Archive for abc

Baking The Waves

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Touring TV, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not an unreasonable assumption that Americans prefer to know about Britain’s heritage than the way it is today. So it will come as no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that a Great British Bake-Off spin-off (which can be contracted to The Great British Bake-Off) called The Great Holiday Baking Show is airing on ABC primetime over the Christmas season. The Great British Bake-Off is a cooking competition celebrating British culinary traditions against a landscape idealizing Britain as the green and pleasant land of yore replete with signifiers of our imperial past, like the bunting-lined parties we used to host for wartime victories and royal events. Though if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that cultural fascination has triumphed over commercial interest, it’s worth remembering that in the UK this year the finale of The Great British Bake-Off was the most-watched program of the year, that past seasons of the show currently occupy peak Sunday airtime on PBS, and that a US version of the format called The American Baking Competition debuted in 2013 but was cancelled within a year following poor ratings. It’s both too lucrative and too particular to attempt anything other than a spin-off.

Bake Britain

Bake Britain

Americanizing the brand has proved difficult. PBS had to re-name the US airings The Great British Baking Show not because of cultural misunderstandings – as surely ‘Bake-Off’ is a term friendlier to the American spirit of competition than ours of miserable make-do – but America’s corporate hegemony. Girth-romanticising pastry company Pilsbury hold the trademark to the name ‘Bake-Off’ since it is the name of their patented annual cooking contest. The American Baking Competition continued the tradition of American reboots of British reality shows exporting celebrity judges, but it backed the wrong horse. Perhaps they were expecting some latent movie star glamour to suddenly burst forth from baker Paul Hollywood when he was brought into geographical proximity with his namesake – or more likely they wanted another British villain – but there was less gel than the sour scouse keeps in his hair when they brought him into the show. Though far sweeter and lacking the negativity that reality TV bottom-feeds off, The Great Holiday Baking Show has made a far better choice in calling upon veteran food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry to handle the judging, especially since any successful translation of the format requires as much exploitation of British icons as possible.

As is usually the case in television, the biggest factor affecting the success of The Great Holiday Baking Show is time. The Great British Bake-Off is shown over ten weeks and, while it is clear from the preponderance of sunlight and the frequently-used excuse of it being a ‘hot day’ that it is filmed in Summer, the baking is not linked to any particular season of the year. As the title states, The Great Holiday Baking Show is very clearly themed around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to reflect the period of the calendar year in which most baking is done and/or consumed in the US. The producers have evidently latched on to the seasonality of baking as justification for a short-run December-long series which also conveniently prevents them from having to commit to a full season in programming terms. Conversely, the configuration of cake-eating with sunny countryside settings in the British original has almost made it seem like an exclusively Summer activity in the UK, not a happy by-product of taking refuge from the cold of Autumn and Winter as it is in the US. Finding what is culturally equivalent about an imported show is often the key.

Baking in the Free World!

Baking in the Free World!

The subject matter and presentation of The Great British Bake-Off is twee and backwards but it gestures to the diversity of post-colonial Britain. Though by no means proportional, there is a range of ethnic, racial, sexual and regional representation in the contestant base. To wit, the 2015 winner was Nadiya Jamir Hussein, a British-Bengali women identifying as a Muslim. I’m glad to see that The Great Holiday Baking Show has followed in these footsteps, though in both cases it’s difficult to tell whether this is selection strategy or merely that it’s an inclusive enough application process for minorities to make it through. What makes the difference is the ability to use the original format and continue to have Mary Berry on board, although why they would make her a judge for an American spin-off only to patronise her like a cigar store Indian in a parallel universe is beyond me.

 

Network Failure

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels with tags , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one problem that ABC have – apart from being a Big Three network in an era of digital multiplatforming – it’s authenticity. For two years in a row, debuting primetime offerings from the network have been pulled up for artificially rendering their source material. The complaints are as much from authors as critics. Second-generation Chinese-American restauranteur, writer and cultural activist Eddie Huang laid in to the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat based on his memoir of the same name for reverting to ethnic and racial stereotype in its depiction of a Chinese immigrant family settling in 1990s Orlando. Though credited as a producer and a narrator for the pilot season, Eddie has continually spoken against the homogenising and caricaturing of his life and people by the show’s writers and producers, as well as the network itself. Having read his memoir, it’s certainly no exaggeration that the events of Eddie’s life have been sanitised, his political views marginalized, and his experience of growing up in America made secondary to the demands of a family sitcom.

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Flash-forward one year and critics are saying the same about The Muppets, ABC’s TV revival of the vaudevillian puppet characters owned by parent company Disney. While the two Disney movies that rebooted the Muppet franchise were highly regarded returns to the original talent show premise, the sitcom that followed revisited the characters in a behind-the-scenes mockumentary format replete with self-consciously adult humour. It’s no Meet the Feebles but nor it is the family-oriented and friendly fare we’re used to. Retrofitting Muppets like Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzy Bear into a Larry Sanders-style sitcom has meant the libidinal and laconic sides of these characters – which were traditionally alluded-to, offscreen things – have come to the fore, and long-time Muppet aficionados have questioned the connection between the current and original incarnations. Again, it’s hard to disagree. The Muppets were always meant to appeal to adults, but not solely, and usually as a by-product of their pan-familial ambitions. The idea that Jim Henson’s ensemble are able to compliment twisted modern comedy is cross-breeding even he would balk it.

Inauthentic? Yes. But worthless? Absolutely not. The sitcom variation on Fresh off the Boat may be far too cosy to do justice to the raw and acerbic memoir it was inspired by, but it is has never shied from addressing questions of race and assimilation. Last week’s episode filtered its discussion of Chinese media self-representation through the ghost of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, seen here as the gold standard of racist Asian stereotype in American popular culture. Occasionally, too, a fiercer take on caucasian culture and community reminiscent of Eddie’s own bleeds through, as when Grandma Huang casually remarks on the subject of family relations, that white people ‘are the cruellest race’. Though the format is familiar, the content is often challenging and we don’t forget about the problem of difference. There’s universality to the representation of the latter-day immigrant experience that even G, a Mexican-American, recognizes. To his credit, Eddie is gracious enough to admit that this universality is not altogether a bad thing, just that it lacks the reality he knows.

Though some of ABC’s The Muppets is like watching your parents make out (or worse!), I’ve enjoyed a lot of the writing that uncovers the parts of Muppet culture that previously remained – mostly for reasons of censorship – latent. Whether it’s the band’s unspoken pot habit finally exhaling it’s now-legal name or the romantic truth behind the sado-masochistic relationship between Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Burner, you might also say that in more progressive, accepting times, it’s the obvious way for the characters to go. Speaking of diversity, it’s been a pleasure to see Pepe the Prawn, a Latin Muppet, get some much-deserved screen time, including some of the show’s best dialogue. Having had an episode order trimmed severely and their showrunner leave after a single season, it seems as though the network is not happy, or at least buckling under the heavy criticism, much of it from parents and conservatives concerned about the sitcom contaminating the moral fibre of the Muppet brand. I’d disagree with them anyway, but objectively the transgressive stuff is still done tastefully.

The Writer's Room!

The Writer’s Room!

I’m not completely sold on either of these shows. Fresh off the Boat made father Louis Huang a virtual replica of Phil Dunphy instead of a progressively contradictory character while The Muppets has some of the worst qualities of the navel-gazing industry mockumentary tradition. But they make their own reality.

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.

Live Day-to-Day

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s been a long time since American television was purely live but it’s still an everyday part of broadcasting. Amidst the cycle of breakfast shows, daytime chat shows, primetime entertainment and 24-hour rolling news and shopping, there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day that there isn’t some kind of live TV on the air. We know from experience that live broadcasting can be one of the most powerful, significant and thrilling forms of TV. Live television has been agent and witness to cataclysmic political changes. It made and then ruined Nixon, and then made and ruined him again. We saw the Republicans’ chances of electoral success in 2012 vanish in real time at the GOP conference as Clint Eastwood decided to go off-script and do X-rated versions of his Bob Newhart and Jimmy Stewart impressions. There are other world and universe-changing events witnessed on live TV I should mention – like 9/11 and the Moon landings – but…dude was talking to a chair! There’s no greater potential for surprise, shock and error in television than in a live broadcast, and that unpredictability carries a nervous energy that is utterly exhilarating. And we get it uncensored and first-hand.

I’m reminding myself of what live TV is capable of because, if the past week is anything to go by, American TV has forgotten. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the local Los Angeles TV station KTLA breakfast show reacted to a mid-size earthquake that happened live-on-air by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under a desk until it had subsided. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I would have done anything different in this situation, even if I had been trained to keep going. But is there any point continuing to broadcast live if all we’re going to get is dead air, an empty studio and the terrified ramblings of presenters so shaken up by the event they can offer no meaningful information about it? Anchors on the other affected TV stations may have stayed calmer, but they didn’t do much better reporting the earthquake. Deprived of information, hindsight and proportion, presenters on Fox 5 and CBS 2 were left with the remnants of a child’s vocabulary. It was ‘big’. It was ‘large’. Some over-achiever even called it ‘strong’. They might have learned something about the conditions that Fox News anchors work under every day, but we learnt nothing.

