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Live Another UK

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Perennial bad penny of television 24 returned to our screens last week, four years after the show’s cancellation, which everyone – other than flagging network Fox it seems – felt was already long overdue. Along with being cut in half (12 must not be a sellable number these days), one of the more remarkable changes to the series, sub-titled Live Another Day, is its re-location to London. In the later years of the series proper, 24 left America’s centre of terrorist activity L.A. to tour the East Coast with seasons seven and eight set in Washington and New York respectively. The show only ever ventured from U.S. shores when its many presidents would harangue middle-eastern statesmen by phone to reveal their country’s official secrets in order to avert a nuclear attack they know nothing about. African-set spin-off TV movie 24: Redemption is the exception here, but everyone concerned would I’m sure like to write that abomination out of the show’s history along with ER’s excursion into the dark continent of television. Besides, 24 was always characterised more by rampant xenophobia than cosmopolitanism. So why on earth would the producers of 24 want to re-launch the series in The Big Smoke?

24 solves mystery of London's traffic problem.

24 solves mystery of London’s traffic problem.

Well, the official explanation is that setting Live Another Day in London pays tribute to the UK TV audiences and critics who championed 24 in its early years when the US was still ambivalent. The first and second seasons of 24 were essential cult viewing when they aired on the free-to-air channel BBC Two in the early 2000s, gaining a large and devoted viewership, incessant national media attention and even a digital BBC sister show in a mould recently revived by AMC’s Talking Dead. The Guardian’s TV critic Charlie Brooker even had to be asked by his editors to stop writing about the show in his weekly column. 24 was lost to the nation as a watercooler show once premium satellite channel Sky One bought the exclusive rights to air the series from season three onwards, but Britain doubtless helped to ensure renewal in the years before the show was a signature Fox mainstay, and became too big to cancel. If this is the case, then speaking for the entirety of the UK – which as an ex-pat I do daily – we’re flattered. But will Britain end up resenting 24 in a manner previously reserved for Dick Van Dyke?

Three episodes in, it’s too early to tell but the signs are encouraging. Live Another Day has so far conspicuously avoided the axis of bobbies, minis and red phone-boxes that still dominates the representation of Britain in American popular culture. Sometimes, it even looks like it was conceived by someone who knows London, or has at least obsessively Google-street-viewed it. The season premiere opened with an East-London street market scene that authentically captured the area’s large Asian population, a fact of our diversity that Americans often miss. Whether or not the Prime Minister would have been a caricature of the privileged classes anyway I’m not sure, but that’s what we currently have, and Stephen Fry’s neckless bumbler is a suitably Cameronesque figure. Apart from some tourist traps like assuming that someone could pursue a Tube train through Central London by driving, the show is pretty faithful to the city’s geography and infrastructure and, at the time of writing, we’ve seen way more of London’s liminal council estates and industrial wastelands than its tourist hardware. We don’t see natives often, but when we do they have the sarcasm and cynicism towards America’s intelligence melodrama that I expect from my fellow Britons.

Jack's in a pickle again!

Jack’s in a pickle again!

Sadly, the cinematographers have CSI’d the show’s colour palette, making London more grey than it actually is, which I didn’t think possible. As revelations about the origin of the attacks unfold, I’m beginning to worry that we’re about to be portrayed as a country that harbours and sympathises with middle-eastern terrorism, rather than one that benignly questions the motives of US foreign wars from time-to-time. Given 24’s scapegoating of anyone East of Alaska, I’m not sure those Asian and Eastern-European Londoners are going to stay innocent bystanders for long. Of course, this London layover is symptomatic of a broader reverse-colonization of American television by UK popular culture, with a quota of British acting in every new show. It comes at a time when Bravo is launching the reality show Ladies of London looking at the city’s transatlantic socialites. As self-appointed visual archive of the rich and famous, Bravo is hardly likely to offer us a London in accordance with social realities. Preview material of a barrow boy speaking entirely in cockney rhyming-slang more or less confirms this. So at a time when American TV is obsessing over Britain without ever attempting to understand it, should we be grateful for Jack?

