Archive for huluplus

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.

unbreakable 2

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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Remote Possibilities

Posted in American TV (General), Internet TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2014 by Tom Steward

After months of watching TV on instant video applications like Netflix and HuluPlus, G and I have subscribed to cable. This meant shouldering an extra financial burden to meet the inflated monthly service costs but in both our eyes it was worth it. When we watch television, we want to watch television not find a programme to watch. We’re far more interested in watching television just because we can than seeing something specific. Internet TV was supposed to free viewers from the unwanted content of on-air broadcast (advertising, interstitials, filler programming) but to G and I TV only makes sense when they put the crap back in. I, for one, had no idea that the fake commercials in Portlandia appear in the middle of ad breaks where they serve a greater satirical purpose than popping up mid-episode. Also, the choice afforded to viewers by instant video had become a burden on us. So much so that we’d rather leave it to the bigoted, money-grubbing idiots who programme the TV schedules to decide what we watch.

Local advertising during IFC’s Portlandia.

The change isn’t as drastic as you might imagine. The notion of bingeing and marathons has now become so ingrained in the way TV schedules are created that you often find networks showing the same programme back-to-back throughout the day. As such, cable TV sometimes resembles a protracted version of what you might do on Netflix if given the chance. Perhaps the biggest difference is the licence cable TV gives you to stumble upon some of the strangest programmes you’ll encounter outside of a parallel reality. These are not programmes you would ever seek out or patiently endure buffering for, but when they are handed to you as samples that come free just for touching a button repeatedly you don’t feel you’re losing anything to give them a try. But don’t think these programmes are abnormal. They are indicative of precisely what television does when it’s not a one-in-a-million show like True Detective or Justified. It’s the act of filling time with a formula that works entirely on its own terms. That’s why we have…

Rev Run’s Renovation (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Rev Run’s Renovation: Not exactly Cribs!

A programme seemingly pitched on the basis of alliteration and anagram possibilities, Rev Run’s Renovation follows Run DMC rapper Rev Run as he renovates his New Jersey home. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a stylised reality show about the ridiculous and extravagant re-modelling that rappers do on their property a la MTV’s Cribs. Think again. It’s a completely matter-of-fact home improvement programme where the ins and outs of house renovation are laid out for viewers with an eye to budget and practicality. What does Rev Run have to do with renovation? Beats me.

Vanilla Ice Goes Amish (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Spot the Amish guy in this photograph.

Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss. It’s not even that much of a mismatch. Vanilla Ice doesn’t programme code for Apple, he’s a rapper from the last century. He’s anachronistic enough now to have more in common with the Amish than differences from them. And it seems the Amish people aren’t as dated as we think. It should be called Vanilla Ice Does Nothing Different.

Wahlburgers (A & E, Wednesdays)

A 12-inch Wahlburger!

You know those businesses founded on a pun (‘Hair We Are Barbers’, ‘The Codfather Fish & Chips’ etc.) that won’t be there the next time you pass by? Well, this is a reality show about one of those businesses and the television equivalent of it. Wahlburgers is a chain of burger restaurants run by Chef Paul Wahlberg and his celebrity brothers Mark and Donnie. Wahlburgers is a show about Wahlburgers. The show and the restaurant are called Wahlburgers because they are Wahlbergs who make burgers. Expect nothing more complicated than this and you’ll be fine.

Unknown (Can’t Remember, Saturdays I think)

It’s not often I make an appeal to readers but as with many shows you encounter while channel hopping I only have a very sketchy memory of its name and where and when it aired and I’ve not been able to find it again nor any mention of it in the public domain. So please send me a comment or tweet (@wtvamericans) if you know what show I mean. It’s a tone-perfect, late-night digital cartoon parody of a morning news show which featured a location report from Legoland depicting it as an independent nation.

Selling TV to Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by Tom Steward

My unofficial job title for the last couple of months has been PR Officer for American TV. Recently I’ve been introducing G to a number of my favourite US TV shows using the vast-if routinely inaccessible-archive of programming on Netflix and HuluPlus as well as my DVD collection, which lies within a handful of colossal CD carry cases in an object-fetishist’s version of efficient storage. Some programmes sold themselves. It didn’t take long for G to figure out that Northern Exposure was an engaging, endearing and intelligently written piece of television and not the geriatric-baiting fodder she suspected. Despite its nausea-inducing camerawork, the viscerality, complexity and wit of The Shield also won G over instantly. But there was always a fly in the ointment, and in every application. G took issue with the titles of both shows, Northern Exposure for its meandering moose and The Shield for its kid-friendly jingle. I tried to explain that these were some of the most iconic and beloved aspects of these shows but it fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Much as I love them, I can see why G thinks these gimmick-driven, one-dimensional titles might be doing a disservice to the shows.

‘Stupid moose’-G

But sometimes G’s sales resistance is difficult to break down. Her response to the Pilot of Breaking Bad was ‘That’s it?’. I wanted to argue with her but it did seem slight in comparison to later episodes and I didn’t think my observation that it was a ‘postmodern version of MacGyver would make it seem any more profound. Twin Peaks was apparently ‘all dialogue’, which is a new one for Lynch critiques, and only became visually stimulating when the donuts came out.  In these instances, I did what every good salesperson should and tried to associate the product with something the customer knows and likes. ‘It’s like Northern Exposure…but with murders’ I said of Twin Peaks. ‘It’s Malcolm in the Middle on meth’, I said of Breaking Bad. ‘You watch Malcolm in the Middle? What are you, 10?’ G responded. I guess my cold reading skills aren’t as good as I thought. Or maybe the prospect of Bryan Cranston in underpants isn’t as alluring to the rest of the world as it is to me.

Just me, then…

On other occasions I became a victim of my own salesmanship. I’ve managed to hook G on a hoard of arresting novelty shows that I’m fast losing interest in. This means I’m watching their tiresomely protracted runs again as exactly the point when I’ve given up on them. 24 and Damages are the chief culprits here, both of them wildly overlong elaborations on an initially brilliant premise. I didn’t think I could lose much more respect for 24 than had already gone but sitting through those final few seasons again with their automated scenarios and tedious twistiness I think it went subterranean. Worse, as the gruesome compulsion to clear all the episodes in as little time as possible accelerated, the show became like wallpaper in our house, an ever-present wall-adornment barely noticeable to our jaded eyes. G is still at the point in Damages where the promise of finding out what will happen in the ongoing story arc is yet to be beaten down by the knowledge of what does happen. But I can see this fading fast. G’s already worked out that they’re only keeping a serial story strand so as not to lose Ted Danson from the series.

A reason for sticking with Damages.

Although G came to Mad Men much later than me, thus allowing me to cherry-pick the most tolerable episodes from the dreary first few seasons, we’ve both turned sour on the series at about the same time. Actually, G got there first before I was willing to admit that the party was over. Midway through the most recent season, the sixth overall, I remember her asking ‘Where’s the advertising gone?’, which should have been enough of an alarm bell given that it’s the equivalent to Cheers forgetting to feature beer. For me, though, it was the sexual reunion of one of the series’ estranged couples that signalled the end of quality. Breaking a rule of good television established in Northern Exposure, it haphazardly thrust (in every sense of the word!) two characters together whose entire function was to carry the suggestion of romantic involvement without ever reaching that point. G turned to me the other day and said ‘I miss British TV’. I think it might be time to start offering a new product line.

 

If you like these blog posts why not follow my new twitter account @tvinaword where I create new words to describe TV shows. Send your own and if I like them I’ll retweet them!

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