Archive for halloween

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

 

 

 

Sitcommunication

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

Those looking for objectivity in this blog (if they’ve ever found it) will be sorely disappointed by this post. The attachment I have to the programme I’m writing about today cannot be quantified by my predilection for well-made, heartwarming American sitcoms. Everything I think about it has something to do with the way I feel about the person who is my life. So my account of watching it is also a story of how I found love in a strange land I’d known all my life. It’s not unknown for me to remember the past through American TV. Memories of my early life are intertwined with images of American family sitcoms. I now see my upbringing through the prism of Roseanne and The Cosby Show. In the future when I look back on this past year, and the love that has changed my life, I know there will be a little bit of Modern Family mixed in.

The Cast of Modern Family

A diverse and tradition-defying family

In the irksome tradition of G introducing me to and then lambasting me for not knowing American TV shows that she (and I secretly also) think should be a part of my mental archive (‘How can you call yourself a Doctor of American TV and have never seen Full House?’) and because of Rupert Murdoch’s caste system for imported TV that puts US shows in the unreachable noble classes, I was first shown Modern Family on US network TV during the virtual epoch that is Halloween in the States. The Halloween episode is usually a low point for the American sitcom, a season nadir where character and story get pushed aside by wardrobe people indulging in their own sweep stakes week. But even this seasonal pageantry couldn’t disguise its obvious quality. And it was pretty obvious from the outset that this sitcom was going to be for and about me and G. But more of that later; what is this show that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t want you to not to pay to have to see?

Modern Family is ABC’s answer to the NBC mockumentary sitcom, with the same vague sense of a documentary film crew presence, interludes of straight-to-camera interviews and frequent acknowledgements of the camera. It re-imagines the American family as diverse and tradition-defying; made up of interracial spouses and families, gay couples with adopted children, and multiple divorces and remarriages. While it gets a lot of comic mileage out the cultural and character clashes that inevitably result, it never rests on its concept or lets its formula become obvious. This is largely because of the sharp and clever writing with quality character gags fired out at screwball rhythms and preconceptions about stock characters upturned with them losing their pleasing familiarity. The show has a healthy sense of slapstick and appetite for absurd coincidences, a combination which echoes cutting-edge sitcoms like Arrested Development and Curb your Enthusiasm.

Despite its representational radicalism and fashionable form, the show’s strengths are quite traditional ones. It is frequently and unashamedly heartwarming, a quality all family sitcoms should have in some measure lest they leave a gaping hole of humanity at their centre in the manner of Family Guy. It is also a very conventional sitcom in many ways. The casting of Ed O’Neill, formerly America’s premier maritally dissatisfied slob husband and father Al Bundy in Married with Children, as family patriarch Jay signals that the producers want a contemporary sitcom that plays by the rules. Indeed, the pairing of white-American Jay and Columbian Gloria which sparks so brilliantly plays like a gender-reversed Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy. But what really makes Modern Family truly special is how it became the medium of mine and G’s relationship.

Gloria and Jay

Gloria and Jay: the medium for our relationship

Leaving aside that I’m a none-too-stunning white man who’s somehow managed to attract a ridiculously hot Latina woman, so much about Gloria and Jay’s marriage defines our relationship. They’re both loves propelled by laughter from awkward cultural and linguistic miscommunications (and we’ve got American-English as well as Mexican-British!), to the point where I forget which is the TV one and which ours. G’s translation of a romantic sentiment from Mexican into English with the caveat that ‘it involves dead sheep’ could’ve come straight from Gloria. And G knows when I laugh at Sofia Vergara, I’m inadvertently making fun of her. We also know we will one day be Claire and Phil; the no-nonsense-with-children woman married to a goofy man-child playing at adulthood. G thinks of me like a grown-up Luke, the semi-autistic scruff, even though I know that as a kid I was more like Manny, the self-aware sophisticate allergic to physical exertion. Modern Family is not just an outstanding sitcom in a TV milieu that’s increasingly looking and sounding the same, it’s also mine and G’s secret language, one which we will always understand completely.

 

 

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