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Crimetime

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by Tom Steward

Ever since Homer Simpson purred the words ‘Wow, Infotainment’, true crime has been the beating heart – or lack thereof – of American television. In the last year or so, a high-end alternative to the video-looking, cheaply put together true crime documentaries echoing the trite, uncomplicated and sensational timbre of news has emerged. This sub-genre of true crime TV looks more like the production value-laden, multi-layered serial dramas we’ve seen with exponential regularity in the past two decades and plays without loss on boutique networks and video-on-demand services. The prime suspects are HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Though both series seem to herald a new trend in televised crime, in many ways they are polar opposites. As G remarked, the former is about how privilege and money can get around the justice system no matter what a defendant may or may not have done while the latter is about how poverty and low status count against you legally regardless of your guilt. But their differences go further, speaking to a gulf in the quality and character of the dramatic television produced by these two non-traditional television services. While both appear to have changed the face of television documentary overnight, the nature of the filmmaking involved means that they have been in the works for several years and play off and into TV crime dramas perhaps more than other documentaries in the field.

crimetime

This guy is the Durst!

At ten hour-long episodes, Making a Murderer lasts about long as a typical high-quality TV drama season and offers the same compelling serial narrative we look for in them. Each episode is prefixed with a rich, stylish and lengthy credits sequence equal to and clearly modelled on those that have announced standalone masterpieces in series on such elite platforms as HBO and Showtime. As many of my partners in crime television – including Squeezegut Alley and Dolly Clackett have already observed – this documentary following the trial of exonerated rapist Steven Avery and his nephew for murder in Wisconsin, plays out like a real-life Murder One. Further to the interplay between drama and documentary in crime television, however, Murder One was in no small part indebted to the televised trial of O.J. Simpson, which had concluded a few months before airing and proved that a single trial could hold the attention of audiences for months on end. To complete the circuit, FX are soon to air the first season of their factually-based drama anthology series American Crime Story based around the trial of O.J. Simpson. Critics of Making a Murderer have pointed to the filmmakers’ omission of key pieces of trial evidence and one-sided view of Steven Avery as an innocent patsy. I’m all for directors declaring their biases rather than pretending they don’t exist but it would have been a far better documentary if the emphasis had been on the reasonable doubt about the Averys’ guilt and the distinct whiff of police misconduct surrounding the case rather than conspiracies and frame-ups.

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Avery complicated case!

Though The Jinx shares many visual and narrative similarities with Making a Murderer – not least their elaborate curtain-raisers – in almost all ways HBO’s documentary miniseries is superior to its Netflix counterpart. This six-part account of how business heir Robert Durst became a prime suspect in multiple murder investigations yet remained a free man had greater sophistication in its handling of the subject. The documentary factored in the impact that media coverage of Durst has had on the various cases, including his own attraction to the spotlight which allowed filmmakers direct access to him. They refuse to be drawn on the question of Durst’s guilt until a smoking gun presented itself, at which point the filmmakers are forced into the position of interrogators. The Jinx has also accomplished more for social justice than Making a Murderer, as Durst was arrested for murder following the broadcast of the series while the post-show discussion of the Steven Avery case has yielded an ill-advised petition to The White House which they are powerless to act upon and rancour against the filmmakers for cherry-picking evidence – which is bad documentary practice anyway but given the stakes is a criminal act all of its own. The Jinx might be the reason Durst is under arrest but it may also be the reason he beats jail. Any decent defence lawyer could argue that the documentary has already branded Durst a murder and therefore he cannot get a fair trial. The prosecution would need a jury without HBO subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

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UK with Me: Part 2

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2016 by Tom Steward

Where I continue my rundown of the TV I watched during my time in the UK, as a result of visiting at a time of year conducive to indoor sports that require no physical prowess or ability. Since we didn’t have a darts board, the television would have to do. Much of the British television I had written off as dated and defunct had returned and, though many were old wine in old bottles, there were several programs being broadcast made by familiar names that added something new and interesting to a pre-existing legacy. There were also genuinely innovative moments:

