Archive for glee

TV in Short

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

The significance and impact of American TV shows are usually measured by longevity since it takes an inordinate amount of public will, critical favour and cultural reputation to dodge cancellation year after year. But every so often a programme with a relatively short life on the air ends up being hugely influential in TV, art and culture. Premature cancellation often becomes part of the show’s cult – see Josh Whedon’s Firefly – or masks a rapid decline in quality that makes another season seem deeply undesirable. Either way, these programmes tend not to be cancelled before their time but are just way ahead of their time. It’s hard to see how many of these shows could go on but harder to imagine what future denizens of popular culture would have done without them as inspiration. Here are some TV shows with small runs that ended up being a big deal:

Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)

The future of American popular culture

A Wonder Years for the remaining 99.99999% of the American population that didn’t draw a life lesson from every single incident of their education, this stripped-back yet heart-warming look at high school from the perspectives of its most marginalised students lasted only one season on the air. But the show has sent ripples through American popular culture ever since. Producer Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James (Di optional) Franco and Jason Segal have completely sewn up US movie and TV comedy in the 15 years since the show aired and they now rank as some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Moreover, Freaks and Geeks incorporation of the socially outcast and physically different into mainstream teen television made a cultural phenomenon like Glee possible and the show’s unglamorous depiction of young Americans is the essence of Apatow and Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls.

Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991)

Like Laura Palmer Twin Peaks dies young.

Widely credited as the show that brought American TV into touch with fine art, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s sci-fi procedural super-soap also heralded a revolution in television storytelling. Melodramas such as Dallas and Dynasty had already shown that ongoing stories and cliffhanger endings weren’t an anathema to primetime popularity but Twin Peaks demonstrated that a single storyline could captivate audiences over a year of television. The question of ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ would have normally been answered in as little as 60 minutes of television but took over a year and half to be settled. Now detective programs all over the world from Denmark’s Forbrydelsen to Britain’s Broadchurch wear the season-long mystery as a badge of quality. In fact, it was only when Twin Peaks tied up the Laura Palmer case and pursued half-baked replacement storylines that the program was cancelled following its second season.

Cop Rock (ABC, 1990)

Cops Rock!

By 1990, producer Steven Bochco was already established as someone who mixed television genres but this medley of musical and police procedural was a step too far for most people when it aired. How times have changed. One of the biggest TV hits of recent years has been Glee, a high school dramedy liberally peppered with musical numbers and – as witnessed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and How I Met Your Mother – it’s long been considered de rigueur for TV shows to have a musical episode. Of course, it’s one thing to have a show whose premise falls naturally into song and another to try to crowbar music into a decidedly spoken-word genre. It’s also worth remembering that what viewers enjoy about one-off musical episodes is their novelty and Cop Rock was relentlessly musical. It’s maybe why the show never lasted beyond 11 episodes.

Doctor Who: The Movie (Fox, 1996)

Before Dr. Phil there was…

The long-running cult UK science-fiction series had been off the air for 7 years when Fox decided to revive it as a show that could live in America and alongside stylish adult science-fiction like The X-Files. The feature-length pilot tried to keep one foot in both camps, playing as a continuation of the series rather than an American re-make while changing some of the key aspects of the programme’s mythology. Consequently, the revival alienated both the fan base and new audiences and the pilot was never picked up. The people behind the re-launched UK version of the program were obviously not as turned off as viewers at the time. New Doctor Who has taken on many of the US re-vamps, including its romantic predilections, focus on special effects and elaborate set design, and these have helped make it the international hit it is today.

 

 

 

 

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper

 

So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

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