Archive for bbc one

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.

 

‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.

 

Rod Serling would have been proud

 

 

 

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.

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