Archive for the Unsung Heroes Category

Justified And Ancient

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

Currently my two favourite shows are both revivals of iconic literary characters and new twists on old TV genres. Justified features Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap as well as the short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ from which the FX series sprung. As Justified aired, Leonard wrote his final novel Raylan about the character. Elementary is based around scatological-saying sleuth Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas, re-located and updated to present-day New York. Both are ostensibly police procedurals, a genre spanning the history of television, but they also resurrect some more archaic formats, such as the western and the mystery drama. These are shows that can appease snobs and slobs. Elementary goes under the radar while Justified will soon fall in the woods without sound. So why don’t people like them as much as I do?

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I’m not saying that Justified and Elementary are in any way reviled, but neither are they exalted like the offerings of AMC, HBO and Showtime. Despite being on a network with a stellar reputation for original drama, Justified is continually overshadowed by series like Fargo and The Americans, both of which are unlikely to have existed without Justified blazing the trail. Elementary has the disadvantage of being on CBS rather than cable, but it is still far from being considered a giant of well-made, middle-of-the-road entertainment like The Good Wife. This is what they get for doing everything a complex, mature character-driven drama would without disturbing what makes good television. Surely that is more remarkable than trying to produce something worthy without regard to what works on TV (American Crime, I’m looking in your direction!) or even accomplishing great art on networks that are purpose-built to challenge mainstream television conventions.

Maybe they’re a victim of the times. Elementary comes in the wake of the BBC’s Sherlock, a contentless self-hyping publicity machine that has established itself as the worthier successor to the Sherlock Holmes name without any claims between opening and closing credits to that title. Justified began as an episodic procedural and grew into long-form storytelling, and may have looked to those who think good TV comes in serial boxes as unfashionable. Maybe they care too much about history. Justified is pulp fiction comedy in the noble tradition of The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. and homage to the TV westerns (and disguised police westerns thereof) of the 1960s and 1970s, underlined by Timothy Olyphant borrowing Clint Eastwood’s legs for the project. Elementary doesn’t contemporize like Sherlock, or at least it doesn’t fetishize new technologies as a substitute for coherent storytelling, and at its best it’s Columbo in a brownstone.

I suppose what’s layers to some people is packaging to others. But what would it take to understand how holistic a television experience it is to watch Justified and Elementary? I’m watching TV now and in the past, a pleasurable formula alongside a gruelling psycho-drama, good television and the cherry-pickings of popular culture. I look to other TV shows that currently fascinate people like Scandal and Empire and the common denominators are melodrama and outrageous behaviour. Perhaps Justified and Elementary are too straight-faced and plausibly written to stand out in primetime. Maybe the success of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is not so much in the transformative character arcs (which both my faves provide in equal measure) but the Dickensian coincidences and lunacy of the protagonists. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and characters doing stupid things to create drama. Characters in these two shows are drawn not sketched.

'Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!'

‘Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!’

Because Justified and Elementary derive from a body of work outside of themselves, perhaps audiences assume they need prior knowledge of the characters and authors’ previous works in order to enjoy these series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary eschews the fan-fiction qualities of Sherlock in favour of original content utilising the character dynamics of the literary cycle. You do not feel like you have to be a devoted reader of Conan Doyle nor worship the cult of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate Elementary. Yet it is an authentic introduction to the Holmes stories in a way that Sherlock refuses to be. Elmore Leonard is simply a point of departure for Justified and his characters and storylines have been reinterpreted, interwoven and extrapolated to the point where they are born anew (for copyright reasons just as much as artistic ones). Leonard is the midwife here not the overprotective mother.

Man and Nimoy

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

The tragedy of the TV actor is that they are haunted by one character for their entire life. For Leonard Nimoy, who died of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last Friday at 83, the character of Mr. Spock overshadowed fine performances in many of the defining TV series of the 1960s and 1970s. But popular culture would never allow his empirically-minded alien starship science officer from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek to die, and if the onscreen death of the character and demise of the movie franchise didn’t finish him off, then it’s unlikely that Nimoy’s passing will do it either.

Finding Nimoy.

Finding Nimoy.

Spock will continue as a character in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movies and will continue to be played by Leonard Nimoy, albeit as an impersonation by Zachary Quinto. TV characters are so much their actors that for a replacement to offer an original interpretation would be as detrimental as casting them in the wrong age or gender. Rather than passing the gauntlet, the movie prequel to the original Star Trek series (and I suppose sequel to Enterprise if you put it that way) concocted a scenario in which Quinto’s Spock was a younger version of the character as played by Nimoy – who also appeared in the movie because time travel heals all continuity wounds – and thus had to customise his mannerisms and delivery according to his predecessor. This freely admitted in plot terms that no-one but Nimoy could play Spock. Technically, re-setting the clock allowed Quinto to go his own way with the character but if anything his performance became more like Nimoy’s in the sequel Star Trek into Darkness, attested to by another appearance by Nimoy as Spock’s future self. Without Nimoy to play off in future films, I fully expect Quinto to compensate further with thorough mimicry.

Looking back from the Spock-themed obituaries, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Nimoy would have played Spock for only three years. Of course, three years is another ten in re-runs, and the re-circulation of Star Trek (as much in off-air audio recordings shared between fans as repeats) is what brought Nimoy back to play Spock, first in the astonishingly comparable animated series spin-off that ran in the mid-70s and then in a series of continuation movies that ran from 1979 to 1991, or between Shatner’s third and seventh girdle, whichever way you care to think about it. After that, Spock made his way back onto TV featuring in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, before he became the missing link between Gene Roddenberry and J.J. Abrams. Spock was the Jack Bauer of his day, unkillable by man or logic. Neither death, nor time, not even the series not being about him anymore, would stop him appearing in it. And this doesn’t even begin to include the times Nimoy performed Spock outside of Star Trek, perhaps most poignantly as a disembodied head reviving the Vulcan for the entertainment of an omniscient teenage alien in Futurama.

Nimoy was already a face in American television by the time he took the role of Spock, and good television at that. He already had a Twilight Zone and an Outer Limits under his belt, which gave the actor anthology pedigree to add to his generic bow of westerns and detective shows. Nimoy had a knack for finding his way into the most accomplished shows of the 1960s, including The Man from UNCLE (which has no reboot forthcoming, regardless of what ANYONE says) and Mission: Impossible, his first TV role after Star Trek was cancelled. Even into the 70s, he was on Rod Serling’s horrific(ally underrated) Night Gallery and Columbo, because no American actor is allowed in SAG without it. His was a face for television, betraying nothing and letting whatever fine piece of screenwriting he was bestowed do the work. It was a time on American TV when emotions were optional, but class was not. Sci-fi TV is his, and it owes him a living. He returned to The Outer Limits when it re-appeared in the 90s, in a re-make of the same episode he had starred in during the 60s. A role was waiting for him on Fringe.

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

There’s more to Leonard Nimoy than Spock (and there’s at least two of his careers I haven’t mentioned) but the character presented him with limitless possibilities for remaining in the zeitgeist long after he ceased playing him on TV. He lived longer and more prosperously than even Spock could predict.

Sunday Day Recorded

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, Unsung Heroes, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘For a lot of people, their favourite part of the show is the short films, which makes you wonder why don’t they just do the whole show that way. They’ve been doing the show wrong for 40 years. The sketches, they’re nice but they’re long.’

Louis C.K. has made a career out of hitting the nail on the head – and inducing involuntary laughter from the brain – but in as many words as there’s been years of Saturday Night Live, the comedian summed up the fatal (surely tragic by now) flaw of NBC’s late-night sketch show, which celebrated 4 decades on the air this month. C.K. was introducing a compilation of shorts on the SNL anniversary special, scheduled on a Sunday and in primetime (who says American don’t get irony?) and may well have been feeding in to the inverted back-slapping that was pungent throughout the evening. But as soon as the clips rolled, and names like Jim Jarmusch, Mike Judge, Albert Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson filled the screen, C.K.’s roast zinger becomes an unarguable truism. I myself once had a similar thought before when watching the late-90s British daily sketch programme The 11 O’Clock Show which was written on the day of broadcast and wondering why they didn’t just spend more time on the jokes and make them funny.

Crapping on SNL!

Crapping on SNL!

The more you think about it, the more damning C.K.’s accusations become. Who honestly prefers to watch an SNL sketch featuring The Blues Brothers instead of just watching The Blues Brothers? Where’s the pervert that would endure SNL’s fake public access show ‘Wayne’s World’ as anything other than the intro to Wayne’s World (or Wayne’s World 2)? SNL cast members try to make out that movies based on their sketches are duds (presumably for fear someone might decide to cut out the middleman) but its filmed elements are the only great comic art the show has ever contributed the world. And a sketch worth of Coneheads feels like an hour-and-a-half movie anyway, so you might as well watch the feature spin-off. C.K. might be biased since his sitcom has the finesse of art cinema, but we’re not talking about a group of comedy Oliviers with rave live notices that seem hopeless on film. Every SNL legend has proven themselves masters of screen comedy and the mythical thrill of live TV shouldn’t distract us from that.

Unless I’m severely underestimating Lorne Michaels’ command of irony, I don’t think the inflated length of the anniversary special – coming in at four-and-a-half hours – was meant as a poke at SNL’s reputation for overlong sketches. Again, C.K. was on point (why don’t I just marry him?) and the underwhelming reaction he received was not simply audience fatigue, but a nervous titter of cold, hard realization. The amount of sketches (if you can call them that) and appearances on the night looks impressive on paper, and yet SNL has that amazing ability to appear stretched even when pushed for time. It doesn’t help that so many of the most famous sketches which were revived for the afternoon/evening are based on repetition; Celebrity Jeopardy, The Californians, Weekend Update, The Bass-O-Matic Infomercial. What start out as parodies of overly-formatted TV programming end up using that format as padding. It’s a mistake for SNL to assume that everyone finds their overlength endearing. Like their very own Drunk Uncle, the nostalgic surface hides a multitude of outmoded beliefs and behaviours.

Eddie Murphy doing for real what he does in his mind.

Eddie Murphy doing for real what he does in his mind.

For a sketch show that invests such capital in the idea of shedding its history as soon as it qualifies, the current SNL cast were rather conspicuous by their absence on the anniversary special. Perhaps it’s not so much about them as the greatest generation that fought for their freedom to pretend to be Justin Bieber, but what this sketch comedy version of Apocalypse Now (minus Brando mumbling about snails – that was cut so Eddie Murphy could applaud himself) somehow failed to acknowledge was continuity. It’s a slap in the face that a cast who may be in the process of getting SNL’s shit together for the first time in quite a while should be passed over in a four-hour show and made to look like the weakest links in the chain. Given that Eddie Murphy has only just forgiven SNL after former cast member David Spade ridiculed his career on-air, despite Murphy single-handedly keeping the show on the air (like 1986 World Cup Maradona), they’re clearly not the ones who should have been asked to clean boots that night/day.

The Rest Of The Year’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Unsung Heroes, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Tom Steward

There’s a formula for writing annual ‘Best Of’ TV lists. First it’s compulsory to observe how pointless a task it is making such a list for a vast and varied medium like television, then talk about how your criteria will be completely different, before naming the SAME EXACT shows as every other critic. Well, I don’t think it’s pointless, at least no more futile than doing it for books or films (where critics don’t seem to have the same anxieties about habitually omitting factual and lifestyle titles). I have no wish to create an opaque ratings system that will lead me back to shows which come pre-ordained as the best of TV. But I do want to ensure that the titles I choose won’t appear on anyone else’s list, something which gets harder and harder as critics begin to fawn over the nichest possible television. So don’t consider this the year’s best TV (see I’m doing it in spite of myself!) but rather good TV that has been overlooked simply because it doesn’t get listed.

Botched (E!)

...what if he dies first?

…what if he dies first?

Real Husbands Dr. Paul Nassif (disguised as Moe Syslak from The Simpsons for ease of viewer identification) and Dr. Terry Dubrow (other two-quarters of Heather Dubrow, who must always be named twice) are L.A. plastic surgeons who specialize in fixing botched jobs. There’s some emotional hard luck stories but basically it’s the best excuse ever for social voyeurism and with patients like a Human Ken Doll and a 33-year old man with the face of an early-teen Justin Bieber it’s about as visually mesmerizing as reality TV gets. The show is also indispensable body horror, with its drop-in circus of malfunctioning and distorted anatomy. Even E’s glossification can’t mask the raw psychological distress.

90-Day Fiancé (TLC)

A show close to mine and G’s hearts, since I arrived in the US on a marriage visa. This observational documentary follows six couples during the 90-day window for visitors to the US to marry on the K-1 visa. It’s as compelling for its cartoon parodies of loving marriage as it is for reaffirming the borderless beauty of the institution. So extraordinary and bizarre is the experience for these culture-clash couples that the network barely needs to meddle in the melodrama, as it does for its other reality shows, giving it a more natural (if no less extreme) flow of real events than heavily devised TLC docu-soaps like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

Muppets Most Wanted (Disney)

Variety at heart!

Variety at heart!

Probably more likely to be dismissed on grounds of not being a TV show, this was nonetheless the movie that in 2014 most thoroughly blurred distinctions between film and television. The Muppets are a creation of television, stars Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey are all television personalities, and the legacy of The Muppet Show is privileged at the expense of the movie franchise (the latter self-consciously in comic acknowledgements of the diegetic amnesia around popular movie characters and sequels). The movie is a joyous celebration of the achievements and talents of television past and present, reminding us of how far the medium has come. And it’s full of commercials!

LIVE With Kelly And Michael! (ABC)

A show that will doubtless elude recognition for its monotony and ubiquity, but this doesn’t change the fact that host Kelly Ripa is by several miles of open country the funniest, smartest, wittiest and most multi-dimensional presenter in daytime. Her work in morning television is more akin to what Conan, Colbert and Craig Ferguson have done with the late-night form than the platitudinous moron-making of virtually everybody else on TV at that time, and until about 11 in the evening. This is an everyday occurrence, which makes it all the more startling, but her essential impersonation of Laura Linney in the Halloween parody of PBS Masterpiece Theater speaks volumes.

The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (CBS)

Not like any other late night show!

Not like any other late night show!

Dare I say that Craig Ferguson’s departure from late-night talk shows will leave an even bigger hole than David Letterman? While Letterman innovated within the format, Ferguson created a new late-night form that was genuinely subversive, avant-garde and experimental, importing a brand of British vaudeville surrealism reminiscent of Reeves & Mortimer and The Mighty Boosh. Like those acts, Ferguson meshed light entertainment with serious art, carved out an absurd fantasy using television grammar, and delivered alternative culture disguised as broad comedy. It was a rejection of all that was bland and formulaic about one of American TV’s most intransigent genres, and a complete reinvention of its possibilities.

King Of The Chill

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘Horror has not fared particularly well on TV, if you except something like the 6 o’clock news, where footage of black GIs with their legs blown of, villages and kids on fire, bodies in trenches, and whole swathes of jungle being coated with good old Agent Orange.’

That was writer Stephen King in 1981, talking about putting horror on television (thanks to my mentor and go-to for gothic television Helen Wheatley for the quote!). Despite King’s reservations, his horror stories have found a natural home in TV as series, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies in the last four decades. Ironically, it is precisely because television is so ‘full of real horrors’ that King’s work fits so well there. Perhaps it’s not vivid images of war on the news anymore, but there are still certainly plenty of reports of murderous violence, human cruelty and sexual abuse on an array of primetime infotainment programmes. King is particularly valid in this context since he is perhaps the writer most famous for bringing horror into touch with the contemporary world.

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

King has been adapted for the cinema significantly, but none of those movies quite captures the lingering terror of his writing as the miniseries versions. Something about having to stop and resume watching episodes of It and Salem’s Lot offers a prolonged, almost masochistic quality of fear unavailable in all but the books themselves, which, as Joey Tribiani has shown, are best stored in the freezer when not being read. Television has such affective qualities as a medium – many of which are connected to horror – that merely the act of televising can induce dread. What Pennywise the Clown can do to you in the cinema is no match for the monkeyshines he gets up to in and around your living rooms each and every night.

Genre aside, TV adaptations of King’s books give us pause to consider which visual medium is best suited to accommodate the novel. For best-selling authors like King, the natural route is feature films, not necessary because they are the best platform for his work but due to their popularity and potential (at one time!) for box-office success. But the bulkier novels suffer inside the constraints of a two to three-hour movie, and the best film adaptations of King’s writing have generally been those extrapolated from his short stories. TV series that want to appear classy and cultured often compare themselves to novels with episodes the equivalent of chapters. But when applied to King’s shlockier fare, we can see it’s about what fits not what elevates.

The symbiotic relationship between Stephen King and television was on my mind as I watched the Lifetime movie Big Driver based on his novella. The network that once bore the slogan ‘television for women’ doesn’t necessarily seem like the place for Stephen King adaptations but the subject matter complimented Lifetime’s penchant for celebrities, scandals and sex crimes in its programming perfectly. The target audience, which still more or less holds today, ensured that none of the rape scenes ever approached the voyeurism or perverse pleasure they achieve in many horror movies. Though fiction, it was fluent with the showbusiness biography strand of original movies on Lifetime. In fact, it’s quite striking how King’s work seems malleable to a wide range of TV genres and formats.

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

King’s novel Under the Dome has been adapted and expanded into a primetime CBS TV series, which blended into the current fashion for fantasy and science-fiction television in the network schedules. A decade ago, King developed a re-make of Lars Von Trier’s surreal medical drama Riget called Kingdom Hospital which heralded a trend for American versions of European (mainly Scandinavian) TV series that has yet to see an end. King’s short stories were regularly fodder for half-hour dramas in the revived series of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits during the fantasy anthology renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His contribution to the modern gothic even came full circle as King penned an original screenplay for Fox’s paranormal detective series The X-Files in 1998. The tribute is fitting as we can see the influence of Stephen King miniseries in contemporary TV horror such as the self-contained first season of The Walking Dead or the season-long anthology dramas that comprise American Horror Story. It might not be an affinity King is particularly proud to boast – although now would be the time to jump on the pioneer bandwagon – but it’s one that, like the repressed, will always return to haunt him.

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