Archive for fresh off the boat

Network Failure

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels with tags , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one problem that ABC have – apart from being a Big Three network in an era of digital multiplatforming – it’s authenticity. For two years in a row, debuting primetime offerings from the network have been pulled up for artificially rendering their source material. The complaints are as much from authors as critics. Second-generation Chinese-American restauranteur, writer and cultural activist Eddie Huang laid in to the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat based on his memoir of the same name for reverting to ethnic and racial stereotype in its depiction of a Chinese immigrant family settling in 1990s Orlando. Though credited as a producer and a narrator for the pilot season, Eddie has continually spoken against the homogenising and caricaturing of his life and people by the show’s writers and producers, as well as the network itself. Having read his memoir, it’s certainly no exaggeration that the events of Eddie’s life have been sanitised, his political views marginalized, and his experience of growing up in America made secondary to the demands of a family sitcom.

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Eddie Huang, then and never!

Flash-forward one year and critics are saying the same about The Muppets, ABC’s TV revival of the vaudevillian puppet characters owned by parent company Disney. While the two Disney movies that rebooted the Muppet franchise were highly regarded returns to the original talent show premise, the sitcom that followed revisited the characters in a behind-the-scenes mockumentary format replete with self-consciously adult humour. It’s no Meet the Feebles but nor it is the family-oriented and friendly fare we’re used to. Retrofitting Muppets like Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzy Bear into a Larry Sanders-style sitcom has meant the libidinal and laconic sides of these characters – which were traditionally alluded-to, offscreen things – have come to the fore, and long-time Muppet aficionados have questioned the connection between the current and original incarnations. Again, it’s hard to disagree. The Muppets were always meant to appeal to adults, but not solely, and usually as a by-product of their pan-familial ambitions. The idea that Jim Henson’s ensemble are able to compliment twisted modern comedy is cross-breeding even he would balk it.

Inauthentic? Yes. But worthless? Absolutely not. The sitcom variation on Fresh off the Boat may be far too cosy to do justice to the raw and acerbic memoir it was inspired by, but it is has never shied from addressing questions of race and assimilation. Last week’s episode filtered its discussion of Chinese media self-representation through the ghost of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, seen here as the gold standard of racist Asian stereotype in American popular culture. Occasionally, too, a fiercer take on caucasian culture and community reminiscent of Eddie’s own bleeds through, as when Grandma Huang casually remarks on the subject of family relations, that white people ‘are the cruellest race’. Though the format is familiar, the content is often challenging and we don’t forget about the problem of difference. There’s universality to the representation of the latter-day immigrant experience that even G, a Mexican-American, recognizes. To his credit, Eddie is gracious enough to admit that this universality is not altogether a bad thing, just that it lacks the reality he knows.

Though some of ABC’s The Muppets is like watching your parents make out (or worse!), I’ve enjoyed a lot of the writing that uncovers the parts of Muppet culture that previously remained – mostly for reasons of censorship – latent. Whether it’s the band’s unspoken pot habit finally exhaling it’s now-legal name or the romantic truth behind the sado-masochistic relationship between Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Burner, you might also say that in more progressive, accepting times, it’s the obvious way for the characters to go. Speaking of diversity, it’s been a pleasure to see Pepe the Prawn, a Latin Muppet, get some much-deserved screen time, including some of the show’s best dialogue. Having had an episode order trimmed severely and their showrunner leave after a single season, it seems as though the network is not happy, or at least buckling under the heavy criticism, much of it from parents and conservatives concerned about the sitcom contaminating the moral fibre of the Muppet brand. I’d disagree with them anyway, but objectively the transgressive stuff is still done tastefully.

The Writer's Room!

The Writer’s Room!

I’m not completely sold on either of these shows. Fresh off the Boat made father Louis Huang a virtual replica of Phil Dunphy instead of a progressively contradictory character while The Muppets has some of the worst qualities of the navel-gazing industry mockumentary tradition. But they make their own reality.

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Bridging The Map

Posted in Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I address Americans as a separate entity – at least not since I went native – for that way lies cultural imperialism. But in this case I feel vindicated because I know it’s for your benefit. Besides, I come from a land with a tradition of broadcasting that tells you what you need rather than giving you what you want. I’m not going to tell you to watch British TV, because you’re already doing that and it’s a problem. Instead, I’m going to ask you to embrace television from countries where you don’t – theoretically – share a common language.

...and brains!

…and brains!

Americans, you need to end your embargo on television subtitles. European TV drama is now so good you cannot afford to ignore it just because of an outmoded preference for television in your (our, sorry!) native tongue. You know this because you’ve spent the last five years remaking European TV shows, from Scandinavian police drama (The Killing, The Bridge, Those Who Kill) to a litter of official and unofficial remakes of the French horror series The Returned (yes, I’m looking at you Damon Lindelhof!). You might assume that TV drama from another culture will lose something in translation, and that’s why it’s better to remake them in American settings. Well, not only are these English-language remakes invariably inferior, in my experience they tend to ham up their European origins to the point where they seem more foreign than their forbearer. And that’s beside the point. It’s just a waste of resources. Get over having to read instead of listen (and you can still listen – the soundtracks are always gorgeous) and simply cut out the middleman.

It’s not as if you don’t already have subtitles on TV. Though it copped out of subtitling in Russian in its pilot episode, FX’s The Americans soon switched to subtitles for all the dialogue between native Russian speakers, and it helps the atmosphere and realism of the show no end. Even ABC’s sitcom Fresh off the Boat feels its Tuesday night audience can handle a beat or two in Mandarin without rushing to cancel their cable subscription. You might think that greenlighting European remakes and co-productions, like NBC’s sold-short summer experiment Welcome to Sweden, is meeting the demand halfway, but it’s actually more like going off at the deep end. As far as content goes, there’s nothing American audiences haven’t seen before: Obsessive police detectives, serial killers, cat-and-mouse games, labyrinthine murder investigations. The Returned is just dead people walking and you can’t move for them in American TV currently. It’s not new, just done extraordinarily well, and once you acclimatise to the foreign accents on your screens, nothing else will jar with your TV experience.

