Archive for the TV News Category

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

Acts of Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by Tom Steward

In the week following terrorist attacks on Paris, Beirut and Lebanon, the response of American television to these events is of little importance. But this is a blog about American television and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. To make this blog about the attacks – as if that had been its dormant purpose all along – would do a severe injustice to what is a complex geo-political situation. Sometimes I wish American television knew its limitations as well as I do. News and current affairs programs obviously must deal with what has happened – unfortunately for those of us who don’t think that refugees are responsible for the crimes of their persecutors – but TV entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to engage unless the latter’s remit crosses over into the former’s. Nonetheless, all entertainment programming, at least that which has been made since the attacks, seems to have an unwritten obligation to comment on the human tragedy. This sounds like an altogether good thing, suggesting that the genre isn’t as trivial as we suspected, but what it actually discovers is that entertainment formats are simply not equipped to handle this level of political discourse. Many of the results have been frankly insulting.

paris

Jean Oliver!

Take, for instance, Chris Hardwick’s gabbled epilogue of pseudo-Churchillian platitudes no doubt compiled from a graphic novel about Dunkirk in the closing moments of AMC’s Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of The Walking Dead. This resembled one of those rushed disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. For events of this magnitude, you either have time to talk about them or you don’t. I’m all in favour – as my younger self would not have been – of cancelling scheduled shows in favour of extended news coverage, though this is one of the few times that a 24-hour news cycle is justified in my view. TNT made the decision to postpone the broadcast of an episode of Sean Bean vehicle Legends set in Paris, which though it may appear overly-sensitive also takes into account the fact that a terrorist act is represented. CBS’ Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles also shelved episodes that involved bombings and terrorists. Networks tend to err on the side of caution in these instances, reducing TV to a set of trending keywords and then disseminating entire programs that use them incidentally. It’s one of the few occasions that networks admit outright that their programming is not socially responsible.

Some responses were more judicious. As you might expect from our ironic culture of news, parodies of broadcast journalism did far better than the real thing in their treatment of the attacks. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kept the talk of war cultural, badgering ISIS into taking on the global leaders of art, food and music with their apocalyptic asceticism. While this is one of the few shows on TV that had the time and scope to offer a full account of the attacks and their significance, the suddenness of the events and their proximity to airtime meant that the program was safer – and more effective – to be as schoolboy as possible in its response, exploiting the other boutique quality of HBO: Obscenity. While broader as befits its appeal, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert adopted a similar tact, leaving it to New Orleans-based house jazz band Jean Baptiste and Stay Human to pay tribute to the French origins of their musical culture. Colbert has always played both sides of the American political sphere and, whether scheduled or not, the pairing of Bill Maher and Medal of Honor recipient Flobert Groberg kept the extremists on both sides at bay.

Vive la Rat!

Vive la Rat!

But what made Colbert’s response particularly powerful was its self-reflexive commentary on how to respond to events such as these. There was an affectionate poke at the tweeters who had the combination of compassion and ignorance that makes watching Ratatouille an act of solidarity with the French and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dilemma over whether to keep the booking of feline circus act The Acro-Cats on the first show since the attacks. Since taking over from Letterman at CBS, Colbert has made himself a defender of both American high culture and light entertainment, and so the ISIS attacks were a real (surely unwanted) test of his mettle in his dual function as cultural commentator and ringmaster, which he passed with high-flying colours. Colbert is unusually thoughtful for a talk show host, Oliver a journalistic powerhouse. It’s the ones who think they’re being thoughtful through acknowledgment that are the problem.

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.

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?

The Pig Country

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , on October 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

British and American TV are so rarely united, making it doubly surprising that there have been two stories in as many weeks relating to genitalia in the television cultures of both countries. Honestly, pigs might fly and the Old West will rise again before we see another coincidence like this.

Footage from The Conservative Party Conference

Footage from The Conservative Party Conference

On September 20th 20(and)15, British national newspaper The Daily Mail published extracts from an unauthorised biography of current Prime Minister David Cameron co-authored by passed-over former Deputy Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ashcroft. In them contained a story that as a student at Oxford University, Cameron had put ‘a private part of his anatomy’ into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for The Piers Gaveston Society (some paraphrasing of Groucho Marx’s famous ‘club’ quote is surely necessary here!). Remarkable as this allegation was for a sitting head-of-state – outside of Italy – it was not the first time such an idea had been nationally circulated. In 2011, British TV Renaissance man Charlie Brooker launched his modern-day answer to The Twilight Zone, a technology-fearing anthology made of speculative fiction called Black Mirror, the first instalment of which concerned a modern-day British Prime Minister blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on television to meet the ransom demands of a royal kidnapper. Like David Bowie after liquid water was discovered on Mars, Brooker was hounded by the press and social media following this story, asking him whether his television play was inspired by real rumours of which he had foreknowledge.

Brooker says he didn’t, which I for one believe wholeheartedly, namely because you don’t have to know the actual circumstances of such an act to imagine that it would be exactly the kind of thing a person of that background would do. I’m not convinced that the story – hashtagged ‘Piggate’ thus throwing agricultural livestock message boards into a state of disarray – is anything more than a revenge blow from an embittered ex-colleague but we know what absurd extremes the hazing rituals of fratboys at elite universities – on both sides of the Atlantic – can go to, and Cameron’s posh pillaging of the social contract as a university student has been well-documented. Even the most rudimentary scandalmonger could put a scenario like that together from Cameron’s backstory. Brooker, too, was trading off the fact that we as a nation could easily believe our Prime Minister was and has been capable of such things. My mentor in all things televisual Helen Wheatley observed that the morning after the Black Mirror episode ‘The National Anthem’ was first broadcast, it genuinely felt as if Cameron had fucked a pig the day before. It’s that vague aura of authenticity that both Brooker and Lord Ashcroft mined.