 

Car Share – BBC One

 

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Hands up who likes Peter Kay again

 

After emerging in the late nineties as a successor to the observationally rich character comedy pioneered in the North of England by writer-performers such as Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Steve Coogan with That Peter Kay Thing, Peter Kay stagnated creatively in the naughties and the teens, content with cosying up to light entertainment until it swallowed his authenticity. The two-hander sitcom Car Share which follows two colleagues carpooling on their commute to and from work was exactly the stripped-down concept that Kay needed to reboot his realism. Punctuated by conversational silences drowned out in the perfectly pastiched audio garbage of satellite radio commercials, the wiretapped feel of the dialogue and understated sincerity of the couple’s interaction reminds us why Kay was once such a treasured comic voice in British culture. Even the more indulgent sequences, such as the fantasy music videos, have an almost Dennis Potter-like quality in the context of the storyline.

 

Toast of London – Channel 4

 

Toast of London

His career is toast

 

Arthur Mathews once co-wrote and created Father Ted, the sitcom of its day and one which – like much British comedy of the time – refuses to date and instead grows in stature the more we find out about the world (or in this case the Catholic Church). Nothing that Mathews has done since has been able to surpass Father Ted, although surreal juxtaposition sketch show Big Train came tantalisingly close. But seeing Toast of London, which Mathews devised with Matt Berry, a comedian, actor and writer who is a darling of cult comedy and possesses a sleazy retro quality that consumes everything he does, you feel as if he might come close. As with Father Ted, the sitcom is set in another sphere of absurd mediocrity; that of the jobbing actor. As heavily stylised as its ecumenical predecessor – which often resembled a live-action version of The Simpsons – it nonetheless discovers inherent truths about the profession that a documentary treatment couldn’t, though you suspect many of the situations encountered are anecdotally motivated.

 

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride – BBC Four

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No really…this is it

 

If the successes of Gogglebox and Car Share have demonstrated anything, it’s that extremely basic formats still hold tremendous appeal for British TV audiences. But All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride has taken this to avant-garde extremes. A camera is rigged to a traditional reindeer sleigh and taken on a two-hour journey across the Artic wilderness of Norway. There’s no music or editing or semblance of a narrative, simply the spectacular footage the camera collects as it moves. Of course, TV audiences adore gazing lingeringly at landscapes given the ratings-winning genre of nature programming, but the development here is about time, and how much of it we’ll give without the reward of storytelling and entertainment. Perhaps the structureless viral video has immunised us to the boredom of simple watching, or maybe this is gentle and familiar enough a subject to bring experimental video art into our homes by the back door.

 

Downton Abbey – ITV

 

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Downton finale criticized for anachronisms

 

I’ll remain as anachronistic as Downton itself by pretending that anyone in America who wants to see the finale hasn’t already used their internet connection to steal it, and not offer any spoilers. Not that there’s a lot to spoil, the finale ramming home how little storylines or character development have to do with the appeal of this piece of virtual tourism versus the other quality television drama of our time. Creator and writer of all episodes Julian Fellowes certainly knows what his audience wants, and is not shy about giving it to them in as tidiest boxes as he can pack. I preferred the series in high melodrama mode and so it was somewhat of a disappointment to me that the electric hair-dryer that everyone kept pointing out was merely historical window-dressing and not foreshadowing some Emmerdale-like fiery disaster to wipe out the cast. Indeed, any hint of tragedy seems to have been smoked red herring.

Got Milch?: Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized on July 3, 2015 by Tom Steward

Thanks to the deal between Amazon and HBO – which is the best move the company will ever make until it stops treating its employees like they’re in a pyramid scheme – HBO Original Series are now starting to trickle down to the screens of people like me who are too cheap to pay for both postage and a cable subscription. Earlier seasons of currently airing shows have been made available recently, but for the most part the HBO series added to Amazon Prime are drawn from the ranks of the old or forgotten. An artist whose work consistently falls into both categories is David Milch. The next couple of posts look in turn at two David Milch dramas I’ve been able to watch in their entirety through my Prime membership, starting with the unintended miniseries Luck.

