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TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

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Selling TV to Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by Tom Steward

My unofficial job title for the last couple of months has been PR Officer for American TV. Recently I’ve been introducing G to a number of my favourite US TV shows using the vast-if routinely inaccessible-archive of programming on Netflix and HuluPlus as well as my DVD collection, which lies within a handful of colossal CD carry cases in an object-fetishist’s version of efficient storage. Some programmes sold themselves. It didn’t take long for G to figure out that Northern Exposure was an engaging, endearing and intelligently written piece of television and not the geriatric-baiting fodder she suspected. Despite its nausea-inducing camerawork, the viscerality, complexity and wit of The Shield also won G over instantly. But there was always a fly in the ointment, and in every application. G took issue with the titles of both shows, Northern Exposure for its meandering moose and The Shield for its kid-friendly jingle. I tried to explain that these were some of the most iconic and beloved aspects of these shows but it fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Much as I love them, I can see why G thinks these gimmick-driven, one-dimensional titles might be doing a disservice to the shows.

‘Stupid moose’-G

But sometimes G’s sales resistance is difficult to break down. Her response to the Pilot of Breaking Bad was ‘That’s it?’. I wanted to argue with her but it did seem slight in comparison to later episodes and I didn’t think my observation that it was a ‘postmodern version of MacGyver would make it seem any more profound. Twin Peaks was apparently ‘all dialogue’, which is a new one for Lynch critiques, and only became visually stimulating when the donuts came out.  In these instances, I did what every good salesperson should and tried to associate the product with something the customer knows and likes. ‘It’s like Northern Exposure…but with murders’ I said of Twin Peaks. ‘It’s Malcolm in the Middle on meth’, I said of Breaking Bad. ‘You watch Malcolm in the Middle? What are you, 10?’ G responded. I guess my cold reading skills aren’t as good as I thought. Or maybe the prospect of Bryan Cranston in underpants isn’t as alluring to the rest of the world as it is to me.

Just me, then…

On other occasions I became a victim of my own salesmanship. I’ve managed to hook G on a hoard of arresting novelty shows that I’m fast losing interest in. This means I’m watching their tiresomely protracted runs again as exactly the point when I’ve given up on them. 24 and Damages are the chief culprits here, both of them wildly overlong elaborations on an initially brilliant premise. I didn’t think I could lose much more respect for 24 than had already gone but sitting through those final few seasons again with their automated scenarios and tedious twistiness I think it went subterranean. Worse, as the gruesome compulsion to clear all the episodes in as little time as possible accelerated, the show became like wallpaper in our house, an ever-present wall-adornment barely noticeable to our jaded eyes. G is still at the point in Damages where the promise of finding out what will happen in the ongoing story arc is yet to be beaten down by the knowledge of what does happen. But I can see this fading fast. G’s already worked out that they’re only keeping a serial story strand so as not to lose Ted Danson from the series.

A reason for sticking with Damages.

Although G came to Mad Men much later than me, thus allowing me to cherry-pick the most tolerable episodes from the dreary first few seasons, we’ve both turned sour on the series at about the same time. Actually, G got there first before I was willing to admit that the party was over. Midway through the most recent season, the sixth overall, I remember her asking ‘Where’s the advertising gone?’, which should have been enough of an alarm bell given that it’s the equivalent to Cheers forgetting to feature beer. For me, though, it was the sexual reunion of one of the series’ estranged couples that signalled the end of quality. Breaking a rule of good television established in Northern Exposure, it haphazardly thrust (in every sense of the word!) two characters together whose entire function was to carry the suggestion of romantic involvement without ever reaching that point. G turned to me the other day and said ‘I miss British TV’. I think it might be time to start offering a new product line.

 

If you like these blog posts why not follow my new twitter account @tvinaword where I create new words to describe TV shows. Send your own and if I like them I’ll retweet them!

TV Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve been (hardly) working my way through Breaking Bad, one of the more remarkable American TV shows of our time, and one of the most striking features of the series is its timeframe. Eschewing the TV rule of thumb that the time onscreen runs parallel with the duration of the initial broadcast, all 5 seasons of AMC’s family crime dramedy take place over the course of a couple of years (there’s a few episodes left but all indications are we’ll go no further ahead than that) effectively making the series a period piece by the time it finishes in 2013. This jeopardises Breaking Bad’s plausibility. The tectonic shifts in character and flurry of cataclysmic events which transform a high school chemistry teacher into an international druglord would be far more credible if spread over a vast number of years. Inside an 18-month window, it puts the series in the realms of bizarre melodrama. We also can’t take what happens to the characters as development as no-one has the luxury of time for any significant growth to occur. Instead, we’re witnessing how the cast of characters react to crises and trauma and watching them expose the existing depths of their personalities.

From Walter White to Heisenberg…in a year?

The time we watch TV is regulated and ongoing so it’s natural for most shows to try and match this for the sake of minimum disruption. Look how seasons of The Office begin with a re-cap of what happened to the characters during the Summer, when the show was off-air, simply to remind audiences that the onscreen and offscreen time syncs up and that the hiatus experienced by viewers was simultaneously endured by the characters. It’s especially important to make sure TV shows can capitalise on seasonally themed episodes (Christmas, Halloween) by juxtaposing them with the time they occur in the real world. Deviating from this scheduling ritual is a source of much innovation and originality in US TV. Unconventional uses of time can be the difference between cliché-ridded formula fare and mould-breaking masterpiece. People were happy to forget what a laboured potboiler 24 was because of its real-time season-as-a-day format and that the non-linear point-of-view narrated Boomtown was just another cancellation fodder cop show. It can even just be temporary relief from a format that is grindingly rigid in how it treats time. Brain-sparing cause-and-effect procedural CSI frequently throws in a flashback or reverse episodes to break the monotony.

Cliche + Time = 24

In a show like Breaking Bad, quirky time management isn’t the first blow of brilliance hitting you over the head but more like a gentle pat on the shoulder reassuring you of quality. If timing is the most noticeable characteristic of a programme, then chances are it will be a fast-fading novelty. 24 lasted 10 years on air but no-one in TV seems especially interested in using its format again. Boomtown was cancelled after 2 seasons once all possibilities of fragmented viewpoint-driven storytelling had been exhausted. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the entirety of Twin Peaks and Deadwood without acknowledging how each episode crafts its multiple storylines into one day’s worth of time and lose nothing of their artistic brilliance. Indeed it seems perfectly in tune with Twin Peaks’ satire of soap opera and tendency towards the supernaturally fantastic that such an overwhelming wealth of events occur in a ludicrously short space of time. More than that, equating a single episode with 1 day has subsequently become TV’s way of making it seem like it’s running alongside everyday life. Unlike the patchy coverage we get from calendar-linked shows, here we never miss a minute of the action.

30 Days in the Life of Twin Peaks

It would be wrong to assume that US TV shows deal with time in a way that is abstract or avant-garde. Even the most altered state of TV time is highly structured and controlled. The dream world of Twin Peaks may have ruptured the show’s real world chronology but it was only ever there in the first place to plug a gap in the middle of the screenplay of the pilot. The spread of TV might be amorphous and ever-expanding but individual programmes and their runs are tightly timetabled and time within them needs to follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the innovations of time in TV storytelling have complimented the scheduling of the programme. US TV dramas are an hour fitted into a run of 21-25 hence a thriller set over 24 hours with each episode an hour. So is Breaking Bad doing something genuinely outlandish? Time will tell.

 

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