Archive for the TV in a Word Category

Beard To Death

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s been a season of hashtag-friendly character deaths on The Walking Dead; #Bobecue, #BethDeath, #TyreecesPieces and #NoahFuture. But no loss is more tragic than #RickShave. Rick Grimes’ beard is one of the longest-surviving characters on the show and – even more than Karl who went through puberty – we have watched him grow on TV. He was the only character keeping Rick sane. After losing his beard, Rick seems incapable of ending a sentence without threatening someone’s life. So in lieu of a blog about the season finale, which for an episode set in one street with no major character deaths can be summed up by Nelson Muntz’s review of Naked Lunch (‘I can think of at least two things wrong with that title’), here’s a rundown of the best bearded moments in TV, starting with Rick:

Rick shaves his beard – The Walking Dead – Season 5

As a bearded man myself, I know well the eerie feeling of shaving and not recognizing the man underneath. Here The Walking Dead takes this to proportions of body horror. Afforded the luxuries of running water and private bathrooms, Rick can now part with the beard that has faithfully accompanied him through the zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, he’s been hiding his moral decay behind that cake-catcher and is no longer the same person beneath. Rather than removing a mask, he’s revealing one. Without looking like Charles Manson, Rick starts to get really insecure about expressing his murderous insanity and massively overcompensates with blood-soaked demonstrations in public and recreating scenes from Romeo & Juliet with passing zombies.

Jack is back with a beard – 24 – Seasons 2 and 6

Where's the shaving balm?!

Where’s the balm?!

When Jack cracks, he grows a beard. It’s our only visual clue that a man who tortures and fakes his death for a living has finally gone off the deep end. But it also acts as a protective seal – grouting if you will – for Jack’s madness. After Jack shaved his widow-grief beard at the beginning of Season 2, he immediately went about severing a paedophile’s head with a hacksaw. An hour after removing his Chinese-torture beard in Season 6, a nuclear bomb went off. Jack remaining clean-shaven after he faked his death was how we knew he wasn’t really serious about giving up work. Well, that and going into hiding mere miles from L.A.

It’s Harrison Ford in there – The Fugitive – Movie

Ok, it’s a movie but it’s based on a TV series but that should be justification enough for what remains one of the most incredible uses of facial hair in screen history. For a third of the movie, Harrison Ford and the star promise of action therein have been hiding behind what looks like mouldy Weetabix on the actor’s face. As convicted murderer Dr. Richard Kimble goes on the run, he stops off at a hospital to engage in a morning routine beloved of all medical practitioners; stealing water and breakfast from a dying old man. He adds milk to his Weetabix and it quickly dissolves, leaving Ford free to jump off viaducts and fight disabled people.

Strike beards – Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien – 2007/8

Before...and way before!

Before…and way before!

During the writers’ strike of 2007-8, late-night chat show hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien came out in sympathy with their colleagues by growing ‘strike beards’ throughout the picket. Of course, this assumes that being on strike makes any difference to writers’ shaving routines, which is nonsense, and the sizeable increase in meta-comedy was already enough to demonstrate to viewers that there was a writers’ strike going on. While Conan mutated into a Seinfeld-era Bryan Cranston, Letterman slipped back through time posing first as a Civil War general and then Piltdown man along the way. Otherwise, it gave us a rare glimpse into what late-night television would look like following the apocalypse.

Hiatus beards – Everyone on a show where they have to be clean-shaven – Off-season

Bearded Hamm!

Bearded Hamm!

When you can’t scratch, that’s when you want to scratch. Well, apparently, if you’re an actor on a seasonal TV show, when your face is scratch-free all you’re thinking about is having something scratchy on your face. In those few months between filming seasons, TV actors choose to celebrate their temporary freedom from the yoke of shooting schedules by doing fuck-all with their faces. But it doesn’t make as much sense as it first seems. I’m sure the actors still go out during the day even though they’re not shooting, and wear clothes even though they don’t have to be in costume.

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Frame Vs. Frame

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles arguing about whether TV or cinema is better. They don’t start off like this. Usually they begin as a debate about which medium is in better shape but they quickly descend into partisan defences of one or the other. Those in the film corner like to base their arguments on what cinema can do rather than what it’s currently doing. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s absurd defence of cinema’s dominance over TV (not that it needs it, of course!) argues that cinema is better than TV because the big screen can do anything the small screen can, even if it tends not to, and that when it does the same thing as TV, cinema is always better because you’re out of the house. There’s no impassioned defence of contemporary film just a retreat into the past to blind readers with movie nostalgia. Guardian Film’s Tom Shone can’t find a director more contemporary than Ang Lee to substantiate his case for cinema (though many more recent names come even to my mind).

