Archive for bbc

The Signal of Foreign

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

With so little British television watched in America, at least knowingly, it often seems more important to be an ambassador than a critic. However, some British programmes make that act of intercultural liaison a difficult proposition and it doesn’t help that in particular cases the American equivalents are far better. Now in its third season on CBS, Elementary is an updatation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories transferred from London to New York and in keeping with the conventions of the police procedural. Given the timing of its arrival and modern-day take on the Holmes mythos, Elementary could be thought of as an American remake of the BBC’s Sherlock. To my mind, though, the latter has simply served to make the former completely irrelevant.

Now that's progressive!

Now that’s progressive!

Really, you don’t expect the American version of a British TV series to be more progressive and edgier and yet Elementary is the series in which Watson is an ethnic woman and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. While Sherlock is groping around in the annals of fan fiction desperately searching for storylines, Elementary offers concrete mysteries week-after-week. Elementary stands confidently in the generic traditions and weekly nature of television but Sherlock seems to be constantly pushing against the logic of TV flow. The supporting characters in Sherlock are severely underdeveloped and generally passed off as morons that reaffirm Holmes’ superior intelligence. Elementary’s ensemble cast is full of fleshed out, complex and relevant characters providing a different perspective on Holmes’ investigations that frequently proves crucial.

Sherlock is surrounded by an incredible fandom than feeds off itself as the series incorporates and invites cult audience activities in its name. As such, the writing is often problematic or inept from a story viewpoint, since it must always gesture to this extra layer of self-gratification. Conversely, Elementary makes the mechanics of plot its priority rather than the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which seems to pique the interest of Sherlock fans. Characters and their dynamics emerge as the storylines advance, and the series never takes the re-gendering of Watson as a cue to slash fiction romance. In doing so, the scripts achieve the rare balance of Conan Doyle’s storytelling where character and plot are equally stimulating, yet neither yields power over the other.

In light of Elementary, I no longer have anything good to say about Sherlock. I can certainly see the attraction to American viewers, as the former homogeneously blends into network primetime programming while the latter seems to defy those very conventions. I daresay this is probably why Top Gear is so popular here, because the American equivalent would be so bland and corporate in comparison. Yet a more informed and less ignorant version of Top Gear is no bad thing, and does more justice to the matter in hand than a faux-sitcom peppered with cultural insensitivity. I suspect the curiosity of Sherlock is what blinds viewers here (British viewers you have no excuse!) to the fact that there’s a more interesting adaptation in their backyard.

It’s also a matter of salesmanship. Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat like to write in a way that aims to convince you of the quality of what you’re witnessing in the hope you will ignore the lack of basic competence in the craft. Success is measured in the same way it would be for an ad campaign rather than an individual artwork. It’s hard not to be impressed or enticed by television that is so convinced of its own transcendence. Elementary is rather more discreet in self-estimation and should be judged over time. Regardless of calibre, most imported British dramas make it on to American screens through the PBS Masterpiece strand, which automatically bestows worthiness upon them in ways that Thursday night on CBS does not.

I'm a fan!

I’m a fan!

There’s so much British television that beats America hands-down, especially the regular kind, but the case of Sherlock and Elementary suggests we cannot make broad assumptions about the inherent superiority of British television. Whatever promise of distinction Sherlock offers to American viewers does not conceal its dysfunction as drama and Elementary is not to be confused with the swathes of mediocre procedural television that surrounds it. I want American audiences to buy into the alternative appeal of British TV, but as someone who cares about quality I’m wary of advocating programmes that offer nothing but a sideways look, especially when there’s stronger material in even their most elemental of programming. I can’t help think that only British TV will suffer if America fetishizes our worst.

Goodbye Mr. Smith!

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

This blog seems to be nothing but obituaries these days but I’m happy that, after reporting the dreadful loss of James Gandolfini, I’m only talking about the death of a fictional character this week and not even that. In essence all I’m really discussing is an actor leaving a role and something that’s happened ten times over, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be much cause for mourning and sadness. But this time it’s not a relief to say goodbye or a feeling that the pleasure has reached its capacity just that of being deprived of something truly wonderful.

So it’s come to Tardis: Matt Smith leaves ‘Doctor Who’

In 2009 there was nothing but alarm amongst fans of the TV show Doctor Who as the younger ever actor to be cast in the eponymous role was announced as the replacement for David Tennant. Matt Smith was 26 at the time but his uneven hair, emo style and awkward deportment made him seem much much younger. Concern and panic was only exacerbated by a number of appearances in which he seemed illegible and incapable. Unlike most, I was happy to see Tennant and his lazy shortcuts leave the series, but became prematurely nostalgic for him after learning the news.

