Archive for jon hamm

Watching TV With Britons Part 2: Same Same Same

Posted in Americans watching British TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

The second part of my exile’s guide to British television looks at the unwelcome familiarity of the programmes I watched during my recent visit to the UK, as any vain hope of something changing for the better while I was away is quickly crushed under my muddy, slushy Wellington boot:

The Royal Variety Performance (ITV):

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

As both variety (our version of vaudeville) and royalty are anachronisms in British popular culture, this annual broadcast of theatrical entertainment staged in front of members of the monarchy seems to exist for nostalgia alone. Tellingly, there’s no variety on offer but merely alternating stand-ups and singers. The addition of William and Kate – presumably as a reward for breeding – meant that the event was no longer attended by a couple famous for their dislike of showbusiness but they still couldn’t help appearing like a benign Statler & Waldorf. It’s hard to believe that host – and redefinition of the term ‘comedian’ – Michael Mcintyre remains popular in Britain but given the programme’s commitment to the regression of our culture, artist and medium have never been better matched.

The Railway: First Great Western (Channel 5):

Public transport documentaries have been the saving grace of British reality television in the past few years, but the UK’s TV network-in-the-attic Channel 5 has, by focusing on this year’s closure of the Dawlish rail line due to storms and flooding, turned it into weather porn – one of the less commendable reality genres to emerge on British TV after the advent of climate change! Still, it was interesting to see that Home Secretary Theresa May is as inept at forming sentences as she is at politics.

Black Mirror: White Christmas (Channel 4)

A Christmas Hamm!

A Christmas Hamm!

British TV critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker exists in a categorical limbo between Clive James and Rod Serling, alternating parodic weekly TV review shows with anthology sci-fi horror. This festive (in genre alone!) edition of techno-fear playhouse Black Mirror was, in keeping with the British Christmas special, more conventional than we expect from the series. The formulaic storytelling was partly a satisfying return to the Christmas TV horror plays of old but also revived some rather retrograde attitudes to gender and race that I’m sure we’d all have rather left in the TV of the 70s. A surprise Christmas gift came in the form of an outstanding star turn by Jon Hamm, leading the effort to turn British migrant labour in American TV into a hostage exchange (P.S. You keep James Nesbitt, we’ll have Steve Buscemi!), which, as Mad Men comes to a close, more than proved – at least to doubting Thomases like me – that he could credibly be something other than Don Draper.

It Was Alright in the 70s (Channel 4)

Several people told me I should watch this programme, which runs clips of contemporaneously controversial British TV from the 1970s alongside commentary from the people involved as well as aghast modern-day viewers. The clips themselves have the requisite shock and entertainment value, but I was uneasy with the tone and project of this documentary. It seemed to suggest that the bigotry and exploitation that appeared in 1970s television was somehow a thing of the past and that all the problems of representation had subsequently been resolved, whereas I saw plenty of examples, if perhaps more latent than pointed, of prejudice and cruelty in the TV I watched while in the UK. It’s also a very selective history of 1970s television in the UK which continually declines to mention how experimental, challenging and innovative a great deal of TV was in that era, perhaps more than now, and certainly with more frequency. When this is acknowledged, it’s usually passed off as the inconsequential ramblings of a cultural historian in the editing, and only ever associated with content that would be hard to defend on a representational level, such as The Goodies’ (literally!) savage attack on apartheid involving racial slurs and minstrelry. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the programme is its lack of originality. It’s a cursory spin on a clip-based nostalgia format that’s been around since the turn of the millennium, and almost matches the exploitative tendencies of the TV it lambasts by offering recent revelations about the sex crimes of 70s British celebrities as a unique selling point.

Autopsy: The Last Days of Elvis Presley (Channel 5)

briton 6

Dr Richard Shepherd, Graduate of The University of Stating The Bleeding Obvious!

Like asking which bullet killed a person shot 24 times. Worth seeing for the Elvis curl on the lips of the actor portraying Presley whilst dying on the toilet.

Box Jumps

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television. Each idea that has any kind of success with or impact on viewers will be re-circulated more or less unmodified until the imitation has paled to the point it recalls the scene in Moulin Rouge where Nicole Kidman pretends to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. This is why there are currently five series airing on US television (that I can name!) about software developers and why so many recent TV dramas use flashback, even though it runs counter to the logic of television’s simultaneous time. A particularly alarming television trend doing the rounds at the moment is arbitrary jumps in time that leave huge gaps in series timelines. Rather than heralding a new style of TV storytelling, these flashforwards seem more like afterthoughts designed to resolve awkward continuity problems.

Fargo the year!

Fargo the year!

It was recently announced that the final season of HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire would take place in 1931, seven years after the end of the previous season, which had covered the late teens and early twenties in its first four seasons. The final few minutes of the latest season of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation jumped three years ahead, omitting Leslie Knope’s pregnancy, the birth of her triplets, and the first years of her new job. FX’s thriller mini-series Fargo skipped a year in its last few episodes, this time allowing police Deputy Molly to get pregnant and criminal conspirators Lester and Lorne to start new lives. After nine episodes out of twelve, we’re still waiting for the belated revival of 24, Live Another Day, to jump a few hours to get us to the end of the day before the season ends, as promised by the show’s producers.

When TV shows did this in the past, it always smacked of desperation. It was no coincidence that Desperate Housewives jumped five years in its fifth season the same time as viewers were leaving the show in droves. Nor was a secret that One Tree Hill’s skip ahead four years halfway through its run was a thinly veiled attempt to bring characters’ ages into touch with the actors playing them. The time jump might be being deployed in a slightly smarter way these days, with Parks and Recreation’s implication that the nation has missed out on a three-year recurring guest role from Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who is fired from Leslie’s office seconds after the ellipsis. But if you look at where the jumps are situated in the runs of these series, and think about why they should happen at that exact point, you’ll see they are no less crude.

As with flashbacks, part of the problem is that time jumps upset the way time works in television. It’s conventional that TV time runs concurrently with the time in which we live out our lives, and pleasurably so since much of the joy of watching TV is the way it syncs with what we’re doing. Time jumps invariably put a show ahead of the time of viewing, which makes it a kind of science-fiction, and would be fine if that’s what the programme-makers were going for. Aside from problems of realism and plausibility caused by the time jump, it also puts viewers at odds with programmes rather than it seguing with their daily and weekly lives. It’s also more of a placebo for story problems than a panacea. Things take time to work themselves out in television, and television should remain a record of that not a remedy for it.

Look what we missed!

Look what we missed!

A time jump might have relieved Parks and Recreation viewers of another pregnancy storyline but it also cheated them of character development. It’s very much a self-written corner since no-one asked the writers to put two pregnancies back-to-back. The loss of a full year in Fargo deprived the series of the suspenseful and tightly-knit storytelling that held the show together, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying denouement. We’ve yet to see how 24 will skip ahead to later hours of the day, but it’s bound to disrupt the real-time orthodoxy of the premise. The producers of Boardwalk Empire may feel they have more justification to move forward in time since it is a historical piece. My initial thoughts are that the 1930s is a very different animal historically, and that Boardwalk Empire can’t help but become a different programme. Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?


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