Archive for dallas

The Balking Dead

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

I didn’t blog yesterday as usual because I was at my first (American) football (not soccer/football) game, which coincidentally took up the whole day due to stoppages for television. I’m glad though because now I get to talk about something that happened on TV last night. WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT UP TO DATE WITH THE WALKING DEAD OR ARE PLANNING ON BINGEING THE SERIES IN THE FUTURE (UNLESS YOU TEND TO FORGET TV DRAMA CHARACTERS AS IF THEY WERE CONTESTANTS ON THE BACHELOR).

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find...

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find…

On Sunday’s The Walking Dead, everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic pizza delivery boy – with the possible exception of Fry from Futurama – Glen Rhee apparently died. I say ‘apparently’ because while visually we seem to have seen his demise (and intestines), the storytelling, which continues intertextually in post-show discussion program Talking Dead, left Glen’s fate ambiguous, despite the unlikelihood of his escape from a throng of hungry, handsy walkers. In a series where every character is already to some degree dead, the writers and directors are obliged to be specific about what character is in which state of death. Moreover, the emotion surrounding certain leading characters, including Glen who has been there from the start, means there is an unwritten rule that they be killed visibly and memorably, so as to not play with or minimise those feelings.

Last night, when it came to ‘killing’ Glen, The Walking Dead did neither. Add this to the absence of the character death rituals on Talking Dead of having the actor appear as a guest and a slow-motion replay of their death on the mock-mournful ‘In Memoriam’ section of the show, and it appears that either the producers are playing a dangerous game with Walking Dead fans or floating the possibility that we didn’t see what we think we did. A note read out on Talking Dead by producer Scott M. Gimple hedged their bets even further, saying that ‘a version…or part’ of Glen would return to ‘complete the story’. Lost creator Damon Lindelof was a guest on the show – which is perhaps another clue that in a show where everyone is already dead anything is possible (OH YEAH DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN LOST) – and found it hard to believe that The Walking Dead would pull a Dallas and have Glen return from the dead against all conceivable odds.

Not that it will surprise anyone who suffered through all six seasons of Lost but Lindelof may be overstating the case here. The Walking Dead is rather fond of melodramatic cliffhangers, as the final ‘how do we get out of this’ moment of Season Four nicely illustrates. The show is not above waiting off on spoiling the death of a character if it helps heighten the drama. In Season Five, we didn’t know Bob had been bitten for nearly a whole episode until he finally revealed it to the cannibals who had just eaten his leg for dinner. The quality seal of the Mad Men network (which is also a guarantee of having to watch crappy action and horror movies back-to-back) sometimes makes us forget that what we’re watching here is popular genre television – quite literally a televised comic strip – in which such matinee-style twists and turns are not only possible, but rather their stock-in-trade.

Don't take it out on me, it's this guy's fault!

Don’t take it out on me, it’s this guy’s fault!

No-one doubts the class of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories yet the author had the Great Detective return from the dead in implausible circumstances. More to the point, I can see about three or four different ways Glen could have escaped from the pile of walkers he was crowd-surfing on. A couple of those have already been tried and tested in the series, so while the Talking Dead panel saw the callbacks to Glen’s earlier episodes as signs of his impending death, they may also spell the solution to his survival. All of this rhetoric might be my way of deflecting deep-seated sadness about seeing Glen depart The Walking Dead, and of course I’d rather all this conspiracy theorising be true rather than false (as anyone who purports a conspiracy theory does). But don’t underestimate the extra-textual games that TV producers in the digital age are willing to play to maintain interest in their program. One day we might be talking about the ‘Glen hoax’ in the same way we talk about affinity-based publicity stunts like ‘new Coke’. On a story level, if Glen does survive the unsurvivable, it’s a sure sign he’ll be the last man walking.

Jumping Jacks & Sharks and Recreation

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, which is TV-speak for when something happens in a TV series that precludes any subsequent developments from being taken seriously. The term derives from a scene in the fifth-season premiere of 1950s-set American nostalgia sitcom Happy Days in which Dad-aged TV surrogate of cool The Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis. The phrase did not come into popular usage until the late 1990s – twenty years after the episode aired – when radio and web personality Jon Hein compiled a list of TV shows that declined badly in quality on his website jumptheshark.com. It’s been on my mind because the condition seemed to be peculiar to television series, especially the American ones that go on too long, and yet lately I’ve heard ‘jumping the shark’ used in connection to all walks of life. Also, there are some shows currently on the air that reminded me how easy it is to ‘jump the shark’. Can shark-jumping apply to anything but television and what does it mean for a TV show when that fin appears above the water?

Choppy Days!

Choppy Days!

