Archive for barack obama

That Was The Week That Was Ass

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by Tom Steward

Apologies for the extended break from posting and thanks for continuing to read the site in my absence. I took the last couple of weeks off while G and I got married. However, there’s been no shortage of stories about TV in America since we went away so don’t expect a quiet first day of term. We resume with a post on the TV coverage of the maelstrom of tragic events that devastated the USA over the past seven days:

It’s been a shitty week in America. Last Monday bombs went off at the Boston marathon killing 3 people and injuring over 150 more. On Wednesday, the first round of gun control reform legislation tanked in the Senate. On Wednesday night, an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas killed 14, injured around 200 and destroyed 50 homes. By Friday, Boston was in a state of lockdown as armoured tank police vehicles searched the city streets for the outstanding bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnev, who had escaped custody following a battle the previous night with police that killed brother and collaborator Tamerlan.

Three dead as bombs explode at the Boston marathon last Monday.

How did TV cover the seven-day shitstorm? Well, while a number of entertainment shows such as Live with Kelly and Michael and Conan expressed compunctions about peddling amusement in the wake of the Boston bombings, news programmes seemed to have no obvious qualms about this. News reporters constantly reminded viewers how exciting the events unfolding in Boston were, as if the city had been collectively entered in a catch-the-terrorist role play game. ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer at one point thanked a reporter for her ‘thrilling’ coverage of the aftermath like she was Ben Affleck at an Argo press conference.

ABC World News: ‘Entertainment with a Hint of Fact’

On Tuesday, CNN pulled a CNN and falsely reported that an arrest had been made in connection with the bombings despite official denials. The cable news network had been under fire in recent weeks for its misreporting of the Steubenville rape case and now seems to have moved on from doubting moral and legal verdicts to blindly ignoring empirical fact. Later in the week, while covering the hunt for Dzokhar Tsarnev, CNN reporters seemed to suggest that the lockdown was voluntary, ignoring the tanks patrolling Boston neighbourhoods which gently hinted to residents that it was probably wasn’t a park day.

CNN pull a CNN!

To give them their due, CNN were once again the lone voice of reason when it came to the reporting of gun control following Wednesday’s senate debacle. I’m talking of course about Piers Morgan, who has repeatedly slammed President Obama’s inability to mobilise the gun control lobby and exposed the NRA’s hold over senate voting, and was entirely vindicated this week. To offer some cultural perspective, Piers Morgan is known in Britain for being a dick. Yet in the bizarro world of American TV news, his smug, unremitting self-righteousness somehow twists its way into being the perfect conduit of outrage.

Piers Morgan: smug, self-righteous and…right in this case.

Just when it seemed as if it could get no worse for the USA, it did, and the TV coverage followed the downhill gradient. After the Texas fertiliser plant exploded, news channels once again oohed and aahed over the spectacle and somehow managed to disproportionally report an already heinous disaster as an apocalyptic catastrophe. Fox’s ‘Breaking News’ coverage sat back and admired the epic visuals of nuclear mushroom cloud-like smoke and giant soaring fireballs in viewers’ photos and videos, offering aesthetic judgement and firework-display awe rather than the information necessary to understand the localised explosion that these images related to.

But nothing could take screen time away from Boston last week. On Thursday, the networks’ morning line-up was pulled for coverage of a memorial ceremony for the victims of the marathon bombings in which Obama gave a eulogy. It was the kind of heartrending, preacher-style oratory that made the president look powerful again instead of the lame duck frontman (think Bez with missile privileges) this week’s vote confirmed he was. I’m sure Obama’s speechwriters were grateful events took place in such a culturally and historically prominent city and not some backwater small-town where the annual highlight is a vegetable festival.

TV newspeople set up camp on the streets of Boston and no straight-to-air programme could go without some sort of mention of Monday’s bombings. Given that the bombings were more exceptional and containable and less devastating in terms of lives and infrastructure destroyed than the explosion in Texas, why did it get so much more air time? Well, American TV is a largely local animal and the marathon was attended by runners from all over America, making it relevant to a larger number of regional news programmes. Plus, more people on TV seem to come from Boston than West, Texas.

Explosion at Texas fertiliser plant last Wednesday.

But the main difference is in the news story that results. Texas was an instantaneous disaster that left nothing for follow-up coverage. It exposed systematic failures at a federal and local level. Boston was the explosion that kept on exploding, first the hunt for the bombers, then the capture, then the escape, then the re-capture. And law-and-order eventually triumphed. It couldn’t have played better if it were an episode of Dragnet and intrigue was maintained across the week like a soap opera. Interest in West, Texas dwindled faster than in Smash weand ended up looking like a programme cancelled mid-season.

 

 

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TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!

http://videos.nymag.com/video/Opening-Credits-Homeland#c=GPW04R137JDPW6CY&t=Opening%20Credits:%20’Homeland’

Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of  main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.

Jazzing up Terrorism.

In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empires beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.

The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.

Image grab longer than actual title sequence.

Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.

Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.

Jazz in a 9/11 beat, daddy-o!

Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.

I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.

The Residential Telection

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2012 by Tom Steward

I cannot tell a lie. As a flightless fledgling that has only ever developed use of his left wing part of me could not help but rejoice last week as Fox News atrophically awoke from its coma-deep political sleep and blearily wiped its coping-mechanism fantasy of a conservative America from its self-gauged sightless eye sockets. The humanitarian in me wept with relief as the network finally released its statistician hostages from their underground prison-all victims of a one-strike-you’re-out policy on including empirical evidence in reports-thanks to the efforts of negotiator Megyn Kelly, a woman who has made a career on telling comforting lies to people who have made bad life choices. As Kelly abandoned the obfuscation-forcefielded studio and walked the emergency-broadcast-network-after-zombie-apocalypse corridors to the quarantined chamber of facts, the façade fell away like actors in a fourth-wall sitcom coming out to meet their studio audience…only no-one was there except employees.

Whatever joy I felt was tainted by the knowledge that my smug sense of self-satisfaction would be shared by another news network which also puts partisan politics before reporting news and skews the facts towards a prevailing ideology: MSNBC. Sure enough, the following day signature anchor Rachel Maddow was on TV instructing viewers-who she clearly thinks of as eternally living in an episode of Thirtysomething-to get popcorn before her rundown of the election results. But results were not the focus of the item. They were simply cues in a spoken-word liberal version of the national anthem, a diatribe that one day will be set to the theme music of The West Wing (‘O-bama-wiiiiiiiins’) and released by Baz Luhrmann to be bought by thick people. Though evidently meant to anger Fox News, I can imagine Bill O’Reilly gazing on in awe similar to Goebbels admiring the propaganda power of Eisenstein’s films.

When asked to account for the relish with which she recounted Obama’s election victory by fake conservative Stephen Colbert-who for once didn’t have to try too hard to look pissed off with a liberal-Maddow replied that ‘this week the facts have a liberal bias’. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but no less a shameless piece of media spin and political fabrication for it. By Maddow’s rationale, there are weeks where Fox News coverage is entirely accurate, as long a conservative has been successful at something in the previous few days. Whether she knows it or not, Maddow is on to something. Fox News and MSNBC have a symbiotic relationship. One political extreme needs an equally uncompromising polar opposite to counter the damage. They turn viewers into party extremists when all they want is political options in their news consumption. The only high ground MSNBC has is to say childishly: ‘Fox News started it’.

You don’t need to be a conservative to attack this liberal…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m gravitationally inclined towards many of the politicised views espoused on MSNBC. I think Maddow recognises the minutiae and complexity of political systems and endows every hour of TV with the societal-unravelling sophistication of a season of The Wire. There is no comparison between her multi-faceted understanding of the world and Bill O’Reilly’s PowerPoint flow diagram of a political consciousness. I admire the Reverend Al Sharpton as an activist, politician and orator greatly and I’d take his wisdom over the washed-up, day-in-the-sun extremists that Fox News recruitment drive after their inevitable ignominious failures any day. I credit MSNBC for steadfastly avoiding the showbusiness ethos that Fox News presenters adhere to, even if it costs them ratings. What I object to is the idea that it’s the job of TV news to present political perspectives, legitimise partisan affiliations and comfort viewers about the righteousness of their choices.

Totally balanced coverage

I didn’t always feel this way. I once found tiresome the myth of objectivity that British TV news divisions such as the BBC wrap themselves in. I thought it better than reporters relinquish the façade of balance and own their opinions rather than pretending their reports were unbiased. The illusion of giving equal weight to both sides of an argument seemed to me entirely artificial, not only because in many cases there was no ‘other side’ and only one right thing to do but also because there was usually a clear affinity with one side or the other. I thought it more productive to admit bias and make it work for the report, especially in humanitarian crises such as famines or disasters where there was a global consensus. After prolonged exposure to American TV news, however, I now long for a token alternative viewpoint and the masquerade of even-handed commentary.

‘Where were you tonight Barack?’

I could not help but mourn for neutral window-dressing after witnessing MSNBC’s veteran newsman Chris Matthews, most recently seen reacting to Obama’s lethargic campaign debate performance like a disappointed father at a school football game, interview prolific investigative journalist Bob Woodward about his new book on the financial crisis. Woodward is known for his evidence-based investigations which privilege factual rigor over politicised interpretation. Yet Matthews tried to brow-beat his guest into admitting that Republicans were more to blame for stalemated response to the crisis than Democrats even though Woodward’s extensive research concluded that there were comparable errors on both sides, a systematic failure of government not of party. Relief comes in the form of news satires such as The Daily Show that, though entitled to bias, attack the inadequacies of both conservatives and liberals. And yet it is this show that holds a reputation for political bias and partisan machinery!

Where Feebles Dare!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2012 by Tom Steward

Last week I was in Mexico and then I came back and got a little sick (and then I rode the cups again…). My body only started to resemble a burst gravy dam on Friday, the day after returning, but now I’m starting to think that I was in some sort of hallucinogenic fever state the night before because I could’ve sworn I saw Hollywood actor-director Clint Eastwood hold a conversation with a chair while an audience of magenta elephants cheered him on. This was supposed to be a blog about sitcoms but, hell, Thursday night at the Republic National Convention was supposed to be about Mitt Romney! So as live television scuppers the plans-and we can only hope the dreams-of a national political party, it also forces me to reconsider what to write about this week. The delays of being a human colander and a holiday weekend has meant that I’m getting to Eastwood’s RNC speech long after it passed seamlessly into the zeitgeist and changed our everyday language, so that words like ‘chair’ now have new dictionary definitions such as ‘surrogate for American Presidents who are the subject of a race hate campaign by lying idiots’. So I’m only really going to be adding to what’s already been said.

Firstly, I don’t hold with the rationale espoused by many commentators that the 82-year old Eastwood’s display was a by-product of an emergent senility. This man stars in, produces and directs an average of 3 movies a year, none of which look easy to make or star Adam Sandler. He still has his wits about him. Secondly, I’m not sure the performance was as leftfield or bizarre as some newscasters have made out. In the same way you can detect the John Ford and Sergio Leone influence in his many superb westerns, it’s easy to see what Clint was going for on the night. The delivery was reminiscent of the bashful stutter-shtick of James Stewart-an actor who held a few extreme views of his own-and the one-sided dialogue with the chair a homage to the actor’s performance alongside an imaginary rabbit in the classic comedy Harvey. There’s more than a touch of Bob Newhart’s try-and-guess-the-other-side conversation sketches in the way Clint’s responses to Banquo Obama would imply the absurd statements made by the unheard speaker, and cover for potential obscenities.

‘This is my friend Barack’   

No-one who’d seen any of the coverage from this convention could possibly be surprised at the vindictive and guttural tone of Clint’s personal attacks on Obama or felt any discontinuity between Eastwood’s portrayal of the President as a lowdown despot with the vocabulary of an Exorcist-child and the convention caricature of the Commander-in-Chief as a 21st Century black Capone running America as a racket with all the class of a divebar drunk. So why was Eastwood’s speech so remarkable and unusual? For my money, it’s because the debacle was shown live on TV. The Republicans had engineered their primetime line-up with Stalinesque precision; omitting delegates from the extreme wing of the party, bumping up the limited edition minority speakers to create a smokescreen of Republican diversity, and manufacturing (or more appropriately outsourcing) the image of Romney as a human male…largely by having his wife and five children attest to the existence of his sexual organs.

Mitt Romney: he does it with girls

The real-time collapse of this primetime-machine was a wonder to behold. As Eastwood entered against the video backdrop of a silhouetted still from The Outlaw Josey Wales which made Clint look like he has guns for fingers and what sounded like a Kenny G version of Ghost Riders, you’ll have never seen so many happy racists since the Rodney King tape went mail-order. Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan appeared to have tears in his eyes like a childhood hero was at his birthday party. Within minutes of Eastwood’s live-TV re-make of Fight Club starting, Ryan looked like he’d stumbled upon Eastwood trying to make out with his mother in the kitchen while Clyde the Orang-utan ate his birthday cake. Only live TV can do that. What’s more, for a party intent on editing and re-writing the history the last 12 years of American politics, this was one event that could not be manipulated, because it was seen by millions all at the same time without stops. Eastwood gave an unspinnable speech and the Republicans just had to grin and bear it. And grin they did, and whoop, and egg. They too cannot now pretend they did not enjoy Clint’s despicable behaviour. We all saw you!

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