If you wanted to watch the television equivalent of muscle-wastage, then you needn’t have looked further than what CNN put on in relation to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last week. Either the ‘Breaking News’ button was being used as a coaster for an unwanted drink for the past week, or the network genuinely thought the FBI acquisition of a flight simulator recording from the pilot’s home was some kind of crucial development in the story. Cue hours and hours of wild speculation about the significance of the simulator’s data, even after repeated protestation from the featured experts that conjectures about the pilot’s role in the hi-jacking could be argued any which way. It took former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children, to tell us that the only thing we all could do was to guess. At one point, a pilot sat in a flight simulator and took viewers step-by-step through a scenario that he had entirely invented in his head. Not even the ‘Screen of Souls’ had an answer to free them from their suspended animations in a video monitor bank.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

Maybe the problem is that news reporting has too big a burden of information for continuous live coverage to carry. If so, then putting on a 2-hour entertainment programme that’s been on TV for years live should be a doddle, right? Well, not if it’s Dancing with the Stars. ABC’s primetime dance competition returned for a new season last Monday night with a re-booted format. But it was the basics of live television that the show tripped up on. The studio audience couldn’t be subdued for long enough to hear the judges’ notes on the dances. New co-host Erin Andrews comes from live stadium sportscasting and you would expect her to be adept handling live TV in the presence of spectators, but she kept overrunning, miscuing and recoiling from the audience’s spontaneous reactions. When live TV runs up against the clock and threatens to fall apart, we get a certain thrill as viewers. But it’s a fine line that if overstepped results in sheer incomprehensibility. It’s one of the qualities that makes TV so much more special than other forms of entertainment; yet live broadcasting in America is languishing. Abused, misused, and squandered, live TV barely deserves the name anymore.

Oscar The Couch

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last Sunday was the first time I’ve watched the Academy Awards ceremony on TV live and continuously from start to finish. In Britain, the time difference means that if you want to watch the Oscars you have to stay up all night, which sounds fun but in reality resembles an inventive form of torture designed to give the re-opening of Gitmo some Hollywood pizzazz. In recent years, the ceremony hasn’t even been broadcast live on any of the UK’s free-to-air channels but rather on subscription-only cable movie channels as if it were an experimental art film where people open envelopes for five hours.

This year’s Oscars were so chocked full of embarrassing gaffes and faux pas that I was able to see the value of watching the ceremony as it went out. Not that the cringing diminishes upon repeat viewing after the fact, far from it in the case of John Travolta, whose creation of an entirely new name for singer Idina Menzel was prefixed with ‘one and only…’. But there’s something uniquely thrilling about seeing these disasters as they unfold in front of the world in the knowledge that they cannot be taken back or censored (even though anything truly provocative would be edited out with delayed transmission).

But this year TV wasn’t just the relay of the Oscars, it was part of it. Host Ellen DeGeneres is a creature born of television, with her celebrity coming entirely from talk shows and sitcoms, and Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey (not a typo, time travellers from the 1990s!) was awarded as much for his part in the celebrated HBO cop series True Detective than his underwhelming (in every sense of the word) performance in The Dallas Buyer’s Club. TV’s assured standing in America both culturally and artistically seems to be getting harder and harder for the Academy of Motion Pictures to ignore each year.

‘I’d like to thank television’

2014 also marked the year that the Oscars took note of the long-standing links between TV and the internet. Of course the web has been reporting news from the Oscars as it happens for decades now, but the Academy’s publicists are finally coming to realise that this is happening in tandem with the live TV coverage and not necessarily in a vacuum from it. This was the first year that Oscars’ coverage was offered as a live internet stream on the ABC website, a long overdue acknowledgement of how TV can be watched without a TV. DeGeneres’ Twitter-breaking celebrity selfie perfectly complimented the live-tweeting of the TV broadcast.

Even with the slightly more sociable option of live-pausing – for those that have a cable service – the five to six hours of television that the Oscars eats into can still be a slog if you’re going all the way to the Governor’s Ball. Television is medium of repetition to be sure, but even it cannot contain the mechanical monotony of the ceremony and the grinding formula of its acceptance speeches. The land of series marathons and genre channels is still not able to cope with the conformity that the Oscars produce. TV’s unending transmission is about the only way a bloated ceremony like the Oscars could be brought to the world but they’re still pushing at the limits of what even the most entrenched TV viewer can handle.

Oscars Admits Internet Exists!

