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Back to Reality

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

Despite the name, reality TV is unflinching in its adherence to the conventions of their rigid formats. It’s tantalising when a reality TV show throws out those conventions but then doubly deflating when they still manage to collapse under the crushing weight of formula after deviating from format. Breaking with convention has also become a branding strategy for many reality shows (especially the long-running ones) so it becomes difficult to separate an experimentation with format from marketing bullshit. I’ve encountered a couple of instances of this recently. Celebrity Wife Swap is the US version of a European reality format in which the long-term partners of male celebrities exchange lives for a week. The latest season began with an episode that changed the rules of the game significantly and almost to the point of abstraction. Instead of men swapping partners it was the women that exchanged their significant other, who were also women. The partners were not romantic peers but live-in blood relatives, and different relations on each side. Comedienne and broadcaster Joan Rivers took in Bristol Palin, reality-star celebrity daughter of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, while Rivers’ daughter, TV producer Melissa Rivers, went to live with Willow Palin, Bristol’s sister.

You’re my wife/daughter/sister now!

This loose interpretation of the format may have been motivated simply by the draw of the personalities involved and the prospect of an entertaining confrontation between Joan Rivers and Bristol Palin after Rivers’ frequent jokes about the Dancing with the Stars contestant’s weight in the press. But the sister and daughter swap had the potential to undercut the patriarchy of the format and suggest alternative living arrangements or definitions of family (alas none of them gay or friendship-based). It also promised that something different would happen, since the roles of daughter and sister are so incongruous and the impact of exchanging family members unknown territory. Somehow the formula of reality TV resisted these challenges from the reality of family life to reproduce the same outcomes. The couples struggled to understand each other, they seem like they will never overcome their differences, then they do, quickly, saving recriminations for their own spouse and ending with the promise of the couple having a better relationship in the future because of the experience. The peculiar dynamics of the relationships seem to make no difference-be it sibling parents or inter-generational mothers-and are entirely secondary to ticking these boxes every week, more Bruckheimer than Broomfield.

Families are all the same…or they will be by the time we’re done.

This year’s season of The Bachelorette was billed by host Chris Harrison as having the ‘most dramatic finale ever’. Even the studio audience balked at that. By the host’s own admission, all season finales are preceded by puffed-up rhetoric promising shocking and surprising twists and turns in the normal course of the show, with a gap between promise and outcome big enough to make it a standing joke with viewers. Last year the final episode of The Bachelorette was cut in half by the contestant choosing her partner early. This was a departure from format that seemed to suggest that contestants were able to mould the conventions of the programme to their desires rather than being cogs in a media machine. But the disruption also annoyed viewers by eliminating the suspense built into the final stages of the competition. It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it. This year’s season finale had nothing to live up to and everything to prove. It had to stick to the format to the bitter end while looking like it was a breakthrough moment.

‘Keep crying…we’ve got an hour to fill’

Like last year’s finale, the competitive element was jettisoned when eponymous bachelorette Desiree was dumped by her first choice and forwarded the rejection to her most ardent admirer, leaving only one suitor in the running. The finale was split into two parts making a cliffhanger out of the dumping, which only intensified the feeling that Desiree was going home with nothing (excuse the language of commodity exchange but this is basically a game show with prizes). The suspense of the finale strategically shifted to speculation that Desiree’s first choice would return to make a two-horse race and doubts over whether she would accept a proposal from her Plan B. The proposal happened, she accepted, and the other man in her life didn’t come back to complicate things. It almost seems like the opposite of drama to me, and as conventional an outcome as could be mustered. The viewer was not as cheated by the rhetoric as before but only because the reveal was better paced not because it broke free of the restraints of format. It feels like reality TV shows have become propaganda films for their own formats, defending their orthodoxy against any challenges the outside world might bring.

