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The Simpsons Are Going To Yellow Air!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

We’re currently halfway through the most embiggened television event of the summer. Every. Simpsons. Ever. is FXX’s 12-day marathon of all 552 episodes of The Simpsons in order, a feat which will require more than even a hundred tacos for adequate sustenance…and a bigger wheelbarrow. I refuse to rhapsodize about the quality of these episodes, partly because it is so astoundingly self-evident that anyone who can’t see it is already a lost cause and also because if you’re yet to be convinced it will take Hypnotoad therapy (it’s still Groening!) to convert you, not the arbitrary superlatives of a fan-blogger.

Doh! A deer. A female deer...

Doh! A deer. A female deer…

What struck me watching the series from the beginning is how fully-formed it arrived. A few episodes in and the refined notes of sitcom, satire, slapstick and emotion had already found a blended chemistry. I’ve always suspected the idea that series take place in a coherent fictional universe was just World of Warcraft for TV critics, but looking back it’s remarkable how every line of dialogue or character action is layered with a thousand future meanings and significances. The day is not far off when, as in Shakespeare or The Bible, a reference to everything in existence will be found in The Simpsons.

You don’t need me to remind you of this. In fact, I didn’t need to remind myself. I just did it because the TV told me to, and it’s hard not to listen because it spent so much time raising me. What I do need to remind you is that The Simpsons is still good and should not be cancelled. Whenever anyone involved in the show is asked whether they should call it an epoch – an inevitable question after 25 years on the air – they invariably defer to what is most unprecedented and unrepeatable about The Simpsons.

The show’s original contract with Fox contains a clause stipulating that the network cannot interfere in its production. This clause still holds today. To end the series would be to forsake a kind of creative freedom not seen before nor possible since in network television, or any other corporate media for that matter. Of course, if The Simpsons wasn’t doing anything valuable with their autonomy, then it shouldn’t be kept on the air just to make a point. But I would argue, fervently, that it is. Perhaps not as well as it once did, or as consistently, but cromulently enough.

In recent years, the abuse The Simpsons receives at the hands of the internet (eh?) has become so ritualised that the show even has a running gag about it (which is reason enough to keep the series on the air, if you ask me). I was probably in their camp a couple of years ago. But when I think about, the time I disliked the series most was when I was denied a steady flow of new episodes by Rupert Murdoch restricting UK premiere rights to channels I didn’t have (the Sith Lord giveth and the Sith Lord taketh away).

Since I moved to the US, I get daily back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons on my local station which are all from 2010 onwards and shown on a continuous loop. For some time now, this is what The Simpsons has been to me. Rather than experiencing melancholia for the show’s golden age, my appreciation and enthusiasm for the series has been renewed and revitalised. The writing remains acerbic, the satire of contemporary folly is as punchy and provocative as that of the first Bush administration, and contrary to popular belief there is as much feeling for the characters as ever.

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Rupert Murdoch will no doubt need all 552 episodes of The Simpsons as evidence in his defence when he is eventually tried by The Hague but I only need one to defend the series against charges of loitering that may come its way. ‘Steal This Episode’ is the ninth episode of the 25th season of The Simpsons and aired this January. It is one of the most recent episodes and one of the overall best. It contains a nuanced and insightful commentary on the moral contradictions and hypocrisies of media piracy, spot-on critiques of Hollywood’s recent output (‘I like that James Bond is ugly now’), and pinpoint social observation (I have lived the Raiders’ fan with the baby at the 9pm screening!). It has an emotional centre and yet draws intelligent laughter from what we know of the characters and what is true of life. They’ll never stop The Simpsons.

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Goodbye Mr. Smith!

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

This blog seems to be nothing but obituaries these days but I’m happy that, after reporting the dreadful loss of James Gandolfini, I’m only talking about the death of a fictional character this week and not even that. In essence all I’m really discussing is an actor leaving a role and something that’s happened ten times over, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be much cause for mourning and sadness. But this time it’s not a relief to say goodbye or a feeling that the pleasure has reached its capacity just that of being deprived of something truly wonderful.

So it’s come to Tardis: Matt Smith leaves ‘Doctor Who’

In 2009 there was nothing but alarm amongst fans of the TV show Doctor Who as the younger ever actor to be cast in the eponymous role was announced as the replacement for David Tennant. Matt Smith was 26 at the time but his uneven hair, emo style and awkward deportment made him seem much much younger. Concern and panic was only exacerbated by a number of appearances in which he seemed illegible and incapable. Unlike most, I was happy to see Tennant and his lazy shortcuts leave the series, but became prematurely nostalgic for him after learning the news.

Matt Smith in 2009, looking more like Adric!

A terrible debut scene at the end of one of the most tedious and portentous Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast didn’t help matters. Horribly written and directed in a needlessly elliptical style, Smith’s performance in the final few minutes of ‘The End of Time’ seemed fragile and misplaced, falsely suggesting a performance of infantile nihilism that was the worst everyone feared. Expectations sufficiently lowered, we started to get reasons to be cheerful. In the previews Smith looked and sounded commanding and unique and word spread that Smith had reconsidered his approach after studying Patrick Troughton’s groundbreaking interpretation of the role.

The jury was still out when in Easter 2010 Smith made his full debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Quietly assured in the Bond-teaser opening, he went from strength to strength in his first hour of television, re-injecting a genuine sense of fun, humour and warmth into the show (without resorting to saccharine) and refusing to romanticize the character, making The Doctor a troubling proposition of unpredictable behaviour and sinister tendencies despite his innate affability. Unlike Tennant it wasn’t a needy performance that asked you to idolize the actor as you worshipped the character, just an actor doing a part justice.

