Archive for jon stewart

The Endless Summer

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, hiatus, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m back after being away for the summer…just like TV! Or so I thought. Summer used to be a dumping ground for cancellation fodder, but something has changed. Many of the year’s most important programmes now air over the summer and momentous TV events are just as likely to play in the spring and summer as fall and winter. No doubt some of this is down to cable channels disrupting the old network seasonality, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that TV critics can’t take summer off any more if they want to stay current. So what’s been happening?

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

True Detective Season Two

Another reason why TV critics can’t go away for summer is because they’d all miss doing their favourite thing – bashing the follow-up to a universally praised piece of television with no particular motivation other than convention. Season Two of HBO’s anthological police procedural was torn to pieces by most critics, with so-called fans and lovers of quality television just as vociferously negative. It really has nothing to do with the season itself, just a tired old game that critics like to play, one that immunised us against the self-evident pleasures of Treme simply because it followed The Wire and even made us question the quality of The Wire when it entered its second season. Worryingly, it suggests critics and viewers of the serial age have serious trouble evaluating television when it deviates from formula, and really aren’t ready for the anthology revolution happening in TV.

Jon Stewart leaves The Daily Show

After fifteen years as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart could simply be remembered as the person that brought the art of fake news – cultivated in Britain by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris – to the US. But he leaves behind him an even greater legacy. When TV news polarised into partisan platforms with MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, Stewart’s Daily Show was just about the only source of news that had any semblance of objectivity (as rocky a term as that is) left to give. He was trumped by his own protégés. First Stephen Colbert, who transformed himself into a living doll of satire, viscerally exposing the ugliness of the media conservative while manifesting the winning naivety that makes them attractive. Then John Oliver who – with the help of HBO’s unsegmented formats – brought satirically slanted news reporting into the realms of investigative journalism and political activism.

Cilla Black/Rowdy Roddy Piper (delete as nationally appropriate) died

It’s only accident that these deaths occurred in summer, but taken together they are tantamount to transatlantic television tragedy. The British light entertainment host and Canadian WWF star died within a week of each other, which means nothing until you put together that their stretches as reigning TV personalities from the 1980s to the early 2000s is virtually identical and that they generate the same fuzzy nostalgia (in warmth and confusion alike) from the generations that grew up watching them. For me, it was a sharp reminder of how separate American and British cultures can be. Nobody mentioned Cilla – a contemporary of America’s beloved Beatles – stateside. Roddy Piper remains unfamiliar to me…and to all 90s British kids who didn’t have Sky.

Netflix Summer

The charms of hyper-inflective prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black continues to elude me, but it’s Netflix’s most valuable commodity and the June release of its third season was not an anomaly. The star-studded prequel series to cult comedy movie Wet Hot American Summer was made available in July as was season two of the critically acclaimed cartoon BoJack Horseman. Orange is the New Black was even streamed a few days early, just to remind Netflix subscribers that they can do shit like that. It’s pretty cocky behaviour, and somewhat backfired when fans who had booked time off work to binge-watch the season found themselves in a socially impossible situation. I don’t think this surge of summer activity at Netflix (nor the summer-theming of its releases) is at all a coincidence, more an attempt to dominate TV distribution in these months of the year. For all their talk of liberating viewers from the tyranny of scheduling, Netflix keeps subscribers under the yoke of its idiosyncratic calendar.

Fear The Walking Dead is set in's going to be a short show!

Fear The Walking Dead is set in LA…it’s going to be a short show!

Fear the Walking Dead Series Premiere

The unwanted spin-off of AMC’s The Walking Dead debuted in the last days of summer. As True Detective also switched from a rural southern locale to the L.A. metropolitan sprawl, I wouldn’t expect any glowing reviews forthcoming…

Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.


Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by Tom Steward

In the last few weeks I’ve been viewing events in my country through a telescope. I don’t just mean that I’ve been watching from a distance but also that I’ve been seeing them filtered through another nation’s television. I’m speaking of course about NBC’s coverage of the London 2012 Olympics. In some ways it’s been a cultural revelation. It’s evident from how our ethnically mixed population was depicted in the coverage that the majority of Americans don’t recognise us as a land of diversity. This was demonstrated most strikingly when two Asian (our definition not yours, US readers) spectators-who to a native’s eyes were clearly British citizens-were picked out by the camera to signify the lengths people have travelled to get to the games. I never thought Dizzee Rascal’s presence at the opening ceremony needed an explanation but apparently-even in the post-Iris Elba era of US television-it does.

Black people in Britain: who knew?!

But this culturally out-of-touch tone to the coverage was not reserved for Brits alone. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy news show Totally Biased re-played some extraordinary footage of NBC’s Olympic anchorman Bob Costas rhapsodising about African-American gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Costas’ rhetoric made Douglas sound like a student at Little Rock in the 1950s and at a time when the demographic of young African-American girls includes the President’s children! Others in US TV were patently embarrassed about how NBC treated British culture and history. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show reported that an opening ceremony tribute to the victims of the July 7th London bombings was cut to make way for a Ryan Seacrest interview with Goldfinger-of-swimmers Michael Phelps. Insensitive, yes, but with such ceaseless spectacle it would have been difficult to know what to cut. I probably would have lost the 10 minutes of Mr. Bean dicking around to Vangelis, but that’s just me.

A fitting tribute to the dead?

Not that I’ve been particularly sensitive to the country hosting me. G wanted me to high-five every US Gold Medal, and why shouldn’t she? Team USA had some shit-hot performances this time round-well, if that kind of superlative commentary is good enough for NBC it’s good enough for little old me. It’s excruciatingly difficult to congratulate the USA for the same reason that people don’t generally root for the Empire in Star Wars or Man United in anything. It’s also hard to explain this without seeming spiteful, or a Communist. Lending my whooping voice to Team China simply because they threatened to topple the US in the medal stakes probably didn’t help my cause, especially when goading G about China overtaking the US in manufacturing. It might seem like post-imperial bitterness (also known as ‘Britishness’) but good things come out of rejecting the prevailing empire, the United States for one.

Go China!

Seeing the Olympics in America is a timely reminder that over here success is unquestionably a good thing. From what I’ve seen of the British media’s coverage of Olympics, ambivalence about the jingoism of commentary on Team GB’s medal victories began to seep in after a while. Some observers were perturbed about the propaganda uses of such rhetoric at a time of political failure while others, such as TV sports anchor Gary Lineker, vigorously defended the national media’s right to admire their athletes’ achievements. No such dilemma in the US. In fact, NBC coverage was so patriotic it even suggested that the USA helped other countries reach their Olympic glory. In a report on the rise of athletics in Grenada, it was heavily implied that the country couldn’t have won a medal in this sport were it not for the US’s intervention against Communism occupation forces in the 1980s.

Brought to you by the USA

In the same red, white and blue vein, I was struck by how little of the other countries competing I saw in NBC’s coverage, particularly in primetime slots. I realise each nation has to privilege its own participation but I expected an attempt at portraying a rounded view of the games, which never came. Isolationism is an accusation frequently levelled at US newscasting, so I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It certainly wasn’t surprising that the US won a gold medal in all the segments leading the coverage. Other notable tendencies of NBC Olympicasting included the pointless post-event interview in which reporters tried to brainwash the oxygen-deprived athletes with pre-prepared soundbytes which they were made to repeat,  as if they were victims of a lobotomy. Another was the Olympic-branded franchise of teaser trailers for NBC’s Fall schedule in which every cancellation-fodder sitcom was rendered in slow-motion as though prestige is somehow contagious.

Animal Practice: disqualified from the tournament


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