Archive for fxx

Bad Morning Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

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Thinking Outside The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

The Simpsons Are Going To Yellow Air!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

We’re currently halfway through the most embiggened television event of the summer. Every. Simpsons. Ever. is FXX’s 12-day marathon of all 552 episodes of The Simpsons in order, a feat which will require more than even a hundred tacos for adequate sustenance…and a bigger wheelbarrow. I refuse to rhapsodize about the quality of these episodes, partly because it is so astoundingly self-evident that anyone who can’t see it is already a lost cause and also because if you’re yet to be convinced it will take Hypnotoad therapy (it’s still Groening!) to convert you, not the arbitrary superlatives of a fan-blogger.

Doh! A deer. A female deer...

Doh! A deer. A female deer…

What struck me watching the series from the beginning is how fully-formed it arrived. A few episodes in and the refined notes of sitcom, satire, slapstick and emotion had already found a blended chemistry. I’ve always suspected the idea that series take place in a coherent fictional universe was just World of Warcraft for TV critics, but looking back it’s remarkable how every line of dialogue or character action is layered with a thousand future meanings and significances. The day is not far off when, as in Shakespeare or The Bible, a reference to everything in existence will be found in The Simpsons.

You don’t need me to remind you of this. In fact, I didn’t need to remind myself. I just did it because the TV told me to, and it’s hard not to listen because it spent so much time raising me. What I do need to remind you is that The Simpsons is still good and should not be cancelled. Whenever anyone involved in the show is asked whether they should call it an epoch – an inevitable question after 25 years on the air – they invariably defer to what is most unprecedented and unrepeatable about The Simpsons.

The show’s original contract with Fox contains a clause stipulating that the network cannot interfere in its production. This clause still holds today. To end the series would be to forsake a kind of creative freedom not seen before nor possible since in network television, or any other corporate media for that matter. Of course, if The Simpsons wasn’t doing anything valuable with their autonomy, then it shouldn’t be kept on the air just to make a point. But I would argue, fervently, that it is. Perhaps not as well as it once did, or as consistently, but cromulently enough.

In recent years, the abuse The Simpsons receives at the hands of the internet (eh?) has become so ritualised that the show even has a running gag about it (which is reason enough to keep the series on the air, if you ask me). I was probably in their camp a couple of years ago. But when I think about, the time I disliked the series most was when I was denied a steady flow of new episodes by Rupert Murdoch restricting UK premiere rights to channels I didn’t have (the Sith Lord giveth and the Sith Lord taketh away).

Since I moved to the US, I get daily back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons on my local station which are all from 2010 onwards and shown on a continuous loop. For some time now, this is what The Simpsons has been to me. Rather than experiencing melancholia for the show’s golden age, my appreciation and enthusiasm for the series has been renewed and revitalised. The writing remains acerbic, the satire of contemporary folly is as punchy and provocative as that of the first Bush administration, and contrary to popular belief there is as much feeling for the characters as ever.

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Rupert Murdoch will no doubt need all 552 episodes of The Simpsons as evidence in his defence when he is eventually tried by The Hague but I only need one to defend the series against charges of loitering that may come its way. ‘Steal This Episode’ is the ninth episode of the 25th season of The Simpsons and aired this January. It is one of the most recent episodes and one of the overall best. It contains a nuanced and insightful commentary on the moral contradictions and hypocrisies of media piracy, spot-on critiques of Hollywood’s recent output (‘I like that James Bond is ugly now’), and pinpoint social observation (I have lived the Raiders’ fan with the baby at the 9pm screening!). It has an emotional centre and yet draws intelligent laughter from what we know of the characters and what is true of life. They’ll never stop The Simpsons.

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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