Archive for hill street blues

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.

Advertisements

Double Act

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by Tom Steward

One of the toughest tasks in acting is creating a unique and memorable character that becomes completely synonymous with the actor. One of the toughest tasks in TV acting is to do it twice. Cinema and theatre actors are asked to do this every time they appear, unless reprising a role in which case they won’t play the part more than a few times. But due to the lengthy and ongoing nature of most TV fiction, small screen actors tend to play one part continuously over a number of years, embedding themselves in the public’s consciousness as a single character. Many TV actors struggle to transcend these defining roles, either failing to convince when playing conflicting parts or returning to screens as thinly disguised versions of their most remembered character.

Alan Alda: Forever Hawkeye

Alan Alda will always be Hawkeye Pierce-the Korean War medic he played during the 11 years MASH was on the air-and much more so than Donald Sutherland who originated the character. While Sutherland would continue to add iconic screen characters to his name (John Klute, Fellini’s Casanova, The Man on the Bench in JFK), Alda would stay a hawk in eagle’s clothing. This is partly the problem of Alda being cast in roles which functioned as tributes to his MASH character, like his stint as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence in ER. But the shadow cast by MASH was too enduring for him to escape even when subsequent performances were superior, such as his turn as presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing featuring a semi-improvised debate filmed under live conditions.

Dennis Franz and his costume for the last 20 years.

Dennis Franz is quintessentially Andy Sipowicz to most TV viewers after 12 years playing the character throughout the entire run of NYPD Blue but could also conceivably be remembered as Norman Buntz for his 4 years in the role in Hill Street Blues and eponymous spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz. It would seem Franz achieved the impossible and created two wholly separate characters that he is instantly identifiable with if it weren’t for the fact that Sipowicz and Buntz were 2 sides of the same maverick antihero cop coin. Actor Daniel Benzali was first introduced in a major role to TV viewers in NYPD Blue as mob lawyer James Sinclair and then a year later played criminal defence attorney Teddy Hoffman in Murder One, the same character but with different moralities.

Benzali in his best acting role yet…a pop singer!

I’m put in mind of these peculiarities of TV acting because I’m currently watching FX’s modern-day western detective series Justified which features not one but two performances where the actors have bucked this trend and created new characters distinct from those they were previously renowned for. It’s now impossible to think of these two actors without having both of their characters in mind and yet they never become confused. This feat is even more remarkable as said actors have achieved recognition as a second character while playing roles which on paper look identical to the ones they previously inhabited and in like shows. It’s a rare ability that’s enough to put an actor in a television elite but almost unheard of from two different actors in the same TV programme.

Two great actors, four great characters!

The actors in question are Timothy Olyphant, who previously portrayed the reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood and currently plays anachronistic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, and Walton Goggins, formerly shit-kicking scumbag corrupt cop Shane Vendrell in The Shield and now Justified’s resident anti-villain Boyd Crowder. Olyphant plays Bullock and Givens as self-styled western lawmen poseurs (helped considerably by his gunslinger profile and Eastwood-like gait) but the former is humourless and ascetic whereas the latter is all about freewheeling comedy and casual vices. Both are altruists fighting hedonistic urges but while Raylan seeks justification or soft substitutes for his pleasures of the flesh (whether manoeuvring felons into quick draws or indulging an ice cream fetish), Seth punishes himself for all transgressions to the point where he is psychotically repressed.

Boyd Crowder isn’t just Shane Vendrell in drag.

It would have been tremendously easy for Goggins to play Crowder as a twin of Vendrell, the amoral and emotionally child-like southern states cop-turned-criminal. Both men are at root ugly, bigoted criminals who are nonetheless veneered with Dixie charm and flirt with respectable social institutions, be it the law or the church. There are shades of Shane in the race terrorist Boyd we first encounter in the Justified pilot but he soon emerges as a man locked in a paralysing performance of deadpan ambivalence and courtesy reconciling his inner contradictions of benign religious servitude and venal gangsterism. If the job of acting is to transform oneself repeatedly then TV could be seen as a hindrance to the profession. On the other hand, we become attached to one character they create far more than in any other medium. Two of American TV’s finest actors are demonstrating that we can have both.

The Place to TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by Tom Steward

In an interview with the BBC some years ago, Sopranos creator David Chase, speaking of his first writing gig on The Rockford Files, remarked that what set the private eye series apart from most TV at the time was that it was recognisably set in Southern California and not some ersatz non-place. This innate sense of place trickled down into Chase’s later TV work. One look at Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey and it’s obvious that the landscapes and body shapes that feature in The Sopranos could only be from the Garden State. It’s also something that distinguished Rockford creator Roy Huggins’ TV shows. His previous creation The Fugitive (one of the other only TV programmes Chase admits to enjoying) was always specific in its geography, be it small town or vast metropolis, no mean feat for a series which had to change location every week.

Jim Rockford, a resident of Malibu

Place is increasingly becoming the backbone of American TV. The unique appeal of shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad is inseparable from their choice of setting. The meth-drenched desert hazes and border town hinterlands of Albuquerque provide not just a backdrop to the action but the pathetic fallacy of the characters’ moral decay and corruption. Other programmes like Portlandia build their very concepts around a place rather than a set of characters or situations. It may be that the IFC sketch show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein relates to something bigger than just the Oregon city-like the hipsterfication of everyday life-but such observations are always squarely aimed at Portland’s grunge-throwback ways. The Wire (and the lesser known but not lesser in any other way Homicide: Life on the Streets) may speak to people as a microcosm of American social problems but in the end it’s a programme about a place, Baltimore, Maryland, and impossible to truly appreciate without a working knowledge of that city’s local political scene. So is this a new development in American TV and, if so, what changed?

The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland!

It’s tempting to put the recent emphasis on place in American TV down to historical shifts in the way that programmes are produced. For much of its existence, TV was filmed predominantly in studios making it difficult to manufacture an authentic impression of place. When location shooting was added into the mix, the ability to suggest events were taking place in a distinct locale improved drastically, even when programmes were still studio-bound. Cop drama NYPD Blue seemed firmly planted in the many and varied neighbourhoods of the Big Apple despite being the majority of it being filmed on the Fox backlot in L.A. simply because of the documentary-styled location footage of the ongoing life on New York streets that pre-empted each scene. Now that the technology of production has advanced sufficiently to shed the studio, putting place at the centre of a TV show should be everywhere by now, right?

NYPD Blue or LAPD Blue?

Possibly not. Location shooting is used more readily to invite a sense of reality without necessarily specifying the geography. It was used in Hill Street Blues to project a (radical) urban grittiness but stopped short of saying what city events took place in (we can assume Chicago but are never told for sure), even going as far to create a fake district of this unknown metropolis. The ability to film on location doesn’t always mean you can film anywhere you like. Think about how many American TV shows are needlessly set in the vicinity of L.A. Often this isn’t an artistic choice but a local one. It’s plainly easier and more economical to find somewhere to shoot near the production base, in this case Hollywood, and use that to justify the setting. It’s the only way to understand why a show like 24 about federal counter-terrorism agents is set in the City of Angels and not Washington or some more suitable hub of government activity.

24 in L.A…for some reason

It’s clearly still a choice at the discretion of programme makers whether or not to push place and yet it’s happening more and more. I’m not sure what the explanation is. Perhaps it’s a product of multichannel television narrowcasting to niche audiences, allowing programmes about specific parts of the US to become popular regardless of broad national appeal. Maybe basing a show around a place is another way to create a programme’s distinctive brand in an ever-more competitive market. Most commentators agree with Chase that a sense of place is a sign of television quality. It’s certainly more important than it used to be.

%d bloggers like this: