Archive for fargo

Away Sky

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s no shock that here in the States TV shows go on far too long or that they change drastically over time. Most series signpost their anti-ageing facelifts to viewers with the help of subtitles, which act as disclaimers for authenticity and longevity, as in the later years of Saved by the Bell or on the opposite end of the scale (it thinks!) American Horror Story. Others more confident of their status as season-long anthology plays such as True Detective and Fargo will re-cast completely each year to demonstrate that it is the concept not the characters that are the stars. Despite this amnesty on self-adaptation, some shows still seem wary of admitting to viewers that they have renewed themselves in the process of maintenance.

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Chief among them is Homeland. Showtime’s CIA thriller has killed off the character around which the show revolved, re-located to another country, and butchered its beautiful title sequence, which was always as good as (and increasingly better than) anything that followed. Yet it still goes under the name Homeland and goes around acting as if nothing has happened. Frankly, it’s a bit of a cheat. Having revealed itself as a concept that barely had enough material for a mini-series, perhaps it would have wiser to position the post-Brody Homeland as a spin-off or linked franchise entry. With the emigration of the series, it could be Homeland: Kabul or as Damien Lewis re-appears shrunken in all but hair as Brody’s baby son, Homeland: The Next Generation.

I’m not serious about these title tweaks, but the point is that TV has ways and means to suggest that a show has changed dramatically without any detriment to the brand or canon. It’s a win-win situation. The viewer base for the series will return in loyalty to their show and if hideous it can be written or quietly killed off in complete deniability of any resemblance to the original. There is precedent for this in the Columbo spouse-off featuring the elusive Columbo Indoors. Mrs. Columbo starring captain-turned-convict Kate Mulgrew was intended to be a mystery following the amateur sleuthing of Columbo’s wife. It was so unpopular and implausible that producers decided Kate Columbo just happened to be married to another detective with the surname.

In the last four years, Key & Peele has been one of the smartest and most culturally relevant comedy programmes on American TV, and surely a historical high point in TV sketch comedy. This season they have forgone what for many viewers was the highlight of the show, their semi-improvised skits in front of a studio audience introducing the main sketches. There are also noticeably fewer sketches per show, and a shift in the framing of the series towards the cerebral with a sombre western motif in the re-recorded theme tune and filmed introductions. With the amount of time they’ve been on the air, and my suspicion that the changes were forced by a busy production schedule, I don’t begrudge it. But I don’t approve.

The ‘live’ segments of Key & Peele may have been too much of a nod backwards to traditional vaudeville for those obsessed with innovation, but they were the show’s unique selling point. They were bouncy, energetic, and personable, with many of the loosely improvised moments standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the pre-written material in terms of quality. The pre-recorded banter this has been replaced with just seems flat and inert by comparison (with the exception of the discussion about ventriloquist dummy ‘Willy Talk?’). Equally, I feel that what set the sketches apart from the Saturday Night Live School was how tightly-scripted and effectively concluded they were. With sketches stretched to a commercial beat and post-punchline by close-of-play, they’re dragging like Lorne Michaels’ feet about hiring black women.

Did they write that?

Did they write that?

I am, of course, a hypocrite. An aspect of AMC’s The Walking Dead I greatly enjoy is how the concept of the series can periodically change in the space of a few episodes. At the beginning of last year, it was a show about farming. This time round it’s about shooting cannibals with sub-machine guns. Yes, the idea of movement is ingrained in the title, and change has been a part of the formula from the beginning, but it’s still got away with en-masse recasting and retooling without any acknowledgement to the viewer. I suppose the difference is that between growing and living. The Walking Dead evolved into something greater than it was while Homeland and Key & Peele maimed their greatness to carry on.

Box Jumps

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television. Each idea that has any kind of success with or impact on viewers will be re-circulated more or less unmodified until the imitation has paled to the point it recalls the scene in Moulin Rouge where Nicole Kidman pretends to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. This is why there are currently five series airing on US television (that I can name!) about software developers and why so many recent TV dramas use flashback, even though it runs counter to the logic of television’s simultaneous time. A particularly alarming television trend doing the rounds at the moment is arbitrary jumps in time that leave huge gaps in series timelines. Rather than heralding a new style of TV storytelling, these flashforwards seem more like afterthoughts designed to resolve awkward continuity problems.

Fargo the year!

Fargo the year!

It was recently announced that the final season of HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire would take place in 1931, seven years after the end of the previous season, which had covered the late teens and early twenties in its first four seasons. The final few minutes of the latest season of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation jumped three years ahead, omitting Leslie Knope’s pregnancy, the birth of her triplets, and the first years of her new job. FX’s thriller mini-series Fargo skipped a year in its last few episodes, this time allowing police Deputy Molly to get pregnant and criminal conspirators Lester and Lorne to start new lives. After nine episodes out of twelve, we’re still waiting for the belated revival of 24, Live Another Day, to jump a few hours to get us to the end of the day before the season ends, as promised by the show’s producers.

