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TV in a Word

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Tom Steward

If this were in print I’d feel obliged to emblazon the word ‘Advertisement’ over it but as all online writing is faintly promotional anyway I’m content to leave it at this bashful disclaimer.

A month ago I started the Twitter account @TVinaword which creates new words to describe TV shows by compounding three words that are synonymous with each individual programme. For example: ‘The Shield. Vic, Visceral, Vicious. In a word: Viscous’. The account had a long evolution. I originally wanted it to consist of reviews of films that were 1 sentence or 140 characters long (those of you who regularly read this blog know it could go either way) such as ‘Downfall: When you’ve seen one Nazi officer shoot himself in the head, you’ve seen them all’ or ‘Prometheus: 124 minutes of film to explain one dodgy special effect’. I quickly reconsidered upon realising that there were several accounts like this already, not surprising given that it’s only a slight adaptation of what Twitter does anyway. I also felt it was slightly peevish to create an account simply to allow me to take my revenge on a medium that hasn’t given me much to enjoy in the past few years. Cinema deserves better from its critics than simple mockery-even if currently worthy of it-and anything written about it should always stress how great it can be and look past momentary phases of decline.

The Viscous Vic Mackey!

Whatever the account was going to become I knew at that point it would be about TV. I’d be sending up the medium from a position of affectionate mockery and in light of my unadulterated admiration for it. I also wouldn’t mind being reductive about TV given that I devote hundreds of words a week to exploring it in excruciating detail. I still hadn’t figured out what form this Twitticism would take when after finishing BBC2’s detective serial The Fall I took to Twitter to try to describe what was unique about the programme. It wasn’t just that it was chilling; it wasn’t just that it was brilliant, but it was both these things and Gillian Anderson. It seemed to me that any word that tried to account for The Fall needed to have these three elements in play. That’s how the word ‘Chillian’ came about. After tweeting this new word, I realised this was exactly the problem with TV criticism. The same old words are trotted out each time we write about a programme (if I see the words ‘complex’ and ‘HBO’ in the same sentence again I may scream) and yet the programme itself is entirely unique.

The Fall…Chillian.

After coming up with a name and tweeting a few more words, I began to see that it was particularly effective when the word, despite being completely new, seemed to describe the TV show perfectly. Like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, the words make sense because of the imagery they evoke not because they have shared meanings. The breakthrough in this respect was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The word was ‘Connferscience’ which incorporated ‘Conn’ (the Enterprise’s command which is forever being transferred like a verbal Frisbee), ‘Conference’ and ‘Conscience’. If you were to ask what happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation Connferscience, despite its Newspeak qualities, would be as good an answer as any. Sometimes words arrange themselves in ways that sums up the show more directly that the three words they amalgamate. The Walking Dead was represented through the words ‘Humanity, Humidity, Stupidity’ which becomes ‘Humanstupidity’, a word that could conceivably work as the show’s subtitle. It’s always gratifying when the word resembles one we know, especially if that word is the opposite of what the show is. Three words that sprang to mind when watching Revolution were ‘Swords, Gourds, Bored’, creating ‘Sworgourdsbored’, which it most definitely is not.

Swords? Bored! Revolution.

Every TV show-good and bad-is different and they each deserve a different word. There’s always something that can’t be accounted for in existing language, like a character or an actor. What makes a TV programme is a cocktail of different energies and when one or two of those are removed from the mix, it’s not the show anymore. I’ve tried to make this problem disappear by writing a lot and hoping that enough combinations of words will eventually do justice to one programme. Now I’m doing the exact opposite, whittling these descriptions down to a few words and creating a brand new one distinctive to a programme. TV is a variety of individuals, each with a name.

 

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The End of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve just finished watching The Fall, BBC2’s new police drama miniseries. Or have I? The open-ended nature of the last episode watched had me rushing to IMDB to see if Netflix had failed to purchase the series’ remaining instalments. This being a fairly common occurrence with an online content provider which faces rights restrictions preventing them from making the latest episodes of TV series available to users. My online search concluded this was in fact the final episode and that this ending was considered ‘controversial’. The word used to describe an adverse response to something offensive or provocative having been done or said but now simply means that a lot of people with Twitter accounts don’t much like it. While searching, I found vigorous defences of the ending by creator Allan Cubitt on grounds of authenticity, arguing that the ambiguous ending gestured plausibly towards the ongoing difficulty of police work and the lengthy timeframes of major investigations. This made sense. The series regularly disturbed and played with the conventions of its genre. It puts The Fall in league with TV crime series like The Wire and The Shield which were equally determined to show policing as a messy, unresolved business.

‘This is DSI Gibson. Do we have an ending in custody?’

Case closed. But wait a minute. I’ve just read that the BBC has commissioned another series of The Fall to be broadcast in Autumn 2014. I’m assuming this will continue the story of the first series and not be a totally different crime drama under the banner of The Fall nor merely a new case for DSI Gibson. There is certainly precedent for these latter options in British crime miniseries. BBC1 multi-arm legal strip Criminal Justice created a completely new set of characters and storylines for its second run and there’s a tradition of detective dramas like Prime Suspect and Cracker holding on to their lead detective whilst continually updating the cases they investigate. It is, however, unheard of to not wrap up the previous case before moving on to the new one and if the next season of The Fall were to do this the show would be genuinely breaking new ground. So if it is to be a continuation, then the ending of the (first) series should be thought of as more of an end-of-season cliffhanger, a suspense-mongering technique designed to keep viewers hooked until its return-an echo of serial TV melodramas like Dallas-and only realistic by default.

Who Shot J.R.? Much difference?

I’m put in mind of another couple of TV finales which blur the boundaries between cliffhanger and open ending. The first of these is the final episode of Twin Peaks, which lies at the close of its second season on the air. The series ends on a note of uncertainty about the fate of its protagonist, Agent Cooper. Given that the show’s co-creator was avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch and that the programme was challenging and innovative in its storytelling, critics and audiences alike were quick to assume that the ending was a deliberate subversion of closure and resolution and an artistic statement on the nature of TV endings. This belies the fact that the ending was written in full expectation of a third season which an abrupt cancellation, following a drop-off in ratings and acclaim, put pay to. This suggests the season ending was meant to work as a cliffhanger in the manner of the previous season, which left the lives of most of the main characters dangling in the balance. This is not to say that the cliffhanger wouldn’t have been met with something surprising and original, as with the last one, but it still reeks of conventional storytelling.

Was the ending of Twin Peaks really breakthrough?

The second of these is the ending of The Sopranos, following six seasons and eight years on the air. A suspension of narrative closure in the form of a literal blackout, it too bore the label ‘controversial’ although ‘uniformly hated’ would be closer to the truth. I initially thought the ending a technical error on the digital station E4 where The Sopranos was first broadcast in the UK, having become accustomed to its legacy of transmission problems which routinely turned my screen ratios into accordions. Alas, the mistake was on the behalf of creator David Chase who had sacrificed all that was good about the show (music, character arcs, engrossing storytelling) for an arch and pretentious modernist gesture, which put art before content. Or so I first thought. The cynic in me now thinks that the ending was merely an arty smokescreen for the kind of cop-out ending that refuses to make any big decisions about the characters in order that the franchise may live on. Think David Chase is above this? Lest we forget Chase presided over the mid-90s spin-off TV movie series of The Rockford Files. It is only James Gandolfini’s death that renders a revival an impossibility.

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