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Box Jumps

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television. Each idea that has any kind of success with or impact on viewers will be re-circulated more or less unmodified until the imitation has paled to the point it recalls the scene in Moulin Rouge where Nicole Kidman pretends to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. This is why there are currently five series airing on US television (that I can name!) about software developers and why so many recent TV dramas use flashback, even though it runs counter to the logic of television’s simultaneous time. A particularly alarming television trend doing the rounds at the moment is arbitrary jumps in time that leave huge gaps in series timelines. Rather than heralding a new style of TV storytelling, these flashforwards seem more like afterthoughts designed to resolve awkward continuity problems.

Fargo the year!

Fargo the year!

It was recently announced that the final season of HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire would take place in 1931, seven years after the end of the previous season, which had covered the late teens and early twenties in its first four seasons. The final few minutes of the latest season of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation jumped three years ahead, omitting Leslie Knope’s pregnancy, the birth of her triplets, and the first years of her new job. FX’s thriller mini-series Fargo skipped a year in its last few episodes, this time allowing police Deputy Molly to get pregnant and criminal conspirators Lester and Lorne to start new lives. After nine episodes out of twelve, we’re still waiting for the belated revival of 24, Live Another Day, to jump a few hours to get us to the end of the day before the season ends, as promised by the show’s producers.

When TV shows did this in the past, it always smacked of desperation. It was no coincidence that Desperate Housewives jumped five years in its fifth season the same time as viewers were leaving the show in droves. Nor was a secret that One Tree Hill’s skip ahead four years halfway through its run was a thinly veiled attempt to bring characters’ ages into touch with the actors playing them. The time jump might be being deployed in a slightly smarter way these days, with Parks and Recreation’s implication that the nation has missed out on a three-year recurring guest role from Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who is fired from Leslie’s office seconds after the ellipsis. But if you look at where the jumps are situated in the runs of these series, and think about why they should happen at that exact point, you’ll see they are no less crude.

As with flashbacks, part of the problem is that time jumps upset the way time works in television. It’s conventional that TV time runs concurrently with the time in which we live out our lives, and pleasurably so since much of the joy of watching TV is the way it syncs with what we’re doing. Time jumps invariably put a show ahead of the time of viewing, which makes it a kind of science-fiction, and would be fine if that’s what the programme-makers were going for. Aside from problems of realism and plausibility caused by the time jump, it also puts viewers at odds with programmes rather than it seguing with their daily and weekly lives. It’s also more of a placebo for story problems than a panacea. Things take time to work themselves out in television, and television should remain a record of that not a remedy for it.

Look what we missed!

Look what we missed!

A time jump might have relieved Parks and Recreation viewers of another pregnancy storyline but it also cheated them of character development. It’s very much a self-written corner since no-one asked the writers to put two pregnancies back-to-back. The loss of a full year in Fargo deprived the series of the suspenseful and tightly-knit storytelling that held the show together, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying denouement. We’ve yet to see how 24 will skip ahead to later hours of the day, but it’s bound to disrupt the real-time orthodoxy of the premise. The producers of Boardwalk Empire may feel they have more justification to move forward in time since it is a historical piece. My initial thoughts are that the 1930s is a very different animal historically, and that Boardwalk Empire can’t help but become a different programme. Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?

 

Memory Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs. Shows are incessantly reminding us of what happened minutes before, when we’re not being previewed we’re being recapped, and flashback has become the bane of television storytelling. Reality shows are the worst culprits, since their heavy-handed narration and editing permits them to insert extraneous references to past events at will. But dramas and comedies can be just as bad. Think about how many devices there are built into the fabric of fictional TV series to remind us about what just happened; ‘Previously On’ segments, duplicated action, flashbacks. Such repetition is almost certain to annoy viewers and make them feel patronised, so why does TV always think it’s addressing Guy Pearce?

Torture and racism, probably.

Torture and racism, probably.

When it comes to reality shows, it’s safe to speculate that there’s an element of killing time here. Visual call-backs are a good way of conserving footage through re-use and along with voiceover re-caps they can easily pad out a show to its allotted time. I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began! But there are also less cynical motives at play. It’s long been assumed by producers that people watch TV in fits and bursts and they don’t necessarily watch a programme from start to finish. It’s something we critics with our programme-based reviews still don’t really get. But it’s the impulse behind filling viewers in every few minutes.

