Archive for frasier

Box Spin

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

On Sunday and Monday, as part of a 2-night event (isn’t everything these days?) AMC debuted Better Call Saul, a spin-off from its corner-turning drama series Breaking Bad based around Walter White’s kitschily corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman. For reasons that can only lead to spoilers, Better Call Saul is a prequel. Despite the unabated popularity of Breaking Bad and the character, there’s still the risk that a spin-off would damage the reputation of the programme, especially one that promotes to protagonist a character who mainly functioned as much-needed comic relief in one of the bleakest shows on television. AMC needn’t have worried because, as with all good long-form television, Saul grew into a much more rounded character as Breaking Bad went on (lest we forget that Walt started out as a clown) and it’s this version of the character that Better Call Saul has inherited. But in TV the odds aren’t against them (or as against them) since there’s nothing to say a spin-off show won’t be as good as or even better than the original.

Check out Better Call Saul!

Check out Better Call Saul!

As Steve Coogan self-reflexively observes in The Trip to Italy there are only ever one or two movies anybody ever quotes when arguing that sequels can be better than the original. Of course, TV has its go-to canon of superior spin-offs (Frasier and anything produced by Norman Lear, who understood the value of maintaining a universe of characters decades before Marvel Studios cottoned on to the idea) but the medium has a pretty good hit rate when it comes to franchises. TV is so generically nebulous (modern quality TV even more so) that it barely matters when a spin-off is more or less comic than its predecessor. In today’s TV when series take so long to hit their stride, their spin-offs may even pick up a show when the quality’s still good and perhaps before they’ve had time to peak. This seems to be what’s happening with Better Call Saul which reaches heights in its first two episodes that it took Breaking Bad (despite its calculated seriality) three seasons to achieve.

But what we’ve seen of Better Call Saul isn’t free of the pitfalls of spin-offs either. Gratuitous cameos from former cast members are one of the biggest obstacles to spin-offs being able to fly solo, and this one has them in spades. The re-appearance of gnome-faced security man Mike in the unfamiliar role of a car park attendant is not at all the problem. We know that history will draw the two men together, so we expect to see him enter Saul’s life somehow. But running into loose-cannon drug dealer and Walt’s former distributor Tuco in a coincidence that would make Dickens blush (plus members of his gang who also appeared in Breaking Bad) really is a step too far. Although some of this is the problem of prequels. Prompted by the none-too-subtle nods of the writers, we’re constantly anticipating moments from Breaking Bad instead of enjoying what the new ones have to offer. Despite the pleasing evocation of middle-America at its most moribund in opening black-and-white images recalling Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which star Bob Odenkirk also featured in), it may have been a mistake to start at the end.

Aside from these distractions, which may have been the result of the writers sensibly trying to break Bad fans in, we’re left with a series whose name may one day be called without company. It will never completely transcend Breaking Bad, especially with original creator Vince Gilligan at the helm here too, but I’m confident we’ll soon be able to consider them separately. It’s possible to foresee Better Call Saul doing for the portrayal of lawyers what Breaking Bad did for scientists. Like Walt, Saul is not just the grumpy maverick we’re used to when confronted with so-called ‘antiheros’; he’s a criminal with a deviant moral code. That said, while we always suspected that Walt was acting out of pure self-interest (which was confirmed by the finale), there’s the irony that the earlier incarnation of villain Saul comes across far more nobly and altruistically than ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ Walt ever did. We can still think about Walt without making Saul any less interesting.

One of these is not like the other.

One of these is not like the other.

If I’m jumping the gun here, it’s because TV history tells me there’s nothing to worry about. When a spin-off is terrible it’s usually because there’s nothing left in the tank. Breaking Bad’s by-the-numbers finale always felt like it was holding something back. It was. A sequel. A prequel. A new modern monster.

