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Box Spin

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

On Sunday and Monday, as part of a 2-night event (isn’t everything these days?) AMC debuted Better Call Saul, a spin-off from its corner-turning drama series Breaking Bad based around Walter White’s kitschily corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman. For reasons that can only lead to spoilers, Better Call Saul is a prequel. Despite the unabated popularity of Breaking Bad and the character, there’s still the risk that a spin-off would damage the reputation of the programme, especially one that promotes to protagonist a character who mainly functioned as much-needed comic relief in one of the bleakest shows on television. AMC needn’t have worried because, as with all good long-form television, Saul grew into a much more rounded character as Breaking Bad went on (lest we forget that Walt started out as a clown) and it’s this version of the character that Better Call Saul has inherited. But in TV the odds aren’t against them (or as against them) since there’s nothing to say a spin-off show won’t be as good as or even better than the original.

Check out Better Call Saul!

Check out Better Call Saul!

As Steve Coogan self-reflexively observes in The Trip to Italy there are only ever one or two movies anybody ever quotes when arguing that sequels can be better than the original. Of course, TV has its go-to canon of superior spin-offs (Frasier and anything produced by Norman Lear, who understood the value of maintaining a universe of characters decades before Marvel Studios cottoned on to the idea) but the medium has a pretty good hit rate when it comes to franchises. TV is so generically nebulous (modern quality TV even more so) that it barely matters when a spin-off is more or less comic than its predecessor. In today’s TV when series take so long to hit their stride, their spin-offs may even pick up a show when the quality’s still good and perhaps before they’ve had time to peak. This seems to be what’s happening with Better Call Saul which reaches heights in its first two episodes that it took Breaking Bad (despite its calculated seriality) three seasons to achieve.

But what we’ve seen of Better Call Saul isn’t free of the pitfalls of spin-offs either. Gratuitous cameos from former cast members are one of the biggest obstacles to spin-offs being able to fly solo, and this one has them in spades. The re-appearance of gnome-faced security man Mike in the unfamiliar role of a car park attendant is not at all the problem. We know that history will draw the two men together, so we expect to see him enter Saul’s life somehow. But running into loose-cannon drug dealer and Walt’s former distributor Tuco in a coincidence that would make Dickens blush (plus members of his gang who also appeared in Breaking Bad) really is a step too far. Although some of this is the problem of prequels. Prompted by the none-too-subtle nods of the writers, we’re constantly anticipating moments from Breaking Bad instead of enjoying what the new ones have to offer. Despite the pleasing evocation of middle-America at its most moribund in opening black-and-white images recalling Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which star Bob Odenkirk also featured in), it may have been a mistake to start at the end.

Aside from these distractions, which may have been the result of the writers sensibly trying to break Bad fans in, we’re left with a series whose name may one day be called without company. It will never completely transcend Breaking Bad, especially with original creator Vince Gilligan at the helm here too, but I’m confident we’ll soon be able to consider them separately. It’s possible to foresee Better Call Saul doing for the portrayal of lawyers what Breaking Bad did for scientists. Like Walt, Saul is not just the grumpy maverick we’re used to when confronted with so-called ‘antiheros’; he’s a criminal with a deviant moral code. That said, while we always suspected that Walt was acting out of pure self-interest (which was confirmed by the finale), there’s the irony that the earlier incarnation of villain Saul comes across far more nobly and altruistically than ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ Walt ever did. We can still think about Walt without making Saul any less interesting.

One of these is not like the other.

One of these is not like the other.

If I’m jumping the gun here, it’s because TV history tells me there’s nothing to worry about. When a spin-off is terrible it’s usually because there’s nothing left in the tank. Breaking Bad’s by-the-numbers finale always felt like it was holding something back. It was. A sequel. A prequel. A new modern monster.

Home Movies

Posted in American TV (General), Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2015 by Tom Steward

Though I’ve devoted the last decade of my life to television (in both work and play!), movies were my first love and they’re still at the heart of what I write and do. Consequently, I’m often asked what the best movies about television are. I’m always unsure what I’m supposed to evaluate; the quality of the movie or how well it deals with TV. The two very rarely go together. For instance, my first instinct is to say Morning Glory, a mature TV news satire that neither skirts around the rampant commercialism of American television nor uses it as a brush to tar the medium with. But the acting is regularly terrible, the (non-TV related) storyline lousy, and the ham-fisted direction really kills the comedy. But as a movie about television, I infinitely prefer it to the pious nostalgia of Good Night and Good Luck and TV writer Paddy Chayefsky’s glorified revenge pic Network, as superiorly artful as those two films are. So I was conflicted in my feelings about the TV news thriller Nightcrawler.

...not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

…not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo give remarkable (and remarkably unusual) performances. The script is utterly solid, something which cannot be underestimated in contemporary American cinema. The suspense elements are well-handled, and the photography mixes the best of cinematic vistas with the seedy beauty of urban photojournalism. I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is a rare experience for me in the cinema (seeing a new movie). I have no issue with the portrayal of American TV news, as it clearly is as base, gruesome and sociopathic as the movie suggests, and just as culturally defunct and laughably moribund. But it’s a narrow view of television that is loath to admit the frequency with which contemporary TV beats out cinema for complex drama and art and unfairly highlights its tabloid extremes. It also suggests that the capacity for TV to be live (not that it really ever is anymore!) is a crutch to its expression that makes TV necessarily artless and sensationalist. But as far as movies about TV go, these kinds of representations are old news.