Much as we would like to think for the sake of art that TV has fulfilled its potential as a serial medium, it’s still pretty much a halfway house between closed and ongoing storytelling. There must still be part-time and sporadic viewers out there or we’d have switched over to continuous storytelling a long time ago, given that it’s a feature common to all the great TV out there. We wouldn’t need to have these concessions to people who’ve missed a few episodes or were out of the room if we were all faithful and attentive viewers. As far as flashback is concerned, somewhere along the line it got mistaken for complex storytelling – even though the truth is the opposite – and the rest is history.

TV memory aids are where good television and quality television clash. It’s good practice to make TV that responds to the fragmented way a lot of us watch it. But all the shows we associate with quality television are about breaking away from that kind of audience spoon-feeding for something that challenges viewers, even their memories. And it goes to show that the type of television we’re always wanting more of and more like in television (The Wire, The Sopranos) is difficult to produce in most contexts. People are paying specifically for HBO so they’re going to watch everything and stick with a series for value alone. You couldn’t do a HBO show in a place with audiences that are constantly drifting in and out.

Of course, there are limits. It often feels like we’re being cheated of new content. Last week The Bachelorette ran a highlights package of its first three weeks in place of a new episode. It will do this again in a special prior to the finale, and then during the Judd Apatow-comedy length finale itself. Most reality show finales are season re-caps. There is a point beyond which you’re pandering to people who have missed some crucial moments and simply taking the piss out of the remaining audience. In this way, such shows are their own worst enemies, offering no reward to long-term viewing except seeing it all over again multiple times. You can’t count on TV viewers wanting nostalgia like an instant coffee powder.

Late-night talk show Conan has a regular bit called ‘Memba This?’ in which sidekick Andy Richter repeatedly asks the question in front of a slideshow of recent viral news images. As with many Conan skits, they’ve distilled how TV works in a matter of minutes. What TV pretends is a ‘trip down memory lane’ is actually a re-cap of things they haven’t had time to forget. Set up as a ‘new comedy bit’, regurgitation is posing as creativity. And when Conan keeps getting heinous news images, it reminds us that these memory aids are actually TV’s way of manipulating the past, not just repeating it. Damn, I’m twenty words short. It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs.

Tremendous

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I pay attention to what critics say about TV. It’s hard to keep faith in an institution that lauds white woman’s burden Orange is the New Black and by-the-numbers re-make House of Cards as the leading television of our time. On the rare occasions I do listen to TV critics, I always regret it bitterly. It was underwhelming reviews that prevented me from watching David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s superb series about music and recovery in a post-Katrina New Orleans Treme until now. Of course, I should have found out for myself, but with the unanimous adoration of Simon’s The Wire I thought I could trust critics to evaluate his work for me. But I forgot that – much like the interplay of public institutions in The Wire – TV criticism is a game, and the rules demand that anything which follows a universally acknowledged masterpiece must be panned, regardless of whether it’s actually any good. If it was simply their loss, I wouldn’t care at all. But critics still have the cultural power to determine what we should watch, perhaps more now that there is more to choose from. And, believe me, it’s our loss.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Read the reviews of Treme and they’ll tell you time and again that it’s full of unsympathetic characters and slow and meandering storylines without a lick of the complexity or profundity of The Wire. First of all, I thought we all agreed having ambiguous characters on TV was a good thing. We spent the last five years fawning over teacher-turned-druglord Walter White on Breaking Bad and the previous eight over family man mob kingpin Tony Soprano. The characters in Treme might acts like dicks, self-destruct and show themselves up, but they’re not sociopaths or venal criminals. The writers aren’t even using Katrina as an excuse for their bad behaviour. Like their city, they’re doing as much harm to themselves as has been done to them. We’re supposed to have sympathy for the people of New Orleans because of the atrocities they suffered, not because they’re flawless human beings. Besides if you can’t see their redeeming characteristics, you haven’t watched enough. Treme is musical television and the storylines naturally go slower because they’re continually (and gloriously!) interrupted by song breaks. Plus, I don’t think the story proceeds much slower than The Wire with its depiction of the drudgery of police work.

Treme is driven by character not story and hence take its sweet time observing and developing characters without being carried away by the momentum of plot. It’s just as regional as the Baltimore-set The Wire and that was never an obstacle to significant drama. As the series is always saying, New Orleans is much more important to America than America thinks. It’s overflowing with local history and culture – not least centuries of jazz and blues that pour from the lips of every musical number – which tempers the idea that Treme is a knee-jerk reaction to contemporary events. I can only imagine that people are put-off by their ignorance of New Orleans and maybe even jazz in general. I am woefully ignorant about New Orleans, and if I ever thought I wasn’t Treme showed me otherwise, but the series is happy to induct us philistines. Scenes featuring tourists and armchair critics of New Orleans offer an outsider’s eye while rectifying some of the lazy, abusive myths about the city’s cultural redundancy. I know a little more about jazz, but Treme is way more critical of jazz snobs than those who use the genre to have a funky good time.