When TV shows did this in the past, it always smacked of desperation. It was no coincidence that Desperate Housewives jumped five years in its fifth season the same time as viewers were leaving the show in droves. Nor was a secret that One Tree Hill’s skip ahead four years halfway through its run was a thinly veiled attempt to bring characters’ ages into touch with the actors playing them. The time jump might be being deployed in a slightly smarter way these days, with Parks and Recreation’s implication that the nation has missed out on a three-year recurring guest role from Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who is fired from Leslie’s office seconds after the ellipsis. But if you look at where the jumps are situated in the runs of these series, and think about why they should happen at that exact point, you’ll see they are no less crude.

As with flashbacks, part of the problem is that time jumps upset the way time works in television. It’s conventional that TV time runs concurrently with the time in which we live out our lives, and pleasurably so since much of the joy of watching TV is the way it syncs with what we’re doing. Time jumps invariably put a show ahead of the time of viewing, which makes it a kind of science-fiction, and would be fine if that’s what the programme-makers were going for. Aside from problems of realism and plausibility caused by the time jump, it also puts viewers at odds with programmes rather than it seguing with their daily and weekly lives. It’s also more of a placebo for story problems than a panacea. Things take time to work themselves out in television, and television should remain a record of that not a remedy for it.

Look what we missed!

Look what we missed!

A time jump might have relieved Parks and Recreation viewers of another pregnancy storyline but it also cheated them of character development. It’s very much a self-written corner since no-one asked the writers to put two pregnancies back-to-back. The loss of a full year in Fargo deprived the series of the suspenseful and tightly-knit storytelling that held the show together, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying denouement. We’ve yet to see how 24 will skip ahead to later hours of the day, but it’s bound to disrupt the real-time orthodoxy of the premise. The producers of Boardwalk Empire may feel they have more justification to move forward in time since it is a historical piece. My initial thoughts are that the 1930s is a very different animal historically, and that Boardwalk Empire can’t help but become a different programme. Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?

 

Reality TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.’

These words appear onscreen before the opening credits of every episode of Fargo (so far) in front of the master shot one sentence at a time, with a gradual fade on the first one which leaves the word ‘true’ alone on the screen for a second. They follow a network warning which also tells viewers how real the show is going to be, but here it is not the veracity of the events depicted in question but the adult nature of its content. First-time viewers will most likely accept these words on face value as they are delivered without a trace of irony in the solemn legalese one expects from such prefixes. Those coming to Fargo from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie on which it is based will probably be in on the joke, if only for the sake of not being fooled twice. They will remember that the movie opened with almost the same words, the only difference being the date which was originally ‘1987’. Most of them will have subsequently discovered that this was in fact a lie…in fact. I doubt the producers of Fargo are counting on people falling for the same trick but choosing to begin each show with a hoax is more than mere homage.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The series would have to have been made anticipating viewers instantly finding out about the movie’s hoax from any number of debunking websites and presuming the same of the TV version, or at least assuming fiction until there is evidence to the contrary. As the programme rewards knowledge of the original film by segueing their storylines into a coherent fictional world, we can deduce that if one is bogus, the other is too. The original prefix was clearly designed to convince audiences of its legitimacy, with formal white text on a serious black screen set aside from the dramatic body of the movie. The adaptation more or less tells us the prefix is phoney, reduced to its basic meaning (‘true’) to show us how flimsy and insubstantial it is without the window-dressing of dates and places. Despite all these mitigations, I still can’t help but feel that the producers are clinging to the hope that somebody somewhere will be duped if only because of the longstanding reputation of television as a truth-telling medium. They may be counting on viewers making distinctions between the way TV witnesses events of the world and how movies provide escape from it to get them to buy into the illusion against their better judgement. This could be why we get the prefix week-upon-week rather than at the beginning of the season. Indeed, I hope it has been included in attempt to pull off a hoax against the odds of a multi-platform age of information plenitude.

White Lies.

White Lies.

After all, TV still cares about distinguishing truth from fiction, or at least it pretends to. After carrying us along with a montage-based fiction for an hour, many reality programmes remind us with a straight face that ‘portions of the programme have been edited’, though as we have not seen a reaction taking place in the same shot as the preceding action for the entirety of the episode, we can guess as much. Simply from the self-evident fabrications of what we see, we are as aware that a reality programme is fiction offered as fact as we are that Fargo isn’t and never was a ‘true story’. But reality TV producers aren’t putting up the disclaimers because they think we’re suspicious about the truth of what we see. They’re doing it so as not to be accused of cheating. The disclaimer usually comes with the condition that it applies to parts of the episode ‘not affecting the outcome of the competition’. It’s not being lied to that is the problem, but what we’re being lied to about. In the hierarchy of reality television, making an artificially conceived competition reasonably fair to contestants is more important than representing people fairly. There isn’t anyone specific being lied about it in the Fargo prefix, but by claiming that the events actually happened in a certain place and time, there is a distinct odour of misrepresentation, at least regionally. Maybe Fargo’s built-in self-denials derive more from fear of offence than disillusion with the masquerade.

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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