Archive for key and peele

Sense of Schumer

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

If you have to get sick of seeing someone’s face on TV, make it Amy Schumer’s. Why? Well, firstly because being sick of seeing Schumer’s face seems to be part of her schtick. Every sketch on her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer is preceded and followed by a close-up of Schumer’s face quick-scanning the streets of New York before the camera CSI zooms into her eye. Her face is the lifeblood of every sketch, and even the (mandatory) Twelve Angry Men parody episode in which she did not feature begins with her face dominating the screen. It’s also because Amy Schumer’s face is interesting to watch. Eschewing the hyperreal expressionism of her peers (not that there’s anything wrong with that – Key & Peele are as cartoonish as they come), Schumer’s face is a flickering deadpan, oscillating between irony and approval of the characters she plays and those she interviews.

Facial Schumer!

Facial Schumer!

Which is good news because Amy Schumer is everywhere. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to watch nothing but Amy Schumer on TV these days. There’s her weekly Comedy Central show which seemingly plays throughout the night (uncensored) on the network, her guest appearances on every late-night talk show around, her work on The Bachelorette (which ABC executives want to expand into a regular thing), and trailer-length promos for her upcoming movie vehicle Trainwreck in the ad breaks. We’ve seen this kind of momentary ubiquity before, of course, but rarely with a performer of such substance. That may be because Schumer is able to do provocative and powerful material while making it sound like a bunch of harmless Seinfeldisms. She even makes light of the issue-based thrust of her comedy, passing off most sketches as a PSA-gone-wrong, while underlining just how culturally urgent her intervention into modern life is.

Last night, Schumer confronted the alleged crimes of Bill Cosby. The heavily corroborated sexual assault allegations against the veteran comic seem fair game for comedians now and indeed it may be easier for a white female comic to talk about this topic than, say, the black male one who broke the story. It was the level of discussion that was remarkable. Refusing to debate the existence of the crimes (for, as she points out, there is no debate to speak of, despite all legal disclaimers), the court-based sketch was instead a more sophisticated exploration of how nostalgia and cultural comfort food (both real and symbolic, since this was the man who advertised Jell-O pudding pops) interfere with our sense of justice and gender equality. This is really what we struggle to reconcile, not crime and perpetrator. But this isn’t the first time Schumer has put her finger on the problem.

She coolly and pleasantly took on perceptions of women ageing with Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette celebrating Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ ‘last fuckable day’ as decided by the media. She did an almost Sesame Street-esque scatological number on pop culture’s fetish for women’s sticky-out asses with a hip-hop music video set to the rhyme ‘milk, milk, lemonade, round the corner fudge is made’. Schumer was there to pinpoint the pathetic paradoxes of middle-class women pole dancing while condescending to women who work as strippers as well as female employees being obliged to be ‘cool with’ whatever their male counterparts want to do while being paid half the salary. Bravely she slayed a sacred cow of American comedy, the borderline-rapist late-night talk show host, and perversely she’s seemed to increase her appearances on these kinds of programmes as a result. She’s so popular that even her targets want to be seen with her.

Amy Schumer's parody of late-night...oh wait, that's just her on Letterman!

Amy Schumer’s parody of late-night…oh wait, that’s just her on Letterman!

It would be too easy to say that Amy Schumer’s success is down to the sugar-coating she puts on her social criticism, but it’s hard to deny that her self-aware baby-face mannerisms (see, the face again!) makes what she does much more palatable. But it’s not the cutesy-girl disguise that comedians like Sarah Silverman have used to deflect attention from their obscenity and controversy. It’s more direct than that, like having a conversation with someone who seems perfectly nice and you realise hours late they completely destroyed you. That’s what translates into mainstream entertainment so well. On The Bachelorette, she exposed the egregious insecurities of a male contestant without ever saying a cross word to him. She’s also not afraid of plumbing the lowest depths of entertainment, like dirty jokes and toilet humour, to get what she wants. The time of overkill will come, so enjoy her just killing it.

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Bonus Ball

Posted in American TV (General), TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure most of you are over The Super Bowl for another year (this really should be called ‘Watching TV after Americans’) but I’m far more interested in an aspect of the event that doesn’t change each year – although even for someone to whom ‘football’ means round balls and bad pies it was a pretty great game – which is the TV generated around it. The Super Bowl on TV seems never to start or end, making it the perfect metaphor for the medium. As it’s assumed that large portions of the nation are watching, which is no mean feat these days, The Super Bowl is a bat-signal for advertising. For the same reason, counter-programming decides to take one for the team, but those networks that try to take on The Super Bowl must do so in the most ruthless ways possible to even get noticed. This year, however, there were some added satirical bonuses.

I’m used to televised sporting events starting a few minutes later than advertised to sneak in a commercial break while everyone’s watching, but I was not prepared to be sitting on the couch at 3.30 still waiting for the game to begin. And for what? John Travolta’s Adele Dazi trying to break Bleedin’ Gums Murphy’s record for the longest rendition of ‘Star Spangled Banner’? The presentation of the NFL’s annual ‘didn’t rape or hit anyone’ award? Don’t we have a pre-show for this? The mechanics of modern television have manoeuvred themselves so that we are continually watching prelude. The Super Bowl goes one better and expects we will enjoy it. It’s moments like this which remind us that commercial television form is an integral part of the way that a game of American football is structured, rather than the British kind which is merely pricked around the edges by commercial interruption.

