Archive for dancing with the stars

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.

 

Back to Reality

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

Despite the name, reality TV is unflinching in its adherence to the conventions of their rigid formats. It’s tantalising when a reality TV show throws out those conventions but then doubly deflating when they still manage to collapse under the crushing weight of formula after deviating from format. Breaking with convention has also become a branding strategy for many reality shows (especially the long-running ones) so it becomes difficult to separate an experimentation with format from marketing bullshit. I’ve encountered a couple of instances of this recently. Celebrity Wife Swap is the US version of a European reality format in which the long-term partners of male celebrities exchange lives for a week. The latest season began with an episode that changed the rules of the game significantly and almost to the point of abstraction. Instead of men swapping partners it was the women that exchanged their significant other, who were also women. The partners were not romantic peers but live-in blood relatives, and different relations on each side. Comedienne and broadcaster Joan Rivers took in Bristol Palin, reality-star celebrity daughter of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, while Rivers’ daughter, TV producer Melissa Rivers, went to live with Willow Palin, Bristol’s sister.

You’re my wife/daughter/sister now!

This loose interpretation of the format may have been motivated simply by the draw of the personalities involved and the prospect of an entertaining confrontation between Joan Rivers and Bristol Palin after Rivers’ frequent jokes about the Dancing with the Stars contestant’s weight in the press. But the sister and daughter swap had the potential to undercut the patriarchy of the format and suggest alternative living arrangements or definitions of family (alas none of them gay or friendship-based). It also promised that something different would happen, since the roles of daughter and sister are so incongruous and the impact of exchanging family members unknown territory. Somehow the formula of reality TV resisted these challenges from the reality of family life to reproduce the same outcomes. The couples struggled to understand each other, they seem like they will never overcome their differences, then they do, quickly, saving recriminations for their own spouse and ending with the promise of the couple having a better relationship in the future because of the experience. The peculiar dynamics of the relationships seem to make no difference-be it sibling parents or inter-generational mothers-and are entirely secondary to ticking these boxes every week, more Bruckheimer than Broomfield.

Families are all the same…or they will be by the time we’re done.

This year’s season of The Bachelorette was billed by host Chris Harrison as having the ‘most dramatic finale ever’. Even the studio audience balked at that. By the host’s own admission, all season finales are preceded by puffed-up rhetoric promising shocking and surprising twists and turns in the normal course of the show, with a gap between promise and outcome big enough to make it a standing joke with viewers. Last year the final episode of The Bachelorette was cut in half by the contestant choosing her partner early. This was a departure from format that seemed to suggest that contestants were able to mould the conventions of the programme to their desires rather than being cogs in a media machine. But the disruption also annoyed viewers by eliminating the suspense built into the final stages of the competition. It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it. This year’s season finale had nothing to live up to and everything to prove. It had to stick to the format to the bitter end while looking like it was a breakthrough moment.

‘Keep crying…we’ve got an hour to fill’

Like last year’s finale, the competitive element was jettisoned when eponymous bachelorette Desiree was dumped by her first choice and forwarded the rejection to her most ardent admirer, leaving only one suitor in the running. The finale was split into two parts making a cliffhanger out of the dumping, which only intensified the feeling that Desiree was going home with nothing (excuse the language of commodity exchange but this is basically a game show with prizes). The suspense of the finale strategically shifted to speculation that Desiree’s first choice would return to make a two-horse race and doubts over whether she would accept a proposal from her Plan B. The proposal happened, she accepted, and the other man in her life didn’t come back to complicate things. It almost seems like the opposite of drama to me, and as conventional an outcome as could be mustered. The viewer was not as cheated by the rhetoric as before but only because the reveal was better paced not because it broke free of the restraints of format. It feels like reality TV shows have become propaganda films for their own formats, defending their orthodoxy against any challenges the outside world might bring.

For an account of TV in 799 less words, follow @TVinaword on Twitter…

US News You Lose!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by Tom Steward

 

 

Two superficially dissimilar international new stories dominated American television during my stay: the recession-distraction English wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton and the American-inflicted death of pesky terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. I tried to avoid both of them as much as possible for different reasons. It embarrasses and depresses me that Britain’s international image is so dominated by such a ludicrous, dull and anachronistic institution such as the Royal family. The triumphalism and party atmosphere surrounding the coverage of Bin Laden’s demise on US news channels was alarming and bloodlusty, and I wanted no part in it, even as a spectator. So when I did come into contact with these stories it was primarily by accident and outside the domain of news. I’m not going to slam American TV news outright as so many foreign interlopers do. The cliché of US news channels failing to mention or appropriately cover key international events has a ring of truth to it, and that was increasingly evident while I was there with the lack of information circulated about Gaddafi and the Libya rebellion when in retrospect it seems, in the words of Superhans, it was ‘all kicking off’. But this also means a lot more time for local news reporting, meaning civic or regional matters are extensively covered and debated on TV (however banally), and from a country where regional TV news is in jeopardy, this makes it even more treasurable.