See that John Goodman, that's me that is.

See that John Goodman, that’s me that is.

Treme frequently airs the view that New Orleans lacks moral fibre, and from the looks of the local diet perhaps actual fibre too. Television too has shouldered the brunt of these kinds of self-righteous attacks, often being portrayed as bad for your health and your humanity. With Treme bringing these two villains together, I wonder if viewers think that, unlike other quality TV, the series might be bad for them. It’s certainly been bad for me. As well as carrying the guilt of watching the series through Amazon, a corporate hotbed of employee abuse, I’ve been craving breakfasts covered in mountains of sugar, lunches that elevate sandwiches to art forms, and dinners dunked in batter. And I’ve wanted to drink like I’ve never wanted to drink. ‘Blown Deadline’, the company that produces Treme, is presumably a reference to Simon’s days as a journalist and writer, but it pretty much sums up what’s happened to me since I started watching the series. All the projects I’m involved with are either overdue or delayed, thanks to days spent bingeing on a season at a time. But I’m a better person, because Treme reminds me what life, and good drama, is like.

 

 

Oscar The Couch

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last Sunday was the first time I’ve watched the Academy Awards ceremony on TV live and continuously from start to finish. In Britain, the time difference means that if you want to watch the Oscars you have to stay up all night, which sounds fun but in reality resembles an inventive form of torture designed to give the re-opening of Gitmo some Hollywood pizzazz. In recent years, the ceremony hasn’t even been broadcast live on any of the UK’s free-to-air channels but rather on subscription-only cable movie channels as if it were an experimental art film where people open envelopes for five hours.

This year’s Oscars were so chocked full of embarrassing gaffes and faux pas that I was able to see the value of watching the ceremony as it went out. Not that the cringing diminishes upon repeat viewing after the fact, far from it in the case of John Travolta, whose creation of an entirely new name for singer Idina Menzel was prefixed with ‘one and only…’. But there’s something uniquely thrilling about seeing these disasters as they unfold in front of the world in the knowledge that they cannot be taken back or censored (even though anything truly provocative would be edited out with delayed transmission).

But this year TV wasn’t just the relay of the Oscars, it was part of it. Host Ellen DeGeneres is a creature born of television, with her celebrity coming entirely from talk shows and sitcoms, and Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey (not a typo, time travellers from the 1990s!) was awarded as much for his part in the celebrated HBO cop series True Detective than his underwhelming (in every sense of the word) performance in The Dallas Buyer’s Club. TV’s assured standing in America both culturally and artistically seems to be getting harder and harder for the Academy of Motion Pictures to ignore each year.

‘I’d like to thank television’

2014 also marked the year that the Oscars took note of the long-standing links between TV and the internet. Of course the web has been reporting news from the Oscars as it happens for decades now, but the Academy’s publicists are finally coming to realise that this is happening in tandem with the live TV coverage and not necessarily in a vacuum from it. This was the first year that Oscars’ coverage was offered as a live internet stream on the ABC website, a long overdue acknowledgement of how TV can be watched without a TV. DeGeneres’ Twitter-breaking celebrity selfie perfectly complimented the live-tweeting of the TV broadcast.

Even with the slightly more sociable option of live-pausing – for those that have a cable service – the five to six hours of television that the Oscars eats into can still be a slog if you’re going all the way to the Governor’s Ball. Television is medium of repetition to be sure, but even it cannot contain the mechanical monotony of the ceremony and the grinding formula of its acceptance speeches. The land of series marathons and genre channels is still not able to cope with the conformity that the Oscars produce. TV’s unending transmission is about the only way a bloated ceremony like the Oscars could be brought to the world but they’re still pushing at the limits of what even the most entrenched TV viewer can handle.

Oscars Admits Internet Exists!