Lucking.

Lucking.

Luck is an ironic title, but it was never meant to be. Unlike most serious dramas (especially those made by HBO), the characters regularly experience success and fortune instead of their lives going badly wrong. We’re continually told that drama is based on conflict, and yet Milch has managed to create a drama that is completely devoid of it. For Milch and his writers, drama is what happens every day – hence the calendar-like structuring of his oeuvre. In Milch’s hands, the blandest of small talk becomes existential poetry. No-one in a David Milch drama merely says ‘hello’ and no word or thought is ever misplaced. What we do have in Luck is the suggestion of confrontation that never comes to fruition, a theme we’ve encountered before in Milch’s work, whether it’s the much-reviled finale of Deadwood or the chase scenes in NYPD Blue offset by a moment of comic bathos.

So why is Luck an ironic title? Well, it’s because behind-the-scenes the series didn’t have enough to get to a second season. The deaths of three horses during production of the first compelled Milch and the other producers to either find an alternative (presumably digital) solution or bow out completely. I don’t wish to antagonise those who fight animal cruelty, nor suggest that there wasn’t an element of shooting oneself in the foot, which is a suitably violent analogy. I’m glad the decision was taken to end production, both for the sake of the horses who would clearly have been in further danger should it have continued and because the aesthetic of video gambling would have undone the visceral power and suspense of the stunningly directed and edited race sequences. I abhor horse racing but there is a parallel between the call to forfeit a potentially game-changing piece of drama for the safety of animals and the cruelty-free reverence for horses expressed in the episodes.

Despite premature cancellation, the nine episodes of Luck hang together rather well. By the end of the first and only season, the characters have already revealed depths untold by their initial depictions and a tragic denouement is eschewed in favour of reconciliation. It is only foreknowledge of Milch as an auteur that makes Luck seem like such a loss. The three seasons of Deadwood are as unceasingly brilliant as any single piece of art has been. NYPD Blue went off the boil the second Milch left the series after eight years – and I mean that quite literally. Milch can not only create, he can sustain, but the artist has been denied his canvas. Luck was also the perfect middleman between Milch’s more obtuse work like the arcane John from Cincinnati and the modern-times Elizabethan theatre of NYPD Blue. Luck could have filled the vacuum in our culture left by Deadwood.

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Lucky actors!

It’s refreshing – even for Milch – that the race track is just a race track and not some loaded allegory. Luck is as profound as any Shakespeare about human vice and folly, and yet as bound to the flow of daily life as a soap opera. If you wish to see it metaphorically, and not simply as a centre of dramatic and thematic unity, then it functions as a retirement home for character actors, albeit an indiscriminate one that allows movie stars to mingle with TV movie stars. Even though the actors are veterans, the material compels them to learn about themselves as performers, and how to resist their worst urges towards melodrama and synthetic gesture. I’m sure they rarely find dialogue of the kind of purity that it can only be spoken aloud. It’s not naturalism as such, but an artifice that finds a rhythm of speech mirroring our own.

Ending On A Bye

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s a year of endings in television. Shows that have defined television over the last decade like Justified and Mad Men are finishing fast and in the ones that continue people synonymous with that show are leaving, be it David Letterman, Jon Stewart or The SimpsonsHarry Shearer. We’re told to mourn yet there is no loss to speak of. Mad Men and Justified both judged the timing of their exits perfectly and those that are leaving do so because their creativity can’t keep up with the demand for more from the institutions they helped create. I’m not saying there isn’t cause for alarm. We can be reasonably confident that Steven Colbert will be as game-changing as Letterman was, but the untested Trevor Noah and whatever lamb to the slaughter (or, more accurately, shearer) will go on to voice characters like Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders may simply not reach the heights of their predecessors. It’s also unclear what new shows will step into the shadows, especially after a spate of cancellations which cut the cord on a few very interesting prospects, such as Battle Creek. But instead we should be grateful for the small mercy of timeliness in TV.