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Flipping Channels

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Tom Steward

When adjusting to TV in another country foreign viewers need all the help they can get. Even something as basic as the name of the channel can provide indispensable clues to the kind of programmes likely to appear. Unfortunately after flipping through the channels on American TV I’m none the wiser. The naming of networks here seems to be ironic. All I found on The Travel Channel were programmes about the excessive intake of high-calorie foods which make Americans less able to move. When I turned over to The Learning Channel I saw wall-to-wall programming about people without formal educations. By the time I got to The History Channel I wasn’t at all surprised to find a show about the latest cars on the market. Given that the networks score hit-after-hit by commissioning against type, I’ve come up with a list of channels that might benefit from a bizarro re-brand:

 

Current Network Name: HBO (Home Box Office)

‘It’s still TV’

New Network Name: OGSD (Outdoor Gas Station DVD)

 

New Slogan: ‘It’s still TV’

 

Changes to Network: The channel ident will have to be changed. Instead of celestial white letters burning transcendently out of the white noise of a TV screen against the sound of a heavenly choir, there will be a pixelating logo of a limp hot dog on a pirated DVD menu (with only a ‘Play Movie’ option) for a 90s thriller starring Ice Cube and the sound of a trucker dumping audible in the background.

 

Marketing Strategy: Subscription free with any Slurpie.

 

Current Network Name: USA

‘Characters arrested on sight’

New Network Name: The Islamic Republic of Iran

 

New Slogan: ‘Characters Arrested on Sight’

 

Changes to Network: The network will commission a new Law & Order spin-off called ‘State Torture Victims Unit’. They will also develop a home-cooking themed reality show called ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Ahmaddinejad?’ in which the Iranian President drops by to share the evening meals of families across America.

 

Marketing Strategy: Sell original programmes to a rival network until they become hit shows on the other channel and that network starts to make its own original programming. At this time the network president will appear in public denouncing the rival network’s original programmes and demand that they cancel them. If this strategy fails the network will threaten their rival with a ratings war by putting on all-day back-to-back re-runs of Two and a Half Men.

 

 

Current Network Name: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)

‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

New Network Name: The Romney Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

 

Changes to Network: Bert and Ernie will need to be evicted from Sesame Street in accordance with network president Romney’s views on gay marriage. Downton Abbey will be pulled and replaced by Downtown Antimony, a historical drama about the Utah metal mining industry.

 

Marketing Strategy: Instead of telethons, funding for the network will come from Super Pacs and rather than a free tote bag, viewers will receive a visit from a Mormon minister, whether they contribute money to the network or not.

 

 

Current Network Name: The Weather Channel

‘Weather has never been less important’

New Network Name: The Air Conditioning Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘The Weather Has Never Been Less Important’

 

Changes to Network: Reporters will now do their segments to camera indoors standing in front of the draft from a dehumidifier for dramatic effect. Al Roker’s ‘look at the weather where you are’ will become a close-up of a thermostat.

 

Marketing Strategy: Are you kidding me? How the hell do you market weather anyway?

 

 

Current Network Name: Fox News

‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

New Network Name: Fox Unsubstantiated Rumours

 

New Slogan: ‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

 

Changes to Network: None.

 

Marketing Strategy: Anchors will no longer have to pretend that they don’t agree with everything Karl Rove says or concede to statistical facts like election victories. Otherwise, on message.

 

 

Current Network Name: Lifetime

‘Your death. Your purgatory’

New Network Name: All Eternity

 

New Slogan: ‘Your Death. Your Purgatory’

 

Changes to Network: To compliment the feeling of burning in hell forever original movies will run continuously on a loop without episodes of Frasier to break up the torture. Dance Moms will have a themed episode in which the students re-create the Thriller video and Abby Miller, hopefully, decomposes.

 

Marketing Strategy: Re-tool all original reality shows to include death. One Born Every Minute gains a sister programme called Make Way for Babies in which new parents have to decide on an old person to kill in order to balance the population. The Week the Women Went takes on a darker aspect as it becomes clear they’re not coming back.

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.