The Golden Age of Television…or whatever happens to be on!

Critics defending the box in the corner have the opposite problem. They are so preoccupied with what today’s television says about the quality of the medium there’s no acknowledgement of how TV’s history might also be useful in arguing the point. While critics like Turan can throw off allusions to Gance and Cocteau, TV’s advocates rarely reminisce further than Weiner or Gilligan (the Breaking Bad creator not the TV cast away). This may be because TV critics are not asked to be historians in the same way film critics are but why is that? Well it’s down to the profound disrespect we have for old television and the widely held belief that TV is ephemeral. TV critics don’t seem to understand that if they argue TV is great because it’s better than it used to be, they leave themselves open to these rebuttals from cinema’s proud history. Throw in a Serling and a Huggins occasionally and maybe you’ll convince a cineaste that TV is good because it’s always been capable of being good not by accident of circumstances. And you’re at a severe disadvantage against someone with a photographic memory when you’re an amnesiac.

It’s all part of a critical bigotry that resorts to casting aspersions on a field of culture you happen not to cover (but probably would if commissioned to) rather than taking a cold, hard look at the industry that you do. Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe. But the behaviour of TV critics irritates me more, because in a way they’re maligning television far more than any film critic has done – with the possible exception of Mark Kermode, who writes about TV like an unreasonable drunk. TV has been, for the most part, wildly excellent for a good thirty years now and was always pebble-dashed with artful gems throughout its long, ignominious history on the air regardless of the creative problems of the era. Yet TV critics keep trying to carve out this idea of an ever-beginning ‘new golden age of television’ that is just about now. This assertion that good TV is periodic is insulting enough as it strongly suggests that it’s uncharacteristic of the medium but the refusal to see the best of TV as connected by the medium rather than just a point in history is absolutely baffling to me.

It’s a new golden age and has been since 1999!

Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian film and TV blog suggesting that the golden age of television may already be over turns a matter of quality into one of timeline. Instead of seeing a historic tapestry of TV that lets us see the magnitude of what has been accomplished, we’re disputing the dates of hermetically sealed and arbitrarily compiled golden ages. The ‘golden age’ thesis is also a very weak argument if you’re trying to build a case for the quality of television. I wouldn’t let the continuous stream of terrible new releases I encounter at the movies on a regular basis lure me into thinking that cinema wasn’t one of the great gifts humanity has given to culture and art. Equally, I wouldn’t think any more of television than I already did if I found out it managed to put together a few good shows back-to-back. I would think twice if I knew it kept happening.

The Twelve Days of Doctor Who: Days 7-12

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2013 by Tom Steward

‘We’ve been watching Doctor Who for weeks. We must be out of the 80s by now’. I don’t have the heart to tell G that we’ve been watching Doctor Who for six days and that we still have one story from the 1980s to go. Doctor Who used to be notorious for filling time with extended re-caps from the previous episode so I feel justified in doing the same for this two-part blog on my experience watching stories from each Doctor in turn with my American wife in preparation for the 50th anniversary special last Saturday. So far we’ve had cavemen with underwear, cyber-mayans, poachers from space, monsters playing Space Invaders and Dig-Dug, and a TV maths teacher. Like good time-travellers and bad time-travel writers, this time round we’re starting at the end with an episode from 1989 as Doctor Who was on the verge of cancellation and about to go stateside.

‘The Curse of Fenric’ (G’s title: ‘Mr. Bean Goes to War’):

Just a minute…isn’t that Nicholas Parsons?

‘This is much better than the shit we’ve just been watching’, says G as British national treasure Nicholas Parsons is devoured by vampires of the sea. ‘Yeah, it got good again and then they cancelled it’ I offer in the way of no explanation. ‘So many deep quotes in this…“You must take the baby. Now you are the mother of the baby. Now you must drop the baby in the water.” Incidentally, none of these quotes actually appear in the story.

‘Doctor Who: The Movie’ (G’s title: ‘Star Wars UK’)

If you look closely you can see a shark jumping over them.

As the credits roll, G sings in her best John Williams: ‘Kind of like Star Wars/But not really the same’. The TARDIS lands in San Francisco’s Chinatown. ‘People didn’t really think that was China, did they?’. ‘I don’t know. They’re your people’. I’m enjoying passing the buck on Doctor Who’s shortcomings for the first time. ‘This doesn’t feel like Doctor Who at all. It’s more like Adventures in Babysitting’. Then the shark-jumping kiss. ‘I don’t like this. I don’t this at all’. I wanted to kiss her.

‘The Unquiet Dead’/‘Father’s Day’ (G’s titles: ‘The Walking Welsh’/‘Your Parents’ Wedding’):

Walkers in Wales!

