Archive for the Watching TV Category

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.

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Bad Morning Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

Bonus Ball

Posted in American TV (General), TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure most of you are over The Super Bowl for another year (this really should be called ‘Watching TV after Americans’) but I’m far more interested in an aspect of the event that doesn’t change each year – although even for someone to whom ‘football’ means round balls and bad pies it was a pretty great game – which is the TV generated around it. The Super Bowl on TV seems never to start or end, making it the perfect metaphor for the medium. As it’s assumed that large portions of the nation are watching, which is no mean feat these days, The Super Bowl is a bat-signal for advertising. For the same reason, counter-programming decides to take one for the team, but those networks that try to take on The Super Bowl must do so in the most ruthless ways possible to even get noticed. This year, however, there were some added satirical bonuses.

I’m used to televised sporting events starting a few minutes later than advertised to sneak in a commercial break while everyone’s watching, but I was not prepared to be sitting on the couch at 3.30 still waiting for the game to begin. And for what? John Travolta’s Adele Dazi trying to break Bleedin’ Gums Murphy’s record for the longest rendition of ‘Star Spangled Banner’? The presentation of the NFL’s annual ‘didn’t rape or hit anyone’ award? Don’t we have a pre-show for this? The mechanics of modern television have manoeuvred themselves so that we are continually watching prelude. The Super Bowl goes one better and expects we will enjoy it. It’s moments like this which remind us that commercial television form is an integral part of the way that a game of American football is structured, rather than the British kind which is merely pricked around the edges by commercial interruption.

Commercials broadcast during The Super Bowl are notorious for being sexist, portentous and counter-intuitive. Half-time act Katy Perry clearly wanted to take some of the heat off the sexist commercials, but they were out in full force, not as well-disguised by nob gags as the advertisers clearly thought. Carl’s Jr. has even managed to turn gender discrimination into a branding mechanism for its Super Bowl ads. But this year they didn’t go unchallenged. Feminine health company Always ran a semantic deconstruction of the gender assumptions and discourses behind the phrase ‘Like a Girl’ while Saturday Night Live staged a fake Totino’s ad exposing the unbelievably narrow gender stereotypes and chauvinistic divisions of Super Bowl ads, particularly the archetypal representation of women as child-minded homemakers. Somewhere in the middle was Fiat’s ‘Viagra’ campaign which unironically presented pumped-up virility and machismo as a draw but also satirised male sexual prowess and the idealised feminine body.

Part of the fun of watching Super Bowl commercials is trying to figure out what product the pretentious pre-amble will eventually advertise (clue: anything combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is deodorant). But sometimes the logic of ad writers is beyond even those who dissect media images for a living. A ghost-child commercial is the perfect vehicle for a leukaemia or cancer charity, but it does nothing to ameliorate the ghoulish undertones of an insurance company. Another insurance company, Esurance, seems intent on using circular logic and specious reasoning similar to the Johnny Cochran O.J. glove defence to convince consumers of its superiority to established rival Geico, but as long as that involves Walter White as a drugstore pharmacist I don’t much mind. If you tire of the commercials, you can switch over to The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s re-imagining of The Super Bowl through the imagery of illegal competitive dog-fighting. For cute read irresponsible.

As with SNL, the most authentic example of Super Bowl television was the least genuine. Key & Peele have always satirized American sport and its coverage, but with their simulated Super Bowl pre-show staged as a real network broadcast, it was far more than a send-up. There was plenty to ridicule: the ill-fitting suits of the former-pro presenters, the passive-aggressive banter, the live-action footer trails of network sitcoms always starring ‘Alison Janney’, and of course the beyond-hyperreal graphics with overly phallic connotations. But the real-time flow and denouement in which the digital robot mascot achieves self-awareness and propels humanity into a state of oblivion identifies The Super Bowl and its live, ongoing broadcast with a dystopian terror effect that reminded me of another piece of faked factual horror television, the one-off BBC drama Ghostwatch. There is something inherently wrong and otherworldly about TV’s broadcast of The Super Bowl, the same something as television itself.

Thai TV

Posted in BiogTV, Internet TV, Local TV, Reality TV, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure Thai people are as baffled that we spend our evenings watching millionaires shoot ducks (I’m talking about both Duck Dynasty and Downton Abbey here) as I was with some of the curious and absurd programmes I saw in the country while I was visiting last month, so please take what follows with a pinch of cultural relativism. As I’m pig-ignorant about much of Thai culture, I’m going to stick with what I know and talk about Thai TV’s engagement with English language and culture.

Ridiculing Southeast Asian television is a rite of passage for popular TV critics. In my childhood, there were at least two (probably more) shows like Clive James on Television and Tarrant on TV where westerners who should know better giggled and guffawed at clips of Japanese game shows (now British TV from that era is our source of the very same mockery). I’m not much interested in this glasshouse criticism – though it’s hard to let go of the Thai TV show where they did nothing but pick up pens for half-an-hour – but I still have that same voyeuristic fascination as those orientalist broadcasters did when I was watching Thai television on my recent trip to the country. Bizarrely (though maybe not to Edward Said), it’s those moments of overlap with the English language and culture that are the strangest.

