Archive for justified

Queen Me

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s Christmas so TV is all about messages. Though if you know your McLuhan, then you’ll already be aware that TV itself is the message. Far be it from me to buck seasonal television trends, so as this is the final blog post of the year I’ve prepared a Christmas message. As I hail from the land of tea and war (where do you think we got the tea?), the message will be delivered as if it were Queen Elizabeth II’s televised Christmas address to the nation, which all British subjects watch devoutly each year without ever ignoring it completely.

What are all you people doing in our house?

What are all you people doing in our house?

In the House of Commons this November, MPs debated whether to change the symbol of Britain from a lion to a hedgehog or, to put it another way, whether to write off the country by tying its fate to a species with a rapidly declining population. We are reminded of our long-lost children in the colonies who this year lost iconic hosts of late-night on their moving billboards. Like changing a lion for a hedgehog, the replacement may not seem as strong as its predecessor – and more difficult to pick up – but the more they stick out their noses and appear at our doors each night, the more the infants of the new world will grow to love them. We are also reminded of this because a couple of the new hosts look like hedgehogs.

Nocturnal hedgehogs

Nocturnal hedgehogs

If Britain does decide that it’s only economic salvation – following the debacle of a government I could’ve stopped if I had wanted to – is Beatrix Potter brand synergy, then we are reassured by the success of spin-offs in the living room magic lantern shows of the Europe’s emancipated teenager. As hedgehogs to lions, such derivations seemed paltry and incidental creatures yet they possess a unique quality all of their own that has been resting in the shade of bigger animals for so long it comes to light as soon as they shift their lumbering rears from view. Except CSI: Cyber.

There is always the possibility of reinvention – look at us, we’re much more cheery than we used to be – as the recent trend in the wall-mounted viewfinders of Columbus’s Indies for season-long anthology series reminds us. It is difficult to adjust to change – especially if one writes for HitFix – but we should remember that, like that bloody hedgehog we wish we’d never used as a metaphor in the first place, transformation has the potential to preserve a species that would otherwise have died out a lot sooner, or ended up on Hulu. It takes a true detective to see the worth in exchanging a tried-and-tested point of pride for something offbeat and challenging, but we must fargo our trepidations in order to save what we love while it still has a slim chance of survival.

The year of my lord – well he is technically my employer – 2015 was the end of an era, although not for me as we became the longest-reigning British monarch, of which we would like to say on record: ‘suck it, time’! But those less fortunate than us, such as everyone, have had to endure the loss of the many sinful delights that sit within the devil’s hatbox, especially those that hail from the land of not-having-one-of-me-in-charge. We are justified to feel sadness though we would be mad men if we didn’t notice that Parks & Recreation was just shit now.

Lions – for my speechwriter says that you’re simply all too stupid to handle more than one metaphor per message – are lazy and parasitic as well as strong and proud, so it is not with complete regret that we see two and a half of these individually wrapped entertainments make way for an animal that isn’t quite so boring and doesn’t steal from others…like a mentalist! There are those who say it is a scandal that those animals with such a grey anatomy should get away with murder, but here’s the catch. The ecosystem needs every animal – no matter how much it feeds off a rotting carcass – so, however much they induce dread, the lions of this world are just as important to the hedgehogs and, yes, my butler does mix drinks that badly as well.

To play us out, we have the Christmas TV movie carol ‘Edelweiss’ which this year reminds us of a world which my uncle would have been proud of. A very happy Christmas to you all… except those of you who want me to pay taxes.

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The Tommys 2015

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV Acting, TV Criticism, TV Culture with tags , , , , on September 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s that time of year again when those we trust with the responsibility of deciding what makes good television publicly demonstrate they have no idea what makes good television. Yes, The Emmys. As with every year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences make two glaring errors. Firstly, they overlook the best TV of our time in favour of academy pets like Modern Family (Just a side note: Unlike most television critics, I rather like Modern Family. I just don’t happen to think it’s the only sitcom of the last six years worthy of celebration). Secondly, they create convoluted, counter-intuitive categories of awards that prevent the finest shows from being recognised because they don’t tick a bunch of weirdly shaped boxes. To rectify this, I’m starting my own annual television awards ceremony (yes, it’s going to be one of those articles!) called The Tommys with the sole purpose of demonstrating that you can still recognise the best TV around even when you have bullshit categories.

Best Shaving of Iconic Facial Hair in an FX Series, Zombie-Based Comic Book Adaptation, or Timely Political Commentary

Winner: Sam Elliott for Justified

tommys

Nominated: W. Earl Brown for American Crime/Andrew Lincoln for The Walking Dead/Kathy Bates for American Horror Story: Freakshow (disqualified for chin curtain)

Least Mentally Prepared Husband in a Housewives Franchise, Vanity Project or Marriage Experiment

Winner: Vincent ‘Garage Face’ Van Patten for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

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Nominated: Hank ‘The tranny’s hand walked into my penis’ Baskett for Kendra on Top/David ‘Golem’ Beador for The Real Housewives of Orange County/Mohammed ‘It’s against my religion to express genuine affection for my wife’ Jbali for 90-Day Fiance

Most Impatient Response to a Format Change in an Anthology Series, Prequel Spin-Off, or Homeland

Winner: True Detective (aka Noir is Supposed to be Urban, Idiots!)