‘Why are they so sexual tensiony?’ G asks after witnessing a few seconds of the Doctor and Rose together. ‘That’s what the kiss led to’ I say. ‘It doesn’t work’ G says confidently. Apparently even nine days of Doctor Who is enough to make you realise that the Doctor and his companion being a couple is a bad idea. ‘I don’t like this Doctor. He’s too Jean-Claude van Damme’. I’m sure that’s what renowned stage and screen actor Christopher Eccleston was going for. But you know what? He is a bit Steven Seagal in the part.

‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ (G’s title ‘Poor Father Christmas’):

The decline of William Hartnell…my fault, apparently.

Ok so this is not strictly Doctor Who but it’s a ninety-minute drama about the show and that should test any non-fan’s patience. At first there’s too many real and fictional worlds colliding for G to keep up. G: ‘How old is William Hartnell now?’. Me: ‘That’s not him. That’s an actor playing him’. G: ‘This is all made up, right?’. Me: ‘No it all happened, just like this’. When she sees David Bradley as Hartnell crying into his mantelpiece, it all gets too much. ‘I can’t watch old people being upset’. Then it becomes my fault. ‘How can he not be your favourite?’ (he’s my second). ‘He’s my favourite’ G asserts. ‘He’s the only one with real mystery’.

‘The Christmas Invasion’ (G’s title: ‘The Fall of Scary Santa Face’):

‘Stop being hussys…both of you!’

‘So they went leather jacket man, quirky and then another quirky? Where’s the variety?’. I wonder how G will react tomorrow with an episode in which quirky and quirky quirk off. ‘She’s such a hussy’ G offers ambiguously. ‘Who? Rose or her mother?’ I ask. ‘Same thing’.

‘Day of the Doctor’ (G’s title: ‘Return of the TV’):

Will Ferrell interrupts Doctor Who simulcast!

Well, it all paid off. G laughs knowingly at every in-joke (especially the one about the ‘big round things’ on the wall of the TARDIS)  and loves every minute of this nostalgic wallow in the series’ past. And then Tom Baker returns to Doctor Who 32 years after leaving the show. ‘Is that Will Ferrell?’ G asks. Maybe we’re not quite there yet.

Well, there you have it. 50 years of Doctor Who in twelve days. The first ten years just flew by, a decade dragged its feet, another took a holiday and after a few wrong turns we ended up where we started. Home.

Home.

Telly-picking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Tom Steward

As someone who has spent the best part of their life enthusing, studying and writing about television, I often get asked what’s best to watch, as if I have access to a secret channel that only the TV wing of Mensa are eligible to subscribe for. I’m always hesitant to answer. As a self-confessed TV snob, I know that whoever’s asking will have dipped their toes into far more shows than I ever have and experimented with titles I would have simply dismissed. When you teach the tube (if you’re doing it properly) you learn to embrace more of the spectrum of what we might call television. So I’m worried I would answer with something insane like CBS’ coverage of the NFL or a public access schools programme about surrealism. It’s also because there’s now so much choice in television that it’s possible (at least as a middle-class white man) to find a show that caters exclusively to you. I genuinely couldn’t say whether or not Boardwalk Empire is great TV since it features just about everything I love in this world (gangsters, American history, HBO, Steve Buscemi), achieving distinction in my eyes just by being made in my lifetime.

Boardwalk Empire: If you don’t like it, you’re not me.

When people ask I’m pretty sure they want a good drama to sink their teeth into and aren’t asking for advice on what rolling news service they should tune to. Givens that, (pun not typo) my go-to is always Justified which I can universally recommend with more, ahem, justification than my TV make-your-own pizza Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that’s off a lot of people’s radar, or at the bottom of their list, so I feel I might actually be telling them something they don’t know rather than sounding like I’m reading from a list of trending tags. There’s plenty for me to get excited about as an Elmore Leonard aficionado and lover of TV westerns and cop shows but there’s something for everyone here. Every character from walk-on to lead is immaculately written and acted (even Bubba from Forest Gump) and there are beautiful men and women to gaze at, whether you like rough or smooth, or both. If you like your CSIs and your SVUs there’s a whole, complete and expertly crafted story each week. If you’re more of a long game person, behold the four seasons of onion-peel plot development and character works-in-progress like the ever-elusive Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Without sounding like all the good things are in the past-to paraphrase Stevie Wonder-Justified represents a kind of television there’s a severe shortage of today. A medley of action, story, humour and character that’s entirely entertaining and yet never lacking in quality and complexity, not seen fully since The Rockford Files. With kicking dialogue and music to boot, you can’t go wrong. And you’ll be in love with from the first scene.

A Justified choice!

I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years. How can I tell someone to start watching Breaking Bad in full knowledge that nothing compelling will happen until the third season? Sons of Anarchy doesn’t even come together until the fifth season! That’s roughly fifty hours of television to tunnel through before seeing any kind of daylight. In all but the rarest cases, we’re talking about shows that you can’t tell someone to jump into already knee-deep in story so you’re really signing them up for work as much as enriching their lives. You see people that you’ve recommended slow-burning TV series to and you can see they’re worn down and trying to think of something nice to say in order to match your enthusiasm but sweating pure ambivalence. If I think someone has the strength of character to endure the grind, I may nod them in the direction of The Walking Dead purely because it’s only a mini-series worth of mediocrity before it all starts to fall in place, a comparative blink of the eye. Fancy a bet on a rank outsider? Try Portlandia. Ostensibly a location-specific sketch show, it’s actually more freely artistic and socially incisive than most TV comedy or drama. You can keep asking me what’s good but most of the time either you know or you don’t want to know.

TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

TV in a Word

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Tom Steward

If this were in print I’d feel obliged to emblazon the word ‘Advertisement’ over it but as all online writing is faintly promotional anyway I’m content to leave it at this bashful disclaimer.

A month ago I started the Twitter account @TVinaword which creates new words to describe TV shows by compounding three words that are synonymous with each individual programme. For example: ‘The Shield. Vic, Visceral, Vicious. In a word: Viscous’. The account had a long evolution. I originally wanted it to consist of reviews of films that were 1 sentence or 140 characters long (those of you who regularly read this blog know it could go either way) such as ‘Downfall: When you’ve seen one Nazi officer shoot himself in the head, you’ve seen them all’ or ‘Prometheus: 124 minutes of film to explain one dodgy special effect’. I quickly reconsidered upon realising that there were several accounts like this already, not surprising given that it’s only a slight adaptation of what Twitter does anyway. I also felt it was slightly peevish to create an account simply to allow me to take my revenge on a medium that hasn’t given me much to enjoy in the past few years. Cinema deserves better from its critics than simple mockery-even if currently worthy of it-and anything written about it should always stress how great it can be and look past momentary phases of decline.

The Viscous Vic Mackey!

Whatever the account was going to become I knew at that point it would be about TV. I’d be sending up the medium from a position of affectionate mockery and in light of my unadulterated admiration for it. I also wouldn’t mind being reductive about TV given that I devote hundreds of words a week to exploring it in excruciating detail. I still hadn’t figured out what form this Twitticism would take when after finishing BBC2’s detective serial The Fall I took to Twitter to try to describe what was unique about the programme. It wasn’t just that it was chilling; it wasn’t just that it was brilliant, but it was both these things and Gillian Anderson. It seemed to me that any word that tried to account for The Fall needed to have these three elements in play. That’s how the word ‘Chillian’ came about. After tweeting this new word, I realised this was exactly the problem with TV criticism. The same old words are trotted out each time we write about a programme (if I see the words ‘complex’ and ‘HBO’ in the same sentence again I may scream) and yet the programme itself is entirely unique.

The Fall…Chillian.

After coming up with a name and tweeting a few more words, I began to see that it was particularly effective when the word, despite being completely new, seemed to describe the TV show perfectly. Like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, the words make sense because of the imagery they evoke not because they have shared meanings. The breakthrough in this respect was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The word was ‘Connferscience’ which incorporated ‘Conn’ (the Enterprise’s command which is forever being transferred like a verbal Frisbee), ‘Conference’ and ‘Conscience’. If you were to ask what happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation Connferscience, despite its Newspeak qualities, would be as good an answer as any. Sometimes words arrange themselves in ways that sums up the show more directly that the three words they amalgamate. The Walking Dead was represented through the words ‘Humanity, Humidity, Stupidity’ which becomes ‘Humanstupidity’, a word that could conceivably work as the show’s subtitle. It’s always gratifying when the word resembles one we know, especially if that word is the opposite of what the show is. Three words that sprang to mind when watching Revolution were ‘Swords, Gourds, Bored’, creating ‘Sworgourdsbored’, which it most definitely is not.

Swords? Bored! Revolution.

Every TV show-good and bad-is different and they each deserve a different word. There’s always something that can’t be accounted for in existing language, like a character or an actor. What makes a TV programme is a cocktail of different energies and when one or two of those are removed from the mix, it’s not the show anymore. I’ve tried to make this problem disappear by writing a lot and hoping that enough combinations of words will eventually do justice to one programme. Now I’m doing the exact opposite, whittling these descriptions down to a few words and creating a brand new one distinctive to a programme. TV is a variety of individuals, each with a name.

 

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