In the last couple of days, it has been reported that extras on the set of HBO’s reboot of the 1970s cult sci-fi western Westworld have been compelled to sign a consent form specifying numerous and elaborate acts of sexual contact and nudity, including the touching of each other’s genitals. Some extras apparently complained to their union SAG-AFTRA, who are currently investigating the matter. Those who know HBO (in the Biblical as well as the binge sense) won’t be surprised that one of its shows should contain such graphic content, but the concerned parties have different views about how bound (this is not a metaphor) supporting artists are to such demands contractually. I as a TV blogger (and potential future SAG-AFTRA member) am obviously fascinated by this story, but a lot of viewers I’m sure simply don’t want to know how the organic sausage is made. Great art and human exploitation have always gone hand-in-hand, and, to many, I’m sure this revelation makes Westworld seem like a far more interesting prospect than previously. Also, this seems the thin end of the wedge, providing everyone knows their rights and has the ability to pull out of the project at willy. Penis.

'While you're down there...'

‘While you’re down there…’

If there’s a theme here, it’s indecent exposure. Private parts have been unlawfully displayed in public. Whether it’s bestiality libel or union disputes, these kinds of stories are not for public consumption unless in fictional form. HBO needs to push boundaries on sexual representation to be challenging, while the inhuman behaviour of the Cameron-led Conservative government needs to be challenged for what it is, not what it represents satirically in some bizarre Animal Farm-like parallel reality. Piggate didn’t lend any credence to Black Mirror, rather the reverse. And sex acts and nudity on HBO is simply not a news item!

Hidden Jenner

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by Tom Steward

There was an unexpected role reversal in the world of TV news this past week. News satire – an institution that regularly attacks the bigotry and ignorance of network and cable news coverage – was itself accused of bigotry and ignorance in regards to transphobia, while a primetime network news special about transgender issues (albeit in the form of an interview with Bruce Jenner, hence why TV is interested in the first place) was widely praised for its sensitive handling of the topic. On Monday, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore – Comedy Central’s bland replacement for The Colbert Report – aired a segment ridiculing Jenner’s identification as a woman and chosen sexual orientation as abnormal, which were made to seem even more grotesque by comparing her to Pinnochio. This was responding to Friday evening’s 20/20 special on ABC, in which the former Olympian and Kardashian was interviewed by Diane Sawyer about being a man trapped in a woman’s body her entire life and her decision to transition to a woman, which she has been doing piecemeal for years.

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

At the heart of the controversy surrounding The Nightly Show was Wilmore’s apparent confusion about Jenner’s desire to become a woman yet having male genitalia and preferring women sexually. Now, if this seems to be representative of the billions of people around the globe who have spent their lives knowing they are a different gender than the one assigned to them and have, for reasons too numerous to mention, yet to make their (complete) transition, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to see where the confusion, or indeed the comedy, lies in pointing out these tragedies. If anything, this information helps us make sense of Jenner’s personal (mostly surgical) life choices in recent years, and there is, of course, the little known fact that what Bruce Jenner wants to be or do in her life is none of anyone’s fucking business. Even more appalling was Wilmore’s hetero-bullying tone, which seemed to suggest that this particular combination of gender and sexuality was above and beyond an average straight guy’s understanding of the world.

But 20/20 didn’t miss the opportunity to turn the tables on news satire either. Clips from Saturday Night Live and Conan making jokes at the expense of Jenner’s gender instability were featured in the programme. She was fair game when she was altering her appearance for reasons of vanity, but the punchlines were directed at gender. Conan O’Brien’s monologue jibe seemed to be urging Jenner to hurry up and pick a gender, as if that were somehow easy or necessary for us to recognise her as human. In defence of news satire – which I believe to be essential not only as a critical commentary on the news but also a superior alternative to it – these are atypical moments that in no way represent the genre’s treatment of such issues. It’s hard to imagine The Nightly Show’s tone of reporting on its forerunner The Daily Show which draws Arsenio-style primal screams at the mere mention of Elizabeth Warren. The Conan monologue gag seems unusually cruel, especially for a late-night talk show with a notably liberal following.

Hindsight is 20/20!

Hindsight is 20/20!

It is, however, possible to imagine Wilmore’s segment on The Colbert Report, with the thinly veiled prejudice cloaked in the self-negating irony of Colbert’s fake conservative newsman persona. But there’s no evidence here that we’re supposed to think of what Wilmore is saying as anything other than genuine (and if you ever suspected that Wilmore is capable of comedy that is less than obvious, remind yourself he is the creator of Black-ish!). If the problematic representation of transgender issues in news satire has been reported correctly, we should also note that the success of TV news coverage in dealing with the same issues has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Bruce Jenner 20/20 special was motivated by relief that it wasn’t the most hideously offensive piece of journalism ever aired. But interviewer Diane Sawyer adopted the persona of a sceptical and disgusted parent, asking questions only the most hateful (and thus least important) person would. It’s insulting enough, even without the patronising implication that this is what the public would ask. We also have to take into account TV news’ much worse track record when it comes to reporting on the transgender community: Piers Morgan’s media war with Janet Mock, Katie Couric’s inappropriate intimacy interviewing Laverne Cox. Nobody’s getting it right but news satire is wrong less often than the news.

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