Nominated: Fear The Walking Dead (aka Before They Were Zombies)/Homeland (aka Awayplace)/Better Call Saul (aka How The Lawyer got his Spotty Morality)

Most Overrated Drama, Sitcom or Tonally Confused Variation upon The Two Previous Sub-Categories featuring Martin Freeman, Kevin Spacey or Andy Samberg

Note: In this category, the award will be collected by an actor better at playing the role than the actor who actually did*

*Even if Kevin Spacey is in the audience doing his ‘I’m the first ever person to talk to a camera in a TV show’ schtick

Winner: Sherlock (award collected by Lucy Liu)

Nominated: House of Cards (award to be collected by the ghost of Ian Richardson)/Fargo (award to be collected by William H. Macy)/Brooklyn Nine Nine (award to be collected by whoever is near)

Biggest Load of Horseshit Onscreen Explanation of Something That is Clearly an Offscreen Issue in a Trumped-Up Soap Opera, Underrated Popular Literature Adaptation or Reality Show on a Bottom-Feeding Network

Winner: Scandal for the end-of-season held-at-gunpoint cliffhanger and season premiere cold open funeral of Harrison Wright during the domestic abuse court case of Columbus Short.

Nominated: Elementary for the complete absence of LGBT housekeeper Ms. Hudson in the third season while actress Candis Cayne became a visible activist for transgender rights/Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars for Hank Baskett’s ‘magic penis’ theory of how he could be caught red-handed in a transsexual three-way and yet not have participated

Worse Kept Secret in a Deathcount-Oriented Drama, Television Awards Show or Publicity-Loving Satire of Advertising

Winner: The Tommys 2015 for revealing multiple spoilers in TV shows not yet caught up on by most viewers by simply listing the nominees

Nominated: The Walking Dead for posting news of Beth’s death on social media the day that the episode aired/The Emmys 2015 for spoiling the series finale deaths of Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, Zeek Braverman in Parenthood, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Bill Compton in True Blood and Raylan Givens’ hat in Justified/Mad Men for having a series ending that was tiresomely ambiguous

Most Unconvincing Justification of a Blatant Freakshow in a Bafflingly Popular Horror Anthology Series, Footage-Shy Reality Show or Modern-Day Version of Public Hanging Entertainment

Winner: Botched for claiming to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about plastic surgeons

Nominated: American Horror Story: Freakshow because if it’s about an actual freakshow, we can’t get upset at the title/America’s Got Talent for exploiting the lack of a substantive mental health care system in the US

Reality Contestant who Looks Most Like a Popeye Character

Winner: Josh Altman (Wimpy) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

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Nominated: The Situation (Popeye) for Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars/Josh Altman (Alice The Goon) for Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles

Justified And Ancient

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

Currently my two favourite shows are both revivals of iconic literary characters and new twists on old TV genres. Justified features Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap as well as the short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ from which the FX series sprung. As Justified aired, Leonard wrote his final novel Raylan about the character. Elementary is based around scatological-saying sleuth Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas, re-located and updated to present-day New York. Both are ostensibly police procedurals, a genre spanning the history of television, but they also resurrect some more archaic formats, such as the western and the mystery drama. These are shows that can appease snobs and slobs. Elementary goes under the radar while Justified will soon fall in the woods without sound. So why don’t people like them as much as I do?

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I’m not saying that Justified and Elementary are in any way reviled, but neither are they exalted like the offerings of AMC, HBO and Showtime. Despite being on a network with a stellar reputation for original drama, Justified is continually overshadowed by series like Fargo and The Americans, both of which are unlikely to have existed without Justified blazing the trail. Elementary has the disadvantage of being on CBS rather than cable, but it is still far from being considered a giant of well-made, middle-of-the-road entertainment like The Good Wife. This is what they get for doing everything a complex, mature character-driven drama would without disturbing what makes good television. Surely that is more remarkable than trying to produce something worthy without regard to what works on TV (American Crime, I’m looking in your direction!) or even accomplishing great art on networks that are purpose-built to challenge mainstream television conventions.

Maybe they’re a victim of the times. Elementary comes in the wake of the BBC’s Sherlock, a contentless self-hyping publicity machine that has established itself as the worthier successor to the Sherlock Holmes name without any claims between opening and closing credits to that title. Justified began as an episodic procedural and grew into long-form storytelling, and may have looked to those who think good TV comes in serial boxes as unfashionable. Maybe they care too much about history. Justified is pulp fiction comedy in the noble tradition of The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. and homage to the TV westerns (and disguised police westerns thereof) of the 1960s and 1970s, underlined by Timothy Olyphant borrowing Clint Eastwood’s legs for the project. Elementary doesn’t contemporize like Sherlock, or at least it doesn’t fetishize new technologies as a substitute for coherent storytelling, and at its best it’s Columbo in a brownstone.

