Archive for 24

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?

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Beard To Death

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

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

Rick shaves his beard – The Walking Dead – Season 5

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

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

Where's the shaving balm?!

Where’s the balm?!

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

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

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

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

Before...and way before!

Before…and way before!

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

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

Bearded Hamm!

Bearded Hamm!

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

Watching Century With Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by Tom Steward

You know when anniversary shows try to make out that the second part is different from the first, even though it’s just another set of clips with a new (but equally banal) gimmick? Well, now you get the point of this introduction. It’s somewhat fitting, however, as what I’m most proud of about this blog is that it is different from one week to the next, even if my obsessions do tend to re-surface like a pardoned 24 terrorist. It’s a freedom writing about American TV that you can’t have making it. Here’s some more re-runs before normal service resumes:

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that's...erm...crazy like a fox?

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that’s…erm…crazy like a fox?

‘Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible’

‘It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me’

‘The Food Network could run Chard Week featuring all the best appearances of the vegetable in the mystery box on Chopped, including the time someone drizzled it with a gummiworm-infused vinaigrette’

‘If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen’

‘It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe’

‘One of the places I was surprised to find TV on the air was in the air’

‘The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing’

‘Unlike other game shows, The Bachelor(ette) likes to invite its losing contestants back to occupy more senior roles in the programme, like Juan Pablo who was sent home in a previous season and is now The Bachelor. It’s like losing Final Jeopardy and then next day replacing Alex Trebek’

‘Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years’

‘American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy’

‘Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss’

‘After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle’

‘I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began!’

‘Hours of broadcast prior to the official start time of the Oscars are taken up with reporters transmitting live from the red carpet-lined entrance as stars rotate their bodies more slowly than a Virgin Trains toilet door and answer existential questions like “who are you wearing?”’

‘Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?’

‘With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie...or as they call it a 'self-portrait'.

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie…or as they call it a ‘self-portrait’.

‘At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it’

Memory Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs. Shows are incessantly reminding us of what happened minutes before, when we’re not being previewed we’re being recapped, and flashback has become the bane of television storytelling. Reality shows are the worst culprits, since their heavy-handed narration and editing permits them to insert extraneous references to past events at will. But dramas and comedies can be just as bad. Think about how many devices there are built into the fabric of fictional TV series to remind us about what just happened; ‘Previously On’ segments, duplicated action, flashbacks. Such repetition is almost certain to annoy viewers and make them feel patronised, so why does TV always think it’s addressing Guy Pearce?

Torture and racism, probably.

Torture and racism, probably.

When it comes to reality shows, it’s safe to speculate that there’s an element of killing time here. Visual call-backs are a good way of conserving footage through re-use and along with voiceover re-caps they can easily pad out a show to its allotted time. I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began! But there are also less cynical motives at play. It’s long been assumed by producers that people watch TV in fits and bursts and they don’t necessarily watch a programme from start to finish. It’s something we critics with our programme-based reviews still don’t really get. But it’s the impulse behind filling viewers in every few minutes.

Much as we would like to think for the sake of art that TV has fulfilled its potential as a serial medium, it’s still pretty much a halfway house between closed and ongoing storytelling. There must still be part-time and sporadic viewers out there or we’d have switched over to continuous storytelling a long time ago, given that it’s a feature common to all the great TV out there. We wouldn’t need to have these concessions to people who’ve missed a few episodes or were out of the room if we were all faithful and attentive viewers. As far as flashback is concerned, somewhere along the line it got mistaken for complex storytelling – even though the truth is the opposite – and the rest is history.

TV memory aids are where good television and quality television clash. It’s good practice to make TV that responds to the fragmented way a lot of us watch it. But all the shows we associate with quality television are about breaking away from that kind of audience spoon-feeding for something that challenges viewers, even their memories. And it goes to show that the type of television we’re always wanting more of and more like in television (The Wire, The Sopranos) is difficult to produce in most contexts. People are paying specifically for HBO so they’re going to watch everything and stick with a series for value alone. You couldn’t do a HBO show in a place with audiences that are constantly drifting in and out.

