Archive for fx

Jumping The Arc

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m not one to ignore the advice of Public Enemy but I believe the hype. American television is as good as it’s ever been. Full of rich and varied programmes that are as emotionally compelling as they are artfully composed, flush with writers, directors and producers who recognise and understand the craft of good television (many of them the same) and boasting a success rate that easily surpasses American cinema. It’s only because I feel this way that I’m willing to tolerate the abominations of storytelling that even the finest shows on the air serve up on a weekly basis. The people behind American TV have a right to be complacent, and with complacency comes bad habits. A plague of lazy short-cuts and downright sloppiness has spread exponentially through US TV writing and several worrying tendencies have emerged. Here’s a run-down of some of the worst inclinations and their hosts:

Flashbacks/Flashforwards:

I’ve seen the future…and it is confusing!

As far as I’m concerned, if you need to use a flashback or a flashforward at any point in your screenplay you’ve not written the scenes in the present well enough. There are exceptions-like biographies-but the TV shows I’m talking about don’t fall into any of those categories. Great new series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead regularly go back and forth on their timelines, and increasingly wield these digressions as banners for the programme. Going back in time serves to fill in story gaps, underlining how badly communicated previous episodes were and alerting viewers to missed opportunities. Looking ahead creates an enigma then made comprehensible by the subsequent action, betraying a (usually undue) lack of faith in the material of the episodes to sustain interest in their own rights. Moreover, these displacements in time interrupt the forward momentum that these shows thrive upon to compel further viewing.

Cast Montages:

There’s only one way this can end…with a montage.

Ever wondered what all the characters in a show are doing at a given time? Me neither. Yet still the most common device for bringing a programme’s ensemble cast together within a single scene is a montage sketching each character’s activities at a time of day (typically morning or night). While this technique usually reveals something essential and often surprising about one or two of the characters, others are left to make up the numbers as they can’t all be doing something profound at exactly the same moment. Most shows manage to keep this tendency to a single scene at the beginning or end of an episode but series like Sons of Anarchy now feature multiple cast montages scattered randomly throughout each instalment, the only means of keeping track of the show’s surplus of sub-plots. There must be subtler, more sustainable ways of getting everybody in one place.

Song Overlays:

Coldplay: ruining American TV since 2002.

Nothing dates faster than music. Despite this truism, American TV shows continue to overlay scenes with contemporary songs that will likely only be considered respectable in the moment they’re first transmitted. Remember when The Shield ended its first season with a musical montage using Coldplay’s ‘Spider Webs’. That was in 2002 when the band still had cache and fed into the alternative style the show was cultivating. Now that Coldplay embody corporate bland, the sequence looks and sounds like middlebrow advertising. Series continue to make the same mistakes by selecting the latest hipster warbles rather than looking for the transcendent instrumentals that will preserve them throughout history. The choices tend to reflect the producers’ record collection rather than being linked to character or place. The Walking Dead would like us to believe that a teenage girl from a remote Atlanta farm has committed Tom Waits B-sides to memory.

Showrunners Writing:

‘Mr Darabont…step away from the script!’

While I’m grateful for all they do to put a programme on the air and keep it in good shape, I wish showrunners would keep their hands off the teleplay. They seem to have a knack for writing the weakest and most mechanical episodes and the ones most concerned with the image of the show not the art of television. Without the might of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont behind it, The Walking Dead may never have reached TV screens but the couple of episodes he wrote that headed up the series seemed incapable of articulating how the show would progress as a long-form narrative (rather than a 2-hour zombie movie) which is essential to establish in the pilot stages of a series. As soon as the writing responsibilities passed to serial TV veterans Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee, the ongoing vision for the programme became evident.

Day at the Movies

Posted in American TV (General), BiogTV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m looking at the guide on the cable box. G is recording The Departed on FX. It is about noon.

 

G: I’ve never seen it.

 

T: You still won’t have.

 

Strict censorship of network and basic cable television in the US means that whenever movies are shown most or all of the obscenities are cut or overdubbed, extreme violence is pruned and ‘sexy scenes’ (for those of you who grew up in the 90s watching rented videos) are taken out. The networks make it worse for themselves by scheduling the most obscene movies in the morning and daytime.

This is as much as FX showed of ‘The Departed’

I mean, what exactly is gained showing Goodfellas at 2 in the afternoon? How does a movie that contains 300 fucks last longer than a few minutes after cuts? We’re not talking about movies where sex, violence and obscenity are gratuities and it plays just fine without them. These are movies where such excess is inextricable from the film’s style and embedded in the world they represent. It’s not even as though the filmmakers had a chance to work up creative solutions to tailor their work to the censorship regimes of network television, as the writers and producers of original programmes have.

Growing up in the UK in the 90s, I remember the BBC would stringently censor popular movies so that they could air in the primetime slot before the 9pm watershed, the time in Britain after which adult television becomes more acceptable to show. There are whole scenes of films I didn’t know existed, like Steve Martin’s hernia-inducingly funny ‘I want a fucking car’ routine from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But I never felt these edited versions butchered the original in the same way that, say, AMC maimed Scarface, ironically by taking out the maimings. They just left me wanting more.

Like most things in television, it boils down to filling time. The network has purchased programming that’s been made suitable for a daytime timeslot by extensive editing and they’re going to use it to plug a gap in the schedules whenever they can. It’s just a terrible shame so many people will get such a glib first impression of all those wonderful movies. Or think they’ve seen a movie without knowing the half of it.

 

 

Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

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