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Double Act

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by Tom Steward

One of the toughest tasks in acting is creating a unique and memorable character that becomes completely synonymous with the actor. One of the toughest tasks in TV acting is to do it twice. Cinema and theatre actors are asked to do this every time they appear, unless reprising a role in which case they won’t play the part more than a few times. But due to the lengthy and ongoing nature of most TV fiction, small screen actors tend to play one part continuously over a number of years, embedding themselves in the public’s consciousness as a single character. Many TV actors struggle to transcend these defining roles, either failing to convince when playing conflicting parts or returning to screens as thinly disguised versions of their most remembered character.

Alan Alda: Forever Hawkeye

Alan Alda will always be Hawkeye Pierce-the Korean War medic he played during the 11 years MASH was on the air-and much more so than Donald Sutherland who originated the character. While Sutherland would continue to add iconic screen characters to his name (John Klute, Fellini’s Casanova, The Man on the Bench in JFK), Alda would stay a hawk in eagle’s clothing. This is partly the problem of Alda being cast in roles which functioned as tributes to his MASH character, like his stint as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence in ER. But the shadow cast by MASH was too enduring for him to escape even when subsequent performances were superior, such as his turn as presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing featuring a semi-improvised debate filmed under live conditions.

Dennis Franz and his costume for the last 20 years.

Dennis Franz is quintessentially Andy Sipowicz to most TV viewers after 12 years playing the character throughout the entire run of NYPD Blue but could also conceivably be remembered as Norman Buntz for his 4 years in the role in Hill Street Blues and eponymous spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz. It would seem Franz achieved the impossible and created two wholly separate characters that he is instantly identifiable with if it weren’t for the fact that Sipowicz and Buntz were 2 sides of the same maverick antihero cop coin. Actor Daniel Benzali was first introduced in a major role to TV viewers in NYPD Blue as mob lawyer James Sinclair and then a year later played criminal defence attorney Teddy Hoffman in Murder One, the same character but with different moralities.

Benzali in his best acting role yet…a pop singer!

I’m put in mind of these peculiarities of TV acting because I’m currently watching FX’s modern-day western detective series Justified which features not one but two performances where the actors have bucked this trend and created new characters distinct from those they were previously renowned for. It’s now impossible to think of these two actors without having both of their characters in mind and yet they never become confused. This feat is even more remarkable as said actors have achieved recognition as a second character while playing roles which on paper look identical to the ones they previously inhabited and in like shows. It’s a rare ability that’s enough to put an actor in a television elite but almost unheard of from two different actors in the same TV programme.

Two great actors, four great characters!

The actors in question are Timothy Olyphant, who previously portrayed the reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood and currently plays anachronistic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, and Walton Goggins, formerly shit-kicking scumbag corrupt cop Shane Vendrell in The Shield and now Justified’s resident anti-villain Boyd Crowder. Olyphant plays Bullock and Givens as self-styled western lawmen poseurs (helped considerably by his gunslinger profile and Eastwood-like gait) but the former is humourless and ascetic whereas the latter is all about freewheeling comedy and casual vices. Both are altruists fighting hedonistic urges but while Raylan seeks justification or soft substitutes for his pleasures of the flesh (whether manoeuvring felons into quick draws or indulging an ice cream fetish), Seth punishes himself for all transgressions to the point where he is psychotically repressed.

Boyd Crowder isn’t just Shane Vendrell in drag.

It would have been tremendously easy for Goggins to play Crowder as a twin of Vendrell, the amoral and emotionally child-like southern states cop-turned-criminal. Both men are at root ugly, bigoted criminals who are nonetheless veneered with Dixie charm and flirt with respectable social institutions, be it the law or the church. There are shades of Shane in the race terrorist Boyd we first encounter in the Justified pilot but he soon emerges as a man locked in a paralysing performance of deadpan ambivalence and courtesy reconciling his inner contradictions of benign religious servitude and venal gangsterism. If the job of acting is to transform oneself repeatedly then TV could be seen as a hindrance to the profession. On the other hand, we become attached to one character they create far more than in any other medium. Two of American TV’s finest actors are demonstrating that we can have both.