Of course, there are limits. It often feels like we’re being cheated of new content. Last week The Bachelorette ran a highlights package of its first three weeks in place of a new episode. It will do this again in a special prior to the finale, and then during the Judd Apatow-comedy length finale itself. Most reality show finales are season re-caps. There is a point beyond which you’re pandering to people who have missed some crucial moments and simply taking the piss out of the remaining audience. In this way, such shows are their own worst enemies, offering no reward to long-term viewing except seeing it all over again multiple times. You can’t count on TV viewers wanting nostalgia like an instant coffee powder.

Late-night talk show Conan has a regular bit called ‘Memba This?’ in which sidekick Andy Richter repeatedly asks the question in front of a slideshow of recent viral news images. As with many Conan skits, they’ve distilled how TV works in a matter of minutes. What TV pretends is a ‘trip down memory lane’ is actually a re-cap of things they haven’t had time to forget. Set up as a ‘new comedy bit’, regurgitation is posing as creativity. And when Conan keeps getting heinous news images, it reminds us that these memory aids are actually TV’s way of manipulating the past, not just repeating it. Damn, I’m twenty words short. It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs.

Live Another UK

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Perennial bad penny of television 24 returned to our screens last week, four years after the show’s cancellation, which everyone – other than flagging network Fox it seems – felt was already long overdue. Along with being cut in half (12 must not be a sellable number these days), one of the more remarkable changes to the series, sub-titled Live Another Day, is its re-location to London. In the later years of the series proper, 24 left America’s centre of terrorist activity L.A. to tour the East Coast with seasons seven and eight set in Washington and New York respectively. The show only ever ventured from U.S. shores when its many presidents would harangue middle-eastern statesmen by phone to reveal their country’s official secrets in order to avert a nuclear attack they know nothing about. African-set spin-off TV movie 24: Redemption is the exception here, but everyone concerned would I’m sure like to write that abomination out of the show’s history along with ER’s excursion into the dark continent of television. Besides, 24 was always characterised more by rampant xenophobia than cosmopolitanism. So why on earth would the producers of 24 want to re-launch the series in The Big Smoke?

24 solves mystery of London's traffic problem.

24 solves mystery of London’s traffic problem.

Well, the official explanation is that setting Live Another Day in London pays tribute to the UK TV audiences and critics who championed 24 in its early years when the US was still ambivalent. The first and second seasons of 24 were essential cult viewing when they aired on the free-to-air channel BBC Two in the early 2000s, gaining a large and devoted viewership, incessant national media attention and even a digital BBC sister show in a mould recently revived by AMC’s Talking Dead. The Guardian’s TV critic Charlie Brooker even had to be asked by his editors to stop writing about the show in his weekly column. 24 was lost to the nation as a watercooler show once premium satellite channel Sky One bought the exclusive rights to air the series from season three onwards, but Britain doubtless helped to ensure renewal in the years before the show was a signature Fox mainstay, and became too big to cancel. If this is the case, then speaking for the entirety of the UK – which as an ex-pat I do daily – we’re flattered. But will Britain end up resenting 24 in a manner previously reserved for Dick Van Dyke?

Three episodes in, it’s too early to tell but the signs are encouraging. Live Another Day has so far conspicuously avoided the axis of bobbies, minis and red phone-boxes that still dominates the representation of Britain in American popular culture. Sometimes, it even looks like it was conceived by someone who knows London, or has at least obsessively Google-street-viewed it. The season premiere opened with an East-London street market scene that authentically captured the area’s large Asian population, a fact of our diversity that Americans often miss. Whether or not the Prime Minister would have been a caricature of the privileged classes anyway I’m not sure, but that’s what we currently have, and Stephen Fry’s neckless bumbler is a suitably Cameronesque figure. Apart from some tourist traps like assuming that someone could pursue a Tube train through Central London by driving, the show is pretty faithful to the city’s geography and infrastructure and, at the time of writing, we’ve seen way more of London’s liminal council estates and industrial wastelands than its tourist hardware. We don’t see natives often, but when we do they have the sarcasm and cynicism towards America’s intelligence melodrama that I expect from my fellow Britons.

Jack's in a pickle again!

Jack’s in a pickle again!

