Archive for homicide life on the street

Robin’s Best

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Acting, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by Tom Steward

Since the untimely death of comic and actor Robin Williams last week, I’ve been looking back at his performances on television. I’ve been continually surprised and impressed at how as a sitcom actor, guest star and chat show guest he was able to take command of the medium, especially as Williams’ talents were always thought best suited to the dynamic scope of cinema and unbridled spontaneity of the live stage. I was struck by how he accommodated his manic act and style to the contours of the small screen, used television to test his mettle as a character actor, and realised TV’s capacity for intimacy to bring his audience closer to Williams the man. The passing of James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams in the past weeks is worsened by the knowledge that all were unusually good at doing television and have been lost to more than art form.

Mork Who?

Mork Who?

The significance of science-fiction sitcom Mork & Mindy to Williams’ career seems to have been regarded by most obituaries I’ve encountered as simply his stepping stone to popular exposure. This assumption drastically underestimates how important the role of Mork was to Williams’ development as an actor. In it, he learned to temper his aggressive bombardment of the audience with pathos thanks to the show’s romantic core and fable quality, a balance that would come to define his movie persona (and one that when tipped would sink him artistically). The sitcom wasn’t always the lightweight fantasy people perhaps remember, more Twilight Zone than Bewitched (if Williams’ catchphrase humming of the anthology’s theme tune wasn’t enough to sway you). There was hard science-fiction in there, unsettling biological imagery, and hard-hitting issues like mental illness and addiction. Seen now, Mork & Mindy prepared Williams for darker material he later turned his hand to.

Williams’ portrayal of Mork had an enduring impact on science-fiction television. Watching episodes of the series now, particularly when Mork is in his formal bow-tie and suspenders, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Smith’s incarnation of time-travelling extra-terrestrial The Doctor in Doctor Who. Common to both performances is the essential idea of a character who is not alien in appearance but in his social naivety, fashion missteps and absurd physicality. The success Williams achieved in depicting an otherworldly strangeness and difference without the aid of make-up, prosthetics or effects must have been a boon to anyone wanting to make science-fiction within a budget-dependent TV format. It took a concept as extreme as alien visitation to contain a freestyling comedian like Williams within a studio sitcom, but at its heart Mork & Mindy nailed that mix of the fantastical and the mundane that distinguishes all good and great science-fiction TV.

Williams was deep into his acting career before he started to take on purely dramatic parts, even though the ability to play emotion straight in his early movies was crucial to their appeal. However, years before his acclaimed deadpan turns in Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Williams played a tourist whose wife is shot on the streets of Baltimore in an episode of complex cop show Homicide: Life on the Street. Williams’ demonstrated ability to completely disappear into a character without a trace of his conspicuous comic persona left really opened the industry’s eyes to his value as a serious actor. The gut-wrenching emotions experienced by his character were performed credibly, and without fuss, which undoubtedly marketed his ability to do strong emotion well. Thought something he and his directors did not always taken advantage of, it nonetheless signalled that he was a rounded actor of range.

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

I’m grateful to OWN for repeating full versions of interviews with Williams from the ‘80s and ‘90s on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not only is it apparent that Williams’ could transcend limitations of television space and time, no matter how cardboard the set and videographic the production values, it is also notable that when disarmed with Oprah’s frank questions about his personal life (she was a different proposition as interviewer in those days!), he can exploit the potential for television to be a confessional medium to admit to a darker side to the always-joking persona he presented in public. Clearer than in any other medium, TV was privy to the qualities of Williams’ personality that would eventually consume him. One of William’s last TV appearances on Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie cemented his legacy as a character actor, playing a fictional creation in a show full of comics playing themselves.

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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.

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