Christmas TV: The low-low-lows

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

Christmas is a time for being trapped at home. Naturally, the choice medium of the housebound-the television-comes into play to provide mental escape from physical confines, as a side dish to gluttony, and because, like Eat-Me Dates, it is there and demands to be consumed. Demographically-desperate TV channels are sure to know about this literally captive audience and yet it often seems schedulers pay less attention to the festive period than they do their nightscreens (even the test card changes its kid and midget clown during puberty and pantomime season). It’s a response to the crisis in broadcast television reminiscent of the Fiscal Cliff; ignoring opportunities to prevent impending austerity until the situation gets so desperate that either television ceases airing at Christmas or the stations compromise and show a torn-out magazine photograph of Bing Crosby for two weeks. So how has TV cancelled Christmas? Here’s some of the low-low-lows:

1. Shows about old comedy

When G was here last Christmas every comedy programme we saw was a) a documentary b) about comedy from at least twenty years ago and c) featured men dressing up as women. If funds were directed towards making memorable new seasonal comedy instead of commissioning tribute shows that are the television equivalent of trapped wind, then perhaps we’ll have something other than nostalgia to be nostalgic for in twenty Christmases time. In an episode of King of the Hill, Peggy tries to explain the sophistication of British comedy to Bobby, whose response is ‘Why’s that man wearing a dress?’. G may well have asked the same question. It is not one I can answer, having been born in the 1980s.

2. Channel 5’s Scrooge

Scrooge in the form of a colouring book.

After showing every single made-for-TV movie version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol during the Christmas holidays, including one starring Kelsey Grammer that looks like a Frasier dream sequence, the UK’s leading Hitler documentarians Channel 5 try to redeem themselves every Christmas Eve by showing the 1951 Alastair Sim original. However, to add insult to injury, they choose every year to show a colourised Turnervision version of the film where the colour schemes have been taken from a box of Quality Street. The haunting black-and-white of the film is lost to garishly misjudged colours that would seem gaudy in Yellow Submarine. It’s been so many years now it can’t be an oversight, just a slight tantamount to putting lipstick on Dickens’ corpse.

3. Christmas line-ups

Christmas is a ritual of ruttish repetition and the line-up of programmes on TV tends to follow suit. Now I’m not saying we should have Adam Curtis documentaries about caged turkey farming in the middle of Christmas day but since we know the kinds of programmes that are going to turn up each year, why not re-jig them a little for the sake of novelty? They’ll doubtless be a seasonal special of an obsolete sitcom, a premiere of a film that has been watched in every conceivable medium (including cave art), and a freak edition of a programme re-formatted to include singing. Can’t we have once have a different set of names to make the purchase of a Christmas Radio Times worthwhile?

4. Christmas advertising

‘You may leave the kitchen to present the turkey but return immediately or I’ll lamp you’

If you’re boxed in for Christmas, chances are you’ll have to witness some hefty seasonal TV advertising. These are all-or-nothing flagship campaigns for British stores, brimming with celebrity, extraneous art direction and turkey ham-fisted attempts at cinematic grandeur. Or at least they were. The theme this year has been budget-consciousness, with high-end supermarket Waitrose giving us a bare set and donating filming money to charity and middle-range shop Asda giving us snapshots of everyday family life at Christmas. Except Waitrose’s spread-the-wealth ethos says nothing about reducing advertising costs to make food more affordable and Asda’s vision of family life is so horribly sexist it could be storyboarded from a Victorian manual for women. Extravagant or sincere, TV advertising still loses the public.

5. No Christmas Ghost Stories

Midnight Mass will never be the same again!

Britain has a long, weird and slightly sadistic tradition of using Christmas TV to scare the shit out of people. Throughout the 1970s BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas with its adaptations of classic supernatural yarns delivered with brutal realism chilled the nation to the bone and some later homages to these ho-ho-horror stories, such as The League of Gentleman Christmas Special showed that at Christmas we need to be afraid, no matter what Bob Geldof and Midge Ure might say. But alas, and thanks in part to a frankly rubbish revival of Ghost Stories that looked like it was filmed on a special camera left over from the CSI set, they are deceased and haunt us from a DVD afterlife.

 

 

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