Sadly, the cinematographers have CSI’d the show’s colour palette, making London more grey than it actually is, which I didn’t think possible. As revelations about the origin of the attacks unfold, I’m beginning to worry that we’re about to be portrayed as a country that harbours and sympathises with middle-eastern terrorism, rather than one that benignly questions the motives of US foreign wars from time-to-time. Given 24’s scapegoating of anyone East of Alaska, I’m not sure those Asian and Eastern-European Londoners are going to stay innocent bystanders for long. Of course, this London layover is symptomatic of a broader reverse-colonization of American television by UK popular culture, with a quota of British acting in every new show. It comes at a time when Bravo is launching the reality show Ladies of London looking at the city’s transatlantic socialites. As self-appointed visual archive of the rich and famous, Bravo is hardly likely to offer us a London in accordance with social realities. Preview material of a barrow boy speaking entirely in cockney rhyming-slang more or less confirms this. So at a time when American TV is obsessing over Britain without ever attempting to understand it, should we be grateful for Jack?

Jumping Jacks & Sharks and Recreation

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, which is TV-speak for when something happens in a TV series that precludes any subsequent developments from being taken seriously. The term derives from a scene in the fifth-season premiere of 1950s-set American nostalgia sitcom Happy Days in which Dad-aged TV surrogate of cool The Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis. The phrase did not come into popular usage until the late 1990s – twenty years after the episode aired – when radio and web personality Jon Hein compiled a list of TV shows that declined badly in quality on his website jumptheshark.com. It’s been on my mind because the condition seemed to be peculiar to television series, especially the American ones that go on too long, and yet lately I’ve heard ‘jumping the shark’ used in connection to all walks of life. Also, there are some shows currently on the air that reminded me how easy it is to ‘jump the shark’. Can shark-jumping apply to anything but television and what does it mean for a TV show when that fin appears above the water?

Choppy Days!

Choppy Days!

First of all, it’s unfair to implicate Happy Days in this phraseology. People didn’t watch Happy Days for realism but rather nostalgia, kitsch and fun. The series always had room for flights of fancy, like the special science-fiction episode which introduced Robin Williams’ alien Mork to TV. If we were to go back and coin another phrase that better describes what we’re talking about, we might go instead with a reference to a show that genuinely lost its way. We could talk about TV shows that ‘found a dead man in the shower’, recalling the time that super-soap Dallas made an entire season worth of episodes a dream in order to bring star Patrick Duffy back from the dead as Bobby Ewing. The producers of Dallas forgot that just because melodrama isn’t always convincing, it can’t simply be nonsense. We might even say that a series has ‘won the Illinois lottery’ in lieu of the lottery win which made the working-class Conner family in the sitcom Roseanne into millionaires for the entirety of the final season, duly sabotaging the show’s uniquely stark and undiluted portrayal of blue-collar life.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron use ‘jumping the shark’ in reference to social media when describing the show’s ‘shirt on/shirt off’ Twitter voting campaign for one of its male dancers but not, strangely, when discussing the tanking ABC series Agents of Shield. In his casually amazing stand-up special Obsessed shown on Comedy Central over Easter, comedian Jim Gaffigan accused Yum Yum Donuts of ‘jumping the shark’ on business names. Apparently, the phrase has been widespread in media, business and politics for years now. There’s not really much you can do once a phrase has infiltrated popular culture (or we’d have redacted ‘selfie’ from history by now), but we should remember its roots in TV. TV shows don’t ‘jump the shark’ intentionally but as a symptom of a worn-out format, a capitulation of principles or a desperate need to survive. So much of American TV is about keeping shows on the air at any price and prolonging their natural lifespan that ‘jumping the shark’ is inevitable, and much more so than in other forms of culture.

Sitcom of the Future?

Sitcom of the Future?

Season six of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation recently had its finale and in its final few seconds arguably lost all credibility as a sitcom grounded in contemporary reality. From this point on, we’ll be watching a sitcom set in the projected near future, and nothing can undo that. This all happened for the sake of resolving story problems that the writers had themselves created and a few discontinuity gags. It’s pretty clear that a TV show doesn’t need a grandstanding spectacle to ‘jump the shark’; it can do it casually under viewers’ noses. This week marks the return of 24, which probably holds the water-speed record on shark-jumping throughout its previous eight seasons of amnesia, faked deaths, nukes and conspiracies. Yet audiences still bestow the show with the legitimacy that graced its first, and only truly believable, season. There are even websites that count the number of times a TV show has ‘jumped the shark’ during its run. Even though we may assume a show can’t come back from ‘jumping the shark’, clearly it can and we might just have to accept that it’s something that happens organically to TV shows.

Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

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