Archive for house of cards

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

unbreakable

Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

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Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

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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.

 

 

Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

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