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TV Highlights

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

I’ve been in the US since June so here’s a round-up of my TV highlights thus far on this visit:

  1. James Holmes in Court (ABC News)

Courtroom footage of real-life Batman villain and ComiConvict James Holmes at his arraignment was broadcast on news programmes just days after shootings in a Colorado cinema. With his Day-Glo-red hair and look-at-me-I’m-crazy mannerisms, it was the most absurd court TV since O.J. Simpson tried to avoid prison by pretending to be Michael Jackson. The Joel Schumacher-worthy performance of mental illness also recalled the trial of New York Mafia boss Vinny ‘The Chin’ Gigante, whose insanity defence was founded on pyjamas. With the orange afro and mad-cap expressions, those who had just woken from a coma they’d been in since the mid-90s may have thought that Carrot Top finally lost it after the prop comedy business went south.

  1. Hoarding: Buried Alive (TLC)

Unlike Bravo who’s every series is a staged-reality variation on Dallas, rival reality network TLC likes to get its hands dirty from time to time. Case in point is Hoarding: Buried Alive which documents the lives of those who by choice-and various undiagnosed mental illnesses-clutter their homes until they resemble post-apocalyptic shantytowns. It’s an archaeology programme of sorts, a search for the lost civilisation of deposit-return. One gruesomely compelling episode saw a mutually-traumatised couple discover a Jurassic Park-quality fossil of their beloved pet Ratcat preserved in faeces betwixt cabinet and wall. In their world of elaborate denial, it becomes disrespectful to put the cat in a bin bag but loving to let him rot for two years in a sewage Breville.

  1. KUSI News Weather Report (KUSI)

In times of extreme weather it’s invaluable to have a meteorological perspective on conditions. That’s why I was so pleased that the weather report on San Diego’s TV station KUSI consisted of the words: ‘Oh wow! It’s really hot out there today’ blazoned across the screen in volcano-red letters with a melting dissolve graphic. Add in a weatherman who squeals like an extra from Deliverance as his signature intro, and you’ve got the kind of local news reporting that would make Ron Burgundy proud!

  1. KFC Online Commercial (ABC.com)

No I’m not turning into Nana Royle! It’s simply that the words ‘Mash potatoes and gravy’ are now etched in my sense memory, following an attempt by G and I to watch an episode of The Bachelorette on ABC.com. As a way of retaining control over viewers’ exposure to advertising in the digital age, networks keep the ratio of content to commercial from broadcast airings in their online streaming. What makes it exponentially more annoying is that it’s the same couple of spots recycled ad nausea. Every few minutes, a KFC commercial which begins with a grandfather asserting his right to choose ‘Mash potatoes and gravy’ as his chosen side, would automatically pop up like a clock cuckoo with bad time management. Has anyone looked into whether James Holmes was a regular viewer of online TV?

  1. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep on The View (ABC)

Two famously reticent and short-winded Hollywood actors being interviewed by four separate talk show hosts asking questions from all sides? What could possibly go wrong? Presumably as a publicity ritual, stars of relationship comedy Hope Springs Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep were packaged-at what looked like gunpoint at the very least-on to ABC’s late morning magazine show. Streep buried every routine answer beneath deep swallows of nervous laughter and Jones employed the evasive language of a guilty politician to provide the most oblique responses possible. Jones resembled a mute husband on a property programme and Barbara Walters resorted to coaxing elaborations out of him like it was a speech therapy session for a stroke victim. It was can’t-look, how-bad-can-this-get television of the highest order.

  1. Sam the Cooking Guy (Various Stations)

Billed as the ‘everyman’ cook, San Diego-based food writer and presenter Sam Zien’s TV vehicle proposes to ‘make cooking casually understandable’ but could equally be an elaborate ploy to give Anthony Bourdain a coronary. Sam’s cooking philosophy could be described as ‘can-to-plate’ and his method ‘food-arranging’. The production is brazenly shoddy and so is the eat-by-numbers approach to the art of cuisine. In a segment I caught recently, Sam innovated with hot-dog condiments and cursed himself for not buying a turkey frank for his Thanksgiving-themed dog. It’s one thing to lower the culinary bar on TV cooking shows but another entirely to forget the pre-made ingredients.

 

 

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Doctor in the White House

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

The opening two episodes of this season of Doctor Who took the show’s affinity with America to a whole new level. For decades now, Britain’s eccentric and long-winded answer to the 1960s US craze for science-fiction TV has had an eye towards American distribution both in its internal content and marketing strategies. But this offhand nodding exploded like a Steven Moffat logic bomb into full-blown obsession in a two-part series premiere set in various iconic landmarks of the USA (the White House, the American frontier) and featuring the disgrace-redemption axis President Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong’s historic foot, Christmas-cracker level gags about Watergate, people endlessly drawing guns, aliens and men in federal black tie, a Cold War throwback monsters-among-us storyline, a slow-moving NASA spacesuit with a Spielbergian ickle girl inside, badly timed and played presidential anthems performed by the starving man’s John Williams Murray Gold, an actor whose surname was ‘Baldwin’, and a man whose voice sounded like Christian Bale’s Batman being parodied by 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy.

Doctor Who in the USA

Amy Across the Pond

Broadcast merely hours after the UK showings and co-produced by BBC America, the series was heavily previewed and publicised both on the channel (including a daylong marathon of the previous season) and throughout cable on-demand services. Special efforts were made to provide American-English translations for British-English nouns, suggesting a sycophancy about attracting US audiences (who I would argue like the show precisely because it’s not indigenous to America) not seen since the Sting-song superficial US crossover Doctor Who movie in 1996. Rather than find common ground through a mean or median word, as is usually done (the ‘marrow’ dilemma facing Wallace & Gromit, for instance) certain lines were re-played in American-English (e.g. ‘Where’s the toilet?’/‘For God’s sake take her to the restroom’), further weighing down and stalling an already leaden and repetitive script. There also seemed to be concern about US viewers coming into the show for the first time (not that long-time UK viewers are able to follow this season any better!) and each opening credits sequence was prefixed by a voiceover by Karen Gillan as Amy Pond orienting new viewers in the world of the show since Matt Smith’s first episode. While this has the feel and tone of Moffat’s Doctor Who, and is consistent with the themes of fairytale and prophecy he rams into the show like a sleeping bag into a holder, this recalls the hated Howard Da Silva voiceovers that American purchasers TimeLife tacked on to the beginning of episodes in the ’70 US airings that fans of the show protested against vigorously as a too dry overspoonfeeding jarring with the mysterious pleasures of the programme.

The Doctor and Young Amelia

The BBC America Voiceover recalls this meeting

Documentary guides to the show’s history were also broadcast on BBC America in the few days prior to the premiere. A tremendously good idea, I thought. This was until I realised the BBC were trying to create the impression that the show began in 2005, which was previously a producer-institutional policy (related to increasing the market for DVD sales, I suspect) synonymous with the tenure of executive producer Russell T Davies to wipe knowledge and information about past programmes (and, crucially, how good they were) from viewer’s memories or desires. I thought we’d got over this as Moffat and the BBC started to gradually acknowledge the show’s colossal backcatalogue of actors and serials. But apparently this was deemed to be the most easy and convenient way to market this two-part special to new US audiences which not only impoverishes the memory of this hugely significant piece of our art, culture and entertainment but also insults the plethora of US viewers who remember and treasure the show from their youths. An unignorable difference between watching Doctor Who on UK TV and on BBC America is the commercial breaks. The show airs on non-commercial channel BBC One in the UK and therefore runs without interruption whereas BBC America has the regulation set of commercial interludes (although seemingly less than on a network channel). While I thought BBC America did admirably with placing these breaks in moments of high suspense the cut-away to commercial from shock moments of danger reduced the show’s effectiveness as a piece of horror, in episodes that already, despite their tantalising combination of creepy elements, didn’t add up to much in the scare stakes. It was a shame also that the over-complicated and now routinely unfathomable story arc somewhat compromised the show’s portrayal of a pre-Watergate Nixon. There was a fascinating debate to be had about his legacy condensed irritatingly into a few (now signature) clipped Moffat-written exchanges.

Turn over to my previous post on Doctor Who here.

Born in the USA

Posted in BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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