News Coverage of the Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding is US TV News

But these stories were difficult to escape. All my morning shows on the day of the Royal Wedding were attended or discussed by the hosts with a bizarre royalty-envy that ill fits a country founded on telling the King of England to fuck off. Hard to take was Barbara Walters’ live reporting from London, which spat on her American colleagues’ intentionally comic captions as ill-informed nonsense. She then laboriously took us through the correct Royal conventions and traditions in an extreme case of racial Stockholm Syndrome not seen since Madonna starting drinking Timothy Taylor. Regis and Kelly press-ganged their audience into Royal Wedding approval, nationally humiliating those who dared to question the ceremony’s success. At least there was an appreciation of the camp value of the ceremony in some quarters, with the ladies on The View and the panel on Kathy Griffin’s Insightful and Hilarious Take on the Royal Wedding mock-recoiling at the Queen’s garish outfit, head-shaking at the cartoonish behaviour of the Duke of Edinburgh, and hand-rubbing about the potential upstaging of the bride by Middleton’s bridesmaid sister Pippa. Some of this TV detritus actually came upon some accidental insight when The View’s Sherri Shepherd pointed out the blatant racial segregation of the wedding guests, which felt more like the latent anti-monarchism I had hoped would rears its head.

Other commentators had similar problems. The barrage of Royal biography programmes preceding the Wedding on celebrity magazine channels like E! featured voiceovers done in a strange Anglo-American Esperanto, a vocal non-space between peppy MTV VJ and female Tory junior minister. The highlight of the Royal Wedding tie-in programmes was undoubtedly the Lifetime TV movie ‘William and Kate’. Not only were the two lead actors as physically unlike their real-life personages as a pint glass is to a donkey, but the actors cast as their relatives looked completely unlike them also. According to the film, William and Kate studied at The Department of Narnia Studies at The University of Hogwarts, regularly time-travelled to 19th Century rural Ireland for nights out, and William’s fraternity played a daily game where they may only speak in dialogue written by P.G. Wodehouse.  

Princes William and Charles

 

During Dancing with the Stars on the Monday following the killing, host Tom Bergeron somehow managed to crowbar in a reference in response to guest judge Donnie Burns’ remark ‘Nobody but nobody does showbusiness like you Americans’. Bergeron’s face said ‘fuck, yeah’ as he tangentially retorted ‘We Americans have shown ourselves to be good at a few things these past couple of days’. This was followed by an uncomfortable driftwood of applause smelling faintly of public ambivalence, or at least massive unease with Bergeron bringing such a brutal thought into a light entertainment package. Though evidently not the place or time, the pukewarm reception on Dancing with the Stars was far more representative of the melancholy most intelligent adult Americans feel about this than the news footage of masses of young party people using the death of Bin Laden to squeeze another Spring Break out of the calendar.

Dancing with the Stars' Tom Bergeron

'Mission Accomplished' says Tom Bergeron

Top TV Picks

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m just over half way through my stay in the US so here are my Top 5 TV moments from the last two weeks:

  1. Kris Kardashian on morning food show Rachael Ray getting a round of applause for adding parmesan cheese to Pasta Primavera. I still don’t know why.

Ladies and Gentlemen...parmesan cheese!

  1. John Travolta’s cameo as ‘The Dance Doctor’ during Kirstie Alley’s filmed rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars in a classy skit apparently written by the man himself. Travolta playfully pastiched his own performance as Chili Palmer and Elmore Leonard’s cutting dialogue in Get Shorty in his finest and most controlled piece of acting in some years. Almost as good was Kirstie Alley’s disbelief at host Brooke Burke not realizing that this was a pre-written sketch. ‘Really?’, Alley growled, detaching her head from her neck in disapproval, as Burke asked humorlessly what advice Travolta gave to her.
  1. In Anthony’s Bourdain’s No Reservations the self-proclaimed tough guy of fu-cusine and Leonard Cohen lookalike tours the grassroots local food places of Boston with his apparently ker-azy yet to all appearances entirely cogniscent rock star buddy deliberately avoiding the gourmet end of the market ‘and if you don’t like it, fuck you!’. One suspects this mission is not exactly foodie-free once the two mock-fucks start to rhapsodize over the ‘essence of mayonnaise’ in the lobster roll at a Boston seafood joint. Their alcoholic machismo is also somewhat parlayed by the revelation that all hard-boiled toughies can be identified by their fondness for cream soda.
  1. After Grey’s Anatomy star and recording artist Sara Ramirez sings an impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to host Sherri Shepherd on The View, scary schoolmistress Barbara Walters bluntly informs her that ‘we have to pay any time anybody sings that’.

'We have to pay for that'

  1. On daytime View-clone The Talk Sharon Osbourne begins the show by attempting to explain her way out of a tabloid-reported tax snafu about an undisclosed property lease on filing day. Characteristically candid, self-deprecating and silly, Sharon is unimpeachable no matter what her financial wranglings. What hope does she have with real estate and taxes anyway when she can’t even control a house full of small, shitting dogs. However, by order of the IRS the show has been re-named The Tax.

Lovable rogue Sharon Osbourne

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper

 

So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

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