First of all, it’s unfair to implicate Happy Days in this phraseology. People didn’t watch Happy Days for realism but rather nostalgia, kitsch and fun. The series always had room for flights of fancy, like the special science-fiction episode which introduced Robin Williams’ alien Mork to TV. If we were to go back and coin another phrase that better describes what we’re talking about, we might go instead with a reference to a show that genuinely lost its way. We could talk about TV shows that ‘found a dead man in the shower’, recalling the time that super-soap Dallas made an entire season worth of episodes a dream in order to bring star Patrick Duffy back from the dead as Bobby Ewing. The producers of Dallas forgot that just because melodrama isn’t always convincing, it can’t simply be nonsense. We might even say that a series has ‘won the Illinois lottery’ in lieu of the lottery win which made the working-class Conner family in the sitcom Roseanne into millionaires for the entirety of the final season, duly sabotaging the show’s uniquely stark and undiluted portrayal of blue-collar life.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron use ‘jumping the shark’ in reference to social media when describing the show’s ‘shirt on/shirt off’ Twitter voting campaign for one of its male dancers but not, strangely, when discussing the tanking ABC series Agents of Shield. In his casually amazing stand-up special Obsessed shown on Comedy Central over Easter, comedian Jim Gaffigan accused Yum Yum Donuts of ‘jumping the shark’ on business names. Apparently, the phrase has been widespread in media, business and politics for years now. There’s not really much you can do once a phrase has infiltrated popular culture (or we’d have redacted ‘selfie’ from history by now), but we should remember its roots in TV. TV shows don’t ‘jump the shark’ intentionally but as a symptom of a worn-out format, a capitulation of principles or a desperate need to survive. So much of American TV is about keeping shows on the air at any price and prolonging their natural lifespan that ‘jumping the shark’ is inevitable, and much more so than in other forms of culture.

Sitcom of the Future?

Sitcom of the Future?

Season six of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation recently had its finale and in its final few seconds arguably lost all credibility as a sitcom grounded in contemporary reality. From this point on, we’ll be watching a sitcom set in the projected near future, and nothing can undo that. This all happened for the sake of resolving story problems that the writers had themselves created and a few discontinuity gags. It’s pretty clear that a TV show doesn’t need a grandstanding spectacle to ‘jump the shark’; it can do it casually under viewers’ noses. This week marks the return of 24, which probably holds the water-speed record on shark-jumping throughout its previous eight seasons of amnesia, faked deaths, nukes and conspiracies. Yet audiences still bestow the show with the legitimacy that graced its first, and only truly believable, season. There are even websites that count the number of times a TV show has ‘jumped the shark’ during its run. Even though we may assume a show can’t come back from ‘jumping the shark’, clearly it can and we might just have to accept that it’s something that happens organically to TV shows.

TV in Short

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

The significance and impact of American TV shows are usually measured by longevity since it takes an inordinate amount of public will, critical favour and cultural reputation to dodge cancellation year after year. But every so often a programme with a relatively short life on the air ends up being hugely influential in TV, art and culture. Premature cancellation often becomes part of the show’s cult – see Josh Whedon’s Firefly – or masks a rapid decline in quality that makes another season seem deeply undesirable. Either way, these programmes tend not to be cancelled before their time but are just way ahead of their time. It’s hard to see how many of these shows could go on but harder to imagine what future denizens of popular culture would have done without them as inspiration. Here are some TV shows with small runs that ended up being a big deal:

Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)

The future of American popular culture

A Wonder Years for the remaining 99.99999% of the American population that didn’t draw a life lesson from every single incident of their education, this stripped-back yet heart-warming look at high school from the perspectives of its most marginalised students lasted only one season on the air. But the show has sent ripples through American popular culture ever since. Producer Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James (Di optional) Franco and Jason Segal have completely sewn up US movie and TV comedy in the 15 years since the show aired and they now rank as some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Moreover, Freaks and Geeks incorporation of the socially outcast and physically different into mainstream teen television made a cultural phenomenon like Glee possible and the show’s unglamorous depiction of young Americans is the essence of Apatow and Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls.

Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991)

Like Laura Palmer Twin Peaks dies young.

Widely credited as the show that brought American TV into touch with fine art, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s sci-fi procedural super-soap also heralded a revolution in television storytelling. Melodramas such as Dallas and Dynasty had already shown that ongoing stories and cliffhanger endings weren’t an anathema to primetime popularity but Twin Peaks demonstrated that a single storyline could captivate audiences over a year of television. The question of ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ would have normally been answered in as little as 60 minutes of television but took over a year and half to be settled. Now detective programs all over the world from Denmark’s Forbrydelsen to Britain’s Broadchurch wear the season-long mystery as a badge of quality. In fact, it was only when Twin Peaks tied up the Laura Palmer case and pursued half-baked replacement storylines that the program was cancelled following its second season.

Cop Rock (ABC, 1990)

Cops Rock!

By 1990, producer Steven Bochco was already established as someone who mixed television genres but this medley of musical and police procedural was a step too far for most people when it aired. How times have changed. One of the biggest TV hits of recent years has been Glee, a high school dramedy liberally peppered with musical numbers and – as witnessed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and How I Met Your Mother – it’s long been considered de rigueur for TV shows to have a musical episode. Of course, it’s one thing to have a show whose premise falls naturally into song and another to try to crowbar music into a decidedly spoken-word genre. It’s also worth remembering that what viewers enjoy about one-off musical episodes is their novelty and Cop Rock was relentlessly musical. It’s maybe why the show never lasted beyond 11 episodes.