For an account of TV in 799 less words, follow @TVinaword on Twitter…

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TV Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve been (hardly) working my way through Breaking Bad, one of the more remarkable American TV shows of our time, and one of the most striking features of the series is its timeframe. Eschewing the TV rule of thumb that the time onscreen runs parallel with the duration of the initial broadcast, all 5 seasons of AMC’s family crime dramedy take place over the course of a couple of years (there’s a few episodes left but all indications are we’ll go no further ahead than that) effectively making the series a period piece by the time it finishes in 2013. This jeopardises Breaking Bad’s plausibility. The tectonic shifts in character and flurry of cataclysmic events which transform a high school chemistry teacher into an international druglord would be far more credible if spread over a vast number of years. Inside an 18-month window, it puts the series in the realms of bizarre melodrama. We also can’t take what happens to the characters as development as no-one has the luxury of time for any significant growth to occur. Instead, we’re witnessing how the cast of characters react to crises and trauma and watching them expose the existing depths of their personalities.

From Walter White to Heisenberg…in a year?

The time we watch TV is regulated and ongoing so it’s natural for most shows to try and match this for the sake of minimum disruption. Look how seasons of The Office begin with a re-cap of what happened to the characters during the Summer, when the show was off-air, simply to remind audiences that the onscreen and offscreen time syncs up and that the hiatus experienced by viewers was simultaneously endured by the characters. It’s especially important to make sure TV shows can capitalise on seasonally themed episodes (Christmas, Halloween) by juxtaposing them with the time they occur in the real world. Deviating from this scheduling ritual is a source of much innovation and originality in US TV. Unconventional uses of time can be the difference between cliché-ridded formula fare and mould-breaking masterpiece. People were happy to forget what a laboured potboiler 24 was because of its real-time season-as-a-day format and that the non-linear point-of-view narrated Boomtown was just another cancellation fodder cop show. It can even just be temporary relief from a format that is grindingly rigid in how it treats time. Brain-sparing cause-and-effect procedural CSI frequently throws in a flashback or reverse episodes to break the monotony.

Cliche + Time = 24

In a show like Breaking Bad, quirky time management isn’t the first blow of brilliance hitting you over the head but more like a gentle pat on the shoulder reassuring you of quality. If timing is the most noticeable characteristic of a programme, then chances are it will be a fast-fading novelty. 24 lasted 10 years on air but no-one in TV seems especially interested in using its format again. Boomtown was cancelled after 2 seasons once all possibilities of fragmented viewpoint-driven storytelling had been exhausted. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the entirety of Twin Peaks and Deadwood without acknowledging how each episode crafts its multiple storylines into one day’s worth of time and lose nothing of their artistic brilliance. Indeed it seems perfectly in tune with Twin Peaks’ satire of soap opera and tendency towards the supernaturally fantastic that such an overwhelming wealth of events occur in a ludicrously short space of time. More than that, equating a single episode with 1 day has subsequently become TV’s way of making it seem like it’s running alongside everyday life. Unlike the patchy coverage we get from calendar-linked shows, here we never miss a minute of the action.

30 Days in the Life of Twin Peaks

It would be wrong to assume that US TV shows deal with time in a way that is abstract or avant-garde. Even the most altered state of TV time is highly structured and controlled. The dream world of Twin Peaks may have ruptured the show’s real world chronology but it was only ever there in the first place to plug a gap in the middle of the screenplay of the pilot. The spread of TV might be amorphous and ever-expanding but individual programmes and their runs are tightly timetabled and time within them needs to follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the innovations of time in TV storytelling have complimented the scheduling of the programme. US TV dramas are an hour fitted into a run of 21-25 hence a thriller set over 24 hours with each episode an hour. So is Breaking Bad doing something genuinely outlandish? Time will tell.

 

All the Single Maybes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

Most American TV is so chaste it makes me feels like I hail from a nation of sexual deviants. If Jersey Shore recalls the buffoonish innocence of an end-of-run episode of Saved by the Bell, the UK version Geordie Shore is more like the grim disillusion of Screech’s sex tape. A lot of this is down to repressive censorship practices in US network television, not to mention the deeply conservative corporate owners of some stations. But TV tends not to reflect the openness towards sex in American popular culture. Comparatively there is far more sexual repression in British attitudes, and this comes out in my vehemently prudish reaction to ABC’s The Bachelorette. Like most of the over-50 relatives that feature in the later stages of the programme, I’m uneasy with the way the show’s design promotes promiscuity whilst pushing the dogma of monogamy-as if one leads naturally to the other.

Does he have brown hair?

