Archive for bbc

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

In the spirit of writing posts that have little or nothing to do with the theme of this blog we submit for your disapproval a review of a pleasingly throwaway episode of Doctor Who which despite its self-conscious tone of inconsequential fun-a take-it-or-leave-it proposition made abundantly clear by the Ronseal title ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’-has been lambasted by fans as infantile. Labelled an unfunny, tonally confused mess, the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who is in fact a refreshingly straightforward piece of storytelling with a number of fine performances from a top-notch cast and some spot-on characterisation.

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

For the record, when it comes to family entertainment I’m far fonder of efforts that package heavyweight ideas and adult themes with fun and simplicity than those which adopt a portentous and ambiguous style and tone which ignores the majority of its audience base. This is why family movies The Wizard of Oz and Babe are such enduring classics. They have profound things to say about adolescence and animal rights (respectively, although you shouldn’t glue wings to a monkey) but deliver them with a lightness of touch. It’s also why their self-consciously darkened sequels Return to Oz and Babe: Pig in the City are artistic failures. Disturbing and inappropriate for children, these movies address the serious issues of adult life head-on without regard for how young viewers react to or understand them. As an institutional mongrel straddling the BBC’s drama, children’s and light entertainment departments, Doctor Who has often struggled to know where to draw the line on adult content.

Looks fun, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who has always been the scourge of conservative parents and campaigners who claim that it broadcasts material unsuitable for children. Generally, though, the programme has been pretty responsible on this count, erring on the thrilling and exciting side of horror without any of the lingering mental scars. What’s more, when it blundered in the 1970s and 1980s with unacceptable levels of physical violence, producers had the good sense to revert to stories that played up the light-hearted and comedic side of the programme for a while. That said, the first time I’ve ever thought that the show had gone too far was last year’s ‘The Almost People’ in a scene showing Amy giving birth while imprisoned in a coffin-like capsule. The sheer visceral horror could only alarm young women about what would happen to their bodies in adulthood. It irresponsibility pursued shock value without giving children guidance on how to interpret what was happening.

Adult body horror in a children’s TV show

It’s no surprise then that an episode which makes good on Doctor Who’s commitment to its younger viewers has been added to this year’s run, or that it works so well. Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ opens with a time-shifting montage familiar from Steven Moffat’s episodes but while the latter writer uses this technique to convolute the storyline, the former’s intentions are to suggest whirlwind adventure. It also glosses over what is a satisfyingly linear narrative structure, an episode purposefully striding to its conclusion that makes the best of its simple story by gradually unfolding mysteries like a detective novel and maintaining the breakneck pace of the fixed timeframe. Manichean character contrasts abound: macho chauvinist/female supremacist, righteous hero/amoral villain, emotionally reserved father/compassionate son. This superficiality allow the characters to be quickly absorbed into the action-packed storyline and does a good job of orienting younger viewers in what to feel about the characters. But in working through these stark oppositions, a thoughtful message emerges that extreme viewpoints should be eschewed in favour of tolerance and compromise.

The gang

The gang

The comedy of his episode succeeds more than in previous attempts as humour derives effortlessly from character rather than being pasted in as anomalous gags and set-pieces. It lies in Brian (Mark) Williams’ passive-aggressive chastising of his son’s lack of DIY masculinity and relatable rendition of fathers’ eccentric habits. It is in the oblivious taboo-breaking misogyny of Rupert Graves’ big game hunter and our unnerving attraction to the politically incorrect male heroes of old. Even the incompetent robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) which smacks of extraneous vaudeville makes shtick out of their incongruous personalities not just their funny voices. Making characters’ actions easier to understand conversely makes them more authentic rather than one-dimensional. Rather than inject forced notes of pacifism and make him apologise for causing suffering, The Doctor here is allowed to destroy an evil enemy at the cost of life (an animal’s at that!) without the usual dismay and remorse that writers think makes him seem more complex but in fact insults viewers’ intelligence. And villain Solomon (David Bradley) oddly seems more genuinely menacing the more of a caricature of unrestrained capitalism he becomes.