The Don of Man!

The Don of Man!

Justified never put a foot wrong in any department in its six years on the air, so it’s hardly surprising that the show was able to produce a sublime finale. What was surprising was that its final scene equalled the quality of the very first one, which has to be among the finest in television. I know many of those who love the series don’t have access to it, so I’ll spare them revealing descriptions and simply say that not a word is wasted (as if Elmore Leonard was script-editing from heaven) and yet all is said, in a way that changes everything we thought true while reminding us that nothing ever changes. I was somewhat less flabbergasted that Mad Men ended on a moment of ambiguity, given that Matthew Weiner was in charge of The Sopranos when it stopped believing in endings. Unlike the latter’s finale, however, whatever conclusion you took from the final scene was a rewarding one, either a statement of futility about the ability of counterculture to escape commercialisation or a reaffirmation of the curse of business sense in the mind of a true creative. Both had reached a crucial impasse of their own grand design.

Mad Men and Justified were on the verge of treading water creatively when they ended and the former was even in a danger of trying the audience’s patience with a final season split over two years, something that had worked marvellously for a carefully plotted drama like Breaking Bad but made the languorous style of Mad Men seem protracted. As he reported to viewers in on-air his retirement announcement, Letterman is leaving for fear that his mind is on other things and it’s the contractual handcuffs on doing other things that forced Harry Shearer to move on from The Simpsons after 26 years. We should be happy that these great artists have the sense and humility to not want to waste our time. The Daily Show has already been eclipsed by the provocative irony of The Colbert Report and lately the distillation of news satire into a fine art by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, which ranks among the very best work (factual or otherwise) that has ever been aired on HBO. As both men are Daily Show alumni, Jon Stewart ensured his own slide into irrelevance in the genre he essentially created. That sounds like time to go.

Catch you on the other side!

Catch you on the other side!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t actively miss these traditions (I know I will) but I’m comforted by the knowledge that quality television has been on a roll for decades now and that whatever jewel in the crown you think you can’t live without is always soon to be matched (or trumped) by what comes next. With the cult of personality in full ceremony, it’s easy to forget that the jobs that are being vacated can be done by other people. Letterman is not the first talk show host, nor is Harry Shearer the only person that can do funny voices. The itchy plug-pulling fingers of network executives might mean that less and less people in TV are going to jump before they’re inevitably pushed, but calling it a day is still something to admire, especially when you have carte blanche to go on for as long as you choose to.

Losing Elmo

Posted in Uncategorized on January 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m away in Thailand (which you’ll be hearing about next week) so I’m not watching TV with Americans but I’m excited to introduce guest blogger Samantha Hope Goldstein with a post about parenting through television. 

When my husband and I were first dating, such was our compatibility that we never watched TV except together. He introduced me to Red Dwarf; I lured him to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If we couldn’t agree on a show, it was jettisoned altogether (Grey’s Anatomy, we hardly knew ye) but mostly we remained in felicitous accord. As DVR early-adopters (anyone remember ReplayTV?) our viewing relationship became even more harmonious, and eventually led to marriage. And then came the baby. She arrived suddenly, pre-toddlered for our parenting pleasure. As a proselytizing reader, I swore she would not know television until the age of three. Three minutes later, I realized this plan was moronic. The TV was called upon to perform the exalted task of babysitting when I needed to do something extravagant like make a sandwich or find socks that matched.

Falling in love means watching TV shows you never knew existed.

Falling in love means watching TV shows you never knew existed.