Matt Smith in 2009, looking more like Adric!

A terrible debut scene at the end of one of the most tedious and portentous Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast didn’t help matters. Horribly written and directed in a needlessly elliptical style, Smith’s performance in the final few minutes of ‘The End of Time’ seemed fragile and misplaced, falsely suggesting a performance of infantile nihilism that was the worst everyone feared. Expectations sufficiently lowered, we started to get reasons to be cheerful. In the previews Smith looked and sounded commanding and unique and word spread that Smith had reconsidered his approach after studying Patrick Troughton’s groundbreaking interpretation of the role.

The jury was still out when in Easter 2010 Smith made his full debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Quietly assured in the Bond-teaser opening, he went from strength to strength in his first hour of television, re-injecting a genuine sense of fun, humour and warmth into the show (without resorting to saccharine) and refusing to romanticize the character, making The Doctor a troubling proposition of unpredictable behaviour and sinister tendencies despite his innate affability. Unlike Tennant it wasn’t a needy performance that asked you to idolize the actor as you worshipped the character, just an actor doing a part justice.

As Smith’s first season progressed, his ability to judge the demands of the role became increasingly evident. He knew exactly when to let loose the pantomime of the piece and when to tone it down and squeeze out the profundity. While honouring the previous ten performances of the role-in a way that his last two predecessors had not-Smith stamped his authority on the part with a wholly original spin on the character. Each actor playing The Doctor has to find a way to capture his alien qualities. Smith played The Doctor as a social misfit, comically illiterate in human beings’ behavioural orthodoxies. He talked to children like adults and adults like children, gleefully misjudged fashion and etiquette, and moved and gestured in disregard of convention.

There are definitely two aliens in this photograph!

As the second season of the programme veered head-first into pure space opera, Smith brought to the melodrama an understated honesty and brevity that gave the emotional core of the show a raw power unseen in its mawkish, self-pitying previous few years. Tears were no longer an inevitable part of a cloying formula but hard-won and always accompanied with restraint. As such, Smith pulled off that fine balance between the outlandish and the sincere that makes Doctor Who. He was able to suggest age and wisdom well beyond his years, and with it the overgrown teenager we initially saw evaporated.

Hard-won tears from Matt Smith as The Doctor

Smith’s third season as The Doctor saw him finally getting the mature, heavyweight material he needed to showcase his pedigree as one of the finest performances of the part. Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’ allowed Smith to shine in a powerful and disturbing story of genocide and war. However, a rapid fall-off in the quality of the 2013 episodes of Doctor Who-and a gradual slowing of the rate of episodes per year-has left audiences wanting more from Smith, and more of him. It was announced in June that Smith will leave the role at the end of the year, with only two episodes remaining. It is a part that will always outlive any actor that plays it but it will never escape Matt Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

Day at the Movies

Posted in American TV (General), BiogTV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m looking at the guide on the cable box. G is recording The Departed on FX. It is about noon.

 

G: I’ve never seen it.

 

T: You still won’t have.

 

Strict censorship of network and basic cable television in the US means that whenever movies are shown most or all of the obscenities are cut or overdubbed, extreme violence is pruned and ‘sexy scenes’ (for those of you who grew up in the 90s watching rented videos) are taken out. The networks make it worse for themselves by scheduling the most obscene movies in the morning and daytime.

This is as much as FX showed of ‘The Departed’

I mean, what exactly is gained showing Goodfellas at 2 in the afternoon? How does a movie that contains 300 fucks last longer than a few minutes after cuts? We’re not talking about movies where sex, violence and obscenity are gratuities and it plays just fine without them. These are movies where such excess is inextricable from the film’s style and embedded in the world they represent. It’s not even as though the filmmakers had a chance to work up creative solutions to tailor their work to the censorship regimes of network television, as the writers and producers of original programmes have.

Growing up in the UK in the 90s, I remember the BBC would stringently censor popular movies so that they could air in the primetime slot before the 9pm watershed, the time in Britain after which adult television becomes more acceptable to show. There are whole scenes of films I didn’t know existed, like Steve Martin’s hernia-inducingly funny ‘I want a fucking car’ routine from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But I never felt these edited versions butchered the original in the same way that, say, AMC maimed Scarface, ironically by taking out the maimings. They just left me wanting more.

Like most things in television, it boils down to filling time. The network has purchased programming that’s been made suitable for a daytime timeslot by extensive editing and they’re going to use it to plug a gap in the schedules whenever they can. It’s just a terrible shame so many people will get such a glib first impression of all those wonderful movies. Or think they’ve seen a movie without knowing the half of it.

 

 

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!

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

 

 

 

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