Archive for csi

Telly-picking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Tom Steward

As someone who has spent the best part of their life enthusing, studying and writing about television, I often get asked what’s best to watch, as if I have access to a secret channel that only the TV wing of Mensa are eligible to subscribe for. I’m always hesitant to answer. As a self-confessed TV snob, I know that whoever’s asking will have dipped their toes into far more shows than I ever have and experimented with titles I would have simply dismissed. When you teach the tube (if you’re doing it properly) you learn to embrace more of the spectrum of what we might call television. So I’m worried I would answer with something insane like CBS’ coverage of the NFL or a public access schools programme about surrealism. It’s also because there’s now so much choice in television that it’s possible (at least as a middle-class white man) to find a show that caters exclusively to you. I genuinely couldn’t say whether or not Boardwalk Empire is great TV since it features just about everything I love in this world (gangsters, American history, HBO, Steve Buscemi), achieving distinction in my eyes just by being made in my lifetime.

Boardwalk Empire: If you don’t like it, you’re not me.

When people ask I’m pretty sure they want a good drama to sink their teeth into and aren’t asking for advice on what rolling news service they should tune to. Givens that, (pun not typo) my go-to is always Justified which I can universally recommend with more, ahem, justification than my TV make-your-own pizza Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that’s off a lot of people’s radar, or at the bottom of their list, so I feel I might actually be telling them something they don’t know rather than sounding like I’m reading from a list of trending tags. There’s plenty for me to get excited about as an Elmore Leonard aficionado and lover of TV westerns and cop shows but there’s something for everyone here. Every character from walk-on to lead is immaculately written and acted (even Bubba from Forest Gump) and there are beautiful men and women to gaze at, whether you like rough or smooth, or both. If you like your CSIs and your SVUs there’s a whole, complete and expertly crafted story each week. If you’re more of a long game person, behold the four seasons of onion-peel plot development and character works-in-progress like the ever-elusive Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Without sounding like all the good things are in the past-to paraphrase Stevie Wonder-Justified represents a kind of television there’s a severe shortage of today. A medley of action, story, humour and character that’s entirely entertaining and yet never lacking in quality and complexity, not seen fully since The Rockford Files. With kicking dialogue and music to boot, you can’t go wrong. And you’ll be in love with from the first scene.

A Justified choice!

I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years. How can I tell someone to start watching Breaking Bad in full knowledge that nothing compelling will happen until the third season? Sons of Anarchy doesn’t even come together until the fifth season! That’s roughly fifty hours of television to tunnel through before seeing any kind of daylight. In all but the rarest cases, we’re talking about shows that you can’t tell someone to jump into already knee-deep in story so you’re really signing them up for work as much as enriching their lives. You see people that you’ve recommended slow-burning TV series to and you can see they’re worn down and trying to think of something nice to say in order to match your enthusiasm but sweating pure ambivalence. If I think someone has the strength of character to endure the grind, I may nod them in the direction of The Walking Dead purely because it’s only a mini-series worth of mediocrity before it all starts to fall in place, a comparative blink of the eye. Fancy a bet on a rank outsider? Try Portlandia. Ostensibly a location-specific sketch show, it’s actually more freely artistic and socially incisive than most TV comedy or drama. You can keep asking me what’s good but most of the time either you know or you don’t want to know.

Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

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.

 

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.

 

Wedding Sets

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

G and I are getting married next year so she now has a reason-and not just a fetish-for watching bridal programmes and I can’t say no to the wedding show. Actually, I don’t much mind them. On the whole, they’re blissfully free of the snipe and snark that accompanies most reality TV formats and seem genuinely good-natured. Given that they’re about such a self-contained event, wedding reality shows are incredibly varied. At its most basic, you have behind-the-scenes bridal shop programmes like Say Yes to the Dress, I Found the Gown and My New Frock Rocks (ok, I made that last one up!). There are a couple of variations on the format. First, a CSI-style Atlanta-based spin-off of SYTTD which Stepford-clones the original, save for a few biscuit-and-gravy aphorisms. Secondly, Randy to the Rescue, a travelling version of the above which loses the cosy bridal lounge in favour of a swag truck and opens like a deleted scene from Duel.