TV gets its money’s worth either side of the ceremony as well. Hours of broadcast prior to the official start time of the Oscars are taken up with reporters transmitting live from the red carpet-lined entrance as stars rotate their bodies more slowly than a Virgin Trains toilet door and answer existential questions like ‘who are you wearing?’. Following the ceremony, various incarnations of Ryan Seacrest try to get the clearly traumatised Oscar guests to talk about what they witnessed before they repress it forever. Then there are the Oscar-themed talk shows and post-show analysis programmes. It’s past midnight before anyone in TV admits there is a world outside the Dolby Theatre. It’s surprising that politicians aren’t block-booking venues for press conferences on embarrassing indiscretions all day on Oscar Sunday.

Despite these torments, I’d watch the whole thing through again next year. It certainly beats trying to piece together fragments of information about what happened from rolling news stations the next day, which tends to take the same amount of time as the live coverage anyway. And now that TV is playing a far bigger role in the Oscars than ever before, it’s the obvious place to start.

Viewer Discretion Televised

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reality TV, TV advertising, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

There can be little doubt that the internet has become the established medium for pornography or that TV with its subscription-based, restricted-run porn provision wouldn’t rival its online competitor which boasts free use and plentiful content. But as we’ve seen with TV’s co-opting of Twitter as an advertising platform, television is not above appropriating an online success story to secure its place in the ever-growing media marketplace, and there’s no success as runaway as internet porn. Because of the moral, political and religious imperatives of broadcasting regulations, putting pornography on television has always been problematic. It might slip through the net as the accidental by-product of experimental art or adult drama or a moment of bravado in a piece of titillating entertainment, but would rarely go unchecked or unchallenged. The more serious pursuit of pornography can be found in the pay TV channels available on the much less regulated satellite, cable and digital services as well as some of the content on graveyard networks at an appropriately late time of day, although this is porn in a modified form suitable for TV that’s much lighter on the graphic side that the equivalent in other media. In short, pornography is always fighting a losing battle with TV. Of course this doesn’t preclude TV from taking lessons in how the porn industry puts bare bums in seats.

This is about as pornographic as it gets on Showtime Preview!

Why am I talking so much about porn? It’s because I’ve started to notice how much American TV takes from pornography. For all the reasons listed above, most TV is not explicitly pornographic but neither is it free from the influence of porn in how it advertises, entertains and lures its audience. I have an internet TV hub and recently noticed there was an application called ‘Showtime Preview’ which ran free season premieres from the subscription network. I wanted to watch the first episode of Season 3 of the industry sitcom Episodes. Since this was a promotional device designed to draw me in to starting a series and getting a network subscription to keep watching, I was surprised when the episode was edited to remove all violence, sex, nudity and swearing, which you might say are Showtime’s unique selling points. But I was taken aback when a sex scene with blurred images of nudity and intercourse bore a caption at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Want to see what you’re missing?’ followed by a subscription link. The very point was to withhold all the explicit content of Showtime’s programmes that couldn’t be aired on network or basic cable TV and then wield it as capital for subscribing. This is exactly how the porn industry incites users to upgrade from softcore teasers to hardcore features.

It’s not TV it’s HB-ho!

The more I thought about, the less right I had to be surprised. Hadn’t HBO – the city on the hill of quality TV – pulled exactly the same trick when wooing subscribers? The difference between HBO and other TV wasn’t just quality and sophistication of programming but explicit representations of sex, violence, nudity and swearing. Often there isn’t even the cultural cache to justify such excess. For every self-legitimating spectacle of obscenity like the artful, challenging The Sopranos there’s pure exploitation like sex industry documentary G-String Divas. HBO is hardly ashamed. The title sequence to prison drama Oz packed as much blood, gore, sex acts and intimate body parts as it could into a minute and a half montage. There’s even an in-joke in Oz making it clear the network are aware of their pornographic reputation, as inmates start receiving HBO and cheer in unison as G-String Divas airs.

ABC launches new Bachelor sex cam.

Networks like HBO and Showtime operate in a very similar way to subscription porn channels so we shouldn’t be too surprised when their marketing techniques overlap. But what about network TV, which claims to disavow any resemblance to pornography with its excessive and self-righteous censorship of content? The Bachelor: Sean and Catherine’s Wedding in which two former contestants were married live on air did all it could within broadcasting regulations to make viewers at home visualise the couple’s wedding night in graphic detail. A live camera feed reminiscent of a sex webcam was set on the bed in Sean and Catherine’s honeymoon suite throughout the ceremony. The pre-recorded wedding build-up centred on the wedding night, including Sean shopping for titillating lingerie and Catherine posing for a wedding gift of boudoir photographs. The strong feeling was that if ABC could have kept the cameras rolling into the night, they definitely would.

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