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

Tarantino on TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Tom Steward

Like a racist American businessman announcing self-deportation after Obama’s re-election or an old-school British entertainer forewarning a one-man emigration movement in wake of a 1990s Labour landslide, Quentin Tarantino has threatened to quit cinema. In a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director discussed his desire to retire because of the industry conversion to digital cameras and projection. But what debased metaphor could possibly capture the dire straits that the film industry now finds itself in? ‘I mean, it’s television in public’, said QT, as if there was nothing less dignified. To add insult to injury, Tarantino may have to lower himself to actually working in television. ‘If I’m gonna do television in public, I’d rather just write one of my big scripts as a miniseries for HBO’, he said, declaring his intention to slum it with such mediocre fare as The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

I quit says QT!

I’ll admit I expected more than bald TV-bashing from Tarantino, a director who has never been embarrassed to borrow influences from TV-see his adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode ‘Man from the South’ for the portmanteau film Four Rooms or his use of a refrain from the Ironside theme tune as a leitmotif in Kill Bill. Besides, he always seemed entirely comfortable with the prospect of directing for television. Let’s not forget that Tarantino directed a formative episode of lauded medical series ER called ‘Motherhood’ which not only saw his signature style and imagery seamlessly interweave with the fabric of 90s TV drama but also pioneered many of the show’s representational strategies, not least its handling of gore and casual violence. Tarantino also managed to direct an episode of CSI in which you actually cared about the characters and somehow managed to artfully deploy the series’ egregious audio-visual excesses.

A QT word in your ear!

Using TV to flagellate cinema runs contrary to what I think of as Tarantino’s egalitarian approach to popular culture. The usual snobbery you find from film directors about the aesthetically inferior nature and lack of artistic worth of television always seemed alien to QT, who appeared to recognise that it was at the heart of the popular, commercial Western imagery he was so fond of reappropriating, like a modern-day Lichtenstein. This makes his belligerent reluctance to making ‘a miniseries for HBO’ harder to swallow, especially as an announcement such as this deserves to be accompanied with enthusiasm and pride. Tarantino even admitted that this change of medium could solve a number of problems with producing his work as cinema. Speaking of the extended running and production time of HBO’s series, he said ‘I don’t have the time pressure I’m usually under, and I get to actually use all the script’.

Tarantino hangovers some nurses!

I’m sympathetic to Tarantino’s rage against the digital takeover of cinema and, as someone who finds that the signal beamed on to his television works far better than the digital projector at his local picturehouse, empathise with his feeling that television provides a better platform for a director than a medium that is now ‘film’ in name only. But he should take comfort in knowing that veteran film directors can use TV networks like HBO to reach artistic heights that their later-period movies continually fail to achieve. Mike Nichols hasn’t been able to make an above-average romantic comedy in decades and yet his HBO miniseries Angels in America was a transcendent delight. Scorsese hasn’t done a gangster movie in the last 20 years that could compete with Boardwalk Empire. Even an indie-hack like Gus van Sant looks like Ken Loach when surrounded by the hard-hitting political drama of Starz’s Boss.

CSI’s in Grave Danger of giving a damn!

Not to sound too much like a tele-fundamentalist but quite frankly Tarantino’s work has gotten too big for cinema. Since the two-part Kill Bill franchise, QT’s films have tended towards the epic and become distinguishable by their languor. This has protracted his cinematic vision and also compacted it at times, as in cases of cut-downs such as Death Proof. Like his beloved generational family martial arts TV sagas that spawned Kill Bill, television’s massive and never-ending texts and perma-fashion for serial storytelling can accommodate Tarantino’s expansive scale and indulgent timekeeping without a hint of bloat. A smaller screen it might be but it’s also a lot more elastic than the 3-hour radius of the silver one. At a purely PR level, Tarantino’s announcement might not have invoked the desired shock and dismay. For a director not exactly at his creative peak, the prospect of a TV afterlife looks positively heavenly.

 

 

Johnson & Johnson

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2011 by Tom Steward

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing sporadically which try to raise the profile of some of American TV’s most unfairly neglected artistic talent. We begin this week with actor-director Clark Johnson.