As Smith’s first season progressed, his ability to judge the demands of the role became increasingly evident. He knew exactly when to let loose the pantomime of the piece and when to tone it down and squeeze out the profundity. While honouring the previous ten performances of the role-in a way that his last two predecessors had not-Smith stamped his authority on the part with a wholly original spin on the character. Each actor playing The Doctor has to find a way to capture his alien qualities. Smith played The Doctor as a social misfit, comically illiterate in human beings’ behavioural orthodoxies. He talked to children like adults and adults like children, gleefully misjudged fashion and etiquette, and moved and gestured in disregard of convention.

There are definitely two aliens in this photograph!

As the second season of the programme veered head-first into pure space opera, Smith brought to the melodrama an understated honesty and brevity that gave the emotional core of the show a raw power unseen in its mawkish, self-pitying previous few years. Tears were no longer an inevitable part of a cloying formula but hard-won and always accompanied with restraint. As such, Smith pulled off that fine balance between the outlandish and the sincere that makes Doctor Who. He was able to suggest age and wisdom well beyond his years, and with it the overgrown teenager we initially saw evaporated.

Hard-won tears from Matt Smith as The Doctor

Smith’s third season as The Doctor saw him finally getting the mature, heavyweight material he needed to showcase his pedigree as one of the finest performances of the part. Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’ allowed Smith to shine in a powerful and disturbing story of genocide and war. However, a rapid fall-off in the quality of the 2013 episodes of Doctor Who-and a gradual slowing of the rate of episodes per year-has left audiences wanting more from Smith, and more of him. It was announced in June that Smith will leave the role at the end of the year, with only two episodes remaining. It is a part that will always outlive any actor that plays it but it will never escape Matt Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

All the Single Maybes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

Most American TV is so chaste it makes me feels like I hail from a nation of sexual deviants. If Jersey Shore recalls the buffoonish innocence of an end-of-run episode of Saved by the Bell, the UK version Geordie Shore is more like the grim disillusion of Screech’s sex tape. A lot of this is down to repressive censorship practices in US network television, not to mention the deeply conservative corporate owners of some stations. But TV tends not to reflect the openness towards sex in American popular culture. Comparatively there is far more sexual repression in British attitudes, and this comes out in my vehemently prudish reaction to ABC’s The Bachelorette. Like most of the over-50 relatives that feature in the later stages of the programme, I’m uneasy with the way the show’s design promotes promiscuity whilst pushing the dogma of monogamy-as if one leads naturally to the other.

Does he have brown hair?

As The Bachelor/ette is one of the few hit US reality series that doesn’t have a British doppelganger, some introduction is required. Basically, it’s a dating version of Guess Who? Each year, one man or woman (increasingly a contestant from previous years) goes through a seemingly endless 10-week process in which they have multiple dates in various spots across the country and globe with several members of the opposite sex who run the gamut from bland to unhinged. As the series goes on, the eponymous singleton eliminates one or a couple of contestants per week by denying them a rose like some demented flower Nazi. After weeks of simultaneous and group dating-in which the show begins to eerily resemble the scene list from a porn movie-the pool is whittled down to two, until a winner emerges and becomes a fiancé. It’s a perfectly normal road to marriage…if you’re James Bond.

No Rose For You!!!

It’s now a cliché of the white noise surrounding the programme that romantic relationships between the contestants are doomed to failure. The marriages are reality TV versions of shotgun weddings, with a digital video camera with high colour contrast aimed at the grooms’ heads instead of a firearm. No-one involved with the show ever seems to attribute this to the fact that the participant is compelled to split their affections equally across partners or that the series gives the contestant a chance to try out each of the four finalists sexually in turn in the sleazily-named ‘fantasy suite’-another nod to the conventions of the sex industry. The situation flatters the producers immensely, with post-publicity in the tabloid scrutiny of the couple’s troubles and splits keeping the brand visible out-of-season. It also makes a hoard of familiar show faces single again, putting them back in the rotation for future series.

Back for a second time!

The bravado and the carefree playfulness of the contestants in the first few weeks are all well and good. But it’s when the contestants start to declare their love for each other and meet their respective families that the façade of true romance starts to look as false as the Vegas-Roman pillars that replace load-bearing walls in reality shows. As if anyone with an ounce of self-respect would continue to go through the motions of a game show with someone they cared for that deeply. It’s hard to accept that the contestants’ families would be comfortable consenting to their loved one being exposed to so much hurt. The show gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of suggesting in the editing that the parents will object to their child’s pluralistic attitude towards love. With some judicious, Bravo-style shot displacement, however, this all seems to come up dung-smelling roses in the end.

Daughter Ricki-the most talked-about child on TV

This past season of The Bachelorette threw a human-shaped spanner in the works. Competitor Emily, a former show winner whose relationship had ended, was now in the driving seat with her pick of suitors. Those in contention for the fantasy suite decided it was too tawdry, not least because Emily has a young daughter at home. Once Emily recognised compatibility and fatherly qualities in Jeff-albeit not before the final show-she ended the competition and sent other potential fiancé, Ari, home. So has the programme finally gained self-awareness about its detrimental effect on long-term relationships? Not exactly. The finale was roundly ridiculed-even by other network shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!-for killing the tension of a closing rose ceremony and effectively ending a half-hour early. ABC’s salvage operation centred on promoting Bachelor Pad, a spin-off set seemingly entirely in the fantasy suite with partners for everyone! It’s the Bachelor/ette without piety.

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