Better than the Empire State Building

But there’s no doubt that what truly makes this episode excel is the performances. Mark Williams‘ deadpan yet emotionally resonant portrayal of Rory’s father is hilarious, observant and poignant, simultaneously so in the penultimate image of Brian enjoying a flask coffee and lunchbox sandwich from Earth’s orbit. David Bradley’s classically styled posturing and vocal intonations held all the gravitas of a great theatrical villain but with the nuance and naturalism to make it credible for the small screen. Solomon’s material and sexual avarice, which struck a discordant note with many viewers, gave a welcome clarity to what should constitute pure evil in the world of Doctor Who. And crucially it did so without spoiling a rollicking good time.

 

 

Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

Downtown Abbey

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

No wonder Americans think we still live in castles. Thanks to one of Britain’s most popular TV exports to America, the nation would be forgiven for assuming that the downtown areas of our cities look like the grounds of stately homes. Being as British and American accents differ, or that we ‘have an accent’ as I’m more readily informed here, G and I’m sure others were led to believe that the ‘Downton’ in Downton Abbey was not a place but a direction. The downtowns of US cities are comparable to the restaurant, nightlife and shopping quarters of UK city centres and high streets. If it really was Downtown Abbey, Central London would be some sort of class-system role-play theme park where in order to get lunch visitors would have to adorn Edwardian clothing playing either the aristocracy or servants and compete to see which side could repress more of their pasts.

Carson da Butler

Downton is in fact the fictional Yorkshire-based setting of Julian Fellowes’ (the egg-shaped man who apologises for aristocratic misdeeds on UK talk shows) and Gareth Neame’s ITV Sunday-night period drama series Downton Abbey. It’s clear from very early on that things tend to come to Downton rather than the other way around; people, cars, war, Spanish flu. It seems that 1912 to 1919 in British history was just people arriving at doors. Unlike most geographically-fixed locations for TV shows, like Jersey Shore,which seem able to go virtually anywhere in the world, DA probably won’t venture further than that the post office in the village where the servants receive blackmail letters. When war ‘came to Downton Abbey’ it went by so fast that it seemed to have actually been fought in the grounds of the building, like a game of Risk gone awry.

War has come to Downton Abbey

One of the most pleasing aspects of the programme is that it is unashamedly soap opera. The BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House in 2005 tried to show viewers how period drama could work as soap opera by flagging up similarities between serialised 19th Century novels and modern-day soaps, putting each episode on twice-weekly like Eastenders or Coronation Street. DAonly runs at 8 or 9 episodes per season but its eccentric storylines delivered in intimate conversations between paired characters which then cyclically wind around a single location like a tape spool leave a distinctly soapy residue. It seems it’s not just the form but the content of soap opera that works in period costume. G likens DA to the ‘Telenovela’, continuing dramas on TV in Latin American countries which have much of the melodrama and contrivance of soaps but have shorter runs that end definitively.

Just like Downton

For lovers of classic British TV, movies and books there’s not much new here. At times it feels like an infomercial for a Greatest Hits album of historical great house stories-isn’t this Upstairs Downstairs?-that’s just Mrs Danvers from Rebecca-didn’t they do that in Brideshead Revisited?-but not available in the shops, just illegal download in the US. For many in America, however, DA seemed new and different. Maybe it was the absence of a certain stuffiness in British period drama that can be off-putting to lay viewers. DA in contrast is jokey, emotionally engaging and accessible. Perhaps it taps into the same demand for stories of wealth and status that brought Dallas back to TV, with added topical pleasures of seeing the rich dragged into the mud of reality through war, inter-class marriage and scandal. Or could it be that Americans are more comfortable with us as things of the past?

Look familiar?

Whatever the source of DA’s appeal, it has a novelty currency in the US that British TV viewers wouldn’t necessarily see. Sunday-night, period-set serials are ten-a-penny/a dime-a-dozen (delete as appropriate) in the UK and I’d say Downton Abbey succeeds by virtue of the quality of its performances, dialogue and loving ridiculousness of storyline which sets it apart from never-classic fare like 60s-set rural emergency services dramas Heartbeat and The Royal. Propping up the first two qualities with a cane she’d-use-if-she-had-to is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Maggie may be bribing the script editor as she’s been given enough witticisms, barbs, jibes, punchlines and put-downs to make Groucho Marx seem politely reserved, delivering them with a ‘who me’ innocence that befits the roundest eyes in showbusiness. As a measure of the third there is Bates (Brendan Coyle), the unluckiest man to have lived in the existence of the world, dinosaurs inclusive. With a slight shift in tone, he could be Oliver Hardy.

