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Nineties Degree

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by Tom Steward

Nineties 1

This isn’t the first post I’ve written about nineties nostalgia in television but at the time of writing I had no idea how contagious it would be. Consider the evidence. The most innovative program on TV remains Twin Peaks (I’ll hold off on saying the best until it’s over). There is a television revival of Fargo which not only seems determined to re-capture every iconic moment from the golden decade of The Coen Brothers, but also currently stars Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor (incidentally, this is too much for someone who once owned VHS of both movies with the other film’s trailer before them). Louis C.K’s experiments with television comedy, both on and off the air, channel nineties indie cinema auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, and what is Horace & Pete but a serialised soundstage version of star Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge? Factor in a Friends revival and you couldn’t be more nineties.

The best of nineties nostalgia TV is also a cultural commentary on it. Netflix’s transcendent sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the device of a woman kidnapped and secluded for fifteen years in a bunker to retrofit the majority of the program’s points of reference to nineties pop culture. There are so many I’ve lost track but imagine an alternate universe where the apotheosis of pop culture remains Kelsey Grammer. It’s a satire of our arrested development that also manages to capture the (albeit anachronistic) zeitgeist, as any successful sitcom must. Though not specifically aimed at the early nineties, Twin Peaks processes its nostalgic appeal in fittingly gothic ways. In the reboot, the Sherriff’s Department receptionist Lucy has a debilitating phobia of cell phone use, which she regards as some kind of witchcraft, while her son Wally Brando (an unusually well-used Michael Cera) delivers an eerie ventriloquism of namesake Marlon.

Nineties 2

In some sense, it was only a matter of time. We’re about as far now from the nineties as we were from the fifties when movies and TV shows romanticising the decade like American Graffiti and Happy Days started to dominate pop culture. We may be waiting a while for the nineties-set equivalent of the explicit love letter to the fifties that is Back in the Future, which is to say this phase probably hasn’t peaked yet, but it can’t be far from saturation point. Enough time has passed that any piece of media dealing with the nineties can now legitimately be seen as a work of history. Indeed, this very Summer CNN premieres the graduation of its decade-based documentary series The Nineties, the trailer for which positions the CD player as the relic of a bygone era and The Backstreet Boys as detached from the present as The Beatles.

Nineties nostalgia is also a by-product of a TV ecology where the past is always present. Though claiming to revolutionize the reception of television, Video-On-Demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu have done more to take TV content back in time than any oldies station ever did. Entire canons of popular (and not so) TV shows from the 1950s onwards are now instantly accessible to a vast viewership, and without the bitter pill of catheter commercials to swallow. The appeal of such platforms is as much being able to binge on Cheers as House of Cards. If lifespan permits, such extensive replay creates a natural demand for revival, which the VOD platform’s business models are always more-than-happy to accommodate, with a slew of fannish resurrections. Done so routinely online, the on-air networks are now spicing their season line-ups with revivals of nineties properties, as shown by the upcoming return of Roseanne.

The 2017-2018 ABC Television Upfront Presentation

I was a teenager in the nineties and those were my formative cultural years. At the time, I thought the best of film, TV and music had been and gone, though it turns out that’s a very nineties way of looking at things. Now I fetishistically relish what came out of that decade, and regard it as a far more sophisticated era in mainstream media arts than we are currently experiencing. I think I’m pretty typical of my generation, if we can be uniformly tantalised by the prospect of a Minnesota-based police procedural coming to primetime or react excitedly when one of the most belaboured sitcoms of all time returns to network TV. There’s no doubt we’re the demographic that television executives are targeting with their retroactive approach to commissioning, and that producers find common ground with their fragmented audience based on a shared love of the decade’s cultural output.

 

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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.

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