Movies about TV almost always focus on the production of non-fiction (typically news), stress the live aspects of television broadcasting (regardless of how live TV is at any given historical moment), and never fails to mention any quality of the medium that might situate it as inferior to cinema, like its commercial interruptions or diminished screen size and image quality. Comment me if I’m wrong, but all movies about TV have at least ONE of these three typicalities. What’s also significant is how ahistorical this cinematic portrayal of TV is. You could understand it when TV was the new kid on the block and the film industry wanted to play up the disparity between fulfilment and experience in consumption of the two moving image media (although historians question whether we can ever see the two so separately). But it doesn’t really make sense when you consider that film and TV industries have for large swathes of their history been interrelated economically under dual or conglomerate ownership. What is the advantage of saying TV sucks then?

It’s not a riddle I’ve particularly solved, except that the mythmaking of movies depends so heavily on the distinction of the cinematic experience that it behoves the industry to promote the fairytale of exceptionalism in the face of overwhelming economic, technological and cultural evidence to the contrary. I’m pretty sure that hijacking the feeling of live TV in these movies derives from a kind of jealousy about the immediacy and presence that the medium can cultivate, as in Tootsie which go to extreme expository lengths to make a broadcast of the intra-diegetic soap opera live. With bigger, clearer home sets and smaller, digital ‘studio’ theatre screens as well as a parity of commercial content and product placement in both new movies and TV transmissions, cinema hasn’t a leg to stand on. It is, however, a strategy that boutique television networks also use to distinguish themselves from everyday TV flow, judging by the number of tiny, flickering sets we see on HBO and AMC shows in the service of dispensing an endless barrage of homogeneous crap.

Fishing for a story!

Fishing for a story!

It may be time for the movies to start acknowledging some of the realities of contemporary television. It wouldn’t be hard – just ask the many actors who now regularly moonlight between the two! TV is better than its news output and infinitely more interesting than its increasingly rare live transmissions.

Attack The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

This week is the midterm elections, which means that currently TV is awash with attack ads where political candidates exploit their opponent’s capacity to look sinister as a slow-moving black-and-white still. But attack ads aren’t restricted to the world of politics. AMC is running a campaign targeted at DirecTV in which subscribers are encouraged to petition their satellite provider to renew their partnership with the cable network. DirecTV have countered with a Walking Dead-themed rebuttal aimed at AMC’s ‘scare tactics’. On AMC’s post-show discussion programme Talking Dead, Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple and host Chris Hardwicke couldn’t help but think of Carol’s bid for leadership of the group in the zombie drama without reference to the libellous voiceovers and gravelly sneer of election advertising. As it seems entirely appropriate to think about TV shows in terms of attack ads (and perhaps better since, you know, no-one real’s being unduly slandered!) I’ve come up with some voiceovers for campaign spots attacking characters from TV shows:

Breaking Bad

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

‘Skyler White says she had nothing to do with her husband’s crimes, so where’s the money for her son’s education coming from? And if she’s so sympathetic, why do men with fake names on the internet hate her so much? @Misogynist63 on Twitter said ‘I hate Skyler White so much’ and Guy Withwomenissues on Facebook called her ‘unthankful scum’…because Skyler White made him too angry to use the correct antonym for ‘grateful’. The IRS refused to prosecute Skyler White because as an accountant she was too clueless to understand she was breaking the law. Her performance review said that she waited until the firm nearly went under before she put on a low-cut top to save her boss from jail. Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque.’

Downton Abbey

Branson's Fickle!

Branson’s Fickle!

‘Tom Branson wants you to think he’s part of an aristocratic family, but not only was he once a socialist and a terrorist, he was really really bad at being both. Tom Branson claims he’s changed but all it took was a schoolteacher with too much lipstick to bring his pro-Russian outbursts back to the Downton dinner table. At a Town Hall debate, Tom Branson said ‘I don’t know what I am anymore’…and hasn’t stopped saying it for over two years now. Tom Branson voted against Lord Grantham’s terrible financial decisions 90% of the time. And what’s keeping Tom Branson from emigrating to America, the land of freedom? We think we know. Branson’s fickle. Paid for by The Committee for The Preservation of Cora’s Entail.’


Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

‘Carrie Matheson denies all knowledge of putting a pro-American regime in Iran. Why would a secret agent do that? What is she trying to hide? Carrie Matheson sometimes sleeps with terrorists for fun…and not just work. And why does her baby look exactly like a shrunken doll of America’s enemy #1 (and honoured marine and US senator) Nicholas Brody? According to her family, Carrie Matheson prefers living in Islamabad to being in America. Just like someone who might not like America that much would. And why was she seen desecrating a heroes’ memorial with a magic marker? Doctors expressed concern that Carrie Matheson couldn’t do her job because of her mental illness…a love of atonal jazz. Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat.’

