returning, but now I’m starting to think that I was in some sort of hallucinogenic fever state the night before because I could’ve sworn I saw Hollywood actor-director Clint Eastwood hold a conversation with a chair while an audience of magenta elephants cheered him on. This was supposed to be a blog about sitcoms but, hell, Thursday night at the Republic National Convention was supposed to be about Mitt Romney! So as live television scuppers the plans-and we can only hope the dreams-of a national political party, it also forces me to reconsider what to write about this week. The delays of being a human colander and a holiday weekend has meant that I’m getting to Eastwood’s RNC speech long after it passed seamlessly into the zeitgeist and changed our everyday language, so that words like ‘chair’ now have new dictionary definitions such as ‘surrogate for American Presidents who are the subject of a race hate campaign by lying idiots’. So I’m only really going to be adding to what’s already been said.

Firstly, I don’t hold with the rationale espoused by many commentators that the 82-year old Eastwood’s display was a by-product of an emergent senility. This man stars in, produces and directs an average of 3 movies a year, none of which look easy to make or star Adam Sandler. He still has his wits about him. Secondly, I’m not sure the performance was as leftfield or bizarre as some newscasters have made out. In the same way you can detect the John Ford and Sergio Leone influence in his many superb westerns, it’s easy to see what Clint was going for on the night. The delivery was reminiscent of the bashful stutter-shtick of James Stewart-an actor who held a few extreme views of his own-and the one-sided dialogue with the chair a homage to the actor’s performance alongside an imaginary rabbit in the classic comedy Harvey. There’s more than a touch of Bob Newhart’s try-and-guess-the-other-side conversation sketches in the way Clint’s responses to Banquo Obama would imply the absurd statements made by the unheard speaker, and cover for potential obscenities.

‘This is my friend Barack’   

No-one who’d seen any of the coverage from this convention could possibly be surprised at the vindictive and guttural tone of Clint’s personal attacks on Obama or felt any discontinuity between Eastwood’s portrayal of the President as a lowdown despot with the vocabulary of an Exorcist-child and the convention caricature of the Commander-in-Chief as a 21st Century black Capone running America as a racket with all the class of a divebar drunk. So why was Eastwood’s speech so remarkable and unusual? For my money, it’s because the debacle was shown live on TV. The Republicans had engineered their primetime line-up with Stalinesque precision; omitting delegates from the extreme wing of the party, bumping up the limited edition minority speakers to create a smokescreen of Republican diversity, and manufacturing (or more appropriately outsourcing) the image of Romney as a human male…largely by having his wife and five children attest to the existence of his sexual organs.

Mitt Romney: he does it with girls

The real-time collapse of this primetime-machine was a wonder to behold. As Eastwood entered against the video backdrop of a silhouetted still from The Outlaw Josey Wales which made Clint look like he has guns for fingers and what sounded like a Kenny G version of Ghost Riders, you’ll have never seen so many happy racists since the Rodney King tape went mail-order. Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan appeared to have tears in his eyes like a childhood hero was at his birthday party. Within minutes of Eastwood’s live-TV re-make of Fight Club starting, Ryan looked like he’d stumbled upon Eastwood trying to make out with his mother in the kitchen while Clyde the Orang-utan ate his birthday cake. Only live TV can do that. What’s more, for a party intent on editing and re-writing the history the last 12 years of American politics, this was one event that could not be manipulated, because it was seen by millions all at the same time without stops. Eastwood gave an unspinnable speech and the Republicans just had to grin and bear it. And grin they did, and whoop, and egg. They too cannot now pretend they did not enjoy Clint’s despicable behaviour. We all saw you!

Dreaming of View

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

What follows is a deposition of last’s night dream. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely mental.

The ladies from The View

My employers

Hosts of The View Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Hasselbeck want to leave the live broadcast of their morning talk show ten minutes early and ask me, who evidently works at the show and is somehow familiar to viewers, to fill in for the last segment. I have decided for some reason to go on air with a blue Ikea holdall full of broken, antiquated agricultural work tools taken from underneath my grandparents’ front garden and then lecture millions of American viewers on their archaeological significances. The audience and hosts abandon the studio leaving only myself and a floor manager. The manager signals that we have gone to commercial and to set up my bag of tools. At this point, the bag goes missing and I scramble to find it before we come out of the break. The tools have somehow re-submerged themselves into the soil in my grandparents’ garden, which is now adjacent to the studio, and I enlist their help to retrieve them as we dig into the earth with our hands and pull out hoes, rakes and steel-wood gardening appliances. I re-fill the bag and heave it over to the set, hoping to catch my cue. I miss it by mere seconds by which time an emergency broadcast of a late 1990s version of the show has automatically clicked in and is now playing on all the monitors. I feel dejected, especially because I am unable to show my girlfriend G that I have been on television in her country. The following day, The View resumes with its normal hosts and Whoopi and Barbara spend the opening ‘Hot Topics’ section of the programme castigating me for blowing this opportunity in front of a national TV audience and cursing themselves for giving me such a break.

Tony and Dr. Melfi

Paging Dr. Melfis...

Anyone who thinks they may be able to shed some light on what this dream may mean or reveal about my psychological or emotional condition, please leave a comment.

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