Archive for battlestar galactica

Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

Advertisements

Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: