Archive for 30 rock

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.


Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

unbreakable 2

Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

Doctor in the White House

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

The opening two episodes of this season of Doctor Who took the show’s affinity with America to a whole new level. For decades now, Britain’s eccentric and long-winded answer to the 1960s US craze for science-fiction TV has had an eye towards American distribution both in its internal content and marketing strategies. But this offhand nodding exploded like a Steven Moffat logic bomb into full-blown obsession in a two-part series premiere set in various iconic landmarks of the USA (the White House, the American frontier) and featuring the disgrace-redemption axis President Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong’s historic foot, Christmas-cracker level gags about Watergate, people endlessly drawing guns, aliens and men in federal black tie, a Cold War throwback monsters-among-us storyline, a slow-moving NASA spacesuit with a Spielbergian ickle girl inside, badly timed and played presidential anthems performed by the starving man’s John Williams Murray Gold, an actor whose surname was ‘Baldwin’, and a man whose voice sounded like Christian Bale’s Batman being parodied by 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy.

Doctor Who in the USA

Amy Across the Pond

Broadcast merely hours after the UK showings and co-produced by BBC America, the series was heavily previewed and publicised both on the channel (including a daylong marathon of the previous season) and throughout cable on-demand services. Special efforts were made to provide American-English translations for British-English nouns, suggesting a sycophancy about attracting US audiences (who I would argue like the show precisely because it’s not indigenous to America) not seen since the Sting-song superficial US crossover Doctor Who movie in 1996. Rather than find common ground through a mean or median word, as is usually done (the ‘marrow’ dilemma facing Wallace & Gromit, for instance) certain lines were re-played in American-English (e.g. ‘Where’s the toilet?’/‘For God’s sake take her to the restroom’), further weighing down and stalling an already leaden and repetitive script. There also seemed to be concern about US viewers coming into the show for the first time (not that long-time UK viewers are able to follow this season any better!) and each opening credits sequence was prefixed by a voiceover by Karen Gillan as Amy Pond orienting new viewers in the world of the show since Matt Smith’s first episode. While this has the feel and tone of Moffat’s Doctor Who, and is consistent with the themes of fairytale and prophecy he rams into the show like a sleeping bag into a holder, this recalls the hated Howard Da Silva voiceovers that American purchasers TimeLife tacked on to the beginning of episodes in the ’70 US airings that fans of the show protested against vigorously as a too dry overspoonfeeding jarring with the mysterious pleasures of the programme.

The Doctor and Young Amelia

The BBC America Voiceover recalls this meeting

Documentary guides to the show’s history were also broadcast on BBC America in the few days prior to the premiere. A tremendously good idea, I thought. This was until I realised the BBC were trying to create the impression that the show began in 2005, which was previously a producer-institutional policy (related to increasing the market for DVD sales, I suspect) synonymous with the tenure of executive producer Russell T Davies to wipe knowledge and information about past programmes (and, crucially, how good they were) from viewer’s memories or desires. I thought we’d got over this as Moffat and the BBC started to gradually acknowledge the show’s colossal backcatalogue of actors and serials. But apparently this was deemed to be the most easy and convenient way to market this two-part special to new US audiences which not only impoverishes the memory of this hugely significant piece of our art, culture and entertainment but also insults the plethora of US viewers who remember and treasure the show from their youths. An unignorable difference between watching Doctor Who on UK TV and on BBC America is the commercial breaks. The show airs on non-commercial channel BBC One in the UK and therefore runs without interruption whereas BBC America has the regulation set of commercial interludes (although seemingly less than on a network channel). While I thought BBC America did admirably with placing these breaks in moments of high suspense the cut-away to commercial from shock moments of danger reduced the show’s effectiveness as a piece of horror, in episodes that already, despite their tantalising combination of creepy elements, didn’t add up to much in the scare stakes. It was a shame also that the over-complicated and now routinely unfathomable story arc somewhat compromised the show’s portrayal of a pre-Watergate Nixon. There was a fascinating debate to be had about his legacy condensed irritatingly into a few (now signature) clipped Moffat-written exchanges.

Turn over to my previous post on Doctor Who here.

A Word from our Sponsors

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2011 by Tom Steward

‘Why are we sitting here watching commercials?’ asks C, G housemate, and it’s a fair old point. In the UK it’s pretty obvious when adverts are about to come up, and programmers gently ease viewers in to the transition. On UStelevision, commercials abruptly cut into programmes, taking out lines and ends of scenes like a poltergeist script editor. Commercials even interrupt themselves, making it impossible to concentrate on the most fleeting of promotional programming, and the commercials don’t stop when the programme proper begins either. Fictions feature promotional considerations where brand products are used somewhere in the narrative, often very wittily, as in 30 Rock which continually satirizes NBC’s prostitution by consumer goods conglomerates.

Non-fiction does a lot of straight-to-camera advertising, as shows suddenly stop mid-item and become an infomercial for weight-loss pills, again making it impossible to separate programme and commercial. US TV commercials are more like web pop-ups or computer viruses, something that intrudes on and pervades your media experience when you least want it to. Consequently, whole media industries and online communities have emerged to allow viewers to speed through commercials (video on demand, cheat sites for skipping commercials on TiVos).

TiVo Ad Skips

Websites teach you how to skip ads on TiVo

Though eminently frustrating, commercials have historically been a huge part of the development of American television and shouldn’t be lambasted outright. In the 1950s US TV producers and writers had to fit content around roughly three interludes per hour for sponsor messages and it was this that helped TV develop as a unique art form different from theatre or cinema. For instance, the dramatic arc of TV anthology plays had to accommodate breaks in the flow and therefore TV drama became characterized by sharp cliffhanger rises in suspense or action every 10 or so minutes. They are also an unignorable part of the ritual of watching TV. I remember an episode of teen girl comedy Blossom where  father Ted goes to pee saying ‘and now a word from our sponsors’. This excerpt shows us in the pithiest (or pissiest) way possible that commercials are ways of TV serving people’s biological needs for food, drink and bodily functions. And we love them as much as we do our own gluttonies, addictions and excretions. I have a couple of favourites at the moment. The first is a cycle of commercials for Chantix, a give-up smoking pharmaceutical.

It used to be the case that US drug commercials would deliver the small-print about side-effects and defects in an indecipherably fast voiceover in the last second or so of the commercial, which has been brilliantly parodied (like virtually all TV absurdities) by The Simpsons’ distressingly accurate mock-ups of network advertising. It felt like a corporate conspiracy to cover-up the serious health risks associated with particular products and this is probably why such information is now given in a more leisurely manner, taking up the majority of the commercial and repeated almost verbatim at the end. Unfortunately, this only makes the drugs sound more life-threatening as an exhaustive list of possible ailments like kidney failure, heart attacks, respiratory problems, skin blemishes (and my personal favourite ‘unusual dreams’) is rolled out over soft piano on-hold music, a sickeningly inappropriate and seemingly endless concoction of words and sounds which suggests the pain will never end after taking Chantix. Plus the commercials are usually predicated on an irresolvable tautology that sounds like a Zen saying designed to separate mind from body such as: ‘Do you want to give up smoking without giving up smoking?’. Yes, Chantix is apparently not just a wonder-drug but a porthole into an alternative universe of Marxist dialectic or, if that’s too posh a reference for you, the Bizarro World. The second is a set of commercials for Poise, a pad designed to counter bladder control problems in women featuring Whoopi Goldberg.

Commercials are so often about hiding embarrassing problems or anxieties with advertisers and companies preying on insecurities to sell products vaunted as paper-over-the-crack solutions (no pun intended). But this commercial tries to comfort people who suffer from these ailments, reassuring them that it’s completely normal (1 in 3 women have had it at some time) and, importantly, that it can be funny, with Whoopi’s pleasingly infantile ‘spritzer’ noises. There’s something cathartic about the ‘fart is funny’ silliness of this commercial that I imagine would be a tremendous release for those suffering from this ailment. Its bluntness also says something about the aggressive cajoling of US TV commercials and how it can be used in a more positive way.

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