I suppose what’s layers to some people is packaging to others. But what would it take to understand how holistic a television experience it is to watch Justified and Elementary? I’m watching TV now and in the past, a pleasurable formula alongside a gruelling psycho-drama, good television and the cherry-pickings of popular culture. I look to other TV shows that currently fascinate people like Scandal and Empire and the common denominators are melodrama and outrageous behaviour. Perhaps Justified and Elementary are too straight-faced and plausibly written to stand out in primetime. Maybe the success of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is not so much in the transformative character arcs (which both my faves provide in equal measure) but the Dickensian coincidences and lunacy of the protagonists. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and characters doing stupid things to create drama. Characters in these two shows are drawn not sketched.

'Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!'

‘Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!’

Because Justified and Elementary derive from a body of work outside of themselves, perhaps audiences assume they need prior knowledge of the characters and authors’ previous works in order to enjoy these series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary eschews the fan-fiction qualities of Sherlock in favour of original content utilising the character dynamics of the literary cycle. You do not feel like you have to be a devoted reader of Conan Doyle nor worship the cult of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate Elementary. Yet it is an authentic introduction to the Holmes stories in a way that Sherlock refuses to be. Elmore Leonard is simply a point of departure for Justified and his characters and storylines have been reinterpreted, interwoven and extrapolated to the point where they are born anew (for copyright reasons just as much as artistic ones). Leonard is the midwife here not the overprotective mother.

Special FX

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.

The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.

I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.

The hype is Justified!

The hype is Justified!

So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.

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.

Telly-picking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Tom Steward

As someone who has spent the best part of their life enthusing, studying and writing about television, I often get asked what’s best to watch, as if I have access to a secret channel that only the TV wing of Mensa are eligible to subscribe for. I’m always hesitant to answer. As a self-confessed TV snob, I know that whoever’s asking will have dipped their toes into far more shows than I ever have and experimented with titles I would have simply dismissed. When you teach the tube (if you’re doing it properly) you learn to embrace more of the spectrum of what we might call television. So I’m worried I would answer with something insane like CBS’ coverage of the NFL or a public access schools programme about surrealism. It’s also because there’s now so much choice in television that it’s possible (at least as a middle-class white man) to find a show that caters exclusively to you. I genuinely couldn’t say whether or not Boardwalk Empire is great TV since it features just about everything I love in this world (gangsters, American history, HBO, Steve Buscemi), achieving distinction in my eyes just by being made in my lifetime.

Boardwalk Empire: If you don’t like it, you’re not me.

When people ask I’m pretty sure they want a good drama to sink their teeth into and aren’t asking for advice on what rolling news service they should tune to. Givens that, (pun not typo) my go-to is always Justified which I can universally recommend with more, ahem, justification than my TV make-your-own pizza Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that’s off a lot of people’s radar, or at the bottom of their list, so I feel I might actually be telling them something they don’t know rather than sounding like I’m reading from a list of trending tags. There’s plenty for me to get excited about as an Elmore Leonard aficionado and lover of TV westerns and cop shows but there’s something for everyone here. Every character from walk-on to lead is immaculately written and acted (even Bubba from Forest Gump) and there are beautiful men and women to gaze at, whether you like rough or smooth, or both. If you like your CSIs and your SVUs there’s a whole, complete and expertly crafted story each week. If you’re more of a long game person, behold the four seasons of onion-peel plot development and character works-in-progress like the ever-elusive Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Without sounding like all the good things are in the past-to paraphrase Stevie Wonder-Justified represents a kind of television there’s a severe shortage of today. A medley of action, story, humour and character that’s entirely entertaining and yet never lacking in quality and complexity, not seen fully since The Rockford Files. With kicking dialogue and music to boot, you can’t go wrong. And you’ll be in love with from the first scene.

A Justified choice!

I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years. How can I tell someone to start watching Breaking Bad in full knowledge that nothing compelling will happen until the third season? Sons of Anarchy doesn’t even come together until the fifth season! That’s roughly fifty hours of television to tunnel through before seeing any kind of daylight. In all but the rarest cases, we’re talking about shows that you can’t tell someone to jump into already knee-deep in story so you’re really signing them up for work as much as enriching their lives. You see people that you’ve recommended slow-burning TV series to and you can see they’re worn down and trying to think of something nice to say in order to match your enthusiasm but sweating pure ambivalence. If I think someone has the strength of character to endure the grind, I may nod them in the direction of The Walking Dead purely because it’s only a mini-series worth of mediocrity before it all starts to fall in place, a comparative blink of the eye. Fancy a bet on a rank outsider? Try Portlandia. Ostensibly a location-specific sketch show, it’s actually more freely artistic and socially incisive than most TV comedy or drama. You can keep asking me what’s good but most of the time either you know or you don’t want to know.

Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

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