Doctor Who: The Movie (Fox, 1996)

Before Dr. Phil there was…

The long-running cult UK science-fiction series had been off the air for 7 years when Fox decided to revive it as a show that could live in America and alongside stylish adult science-fiction like The X-Files. The feature-length pilot tried to keep one foot in both camps, playing as a continuation of the series rather than an American re-make while changing some of the key aspects of the programme’s mythology. Consequently, the revival alienated both the fan base and new audiences and the pilot was never picked up. The people behind the re-launched UK version of the program were obviously not as turned off as viewers at the time. New Doctor Who has taken on many of the US re-vamps, including its romantic predilections, focus on special effects and elaborate set design, and these have helped make it the international hit it is today.

 

 

 

 

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. 

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.

Downtown Abbey

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

No wonder Americans think we still live in castles. Thanks to one of Britain’s most popular TV exports to America, the nation would be forgiven for assuming that the downtown areas of our cities look like the grounds of stately homes. Being as British and American accents differ, or that we ‘have an accent’ as I’m more readily informed here, G and I’m sure others were led to believe that the ‘Downton’ in Downton Abbey was not a place but a direction. The downtowns of US cities are comparable to the restaurant, nightlife and shopping quarters of UK city centres and high streets. If it really was Downtown Abbey, Central London would be some sort of class-system role-play theme park where in order to get lunch visitors would have to adorn Edwardian clothing playing either the aristocracy or servants and compete to see which side could repress more of their pasts.

Carson da Butler

Downton is in fact the fictional Yorkshire-based setting of Julian Fellowes’ (the egg-shaped man who apologises for aristocratic misdeeds on UK talk shows) and Gareth Neame’s ITV Sunday-night period drama series Downton Abbey. It’s clear from very early on that things tend to come to Downton rather than the other way around; people, cars, war, Spanish flu. It seems that 1912 to 1919 in British history was just people arriving at doors. Unlike most geographically-fixed locations for TV shows, like Jersey Shore,which seem able to go virtually anywhere in the world, DA probably won’t venture further than that the post office in the village where the servants receive blackmail letters. When war ‘came to Downton Abbey’ it went by so fast that it seemed to have actually been fought in the grounds of the building, like a game of Risk gone awry.

War has come to Downton Abbey

One of the most pleasing aspects of the programme is that it is unashamedly soap opera. The BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House in 2005 tried to show viewers how period drama could work as soap opera by flagging up similarities between serialised 19th Century novels and modern-day soaps, putting each episode on twice-weekly like Eastenders or Coronation Street. DAonly runs at 8 or 9 episodes per season but its eccentric storylines delivered in intimate conversations between paired characters which then cyclically wind around a single location like a tape spool leave a distinctly soapy residue. It seems it’s not just the form but the content of soap opera that works in period costume. G likens DA to the ‘Telenovela’, continuing dramas on TV in Latin American countries which have much of the melodrama and contrivance of soaps but have shorter runs that end definitively.

Just like Downton

For lovers of classic British TV, movies and books there’s not much new here. At times it feels like an infomercial for a Greatest Hits album of historical great house stories-isn’t this Upstairs Downstairs?-that’s just Mrs Danvers from Rebecca-didn’t they do that in Brideshead Revisited?-but not available in the shops, just illegal download in the US. For many in America, however, DA seemed new and different. Maybe it was the absence of a certain stuffiness in British period drama that can be off-putting to lay viewers. DA in contrast is jokey, emotionally engaging and accessible. Perhaps it taps into the same demand for stories of wealth and status that brought Dallas back to TV, with added topical pleasures of seeing the rich dragged into the mud of reality through war, inter-class marriage and scandal. Or could it be that Americans are more comfortable with us as things of the past?

Look familiar?

Whatever the source of DA’s appeal, it has a novelty currency in the US that British TV viewers wouldn’t necessarily see. Sunday-night, period-set serials are ten-a-penny/a dime-a-dozen (delete as appropriate) in the UK and I’d say Downton Abbey succeeds by virtue of the quality of its performances, dialogue and loving ridiculousness of storyline which sets it apart from never-classic fare like 60s-set rural emergency services dramas Heartbeat and The Royal. Propping up the first two qualities with a cane she’d-use-if-she-had-to is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Maggie may be bribing the script editor as she’s been given enough witticisms, barbs, jibes, punchlines and put-downs to make Groucho Marx seem politely reserved, delivering them with a ‘who me’ innocence that befits the roundest eyes in showbusiness. As a measure of the third there is Bates (Brendan Coyle), the unluckiest man to have lived in the existence of the world, dinosaurs inclusive. With a slight shift in tone, he could be Oliver Hardy.

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