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Special FX

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.

The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.

I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.

The hype is Justified!

The hype is Justified!

So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.

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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. 

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!

Murder 1 24:7 Damages

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2013 by Tom Steward

G: Is he dirty?

 

T: You’re not supposed to know either way yet.

 

G: Is she dirty?

 

T: You find out later.

 

G: Oh…Is he dirty?

 

T: They want you to think that now but he might not be.

 

G: So she’s dirty?

 

T: Yes!

 

G: I knew it.

 

 

And so it goes, the Abbott and Costello routine that accompanies G and I’s 24 marathon, a programme predicated on not knowing if the characters are traitors. Having seen these episodes many times over I know full well that without the promise of these mysteries being solved there’s absolutely no reason to stay through to the end of each season. G needs something to hang on to in order to get through the shark-jumping contest the series bi-annually stages. Without the mirage of end-of-season plot twists, there’s no way she’ll make it through Season 1’s amnesia storyline, by which I mean the storyline written by people who have forgotten the last 20 years of TV drama. There’s even less chance of her surviving Season 2’s surprise wild animal attack, or indeed any of the disproportionately perilous adventures a certain blonde teenager experiences in a post-nothing-actually-happening Los Angeles.

Happy Day!

These frustrations were the price we’d have to pay. We needed story stimulus and audio-visual distraction to prop up our day-long sessions of Uno which, thanks to my filibustering strategy of hoarding +4 wild cards, usually consist of 1 or 2 games. With our playing reserve  extended to two packs (misguidedly introduced to reduced game time!), our short-term recall seemingly non-existent, and our below Jenga-code surfaces, we had played enough Uno to whip through the first season of legal soap Murder One in less than two days. This is a series with a reputation for quick conversion, a mere 2 or 3 episodes into the run enough for discipledom. But I’ve never seen anyone so utterly brainwashed by a programme as G was by this show. The initial 45 minutes of endless exposition and prevarication which for most people is simply the salesman lowering your resistance until you let him into your home was for G the Jehovah’s Witness being invited to stay for dinner. I’m sure this had something to do with it being the perfect sideways-glance television. If anything important is about to happen, the French-door clattering and microphoned drone bee sound effects will let you know in advance. Plus, the screen will turn a different colour.

Luther and Associates

Like any TV hand-me-down, the joy is always the first-time viewer’s observations that have never crossed your mind. I’d never thought to ask what Teddy Hoffman, played by Lex Luther-in-waiting Daniel Benzali, was always looking at out of the blinds of his office windows (our consensus was squirrel) or why the county court had employed a harpsichordist rather than a stenographer. It’s also good to come at a show without your blinkers of pure reverence. Thanks to G’s unfazed eyes, I could see how our continuing fascination with the ambiguous motives and behaviour of businessman Richard Cross is not simply down to the fine character work of trans-generationally-underrated actor Stanley Tucci but also the script refusing to show us anything of his world beyond his mini-operetta performances in Hoffman’s office. I have an unflinching admiration for Benzali’s performance which may well be tinged with sadness at his subsequent lack of fame and being replaced as the series lead by Daphne’s brother from Frasier. This precluded me from seeing-as G did-the actor’s delusion that he was in a Mario Puzo mini-series and that in the scenes with his young daughter, his interpretation of paternal warmth is genuinely disturbing to watch. In fact, if you turned down the sound on the TV in those scenes and had to write one word on a post-it note to stick on his face, chances are it would be ‘paedo’.jko

Danson in the Dock

Just as soon as we’d cleared Murder One we were into the dregs of 24 Season 1. Do we dare plumb the depths of Murder Two, the hard-to-believe-it-exists second season based on the assumptions that what was holding the series back was its beloved lead actor and breakthrough storytelling and that everyone wanted more of the nervy Jewish guy who prepares writs? Was it too soon to plough through 48, the unnecessary-but-surprisingly-competent sequel which at least keeps the super-violent interrogations to an alternate-episode minimum, and thereby sacrifice the last morally justifiable season of this literally tortuous programme? Lest our faith in the foresight of TV writers is Lost we couldn’t let our lasting impression be these failures in planning for a sustainable future. Something had to fill the gap. G was adamant it had to be another one-season wonder with a continuing storyline that wrapped things up in a neat little package…give or take a couple of loose ribbons.

 

 

G: I’m gonna find out what happens this season, right?

 

T: Yeah, it all gets resolved. A couple of threads are left hanging, but nothing important.

 

G: Good, I don’t want to do all this work for nothing.