British TV imports might seem like a happy medium, since the country is close enough to continental Europe to share similarities with this new wave of television drama (which shows like Broadchurch and The Fall attest to) and yet can be more or less understood by speakers of American-English. British shows are certainly more popular than ever in the States and fill the vacuum for foreign TV that everyone’s told they should watch. Historically, I’d defend British TV drama but when it’s the dire Sherlock, overrated Broadchurch, and diminishing The Fall against what Denmark, Sweden and France has produced over the past few years, there really is no contest. There’s a level of comfort about British TV in the eyes of American audiences that outweighs quality. The memories of cosy sitcoms and period pieces on PBS Sundays cannot be brushed aside in one stroke, no matter how successful the replacement. And that’s the other advantage. TV drama from continental Europe is far more conducive to the American taste for procedurals and portentous horror than Britain.

The Walking Dead en francais!

The Walking Dead en francais!

Hopefully, this argument will soon be moot. Internet video-on-demand services like Hulu and Netflix sell themselves to subscribers – at least those who have been profiled as viewers of sophisticated drama – on the basis that European series are available in bulk. Some of the arthouse movie channels like Sundance and Showtime have found ways to incorporate subtitled TV drama into their remit. And don’t discount the viewer’s desire to bypass network boycotts of foreign-language imports with simple, straightforward piracy. But there really are shows for everyday television. Inevitably, censorship will be a problem but what’s shown wouldn’t be too much trouble for one of the big cable networks like FX and AMC. There really is no reason compelling enough to hold back the revolution…sorry la revolution!

Bruce All Nineties

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2015 by Tom Steward

One of the perils of writing a topical post – unbeknownst to me, who would report the crucifixion a day after the resurrection – is that the story continues after publication. Since posting on the 90s TV revival and the media’s response to Bruce Jenner’s 20/20 interview, both storylines have advanced significantly. So rather than set another plate spinning, I’m going to bring you updates on these unfolding stories…you know, like those journalists you probably read about in history books used to do!

I was second-guessing myself while hailing a revival of 90s TV, having only a handful of examples and holding the suspicion it might have been a coincidence that three 90s shows were the latest in line for an inevitable nostalgia reboot. But at the virtually the same time I published the post, it was announced that Full House, an early 90s sitcom my ignorance of which is why G shall never ratify my TV Doctorate credentials, will return on new-bottle-for-old-wine internet channel Netflix. Digging deeper, I discovered that another 90s sitcom, Coach, starring an actor who looks like a young man in ageing make-up Craig T Nelson, is about to be revived. As G reminded me (after her weekly routine of pretending to have read the blog rather than just the title!), one of our new favourite sitcoms Fresh off the Boat is set in the early 90s, with a gangsta rap soundtrack and guest stars from Twin Peaks to (re)boot. I guess it’s about a fashion for the decade as much as simply retrospection.

This is what Craig T Nelson looks like before make-up!

This is what Craig T Nelson looks like before make-up!

It’s hard for me to engage with this 90s-retro fad as nostalgia. Syndication ensures that when it comes to TV, the past is always present. Besides, 90s shows are technologically and stylistically consistent enough with current production practices not to jar today’s audience too aggressively, and could easily be mistaken for something that was made when Twitter was in its infancy. More personally, it’s because I went into a pop culture coma in the late 90s and any TV still on at that time remains my Spreewald pickles (an oblique reference I use if only to force you to watch Goodbye Lenin!). It feels more to me like these shows are coming off an extended hiatus. Or maybe the people involved are simply lucky enough to have remained in the zeitgeist. Craig T. Nelson is coming off Parenthood and the Full House cast have recently been on screens in Dannon Oiko commercials. As for Fresh off the Boat, well, even nostalgia has to move with the times. In the 90s, nostalgia was That 70s Show.

I previously reported a rare instance of news satire’s coverage of current events being considered inferior to that of TV news. The (not so) current event was Bruce Jenner’s gender realignment, discussed in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Conan were culpable for insensitive and – crucially – unfunny jokes that reeked of transphobia. Now seemingly unable to mock Jenner’s gender and sexual orientations without further controversy, news satire is honing in on the one thing we can all ridicule her for without fear of reproach; being a Republican. As if some kind of plea of extenuating circumstances for their prior bullying of Jenner, both Conan and The Nightly Show did what all bad TV news does when it misses the mark and changed the story. The humour was directed at Jenner revealing he was a Republican, though interestingly omitting the part where the retired Olympian said he’d talk to the conservative wing (or torso) of his party about their mistreatment of transgender people and issues. Again, not funny.

Bruce Jenner scours room for Ted Cruz before coming out as Republican!

Bruce Jenner scours room for Ted Cruz before coming out as Republican!

There is some irony in Jenner identifying as a woman and a Republican simultaneously, but not enough for even the meekest gag and it’s no surprise given his wealth, age, and Cold Warrior status in American sports history. For O’Brien, the information was a neat way to deflect an apology for jibes which made Jenner’s gender instability seem grotesque. For Wilmore, couching his transphobic remarks in the familiar rhetoric of news satire’s anti-Republican diatribe (as wonderful a thing as that is) was the best way for a left-leaning comedy institution to disguise its bigotry. I’m not suggesting that Jenner is now untouchable. He is, after all, part of a dynasty that live to be ridiculed. But I still believe that the responsible parties cannot simply brush what they have said under the carpet, lest all the people they demeaned retreat back into the closet.

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