Archive for hbo

Got Milch?: Part 2

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, Local TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s the longest-awaited sequel since Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and probably just as underwhelming. The promise of a second part that never comes is one that resonates with what I’m going to talk about here, David Milch’s follow-up to Deadwood at HBO John from Cincinnati, which along with Luck lasted one season and is now freely available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video as part of their HBO collection – designed, no doubt, to take the edge off the company’s flagrant employee abuse. This is the David Milch series that means the most to me.

2 minutes to Mexico!

2 minutes to Mexico!

There are plenty of TV shows that have put places on the map. But what about the shows that failed to make their locations famous? Breaking Bad made Alberquerque a hub of tourism and yet John from Cincinnati did not do the same for Imperial Beach, a coastal community south of San Diego bordering Mexico, in which the series is exclusively set. Perversely, tourism has come to Imperial Beach without the help of John from Cincinnati only a few years after the series aired. And, to rub sea-salt in the wound, Imperial Beach attracted visitors by projecting an image contrary to the one presented in John from Cincinnati. Imagine Hobbiton becoming overrun with people only after a brutalist tower block was erected in the centre of downton (which is what I’m presuming they call downtown in Middle Earth). I know this not because I’m a good journalist but a resident.

Of San Diego, that is. But I did live in Imperial Beach briefly a couple of years ago when I first arrived in the states. Though on an upswing even then, the community felt more like the faded surfer haunt gently harbouring drug addicts and derelict motels that is depicted in John from Cincinnati than it does today. Now it is a prime beach destination replete with upscale hotels and restaurants. Apart from the most inconspicuous memorabilia in a few local establishments, there’s no sense that a TV show was ever filmed here, and certainly not as recently. I’d like to attribute that to the thoroughly dysfunctional portrayal of Imperial Beach, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. After all, Breaking Bad made Alberquerque famous not attractive. Despite the esteemed creator and network, John from Cincinnati was not liked or known enough to front a campaign for tourism.

It’s depressingly easy to see why the show was not embraced. It is aggressively cryptic, with titular John not a protagonist in the conventional sense but a conduit who precipitates the actions of other characters and speaks only in the words of those he encounters. John is not human, or at least not mortal in the way we understand it. Others have unsubstantiated mystical ability. The writing and acting is egregiously ornate and portentous, even for a David Milch drama. In particular, Rebecca DeMornay proves herself the missing link between the Lifetime school of TV movie acting and the televisual avant-garde. On the other hand, it seems like John from Cincinnati is punished for the strangeness we conversely admire in shows like Twin Peaks. Milch’s previous drama Deadwood was universally praised, and yet was similarly impenetrable, but because it was linguistically rather than conceptually challenging, it was somehow more acceptable.

Coming after Deadwood may have been John from Cincinnati’s greatest error. Milch’s fanbase scapegoated the show for taking Deadwood off the air after only three seasons and – as I’m sure Nic Pizzolatto and David Simon will testify – critics have only one use for shows that follow TV of wide acclaim. I don’t want to be a John from Cincinnati apologist; at times it is too pretentious for its own good, and it would be hypocritical of me to boycott Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who for its incoherence and not at least mention it here. Much of my interest in the show is strictly geographical, although that does help me understand its intentions better than someone who’s never experienced Imperial Beach would. It is, however, one of the few shows I can’t think that transcends classification. You’ll have a hard time relating this to any format or genre of television out there.

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

John from Cincinnati is undoubtedly hard work, but if it’s elision of norms is not reward enough for you, then maybe its peerless cast, all of whom are given monologues equalling the best of Milch’s writing, should be. Among them are character giants Ed O’Neill, Dayton Callie and Jim Beaver.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

Thai TV

Posted in BiogTV, Internet TV, Local TV, Reality TV, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure Thai people are as baffled that we spend our evenings watching millionaires shoot ducks (I’m talking about both Duck Dynasty and Downton Abbey here) as I was with some of the curious and absurd programmes I saw in the country while I was visiting last month, so please take what follows with a pinch of cultural relativism. As I’m pig-ignorant about much of Thai culture, I’m going to stick with what I know and talk about Thai TV’s engagement with English language and culture.

Ridiculing Southeast Asian television is a rite of passage for popular TV critics. In my childhood, there were at least two (probably more) shows like Clive James on Television and Tarrant on TV where westerners who should know better giggled and guffawed at clips of Japanese game shows (now British TV from that era is our source of the very same mockery). I’m not much interested in this glasshouse criticism – though it’s hard to let go of the Thai TV show where they did nothing but pick up pens for half-an-hour – but I still have that same voyeuristic fascination as those orientalist broadcasters did when I was watching Thai television on my recent trip to the country. Bizarrely (though maybe not to Edward Said), it’s those moments of overlap with the English language and culture that are the strangest.

A case in point is English Delivery, a primetime educational programme using the comic talents and general enthusiasm of its hosts to teach English to viewers, and teach it well. It not so much about learning English words (and my limited experience of Thai people suggests they already know a lot) but getting the drop on misunderstandings resulting from translating Thai into English. To wit, the hilarious consequences that might ensue from confusing ‘pig’s balls’ with ‘pork balls’. As you can see from the examples they use, it’s more about conveying aspects of Thai culture to English speakers so they can understand it than learning about the culture or customs of English-speaking nations. That’s more than likely because so much of the Thai economy depend on tourists who speak English, or those that speak it so they may be understood by Thais.