 

 

I petitioned for Damages. I’d always thought this off-courtroom legal drama should have been kept as a mini-series and this was confirmed in subsequent seasons where the writers can’t think of a good reason to bring Ted Danson back into the show. It seemed perfect for our casino cabaret purposes. Despite Glenn Close’s Cruella de Overkill performance which grates almost immediately, there’s enough intrigue in the sub-plots involving the TV movie Tom Cruise Peter Facinelli and quality TV’s J T Walsh Zeljko Ivanek to make a two-deck shuffle go a little faster. It was also a welcome reminder of the unique screen presence of the silver horse that is Ted Danson. His series-stealing turn as morally suspect millionaire Arthur Frobisher veers beautifully between the effortlessly comic and the unnervingly understated with a douse of inimitable idiosyncrasy. And so it went as quickly as it came. And so did G, with 24 Season 2 as inappropriate in-flight viewing. Everything else was just too damn consistent!

 

 

 

An Engagement with a Tiny Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

Those of you who follow my personal life, which for any amateur blogger is typically their core readership along with those who are sent to your site accidentally by their specialist porn fetish search terms, will already know that over the New Year I proposed to G and she is now my fiancée. I couldn’t be happier with how the proposal went, following lunch on a bench in Kew Gardens instead of dessert and within maiming distance of some geese (it must be love!). Like anything in life which I have no direct experience of, I looked to American TV for advice on how best to handle the situation. For the first time ever, I got nothing back. Going it alone without televisual aids is the reason I’m still alive and out of trouble and G is not in prison and burn-free. Consider an engagement scene in Season 1 of Damages, an anti-courtroom drama which could be subtitled The Devil’s Advocate Wears Prada. Prodigal lawyer (and former musical project leader) Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is proposed to by Supermanesque junior doctor boyfriend David Connor (Noah Bean) in their New York apartment. Ellen is emptying department store bags from her Manhattan shopping spree when she finds a small carrier with a tiny box inside. Despairing at taking home someone else’s shopping, she opens the box, sees the engagement ring and David casually asks her to be his wife. On the surface, this is the kind of intimate, surprising, fun and spontaneous proposal I’d aspire to. However, soon after this David is killed and Ellen becomes the prime suspect in his murder (thanks to the show’s elaborate flashback structure neither of these are spoilers). The message couldn’t be clearer; go informal on the proposal and death and incarceration are sure to follow.


Maybe I’m in the wrong genre. Surely sitcoms-which are sentimental and romantic by nature-would give me a better idea of a proposal that tugs at the heart strings (not that you should ever do that to your arteries). Well, not the ones I watch, apparently. Take the proposal of middle-aged widow Marty Crane (John Mahoney) to girlfriend Ronee (Wendy Malick) in the final season of the touching but never mawkish psychiatrist sitcom Frasier. After arguing about Marty failing to tell Ronee about his heart attack, they competitively snipe and grumble to each other continually until Marty lets his proposal slip and Ronee accepts in retribution. They spitefully settle on it. It’s brilliant piece of writing sidestepping your expectations that proposals in sitcoms will always be warm and fuzzy moments. But what the hell use is that to me?! No self-respecting woman would let their boyfriend get away with proposing in the heat of an argument just to get one over on them. Even the most marriage-affirming couple on American TV, Homer and Marge Simpson, got engaged in a way that could never be repeated in real life with success. The poverty-stricken Homer, now a lowly trainee at a fast-food outlet, puts an onion ring on pregnant Marge’s finger before she asks him to take it off before the grease burns her. Homer, of course, eats the onion ring seconds after removing it. The poignancy of The Simpsons can make unglamorous moments like these seem like the ending of Casablanca, but in the five-fingered world you’d be opening a door to recrimination like never before. Not only would you have to answer for the lack of thought and effort in the gesture but also explain why a wide greasy hole of  high calorie fast-food seems to complement your loved one’s fingers.

In the back of my mind was Michael Scott (Steve Carell) proposing to girlfriend Holly (Amy Ryan) in The Office: An American Workplace, partly because it is such a beautiful scene and partly because they are the couple G and I are most like. Their secret language of annoying voices, unfunny private jokes and impressions of 1930s film gangsters is virtually identical to ours. Michael takes Holly around the office, pointing out all the memories of her that are superimposed on every inch of the floor plan. After all the male employees in the office propose and get rebuffed, Michael draws Holly into her candle-covered cubicle before popping the question and setting off the sprinkler system. This proposal has everything; intimacy, simplicity, stupidity and laughter. Unfortunately, it was still no help to me. Firstly, the idea that John Kransinski could propose to G and she’d still be a free woman by the time I got on my knees is preposterous. Secondly, it has an understated quality that can only come with an overshoot in ring pricing by 33 months (‘3 years’ salary, right?’/‘I think you can keep the proposal simple’). Like most of my generation, the image of Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica from Friends proposing on their knees to each other looms large over the imagination. I doubt, however, that you can ever count on instantaneous applause and weight loss seconds after becoming engaged. But what I’m trying to say in an endlessly roundabout way, as per usual, is that I’m glad American TV gave me nothing to live up or down to, that there was no foolproof formula or pie-in-the-sky ambition to distract me, or perfect moment that made everything else look ordinary. This way, G and I don’t have to share the memory with millions of viewers.

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