As The Bachelor/ette is one of the few hit US reality series that doesn’t have a British doppelganger, some introduction is required. Basically, it’s a dating version of Guess Who? Each year, one man or woman (increasingly a contestant from previous years) goes through a seemingly endless 10-week process in which they have multiple dates in various spots across the country and globe with several members of the opposite sex who run the gamut from bland to unhinged. As the series goes on, the eponymous singleton eliminates one or a couple of contestants per week by denying them a rose like some demented flower Nazi. After weeks of simultaneous and group dating-in which the show begins to eerily resemble the scene list from a porn movie-the pool is whittled down to two, until a winner emerges and becomes a fiancé. It’s a perfectly normal road to marriage…if you’re James Bond.

No Rose For You!!!

It’s now a cliché of the white noise surrounding the programme that romantic relationships between the contestants are doomed to failure. The marriages are reality TV versions of shotgun weddings, with a digital video camera with high colour contrast aimed at the grooms’ heads instead of a firearm. No-one involved with the show ever seems to attribute this to the fact that the participant is compelled to split their affections equally across partners or that the series gives the contestant a chance to try out each of the four finalists sexually in turn in the sleazily-named ‘fantasy suite’-another nod to the conventions of the sex industry. The situation flatters the producers immensely, with post-publicity in the tabloid scrutiny of the couple’s troubles and splits keeping the brand visible out-of-season. It also makes a hoard of familiar show faces single again, putting them back in the rotation for future series.

Back for a second time!

The bravado and the carefree playfulness of the contestants in the first few weeks are all well and good. But it’s when the contestants start to declare their love for each other and meet their respective families that the façade of true romance starts to look as false as the Vegas-Roman pillars that replace load-bearing walls in reality shows. As if anyone with an ounce of self-respect would continue to go through the motions of a game show with someone they cared for that deeply. It’s hard to accept that the contestants’ families would be comfortable consenting to their loved one being exposed to so much hurt. The show gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of suggesting in the editing that the parents will object to their child’s pluralistic attitude towards love. With some judicious, Bravo-style shot displacement, however, this all seems to come up dung-smelling roses in the end.

Daughter Ricki-the most talked-about child on TV

This past season of The Bachelorette threw a human-shaped spanner in the works. Competitor Emily, a former show winner whose relationship had ended, was now in the driving seat with her pick of suitors. Those in contention for the fantasy suite decided it was too tawdry, not least because Emily has a young daughter at home. Once Emily recognised compatibility and fatherly qualities in Jeff-albeit not before the final show-she ended the competition and sent other potential fiancé, Ari, home. So has the programme finally gained self-awareness about its detrimental effect on long-term relationships? Not exactly. The finale was roundly ridiculed-even by other network shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!-for killing the tension of a closing rose ceremony and effectively ending a half-hour early. ABC’s salvage operation centred on promoting Bachelor Pad, a spin-off set seemingly entirely in the fantasy suite with partners for everyone! It’s the Bachelor/ette without piety.

Sitcommunication

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

Those looking for objectivity in this blog (if they’ve ever found it) will be sorely disappointed by this post. The attachment I have to the programme I’m writing about today cannot be quantified by my predilection for well-made, heartwarming American sitcoms. Everything I think about it has something to do with the way I feel about the person who is my life. So my account of watching it is also a story of how I found love in a strange land I’d known all my life. It’s not unknown for me to remember the past through American TV. Memories of my early life are intertwined with images of American family sitcoms. I now see my upbringing through the prism of Roseanne and The Cosby Show. In the future when I look back on this past year, and the love that has changed my life, I know there will be a little bit of Modern Family mixed in.

The Cast of Modern Family

A diverse and tradition-defying family

In the irksome tradition of G introducing me to and then lambasting me for not knowing American TV shows that she (and I secretly also) think should be a part of my mental archive (‘How can you call yourself a Doctor of American TV and have never seen Full House?’) and because of Rupert Murdoch’s caste system for imported TV that puts US shows in the unreachable noble classes, I was first shown Modern Family on US network TV during the virtual epoch that is Halloween in the States. The Halloween episode is usually a low point for the American sitcom, a season nadir where character and story get pushed aside by wardrobe people indulging in their own sweep stakes week. But even this seasonal pageantry couldn’t disguise its obvious quality. And it was pretty obvious from the outset that this sitcom was going to be for and about me and G. But more of that later; what is this show that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t want you to not to pay to have to see?

