Archive for ghostwatch

Deadliest Watch

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , on June 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

Next time you’re wondering why broadcast television still matters, consider A Deadly Adoption. This perfectly pitched pastiche of Lifetime original movies would entertain if accessed from any platform, but aired on Lifetime during the Saturday evening timeslot reserved for premieres of genuine original movies it pushes the limits of hoax or even cultural terrorism. As a Brit with an interest in the history of television, A Deadly Adoption reminded me of Ghostwatch, a pre-recorded BBC TV horror drama from the early 90s styled as a live factual special of the kind that were popular on the BBC around those years.

Nothing funny about this.

Nothing funny about this.

Ghostwatch and A Deadly Adoption exploited their network and timeslot to convince audiences of their veracity, the former as a piece of primetime public service television and the latter as a legitimate original movie ‘inspired by a true story’. Both programmes used, at cross-purposes, a mixture of familiar faces from the genre they were approximating and those that you wouldn’t expect to see. In both cases, the anomalies were supposed to tip off the audience as to the subterfuge. But while widely-known comic actors Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig nudge the viewers in the direction of parody, the same couldn’t be said for the jobbing BBC character actors that Ghostwatch’s producers naively assumed would lead a Saturday evening audience to conclude it was a drama. Ghostwatch recruited actual BBC presenters of the moment to play themselves while A Deadly Adoption called upon veterans of the casts of Lifetime movies. Again, this had mixed results. The agency of presenters affiliated with a broadcaster reputable for its trustworthiness contributed to viewers becoming disturbed, confused and angry while watching. Having Erik Palladino play the cop he always plays asking the questions he always asks increased the plausibility but was also a satirical detail.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two programmes lies in the execution of the deception. Neither seems to let the mask drop, and yet they seem to be pointing you to the inauthenticity all the time. Crucially there is no over-acting, at least none outside the conventions of infotainment or TV movies. In Ghostwatch, direct address to the camera is a two-way street. It’s part of the fraud and also tells viewers to their faces that what they’re doing is tantamount to a hoax. It even has the audacity (and foresight) to pre-emptively chide parents for letting their children stay up to watch. Like any skilled comic actor (I’m put in mind of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy here too), Wiig and Ferrell’s faces can simultaneously pay lip service to the earnest drama around them while sporting an inner smirk that lets the audience know they’re in on the joke. While they (wonderfully) break character in the final scene, the leads in A Deadly Adoption are generally content to merely stand near the entrenched clichés and overwrought conventions of the Lifetime movie canon and gesture to them discreetly. The comic agenda, like Ghostwatch’s dramatic one, is effaced.

Another lesson that A Deadly Adoption learnt from Ghostwatch is that the most effective spoof is the one that runs like the real thing. Ghostwatch should have been by rights shot on film but the choice was to make it as if it were at every stage a piece of factual television broadcast live from a studio. That meant both the audience and the ‘actors’ were reacting as they would to the very thing it was not. I think this is also why Police Squad! is such an exquisite send-up of Dragnet, largely because it wasn’t much different in production values. Apparently, some BBC executives didn’t get what the Ghostwatch directors were trying to do and rejected some of the shots as cheap and amateur. A Deadly Adoption is going for the clunky symbolism and magazine-plate portraiture of the Lifetime in-house style, not trying to improve on it. To expect A Deadly Adoption to live up to the cinematic comedy of Ferrell, Wiig and director Adam McKay’s previous work is to miss the point. It’s a clever move, and one that demonstrates confidence in the art, that the movie was poised to allow audiences to occasionally forget it was parody.

He ain't 'fraid of no disgruntled viewers.

He ain’t ‘fraid of no disgruntled viewers.

Ferrell and Wiig’s IFC mock-miniseries The Spoils of Babylon played a similar game, invoking a phony industry backstory through trailers and faking-of documentaries, and playing on a network that revives obscure cult media. However, I stick with my Ghostwatch comparison. The aim is never truer when you become your target.

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.


‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.


Rod Serling would have been proud




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