As she grew, television was an invaluable tool in my lazy parenting kit. But eventually, I saw disturbing trends in her viewing habits. The child was inevitably savvy about programming the TiVo, and the cartoons of her formative years morphed into live-action Disney shows with laugh tracks where the parent-child dynamics could only be described as “snarky.” Once, I happened upon her glued to Cougartown, which she described when questioned as “one of my shows.” The time had come to explore the significance of television in our daughter’s life. After all, she seemed to care about it as much as we did. I once suggested tap dance lessons and she replied: “Well, I don’t really want to do anything that keeps me from watching TV and eating.” Were we responsible parents if we didn’t check her consumption? And was it my imagination that she was distinctly unpleasant after a somnolent afternoon in front of the screen? We’re still answering these questions. In the mean time, we set out to make her the kind of TV watcher we’d be proud to call our own.

Watch the Dynamic Duo of Awkward blow up stuff--it's educational.

Watch the Dynamic Duo of Awkward blow up stuff–it’s educational.

At first, there was a pretense of educational fare, starting with Brain Games and Mythbusters. These shows are fortified with science and other wholesome ingredients, with trace elements of innuendo and product placement, and I could tolerate them, which was key. I could not say the same of David’s personal mission to make her a Dr. Who fan. Next step: reality shows. Since some were unsavory even to us (“Mommy, what’s sexting?”) and I apparently do not share my demographic’s love of cooking and home shows, we were limited. We’ve been watching Survivor since the first season, so we started there. She enjoys the challenges, but puts herself to bed before Tribal Council, as she can’t bear “all that talking.” I’m a shameless fan of Dancing with the Stars, and she likes seeing the contestants suffer, if not the actual dancing.

Speaking of suffering, she is very curious about our supernatural shows. I am often quizzed about the finer distinctions between vampires and zombies (“Now, can vampires also suck the blood out of ripped flesh?”) but we won’t negotiate on True Blood and The Walking Dead—vampires in general are difficult to wrap your mind around before puberty, since all that bloodlust starts to morph into actual lust, and I’m not sure I could explain that even if I wanted to (cross-reference with “Reasons She Hasn’t Seen Scandal.”) Little by little, we’ve found a few crossover adult shows we can share. There’s Glee, though I fear it’s giving her a pretty warped expectation of high school.

A wholesome learning and growing experience for the whole family.

A wholesome learning and growing experience for the whole family.

But we’re not prudish, nor are we trying to shield her from grown up realities. Case in point: a recent show all three of us agree on—Drunk History. This show is a juicy mélange of elements: a bit of arcane history no one knows about, a totally blotto narrator to explain it, and an ensemble of well-known actors to reenact it, lip-synching to the incoherent narration. It’s hilarious, but you might also learn who Claudette Colvin is. But the reason our kid likes it is a reason I can get behind. She can’t look away from the adults sipping those glasses of brown liquid. It’s crazy enough that they can’t speak properly, but when they start pitching out of their chairs or vomiting in nearby receptacles, she’s thrilled. “Feast your eyes,” I say portentously, “Behold the glamour of binge-drinking.”

Am I a genius or what? Irrefutable evidence that things that adults like aren’t alluring, but rather disgusting, and to be avoided at all costs. Maybe I’ve got this parenting thing totally figured out. Stay tuned.

Tom Steward is away. 

Samsara Sands

Posted in Uncategorized on October 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

Check out this cool Western short from my remarkably talented friend Dominic Pillai. Available to rent for £1:

Samsara Sands

12 Years a Slave

Posted in Uncategorized on February 2, 2014 by Tom Steward

A review that captures perfectly why 12 Years a Slave is so effecting and what movies have the potential to do for our perception of history.

Writing About Film

12 Years a Slave

Released 2014. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay by John Ridley, based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I’ve been trying to write about 12 Years a Slave in an impersonal, methodical way, but I can’t. So strong was my response to this film that I need to bring my background and experience to the surface of my review, so here it is: as a 25-year-old white male who’s never had much to be bullied about, let alone abused, as much as I try to empathise with slaves depicted in media, it’s not a life I know anything about, even tangentially. It’s all too easy for me to observe portrayals of slavery and nod along, intellectually appreciating the cruelty and brutality shown without getting anywhere near an understanding of the hopelessness, the suffering, the human cost. Whenever I see slavery…

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