I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture (well English culture, well English sport, well English football, well Manchester United) isn’t a big deal in some parts of Thailand, like Bangkok where we visited, but more often it feels like a policy of ‘do what you want…but give it an English name’. I was alerted to Don’t Lose the Money because I could read the title (and even when I know the Thai word it often isn’t recognizable in writing) but the show itself was simply a succession of contestants running back and forth between piles of money and empty boxes trying to carry one to the other with the use of head magnets. Increasingly we have game shows like this but we ruin their uncomplicated fun with ironic snark or over-complicated rules, or Richard Hammond.

I wasn’t surprised that when we got to the touristy island of Ko Samui there was so much European and American TV in our hotel satellite services. What did take me by surprise was the exchange of movie channels like HBO and Cinemax for a feed of someone’s laptop playing jittery, low quality streams of recent American blockbusters simply called ‘Island’. This became increasingly evident when we would return to our room to find a Windows shutdown message on the screen, and we knew exactly how long each movie had run for because whichever tech-savvy teenager was running it left the arrow and all the player information on the screen. With the trade in pirate DVDS they do in Thailand, it makes business sense.

HBO Thailand!

HBO Thailand!

Not all my jarring experiences of watching Thai TV were in English. At certain, seemingly random, points of the day, whatever was on TV was suddenly interrupted by choirs of fidgety schoolchildren singing in tribute to ‘The National Council of Peace and Order’, which is the name by which the military junta that has run Thailand since mid-2014 goes. It’s a startling reminder that you’re in a country under military rule, something G and I didn’t get a sense of as tourists – until we went to places where military officers were being served and the waitresses reacted like they were all Justin Bieber – and that TV is still (overtly) a propaganda medium in many countries. Come to think of it, the titles were in English.

The Music Box

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.

God only knows why they picked that song!

God only knows why they picked that song!

There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.

Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!

A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.

May you stay forever Dylan!

May you stay forever Dylan!

The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.

Home Movies

Posted in American TV (General), Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2015 by Tom Steward

Though I’ve devoted the last decade of my life to television (in both work and play!), movies were my first love and they’re still at the heart of what I write and do. Consequently, I’m often asked what the best movies about television are. I’m always unsure what I’m supposed to evaluate; the quality of the movie or how well it deals with TV. The two very rarely go together. For instance, my first instinct is to say Morning Glory, a mature TV news satire that neither skirts around the rampant commercialism of American television nor uses it as a brush to tar the medium with. But the acting is regularly terrible, the (non-TV related) storyline lousy, and the ham-fisted direction really kills the comedy. But as a movie about television, I infinitely prefer it to the pious nostalgia of Good Night and Good Luck and TV writer Paddy Chayefsky’s glorified revenge pic Network, as superiorly artful as those two films are. So I was conflicted in my feelings about the TV news thriller Nightcrawler.

...not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

…not to be confused with the porn parody of the same name!

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo give remarkable (and remarkably unusual) performances. The script is utterly solid, something which cannot be underestimated in contemporary American cinema. The suspense elements are well-handled, and the photography mixes the best of cinematic vistas with the seedy beauty of urban photojournalism. I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is a rare experience for me in the cinema (seeing a new movie). I have no issue with the portrayal of American TV news, as it clearly is as base, gruesome and sociopathic as the movie suggests, and just as culturally defunct and laughably moribund. But it’s a narrow view of television that is loath to admit the frequency with which contemporary TV beats out cinema for complex drama and art and unfairly highlights its tabloid extremes. It also suggests that the capacity for TV to be live (not that it really ever is anymore!) is a crutch to its expression that makes TV necessarily artless and sensationalist. But as far as movies about TV go, these kinds of representations are old news.

Movies about TV almost always focus on the production of non-fiction (typically news), stress the live aspects of television broadcasting (regardless of how live TV is at any given historical moment), and never fails to mention any quality of the medium that might situate it as inferior to cinema, like its commercial interruptions or diminished screen size and image quality. Comment me if I’m wrong, but all movies about TV have at least ONE of these three typicalities. What’s also significant is how ahistorical this cinematic portrayal of TV is. You could understand it when TV was the new kid on the block and the film industry wanted to play up the disparity between fulfilment and experience in consumption of the two moving image media (although historians question whether we can ever see the two so separately). But it doesn’t really make sense when you consider that film and TV industries have for large swathes of their history been interrelated economically under dual or conglomerate ownership. What is the advantage of saying TV sucks then?

It’s not a riddle I’ve particularly solved, except that the mythmaking of movies depends so heavily on the distinction of the cinematic experience that it behoves the industry to promote the fairytale of exceptionalism in the face of overwhelming economic, technological and cultural evidence to the contrary. I’m pretty sure that hijacking the feeling of live TV in these movies derives from a kind of jealousy about the immediacy and presence that the medium can cultivate, as in Tootsie which go to extreme expository lengths to make a broadcast of the intra-diegetic soap opera live. With bigger, clearer home sets and smaller, digital ‘studio’ theatre screens as well as a parity of commercial content and product placement in both new movies and TV transmissions, cinema hasn’t a leg to stand on. It is, however, a strategy that boutique television networks also use to distinguish themselves from everyday TV flow, judging by the number of tiny, flickering sets we see on HBO and AMC shows in the service of dispensing an endless barrage of homogeneous crap.

Fishing for a story!

Fishing for a story!

It may be time for the movies to start acknowledging some of the realities of contemporary television. It wouldn’t be hard – just ask the many actors who now regularly moonlight between the two! TV is better than its news output and infinitely more interesting than its increasingly rare live transmissions.

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