Modern Family is ABC’s answer to the NBC mockumentary sitcom, with the same vague sense of a documentary film crew presence, interludes of straight-to-camera interviews and frequent acknowledgements of the camera. It re-imagines the American family as diverse and tradition-defying; made up of interracial spouses and families, gay couples with adopted children, and multiple divorces and remarriages. While it gets a lot of comic mileage out the cultural and character clashes that inevitably result, it never rests on its concept or lets its formula become obvious. This is largely because of the sharp and clever writing with quality character gags fired out at screwball rhythms and preconceptions about stock characters upturned with them losing their pleasing familiarity. The show has a healthy sense of slapstick and appetite for absurd coincidences, a combination which echoes cutting-edge sitcoms like Arrested Development and Curb your Enthusiasm.

Despite its representational radicalism and fashionable form, the show’s strengths are quite traditional ones. It is frequently and unashamedly heartwarming, a quality all family sitcoms should have in some measure lest they leave a gaping hole of humanity at their centre in the manner of Family Guy. It is also a very conventional sitcom in many ways. The casting of Ed O’Neill, formerly America’s premier maritally dissatisfied slob husband and father Al Bundy in Married with Children, as family patriarch Jay signals that the producers want a contemporary sitcom that plays by the rules. Indeed, the pairing of white-American Jay and Columbian Gloria which sparks so brilliantly plays like a gender-reversed Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy. But what really makes Modern Family truly special is how it became the medium of mine and G’s relationship.

Gloria and Jay

Gloria and Jay: the medium for our relationship

Leaving aside that I’m a none-too-stunning white man who’s somehow managed to attract a ridiculously hot Latina woman, so much about Gloria and Jay’s marriage defines our relationship. They’re both loves propelled by laughter from awkward cultural and linguistic miscommunications (and we’ve got American-English as well as Mexican-British!), to the point where I forget which is the TV one and which ours. G’s translation of a romantic sentiment from Mexican into English with the caveat that ‘it involves dead sheep’ could’ve come straight from Gloria. And G knows when I laugh at Sofia Vergara, I’m inadvertently making fun of her. We also know we will one day be Claire and Phil; the no-nonsense-with-children woman married to a goofy man-child playing at adulthood. G thinks of me like a grown-up Luke, the semi-autistic scruff, even though I know that as a kid I was more like Manny, the self-aware sophisticate allergic to physical exertion. Modern Family is not just an outstanding sitcom in a TV milieu that’s increasingly looking and sounding the same, it’s also mine and G’s secret language, one which we will always understand completely.

 

 

Dreaming of View

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

What follows is a deposition of last’s night dream. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely mental.

The ladies from The View

My employers

Hosts of The View Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Hasselbeck want to leave the live broadcast of their morning talk show ten minutes early and ask me, who evidently works at the show and is somehow familiar to viewers, to fill in for the last segment. I have decided for some reason to go on air with a blue Ikea holdall full of broken, antiquated agricultural work tools taken from underneath my grandparents’ front garden and then lecture millions of American viewers on their archaeological significances. The audience and hosts abandon the studio leaving only myself and a floor manager. The manager signals that we have gone to commercial and to set up my bag of tools. At this point, the bag goes missing and I scramble to find it before we come out of the break. The tools have somehow re-submerged themselves into the soil in my grandparents’ garden, which is now adjacent to the studio, and I enlist their help to retrieve them as we dig into the earth with our hands and pull out hoes, rakes and steel-wood gardening appliances. I re-fill the bag and heave it over to the set, hoping to catch my cue. I miss it by mere seconds by which time an emergency broadcast of a late 1990s version of the show has automatically clicked in and is now playing on all the monitors. I feel dejected, especially because I am unable to show my girlfriend G that I have been on television in her country. The following day, The View resumes with its normal hosts and Whoopi and Barbara spend the opening ‘Hot Topics’ section of the programme castigating me for blowing this opportunity in front of a national TV audience and cursing themselves for giving me such a break.

Tony and Dr. Melfi

Paging Dr. Melfis...

Anyone who thinks they may be able to shed some light on what this dream may mean or reveal about my psychological or emotional condition, please leave a comment.

Good (Late) Morning America!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2011 by Tom Steward

Waking up is hard to do. I always thought this was because of my sedentary lifestyle but apparently it’s because the TV in my country was never worth getting up for. Whereas in the UK, I’d be swilling cereal with bothered-looking hospital patients and those in the auction trade, here in the USA I’m champagne breakfasting with living legends and soap stars with heads so big they eclipse the painted moon backdrops they are so frequently mounted against. TV crumbles into the ashes of interest about 9am in the UK once the breakfast magazine and sitcom cycles are over but in the US (California time) this is when it starts to come alive. The stalwart of late morning TV is ABC’s Live! With Regis and Kelly, a talk and magazine show hosted by Bob Hope impersonator and male version of Blanche from The Golden Girls Regis Filbin and his co-presenter cum carer Kelly Ripa. A fairly mundane roll call of deathly dull competitions and perfunctory celebrity interviews are made immensely likeable by Regis’ endearing ineptitude and Kelly’s brusque-but-funny ushering that makes you want to purr ‘oh, she’s so good with him’. The top and tail of the show where the banter between the two hosts is allowed to flow freely is genuinely hilarious and frequently smart and witty, especially when Regis is irked by Kelly’s sarcasm and his latent insult comic lets rip. What’s more the show does skits and spoofs incredibly well, much more so that the cringingly appalling attempts at tomfoolery by other breakfast programmes like the Today show. This is mostly thanks to the arresting comic talents of the pair. Regis has that air of a hobbyist about him that distinguishes so many of the great TV presenters (Richard Whiteley and Terry Wogan would be the British TV equivalents) and is a walking argument against slickness and competence in TV hosting.

I have to admit I’m rather fond of The View, a flagship all-female fronted talk and magazine show that comes on after Regis and Kelly, which sports some pretty big cheeses in the world of news and entertainment like veteran comedienne Whoopi Goldberg and heavily medicated queen interviewess Barbara Walters. The format was plagiarized by ITV’s Loose Women and occasionally it’s just as banal and clichéd in its attitudes towards gender and reductive, applause-driven mwah-mwahs about politics. But The View is tons classier than its British mutant and sometimes it’s pretty challenging. In October of last year, Whoopi and co-host Joy Behar walked off in protest to Fox News’ Bill O’ Reilly’s badger-baiting bollock-mongering claim that ‘the Muslims got us on 9/11’ and the show is consistent in offering viewers a balance of liberal and conservative opinion, from the punchably swan-necked WASP Republican Elizabeth Hasselbeck to Behar’s fart-smell-faced social liberal skepticism. The interviews often take the form of grueling interrogations to the point that guests often bring gifts with them to try and pacify their inquisitors. Ricky Gervais had a remarkably tough time the other day with the interviewers scrutinizing every word of his Golden Globe jokes, a much rougher ride than he could ever expect from chortle-faced Graham Norton or celebrity chum Jonathan Ross.

The next couple of hours are dominated by soaps. Whereas British soaps tend to attempt social realism and end up peddling melodrama, American soaps seem much more in control of their ludicrous and overblown plots and characters, almost to the point of complete self-awareness. Nothing is too much, be it ghost, alien, dream or coincidencis-in-extremis. And they seem happy, nay even proud, to recycle the same old stories. In the episode of The Bold and the Beautiful I saw, a man was heard to say ‘You’re not the first women to come in here in a trench coat trying to steal me away’. I, for one, believe him. Thought of as drearily sentimental, what struck me was how completely nasty and Machievellian these soaps are; an impure celebration of conniving and conspiracy. What really stands out is how the soaps are (all identically) shot. Extreme close-ups on faces are the base line which, depending on your level of cynicism, could either signify budget-cutting in background set design or an almost schizophrenic immersion in the emotions of the characters being watched. It’s probably a combination of both and like all good TV is equal parts thrift and intimacy. The morning to lunchtime schedule on US TV is almost pathologically entertaining, and doesn’t make me feel bad for not appraising my attic space.

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