Mad Men

Don Draper: You don't have to be mad to vote for him...but it helps!

Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!

‘Don Draper won’t make his war record public. That’s because it reveals things he doesn’t want you to know. Like his compassionate support of war widows and embodiment of the American dream. He’s just pretending to be privileged and uncaring to get your vote. Don Draper has worked at three different(ly named) firms in the last five years, and is so incompetent he now works under his former secretary. Don Draper would rather drink and take drugs at home than in a workplace where it is company policy. He’s flip-flopped on the issue of smoking and airline preference, and campaigned for Nixon who he’s yet to find out is a criminal. Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!’

The O’Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly talks about things as if they really happened. But did you know that everything he says is bullshit? The first thing he said on his show today was bullshit. The second thing was described as ‘bullshit’. Even the third thing he said was bullshit, according to a poll. He’s voted with people who are wrong about everything 100% of the time. Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really.

There’s no law against smearing a smearer…

Bumping The Shark

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week was Shark Week, Discovery’s incredulously popular annual event consisting of 7 days of continuous shark-themed programming, sandwiched neatly inbetween the network’s other 358 days of continuous shark-themed programming. Now in its 27th year, the ripple effect of Shark Week across TV is staggering, with a shoal of cable networks attempting to take a bite out of Discovery’s ratings with concurrent themed programming alternatives created under the fin of Shark Week. While some satirise the inflated phenomenon of Shark Week, others are brazenly capitalising on its currency. Here’s some of the counter-attacks, and a few suggestions for next year:

Jaws Week:

Steven Seagal movie marathon and quality TV gamut-running network AMC showed a Jaws movie every night, a prospect that got increasingly less attractive as the week went on. The appeal of the original movie passes me by, even though I think Spielberg is a great cinematic illusionist (in that he’s tricked people into thinking he’s a good director), but it and its no-frills sequel are both perfectly serviceable potboilers. Jaws 3-D would be a condescend-a-minute romp through the annals of hilariously dated visual gimmicks were it not now the desired look for all of Hollywood’s blockbusters. Jaws: The Revenge is a movie so contrived that even the info button on my cable box couldn’t help but have a pop at its hopeless storyline.

The ghost of Roger Ebert haunts my info button!

The ghost of Roger Ebert haunts my info button!

Snark Week:

Quantitative data-led camp reality and comedy network WEtv spent a week filleting its programming – I’ll stop the sea puns eventualgae – for the snarkiest (‘bitchiest’ in old and perfectly legal tender) cuts to assemble a ‘snark-a-thon’. Re-runs of Roseanne and Will and Grace were predictable but apparently the sunglass-deflected verbal garbage spewed by douchetective Horatio Kane in cold opens of CSI: Miami has been reclaimed as snark. Making use of its rolling reality repertory, the network launched (seemingly in a word document with an unstandardized font) David Tutera’s CELEBrations where the celebrity event planner plans events…for celebrities. Snark is obviously also reality-speak for ‘palindrome’. All this was accompanied by an onscreen ‘snark-o-meter’ because you know how reality TV fans love their maths.

Shart Week:

Comedy Central, a network dedicated to the lifetime incarceration of Jon Stewart, took a break from its correctional duties last week to show some shit, or at least more shit than usual. In one of the more anarchic responses to Shark Week, the network drained its sewer system (also known as Comedy Central before noon) to find the most scatological episodes of its many and clearly-not-that-varied programmes. Not only did they manage to find enough programming to last 7 days from noon to midnight, there were entire episodes on the subject, like South Park’s ‘Mr Hanky, the Christmas Poo’. A great way to dump on Discovery, I maintain that if this isn’t a sign there’s too many men on a network, nothing is.

Jumping the Shart

Jumping the Shart

Sharknado Week:

Probably the closest rival to Shark Week since it primarily airs fictional programming about sharks with no basis in science whatsoever; spelling-free telefantasy network Sy-Fy premiered Sharknado: The Second One, the sequel to its bottom-feeding 2013 original TV movie, and filled out the airwaves with movies of similar or worse quality about sharks and one other thing. It could also have been dubbed ‘Son of Shark Week’ as it’s hard to imagine this monstrosity (and that’s the closest you’ll get to a compliment from me) existing without 25 years of dumb stuff being said about sharks softening up the American public for these pixel-thin piss-takes. As spoof-proof television, it’ll give your sarcasm glands a much-needed rest after a day of Shark Week ‘documentaries’.

Shark Week Alternatives 2015:

TV Land should launch Jump-The-Shark Week where the network only shows re-runs of episodes broadcast after it became impossible to take a show seriously. This would include all the post-lottery win episodes of Roseanne and any Dallas after 1986 starring the ghost of Bobby Ewing. FX can do Stark Week where primetime consists of airings of the Iron Man movies – actually the FX execs can just let nature take its course on this one. 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. The Biography Channel should host Narc Week in which all the interviews with blacked-out faces and altered voices of cops who’ve squealed on the Mafia are edited together and begin to resemble one endless Peter Frampton concert in the dark.

Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

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