Archive for broadchurch

Bridging The Map

Posted in Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I address Americans as a separate entity – at least not since I went native – for that way lies cultural imperialism. But in this case I feel vindicated because I know it’s for your benefit. Besides, I come from a land with a tradition of broadcasting that tells you what you need rather than giving you what you want. I’m not going to tell you to watch British TV, because you’re already doing that and it’s a problem. Instead, I’m going to ask you to embrace television from countries where you don’t – theoretically – share a common language.

...and brains!

…and brains!

Americans, you need to end your embargo on television subtitles. European TV drama is now so good you cannot afford to ignore it just because of an outmoded preference for television in your (our, sorry!) native tongue. You know this because you’ve spent the last five years remaking European TV shows, from Scandinavian police drama (The Killing, The Bridge, Those Who Kill) to a litter of official and unofficial remakes of the French horror series The Returned (yes, I’m looking at you Damon Lindelhof!). You might assume that TV drama from another culture will lose something in translation, and that’s why it’s better to remake them in American settings. Well, not only are these English-language remakes invariably inferior, in my experience they tend to ham up their European origins to the point where they seem more foreign than their forbearer. And that’s beside the point. It’s just a waste of resources. Get over having to read instead of listen (and you can still listen – the soundtracks are always gorgeous) and simply cut out the middleman.

It’s not as if you don’t already have subtitles on TV. Though it copped out of subtitling in Russian in its pilot episode, FX’s The Americans soon switched to subtitles for all the dialogue between native Russian speakers, and it helps the atmosphere and realism of the show no end. Even ABC’s sitcom Fresh off the Boat feels its Tuesday night audience can handle a beat or two in Mandarin without rushing to cancel their cable subscription. You might think that greenlighting European remakes and co-productions, like NBC’s sold-short summer experiment Welcome to Sweden, is meeting the demand halfway, but it’s actually more like going off at the deep end. As far as content goes, there’s nothing American audiences haven’t seen before: Obsessive police detectives, serial killers, cat-and-mouse games, labyrinthine murder investigations. The Returned is just dead people walking and you can’t move for them in American TV currently. It’s not new, just done extraordinarily well, and once you acclimatise to the foreign accents on your screens, nothing else will jar with your TV experience.

British TV imports might seem like a happy medium, since the country is close enough to continental Europe to share similarities with this new wave of television drama (which shows like Broadchurch and The Fall attest to) and yet can be more or less understood by speakers of American-English. British shows are certainly more popular than ever in the States and fill the vacuum for foreign TV that everyone’s told they should watch. Historically, I’d defend British TV drama but when it’s the dire Sherlock, overrated Broadchurch, and diminishing The Fall against what Denmark, Sweden and France has produced over the past few years, there really is no contest. There’s a level of comfort about British TV in the eyes of American audiences that outweighs quality. The memories of cosy sitcoms and period pieces on PBS Sundays cannot be brushed aside in one stroke, no matter how successful the replacement. And that’s the other advantage. TV drama from continental Europe is far more conducive to the American taste for procedurals and portentous horror than Britain.

The Walking Dead en francais!

The Walking Dead en francais!

Hopefully, this argument will soon be moot. Internet video-on-demand services like Hulu and Netflix sell themselves to subscribers – at least those who have been profiled as viewers of sophisticated drama – on the basis that European series are available in bulk. Some of the arthouse movie channels like Sundance and Showtime have found ways to incorporate subtitled TV drama into their remit. And don’t discount the viewer’s desire to bypass network boycotts of foreign-language imports with simple, straightforward piracy. But there really are shows for everyday television. Inevitably, censorship will be a problem but what’s shown wouldn’t be too much trouble for one of the big cable networks like FX and AMC. There really is no reason compelling enough to hold back the revolution…sorry la revolution!

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Peak Viewing Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

There are TV shows we talk about too much. But Twin Peaks isn’t one of them. I’d say the endless chatter about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early 90s ABC drama by those besotted of the show (whom I suspect have cherry-pie-picked episodes and not endured the interminably drawn-out final quarter) was better spent on less-discussed yet equally worthy TV from this era…if it weren’t for how crucial Twin Peaks is in the history of television. Unusually for a show that ran for only two years and thirty episodes, no-one has ever shut up about it. The supreme production values and self-conscious artistry have ensured that there is never a reason not to re-air and re-box set the programme. Even compared to other 90s TV shows, which generally stand up well visually (especially compared to the previous decade), the colour, focus and cinematography are configured in such a way that HD could not possibly improve upon it. There’s been more talk recently because it’s the 25th anniversary of the series (although there always seems to be an excuse for a retrospective!) and plans are afoot for a revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. However, if the public statements of Lynch and most of the cast are anything to go by, the revival might have as much to do with Twin Peaks as 10 Things I hate about you does with The Taming of the Shrew.

A title colour only used in 90s television!

A title colour only used in 90s television!

Twin Peaks set in motion models of television storytelling that have been influential ever since it was on the air. Small-town quirk and paranormal procedural would dominate American TV throughout the 90s, through the ‘twin peaks’ of Northern Exposure and The X-Files. The legacy endures to this day with series like Parks and Recreation, Wayward Pines, Fringe and Grimm. The long-form murder mystery has been a staple of quality television internationally in recent years, with Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, Britain’s Broadchurch and America’s True Detective. Indeed, if HBO opened the floodgates of American quality television with The Sopranos, then Twin Peaks’ dream states and cine-literacy were an important precedent for the show. More broadly, Twin Peaks cemented many ideas that we now take for granted. It showed us that fantasy and realism can live alongside one another in TV without contradiction and that every character in an ensemble (no matter how ridiculous) deserved an inner life and a separate storyline to boot. Twin Peaks remains the benchmark for what constitutes good television. When Louis C.K. tried to generate an art movie feel for his sitcom Louie, he went to none other than David Lynch as guest star (and director in spirit) for a 3-part season finale. In 2010, mystery drama Psych aired an episode called ‘Dual Spires’ featuring cast members and storylines from Twin Peaks, acknowledging the longevity of the show’s mythology as TV to aspire to.

If we dwell too much on the originality of Twin Peaks (as a recent Radio 4 documentary did), we are in danger of forgetting how much the show took from television. References abound to classic American series from Dragnet to The Fugitive (complimenting the mid-century Hollywood intertextuality). As the meta-show Invitation to Love indicates, the characters and storylines in Twin Peaks could have easily come out of a daytime soap. But Twin Peaks was also acknowledging how soaps had graduated to primetime in the previous decade, with shows like Dallas and Knots Landing. In fact, the season one cliffhanger bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ storyline in Dallas that captivated TV audiences exactly a decade before. For all that is made of David Lynch’s ‘cinematic’ influence on the show, Twin Peaks was co-created by Mark Frost, whose formative experience had been writing for television, notably on Steve Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s soap copera Hill Street Blues. Twin Peaks is as remarkable for its adept handling of serial narrative arcs and gradual character development as for its experimental audio-visual style, and there is a clear lineage from Frost’s work on the continuing ensemble drama Hill Street Blues to his teleplays for Twin Peaks. But Lynch and his signature composer Angelo Badalamenti clearly understood the importance of sound to television, creating a soundscape that both compliments perfectly and stands terrifyingly alone from the image.

...or sooner!

…or sooner!

For better or worse, Twin Peaks stands for something bigger than it is. It is the nucleus of a fine art television and a prism through which to see the medium. Laura Palmer said she’d see us in 25 years. She was 25 years over.

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