TV gets its money’s worth either side of the ceremony as well. 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?’. Following the ceremony, various incarnations of Ryan Seacrest try to get the clearly traumatised Oscar guests to talk about what they witnessed before they repress it forever. Then there are the Oscar-themed talk shows and post-show analysis programmes. It’s past midnight before anyone in TV admits there is a world outside the Dolby Theatre. It’s surprising that politicians aren’t block-booking venues for press conferences on embarrassing indiscretions all day on Oscar Sunday.

Despite these torments, I’d watch the whole thing through again next year. It certainly beats trying to piece together fragments of information about what happened from rolling news stations the next day, which tends to take the same amount of time as the live coverage anyway. And now that TV is playing a far bigger role in the Oscars than ever before, it’s the obvious place to start.

Viewer Discretion Televised

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reality TV, TV advertising, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

There can be little doubt that the internet has become the established medium for pornography or that TV with its subscription-based, restricted-run porn provision wouldn’t rival its online competitor which boasts free use and plentiful content. But as we’ve seen with TV’s co-opting of Twitter as an advertising platform, television is not above appropriating an online success story to secure its place in the ever-growing media marketplace, and there’s no success as runaway as internet porn. Because of the moral, political and religious imperatives of broadcasting regulations, putting pornography on television has always been problematic. It might slip through the net as the accidental by-product of experimental art or adult drama or a moment of bravado in a piece of titillating entertainment, but would rarely go unchecked or unchallenged. The more serious pursuit of pornography can be found in the pay TV channels available on the much less regulated satellite, cable and digital services as well as some of the content on graveyard networks at an appropriately late time of day, although this is porn in a modified form suitable for TV that’s much lighter on the graphic side that the equivalent in other media. In short, pornography is always fighting a losing battle with TV. Of course this doesn’t preclude TV from taking lessons in how the porn industry puts bare bums in seats.

This is about as pornographic as it gets on Showtime Preview!

Why am I talking so much about porn? It’s because I’ve started to notice how much American TV takes from pornography. For all the reasons listed above, most TV is not explicitly pornographic but neither is it free from the influence of porn in how it advertises, entertains and lures its audience. I have an internet TV hub and recently noticed there was an application called ‘Showtime Preview’ which ran free season premieres from the subscription network. I wanted to watch the first episode of Season 3 of the industry sitcom Episodes. Since this was a promotional device designed to draw me in to starting a series and getting a network subscription to keep watching, I was surprised when the episode was edited to remove all violence, sex, nudity and swearing, which you might say are Showtime’s unique selling points. But I was taken aback when a sex scene with blurred images of nudity and intercourse bore a caption at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Want to see what you’re missing?’ followed by a subscription link. The very point was to withhold all the explicit content of Showtime’s programmes that couldn’t be aired on network or basic cable TV and then wield it as capital for subscribing. This is exactly how the porn industry incites users to upgrade from softcore teasers to hardcore features.

It’s not TV it’s HB-ho!

The more I thought about, the less right I had to be surprised. Hadn’t HBO – the city on the hill of quality TV – pulled exactly the same trick when wooing subscribers? The difference between HBO and other TV wasn’t just quality and sophistication of programming but explicit representations of sex, violence, nudity and swearing. Often there isn’t even the cultural cache to justify such excess. For every self-legitimating spectacle of obscenity like the artful, challenging The Sopranos there’s pure exploitation like sex industry documentary G-String Divas. HBO is hardly ashamed. The title sequence to prison drama Oz packed as much blood, gore, sex acts and intimate body parts as it could into a minute and a half montage. There’s even an in-joke in Oz making it clear the network are aware of their pornographic reputation, as inmates start receiving HBO and cheer in unison as G-String Divas airs.

ABC launches new Bachelor sex cam.

Networks like HBO and Showtime operate in a very similar way to subscription porn channels so we shouldn’t be too surprised when their marketing techniques overlap. But what about network TV, which claims to disavow any resemblance to pornography with its excessive and self-righteous censorship of content? The Bachelor: Sean and Catherine’s Wedding in which two former contestants were married live on air did all it could within broadcasting regulations to make viewers at home visualise the couple’s wedding night in graphic detail. A live camera feed reminiscent of a sex webcam was set on the bed in Sean and Catherine’s honeymoon suite throughout the ceremony. The pre-recorded wedding build-up centred on the wedding night, including Sean shopping for titillating lingerie and Catherine posing for a wedding gift of boudoir photographs. The strong feeling was that if ABC could have kept the cameras rolling into the night, they definitely would.

TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

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. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

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