Randy to the Rescue: Say Yes to the Dress meets Duel

Then there’s a host of reality shows which cover the planning stages of the wedding. These can take the form of exploitomentries like Bridezillas where control freak brides-to-be are made to seem sociopathic by having Bernard Herrman-style strings played under their every move. Or shows about the wedding planners themselves, such as My Fair Wedding with David Tutera in which couples try to turn around their faltering wedding plans by sending plea letters to the eponymous Santa Claus of nuptials. Tutera is like the anti-Simon Cowell. It’s clear from his wry facial expressions he’s thinking all kinds of bitchy things about his tasteless clients but he keeps it all in, even going to the lengths of surgically removing all features from his face so that he never betrays a discouraging emotion again.

David Tutera: The anti-Simon Cowell

The closer we get to the actual ceremony, the more game showy the genre gets. Four Weddings has brides competing against each other for a free honeymoon as they score each other’s wedding day. It’s an irresistible format, one familiar to British and Australian audiences from the disgustingly addictive dinner-party contest Come Dine with Me, and keeping the contrasting backgrounds and lifestyles of the contestants which makes for such entertaining conflict. In keeping with the congenial tone of the genre, though, the brides rarely resort to sideswiping, even in their private interviews. Nonetheless, they love to complain and scrutinise on a sub-atomic level (Note to engaged couples: get plenty of food to people in a timely fashion and you’ll be fine) and many brides are clearly rattled by anything outside their socio-economic comfort zone. Other ceremony-based formats include the devil-child aborted wedding prank show The Real Wedding Crashers, rightly taken off the air after three ruined wedding days.

Four Weddings and a New Orleans Funeral

Wedding shows are not simply an American TV phenomenon either. In the UK there’s a longstanding tradition of bridal reality programmes like Don’t Tell the Bride, where, incredibly, a bride-to-be hands power-of-matrimony over to the groom and their respective family and friends, abiding to live with the results while she abstains from involvement until the wedding day. What seems like the stuff of pre-nuptial nightmares actually turns out pretty well most of the time. The grooms’ eccentricities and fashion blind spots are easily forgiven by their fiancées given the amount of effort they’ve expended, and their natural male thriftiness leads to creativity as much as it does catastrophe. Family and friends form a nice counterbalance which seems to prevent some of the impending design disasters that waft through the idea stages like an unreasonable fart.

Wedding Day Banana Skins

Four Weddings is actually a UK format but I should keep quiet about its native origins as G doesn’t like it when I spoil her favourite shows with copyright trivia, especially when it exposes the uncomfortable truth about the new British colonisation of American pop culture. It probably does explain why the scoring system on the show is so complicated since we like our game shows impenetrable to non-maths majors. One British contribution to wedding TV I’m sure G is happy about, though, is the point-and-prod sub-culture circus that is My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, in which the gaudy ritual excesses of wedding design in the British traveller community are pressed up against the zoo-bar like glass of TV screens in middle-class homes. Fortunately, it’s possible to ignore the judgemental treatment of minority groups and celebrate the elaborate visual spectacle of dresses that Grace Jones would call tame and the superficial goodness of the cartoon kitsch splashed across everything from morning make-up to late night send-off.

Life-size novelty toilet roll holders recalled to factory

But this blog post is not just a sign of impending nuptials but also the result of a field trip. Last Sunday G and I attended a bridal show at the Hotel Del Coronado (bear in mind when G first met me I was wearing a cookie-monster t-shirt) where we met bridal shop fashion director and star of SYTTD Atlanta Monte Durham. Though G didn’t take me up on my suggestion that we bring her DVR list for Monte to sign, she did manage to snag some pro-bono gown consultancy (my gal’s a scrimper at heart!) and we left bathed in the warm glow of his refinement and Southern gentlemanliness. The wedding trade is a swollen industry and bridal shows are undoubtedly inflating the bubble but they lack the mean-spirited edge of other televised business ventures and, thanks to the Montes of the genre, are mainly harbingers of happiness.

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