Watching Telly with Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a taste of my own media medicine. I’ve been watching British TV with an American and absorbing rather than catapulting those oh-so-clever anthropological field notes about the bizarre idiosyncracies of a national TV culture. And what’s even more humbling is that I’ve been doing it with someone far, far better at it and more succinctly expressive than me (see-that sentence only needed one ‘far’). G stayed with me in July and from time to time we embarked on the daunting prospect of sitting down to watch British TV. I say ‘daunting’ because I want G to move here next year, and it felt like the onscreen lack of Real Housewives after their most recent divorces and Kardashians sporting the previous week’s surgical alterations might set back the emigration propaganda campaign several ages. G found a lot of British culture in catch-up mode, especially when it came to fashion, so finding programmes on TV we had watched together in the states months before weren’t too much of a surprise for her, though it was pleasantly for me. I thought we were at least three or four years behind. Turns out we are on the meat (great drama, comedy and reality) but not on the gristle (celeb fucking and shitcoms)-thanks ITV2!

 

Keeping up with the Kardashians...barely.

 

 

But we had a bigger problem than an out-of-date hat. British TV was ‘weird’, ‘so weird’ and ‘weird’. For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word ‘Mummy’. I vigorously protested this as a case of cultural alienation but didn’t exactly have the backing of the TV stations themselves, who throughout the month defected to G’s side by broadcasting footage of old men arguing with Simon Cowell about the existence of a Worzel Gummidge musical before Pertwee-lisping through pop hits or swapping their tried-and-tested flagship mobile spectacle reality shows for season finales where half, quarter and minus wits get berated in four rooms by several regional accents. Round One to G.

The Apprentice Indoors

 And Round Two to her as well. It was through G that I realised something that had never before occurred to me; that American TV, even the rough stuff, is by and large far more innocent and sanitary (I mean this more than sanitized-you’ll see why when I tell you what show made me realise) than British TV. What was the breakthrough programme? Why-eye, Geordie Shore, the Return-to-Oz style dark sequel to Byker Grove. An identically-designed British re-make of MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, it eschews the likeably harmless original premise of laughing at mutantly muscled, beboobed and tanned buffoons for an exponentially grotty and lewd indoor dogging video and creepily crass cock-size discussion show. All the lovably hare-brained schemes and dopey catchphrases of the original sunk  sewage-like into ruthless dirty-dicks campaigns of professional fornication and fuck-punctuated verbal cesspools. I initially thought this was just censorship differences but it’s also about our predilections as a nation for sleazy Sodom-and-Gomorrah docs set in seventh circles like Ibiza and late-night town centres. Why we want these on TV baffles me just as much as why we want them in reality. G said all that in one word: ‘nasty’.

Byker Grove was never like this...

Some of G’s confusion derived from how British TV was scheduled and broken down. She found the advert breaks interminably long, which at first I refused to accept from an American, until I realised that US TV commercial interludes are short but frequent, and just because UK TV is covertly irritating in its spread of adverts doesn’t mean it’s any better, worse in its sneakiness possibly. US TV timings are rigorously routinised-all programmes begin on an hour or half-hour. We’re far more casual with our timings, at least on terrestrial TV-a 10-minute documentary on bees here, a 10 no 12 minute news spot there, oh look, there’s an independently-made short film that’s exactly 3 minutes long for some reason. I can see how it would irritate someone brought up on regimented TV time, but I was left feeling rather proud of our irregular randomness.

There were some notable successes. G was an instant addict of Come Dine with Me, proving that it is a faultless universal formula (something like ‘Idiot + House + Cooking x4=Compulsive Sneering’) and that the world is brought together by its response to the show’s contestants with the global chant ‘Where do they get these people?’.

U.S. Auto Know Better

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

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