A case in point is English Delivery, a primetime educational programme using the comic talents and general enthusiasm of its hosts to teach English to viewers, and teach it well. It not so much about learning English words (and my limited experience of Thai people suggests they already know a lot) but getting the drop on misunderstandings resulting from translating Thai into English. To wit, the hilarious consequences that might ensue from confusing ‘pig’s balls’ with ‘pork balls’. As you can see from the examples they use, it’s more about conveying aspects of Thai culture to English speakers so they can understand it than learning about the culture or customs of English-speaking nations. That’s more than likely because so much of the Thai economy depend on tourists who speak English, or those that speak it so they may be understood by Thais.

I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture (well English culture, well English sport, well English football, well Manchester United) isn’t a big deal in some parts of Thailand, like Bangkok where we visited, but more often it feels like a policy of ‘do what you want…but give it an English name’. I was alerted to Don’t Lose the Money because I could read the title (and even when I know the Thai word it often isn’t recognizable in writing) but the show itself was simply a succession of contestants running back and forth between piles of money and empty boxes trying to carry one to the other with the use of head magnets. Increasingly we have game shows like this but we ruin their uncomplicated fun with ironic snark or over-complicated rules, or Richard Hammond.

I wasn’t surprised that when we got to the touristy island of Ko Samui there was so much European and American TV in our hotel satellite services. What did take me by surprise was the exchange of movie channels like HBO and Cinemax for a feed of someone’s laptop playing jittery, low quality streams of recent American blockbusters simply called ‘Island’. This became increasingly evident when we would return to our room to find a Windows shutdown message on the screen, and we knew exactly how long each movie had run for because whichever tech-savvy teenager was running it left the arrow and all the player information on the screen. With the trade in pirate DVDS they do in Thailand, it makes business sense.

HBO Thailand!

HBO Thailand!

Not all my jarring experiences of watching Thai TV were in English. At certain, seemingly random, points of the day, whatever was on TV was suddenly interrupted by choirs of fidgety schoolchildren singing in tribute to ‘The National Council of Peace and Order’, which is the name by which the military junta that has run Thailand since mid-2014 goes. It’s a startling reminder that you’re in a country under military rule, something G and I didn’t get a sense of as tourists – until we went to places where military officers were being served and the waitresses reacted like they were all Justin Bieber – and that TV is still (overtly) a propaganda medium in many countries. Come to think of it, the titles were in English.

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.

Watching TV With Britons Part 2: Same Same Same

Posted in Americans watching British TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

The second part of my exile’s guide to British television looks at the unwelcome familiarity of the programmes I watched during my recent visit to the UK, as any vain hope of something changing for the better while I was away is quickly crushed under my muddy, slushy Wellington boot:

The Royal Variety Performance (ITV):

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

As both variety (our version of vaudeville) and royalty are anachronisms in British popular culture, this annual broadcast of theatrical entertainment staged in front of members of the monarchy seems to exist for nostalgia alone. Tellingly, there’s no variety on offer but merely alternating stand-ups and singers. The addition of William and Kate – presumably as a reward for breeding – meant that the event was no longer attended by a couple famous for their dislike of showbusiness but they still couldn’t help appearing like a benign Statler & Waldorf. It’s hard to believe that host – and redefinition of the term ‘comedian’ – Michael Mcintyre remains popular in Britain but given the programme’s commitment to the regression of our culture, artist and medium have never been better matched.

The Railway: First Great Western (Channel 5):

Public transport documentaries have been the saving grace of British reality television in the past few years, but the UK’s TV network-in-the-attic Channel 5 has, by focusing on this year’s closure of the Dawlish rail line due to storms and flooding, turned it into weather porn – one of the less commendable reality genres to emerge on British TV after the advent of climate change! Still, it was interesting to see that Home Secretary Theresa May is as inept at forming sentences as she is at politics.

Black Mirror: White Christmas (Channel 4)

A Christmas Hamm!

A Christmas Hamm!

British TV critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker exists in a categorical limbo between Clive James and Rod Serling, alternating parodic weekly TV review shows with anthology sci-fi horror. This festive (in genre alone!) edition of techno-fear playhouse Black Mirror was, in keeping with the British Christmas special, more conventional than we expect from the series. The formulaic storytelling was partly a satisfying return to the Christmas TV horror plays of old but also revived some rather retrograde attitudes to gender and race that I’m sure we’d all have rather left in the TV of the 70s. A surprise Christmas gift came in the form of an outstanding star turn by Jon Hamm, leading the effort to turn British migrant labour in American TV into a hostage exchange (P.S. You keep James Nesbitt, we’ll have Steve Buscemi!), which, as Mad Men comes to a close, more than proved – at least to doubting Thomases like me – that he could credibly be something other than Don Draper.

It Was Alright in the 70s (Channel 4)

Several people told me I should watch this programme, which runs clips of contemporaneously controversial British TV from the 1970s alongside commentary from the people involved as well as aghast modern-day viewers. The clips themselves have the requisite shock and entertainment value, but I was uneasy with the tone and project of this documentary. It seemed to suggest that the bigotry and exploitation that appeared in 1970s television was somehow a thing of the past and that all the problems of representation had subsequently been resolved, whereas I saw plenty of examples, if perhaps more latent than pointed, of prejudice and cruelty in the TV I watched while in the UK. It’s also a very selective history of 1970s television in the UK which continually declines to mention how experimental, challenging and innovative a great deal of TV was in that era, perhaps more than now, and certainly with more frequency. When this is acknowledged, it’s usually passed off as the inconsequential ramblings of a cultural historian in the editing, and only ever associated with content that would be hard to defend on a representational level, such as The Goodies’ (literally!) savage attack on apartheid involving racial slurs and minstrelry. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the programme is its lack of originality. It’s a cursory spin on a clip-based nostalgia format that’s been around since the turn of the millennium, and almost matches the exploitative tendencies of the TV it lambasts by offering recent revelations about the sex crimes of 70s British celebrities as a unique selling point.

Autopsy: The Last Days of Elvis Presley (Channel 5)

briton 6

Dr Richard Shepherd, Graduate of The University of Stating The Bleeding Obvious!

Like asking which bullet killed a person shot 24 times. Worth seeing for the Elvis curl on the lips of the actor portraying Presley whilst dying on the toilet.

Watching TV With Britons Part 1: Eee By Glum!

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Tom Steward

Goodbye! Like Seinfeld’s Elaine upon encountering a caring Jerry, selfless George and talented Kramer, I’m in the bizarro world. I started this blog as a Briton casting a foreigner’s eye over American television and the Americans who watch it. Now British television is foreign to me and the viewing habits of UK audiences are as curious to my mind as America’s once was. Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am now a resident of the United States (or have assumed I am the worst pirate in TV history!). While I’m still in the privileged position of returning to my homeland without the jarring feeling of alienation felt by most ex-pats, I cannot say the same about British television. It is not simply a question of being out of touch, but experiencing the TV I knew from the outside in. I see the problems more clearly, but I am less forgiving of them than a native now. Here’s Part 1 of my round-up of the TV I watched while I was back in the UK these past few weeks, which looks specifically at what I saw of and about the North while away:

BBC Northwest Tonight (BBC1)

If I had ever forgotten what a place of horror the North can be, I was scared straight by the top item on the local news about a priest who was arrested for murder. There was also a sub-plot about the various presenters switching roles that went clear over my head, and reminded me that local TV news is more parochial soap opera than neutral information source.

Remember Me (BBC 1)

Python Found In Sheffield!

Python Found In Sheffield!

Seasonal ghost stories are an overlooked tradition in British television, as is the utilisation of former Python Michael Palin as a TV actor. This Sunday-night 3-parter was a welcome return for both, and brought the haunting beauty of the Yorkshire coast to half-light. I’m always complaining about the lack of Britain’s multiculturalism in our flagship drama and South Yorkshire’s substantial Asian population should be represented in any depiction of the area, as it is here. But I couldn’t help feeling there were underlying xenophobic anxieties about immigration in the way the story unfolded (incidentally rather in keeping with the current normalisation of anti-immigration discourses in British politics) which undermined the diversity. It’s one thing to show the social harmony between the elderly white and Asian communities in Sheffield, another to envelope that in imagery concerning the vengeful spirit of an Indian colonial wreaking havoc on British shores.

Inside No 9 (BBC 2)

There's No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

There’s No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

Horror comedy writing-acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith may have left the North behind after the gloriously gothic sitcom The League of Gentleman, but their anthology-based follow-up to the macabre melodrama Psychoville is easily their best work yet. Classic British horror movies were as influential to the pair’s writing as the variously horrifying Northern towns they grew up in. But in this series of one-offs centred around buildings and rooms that bear the number 9, it’s easier to detect the legacy of great British dramatists like Harold Pinter and Mike Leigh than Hitchcock and Hammer.

Through The Keyhole (ITV)

This was once a beloved and genteel daytime panel show presented by British institution Sir David Frost in which middlebrow celebrities tried to guess which other middlebrow celebrity a house belonged to. It was easy-going, bland and offended no-one. To my horror, it’s been revived as a platform for crass Yorkshire-born comic Leigh Francis to showcase his abhorrent character Keith Lemon and brand of vulgar anarchy. Imagine if the cast of Jackass suddenly took over from the current hosts of 60 Minutes and you’ll have some idea of how inappropriate a mix of star and format this is. Tabloidization of classic British television standards has been and gone, but this is a new stage of perversion and travesty that befits a dystopian satire!

The Fall (BBC 2)

The Fall Of British Television

The Fall Of British Television

Belfast is a bleak yet glamorous backdrop for the most unremittingly downbeat police drama in TV history. Not even sexy elf Gillian Anderson can bring much more than the odd dry moment of wit to proceedings, as Christian Grey-in-waiting Jamie Dornan stalks the city’s streets and homes as a sexual serial killer and freelance social worker. Authentically Northern Irish, it also tops the genre for storytelling innovation. Dornan’s Paul Spector is as much the hero as the detective would be in any other cop show, making for deeply uncomfortable viewing. But, like the North, it remains gruesomely compelling.

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