Clark Johnson as Gus in 'The Wire'

'People can't be evacuated...well they can. But that's not what you mean'

The unsung heroes of American television are the directors. While journalists, scholars and fans (not to mention the artists themselves) rhapsodise about US TV writers and producers like Steven Bochco and Joss Whedon, they are perfectly content to ignore, marginalise or deride the directors who carve out the visual and dramatic life of programmes. Direction seems only to be valued when it is either combined with writing and production to construct the myth of the omnipotent TV auteur or when it is attached to a big marquee name in the media, most likely from the cinema (e.g. Quentin Tarantino’s episodes of ER and CSI). Some in the academic community, like Tise Vahimagi and John Caldwell, have tried to bring the work of TV directors to light but even then directors of Pilots get all the credit while directors of random episodes are seen as artless journeymen anonymously re-hashing someone else’s vision.

ER, 'Motherhood'

'ER' directed by Quentin Tarantino

Another production ritual in American TV that slips by most commentators and audiences is actors going behind the camera. Look at the later episodes of virtually any of your favourite US shows and you’ll invariably see its stars and supporting actors taking up the directorial reins for a week or two. As US TV shows have a very limited shelf life thanks to the spectre of cancellation which hangs over even the most popular and acclaimed series, a direction job can give actors more options and opportunities for work in the industry, especially for the less well-known ensemble players.

The subject of this blog is an actor from a renowned ‘90s cop drama, who went behind the camera only to create the enduring stylistic template and dramatic conventions for two of the most significant, innovative and exceptional police programmes of the last twenty years, perhaps ever. And what’s more, he went back on screen at the end of both of them to claim his deserved dues. Clark Johnson rose to public prominence playing the cool yet intemperate, honourable yet eminently fallible Baltimore police detective Meldrick Lewis in Paul Attanasio’s Homicide: Life on the Street based on David Simon’s book. Johnson’s performance helped to forge a distinct identity for the programme as a cop show that didn’t feel the need to romanticise or kowtow to the powers of its protagonists, particularly when bringing out Lewis’ reckless and impetuous side when crashing a police car into an ambulance in an early episode.

'Homicide: Life on the Street'

Clark Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis in 'Homicide: Life on the Street'

With a handful of behind-the-camera credits on Homicide, Johnson began to build up a portfolio of directing jobs on US TV in many of the most acclaimed dramas of the time e.g. NYPD Blue, The West Wing. Johnson seemed able to adjust to the distinct visual and dramatic styles of these shows effortlessly while successfully steering some conceptually tricky episodes and giving viewers some of these series’ most memorable moments, like Alison Janney’s hilarious and sexy mime to Ronny Jordan’s spoken word acid jazz piece ‘The Jackal’ in The West Wing.

In 2002, Johnson pulled off a remarkable and practically unparalleled feat as he directed the Pilot and initial episodes of two crime dramas that would blow the lid off the American police procedural, but for very different reasons. In Shawn Ryan’s L.A. police corruption drama The Shield Johnson invented the kinetic and jolting camera style that made the programme so arresting and exhilarating and helped craft the visceral energy and sly humour that made Michael Chiklis’ Detective Vic Mackey America’s most feared and entertaining bent copper. Conversely, in Baltimore-set drugs investigation drama The Wire, Johnson set in motion a near-invisible and highly methodical visual approach that avoided aggrandising or distorting the show’s complex portrayal of American institutions while laying the foundations for some of the most compelling, attractive and finely-tuned character performances ever seen on TV. These directorial styles were poles apart and demonstrated Johnson’s brilliance at finding the aesthetic most suited to the concept and ambitions of a programme.

'The Shield' and 'The Wire'

Johnson's two triumphs

As these series drew to a close, Johnson not only presided over the direction of the finales but also returned to the screen in befitting tributes to his instrumental role in their success. In Season Five of The Wire, he plays Gus, the City Editor for The Baltimore Sun, a highly meta-textual role in which he is bestowed the honour of voicing the ethos of the series to represent society in all its collective complexity. In the finale of The Shield he plays the federal agent who takes Mackey’s wife and kids away from his Beelzebub-like hold, inadvertently becoming the hero of the piece. On the credits Johnson is listed as ‘Handsome Marshall’. He’s earned that adjective.

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