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Away Sky

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s no shock that here in the States TV shows go on far too long or that they change drastically over time. Most series signpost their anti-ageing facelifts to viewers with the help of subtitles, which act as disclaimers for authenticity and longevity, as in the later years of Saved by the Bell or on the opposite end of the scale (it thinks!) American Horror Story. Others more confident of their status as season-long anthology plays such as True Detective and Fargo will re-cast completely each year to demonstrate that it is the concept not the characters that are the stars. Despite this amnesty on self-adaptation, some shows still seem wary of admitting to viewers that they have renewed themselves in the process of maintenance.

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Chief among them is Homeland. Showtime’s CIA thriller has killed off the character around which the show revolved, re-located to another country, and butchered its beautiful title sequence, which was always as good as (and increasingly better than) anything that followed. Yet it still goes under the name Homeland and goes around acting as if nothing has happened. Frankly, it’s a bit of a cheat. Having revealed itself as a concept that barely had enough material for a mini-series, perhaps it would have wiser to position the post-Brody Homeland as a spin-off or linked franchise entry. With the emigration of the series, it could be Homeland: Kabul or as Damien Lewis re-appears shrunken in all but hair as Brody’s baby son, Homeland: The Next Generation.

I’m not serious about these title tweaks, but the point is that TV has ways and means to suggest that a show has changed dramatically without any detriment to the brand or canon. It’s a win-win situation. The viewer base for the series will return in loyalty to their show and if hideous it can be written or quietly killed off in complete deniability of any resemblance to the original. There is precedent for this in the Columbo spouse-off featuring the elusive Columbo Indoors. Mrs. Columbo starring captain-turned-convict Kate Mulgrew was intended to be a mystery following the amateur sleuthing of Columbo’s wife. It was so unpopular and implausible that producers decided Kate Columbo just happened to be married to another detective with the surname.

In the last four years, Key & Peele has been one of the smartest and most culturally relevant comedy programmes on American TV, and surely a historical high point in TV sketch comedy. This season they have forgone what for many viewers was the highlight of the show, their semi-improvised skits in front of a studio audience introducing the main sketches. There are also noticeably fewer sketches per show, and a shift in the framing of the series towards the cerebral with a sombre western motif in the re-recorded theme tune and filmed introductions. With the amount of time they’ve been on the air, and my suspicion that the changes were forced by a busy production schedule, I don’t begrudge it. But I don’t approve.

The ‘live’ segments of Key & Peele may have been too much of a nod backwards to traditional vaudeville for those obsessed with innovation, but they were the show’s unique selling point. They were bouncy, energetic, and personable, with many of the loosely improvised moments standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the pre-written material in terms of quality. The pre-recorded banter this has been replaced with just seems flat and inert by comparison (with the exception of the discussion about ventriloquist dummy ‘Willy Talk?’). Equally, I feel that what set the sketches apart from the Saturday Night Live School was how tightly-scripted and effectively concluded they were. With sketches stretched to a commercial beat and post-punchline by close-of-play, they’re dragging like Lorne Michaels’ feet about hiring black women.

Did they write that?

Did they write that?

I am, of course, a hypocrite. An aspect of AMC’s The Walking Dead I greatly enjoy is how the concept of the series can periodically change in the space of a few episodes. At the beginning of last year, it was a show about farming. This time round it’s about shooting cannibals with sub-machine guns. Yes, the idea of movement is ingrained in the title, and change has been a part of the formula from the beginning, but it’s still got away with en-masse recasting and retooling without any acknowledgement to the viewer. I suppose the difference is that between growing and living. The Walking Dead evolved into something greater than it was while Homeland and Key & Peele maimed their greatness to carry on.

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Just a quickie (that’s what she said)

Posted in American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2011 by Tom Steward

Sorry to tear you away from your viewing (Columbo, I assume) but I just wanted to do a quick one about my favourite depiction of blogging on American TV. TV has always had trouble knowing how best to incorporate the internet into its programmes, often simply resorting to compiling clips from YouTube and putting them into a chart countdown format. And this makes the clip I’ve chosen doubly impressive. The Office: An American Workplace is a remake of the seminal British sitcom The Office that has surpassed the original in many ways, particularly in its development of the supporting cast of characters, two of whom are central to this clip.

 So Ryan the put-open (and later Machiavellian) office temp fools the unassumingly sinister paper salesman Creed into thinking he’s writing a blog when in fact he’s merely harmlessly firing away heinous observations into a word document. This vignette brilliantly captures the way that many people get so overawed by the wonder of new technology and so willingly buy in to the myth of absolute convenience that they fool themselves into believing that anything can be done for a minimum of effort. The fake blog is a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes; Creed knows nothing about blogging except that it’s the fashion and although he’s never seen it with his own eyes he believes his blog’s out here. And this is in an age where every commercial debut of a new device feels exactly like the unveiling of a naked royal. The characterisation of the internet as a place where the dark recesses of the human psyche gain full expression is a familiar one to anybody who’s ever scrawled down a set of user comments on a blog or news page. But the disturbing suggestion that Creed’s thoughts are too extreme ‘even for the internet’ is one that brings out perfectly the latent terror of the character while tantalising us with an unseen Pandora’s Box of hateful prose.

But what I really love about this clip is that it reminds me of me. Like Creed, I’m writing this blog whilst being completely in the dark about how it really works. I too feel like I’m pouring out copy into a word document and hoping that internet fairies like Ryan will be scrupulous enough to ensure it makes it out on to the web. I’m always surprised other people read it.

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