Archive for arrested development

Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

It’s not TV…It’s Netflix

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

What am I watching? It’s the nature of the beast to find yourself in front of the television asking this very question. But usually when we ask we know exactly what we’re watching. It’s generally a comment on the poor quality of the programme we ended up watching or a realisation we drifted into something we didn’t choose to watch (like the time I accidentally turned over from The Terminator to Ordinary People and kept waiting for the robots to turn up). However, watching the Netflix series of Arrested Development, I found myself asking this question and genuinely not knowing.

‘Arrested Development’ delivered in one block.

I’ve grappled before with the question of whether content designed primarily for internet distribution can be considered television. When teaching media studies, I used to debate with students whether programmes that had all the characteristics of television but were being seen online-like the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner space jump-still qualified as TV. Since people are going to the internet to watch this content, on first impression it would seem not. But it’s the case with much television today that people will see it first-and often only-online. So is all the TV that is watched online disqualified too?

Impressive…but is it TV?

With internet content that originated online, you can argue it both ways. However, content that was previously a television programme but subsequently moved online should be a pretty clear cut case of television, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I saw the 15 30-minute episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix last Saturday night. The series, a revival of a Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s, heralds a new way of telling stories online, adopts a style based on how information is presented on internet devices and is fit-to-burst with points of reference from consuming media content via web technologies.

Flashbacks provided by Showstealer Pro!

It’s a lot to do with how the episodes are delivered to the viewer. Instead of 1 or more episodes broadcast once a week until the run is complete, Netflix make all episodes of the series available at once. Of course, this is a way of watching derived from the possibility of consuming TV series all at once that has arisen from DVD, on-demand services and internet file-sharing. But that was always an option not the primary port of call. The producers of Arrested Development have clearly identified the difference this makes to how viewers are likely to watch the series.

‘Arrested Development’…full stream ahead!

Each episode has been constructed in the knowledge that viewers are able to watch each of the instalments out of order and expect some gratification for watching the concurrently available episodes in their entirety. The full story of what happens is revealed fragment by fragment and at different stages of the series depending on which of the endless combinations of chronologies the viewer chooses. Whatever journey you take, you’ll encounter non-sequiturs which will eventually become comprehensible while what you’re seeing is clarifying an enigma in another later or earlier episode. However, this all assumes viewers will take advantage of the potential for viewing episodes in a random, non-chronological order. In the end, it’s the old Jurassic Park question; of course you can but should you?

TV from the Great Dark Period!

I’m guessing that most viewers wouldn’t know to watch the episodes piñata-style without having been told in advance. Pre-publicity made a big deal of the chronology-optional viewing pleasures, and we’ve been hearing about the revival for some time, but I’m not sure it would be most people’s natural inclination to watch the show like Tarantino storyboarding Pulp Fiction. Sure, Netflix’s catalogues of full series allow for cherry-picking episode highlights, but at the point of selection we’re still in the dark about what episodes these might be. Basically, watching through is as good a way as any of getting to the end.

Who’s story do you want to see first?

In its network TV days, Arrested Development made a big deal of what it meant to be on Fox, and the Netflix revival seems as keen on reminding viewers that it is now internet content. Flashbacks and cut-aways come in the form of online videos, hacked TV-rip software and Prezi-esque slideshows. At times we think we’re looking at the world through a camera only to find we’re looking through someone’s eyes at a webpage. Network TV is still there in the background, with spot-on sideswipes at CBS’ This Morning and NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the flow of US TV entertainment and news anymore, you feel like you’ve plucked what you’re watching from the annals of cyberspace.


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.



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