Commercials broadcast during The Super Bowl are notorious for being sexist, portentous and counter-intuitive. Half-time act Katy Perry clearly wanted to take some of the heat off the sexist commercials, but they were out in full force, not as well-disguised by nob gags as the advertisers clearly thought. Carl’s Jr. has even managed to turn gender discrimination into a branding mechanism for its Super Bowl ads. But this year they didn’t go unchallenged. Feminine health company Always ran a semantic deconstruction of the gender assumptions and discourses behind the phrase ‘Like a Girl’ while Saturday Night Live staged a fake Totino’s ad exposing the unbelievably narrow gender stereotypes and chauvinistic divisions of Super Bowl ads, particularly the archetypal representation of women as child-minded homemakers. Somewhere in the middle was Fiat’s ‘Viagra’ campaign which unironically presented pumped-up virility and machismo as a draw but also satirised male sexual prowess and the idealised feminine body.

Part of the fun of watching Super Bowl commercials is trying to figure out what product the pretentious pre-amble will eventually advertise (clue: anything combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is deodorant). But sometimes the logic of ad writers is beyond even those who dissect media images for a living. A ghost-child commercial is the perfect vehicle for a leukaemia or cancer charity, but it does nothing to ameliorate the ghoulish undertones of an insurance company. Another insurance company, Esurance, seems intent on using circular logic and specious reasoning similar to the Johnny Cochran O.J. glove defence to convince consumers of its superiority to established rival Geico, but as long as that involves Walter White as a drugstore pharmacist I don’t much mind. If you tire of the commercials, you can switch over to The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s re-imagining of The Super Bowl through the imagery of illegal competitive dog-fighting. For cute read irresponsible.

As with SNL, the most authentic example of Super Bowl television was the least genuine. Key & Peele have always satirized American sport and its coverage, but with their simulated Super Bowl pre-show staged as a real network broadcast, it was far more than a send-up. There was plenty to ridicule: the ill-fitting suits of the former-pro presenters, the passive-aggressive banter, the live-action footer trails of network sitcoms always starring ‘Alison Janney’, and of course the beyond-hyperreal graphics with overly phallic connotations. But the real-time flow and denouement in which the digital robot mascot achieves self-awareness and propels humanity into a state of oblivion identifies The Super Bowl and its live, ongoing broadcast with a dystopian terror effect that reminded me of another piece of faked factual horror television, the one-off BBC drama Ghostwatch. There is something inherently wrong and otherworldly about TV’s broadcast of The Super Bowl, the same something as television itself.

Away Sky

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s no shock that here in the States TV shows go on far too long or that they change drastically over time. Most series signpost their anti-ageing facelifts to viewers with the help of subtitles, which act as disclaimers for authenticity and longevity, as in the later years of Saved by the Bell or on the opposite end of the scale (it thinks!) American Horror Story. Others more confident of their status as season-long anthology plays such as True Detective and Fargo will re-cast completely each year to demonstrate that it is the concept not the characters that are the stars. Despite this amnesty on self-adaptation, some shows still seem wary of admitting to viewers that they have renewed themselves in the process of maintenance.

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Chief among them is Homeland. Showtime’s CIA thriller has killed off the character around which the show revolved, re-located to another country, and butchered its beautiful title sequence, which was always as good as (and increasingly better than) anything that followed. Yet it still goes under the name Homeland and goes around acting as if nothing has happened. Frankly, it’s a bit of a cheat. Having revealed itself as a concept that barely had enough material for a mini-series, perhaps it would have wiser to position the post-Brody Homeland as a spin-off or linked franchise entry. With the emigration of the series, it could be Homeland: Kabul or as Damien Lewis re-appears shrunken in all but hair as Brody’s baby son, Homeland: The Next Generation.

I’m not serious about these title tweaks, but the point is that TV has ways and means to suggest that a show has changed dramatically without any detriment to the brand or canon. It’s a win-win situation. The viewer base for the series will return in loyalty to their show and if hideous it can be written or quietly killed off in complete deniability of any resemblance to the original. There is precedent for this in the Columbo spouse-off featuring the elusive Columbo Indoors. Mrs. Columbo starring captain-turned-convict Kate Mulgrew was intended to be a mystery following the amateur sleuthing of Columbo’s wife. It was so unpopular and implausible that producers decided Kate Columbo just happened to be married to another detective with the surname.

In the last four years, Key & Peele has been one of the smartest and most culturally relevant comedy programmes on American TV, and surely a historical high point in TV sketch comedy. This season they have forgone what for many viewers was the highlight of the show, their semi-improvised skits in front of a studio audience introducing the main sketches. There are also noticeably fewer sketches per show, and a shift in the framing of the series towards the cerebral with a sombre western motif in the re-recorded theme tune and filmed introductions. With the amount of time they’ve been on the air, and my suspicion that the changes were forced by a busy production schedule, I don’t begrudge it. But I don’t approve.

The ‘live’ segments of Key & Peele may have been too much of a nod backwards to traditional vaudeville for those obsessed with innovation, but they were the show’s unique selling point. They were bouncy, energetic, and personable, with many of the loosely improvised moments standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the pre-written material in terms of quality. The pre-recorded banter this has been replaced with just seems flat and inert by comparison (with the exception of the discussion about ventriloquist dummy ‘Willy Talk?’). Equally, I feel that what set the sketches apart from the Saturday Night Live School was how tightly-scripted and effectively concluded they were. With sketches stretched to a commercial beat and post-punchline by close-of-play, they’re dragging like Lorne Michaels’ feet about hiring black women.

Did they write that?

Did they write that?

I am, of course, a hypocrite. An aspect of AMC’s The Walking Dead I greatly enjoy is how the concept of the series can periodically change in the space of a few episodes. At the beginning of last year, it was a show about farming. This time round it’s about shooting cannibals with sub-machine guns. Yes, the idea of movement is ingrained in the title, and change has been a part of the formula from the beginning, but it’s still got away with en-masse recasting and retooling without any acknowledgement to the viewer. I suppose the difference is that between growing and living. The Walking Dead evolved into something greater than it was while Homeland and Key & Peele maimed their greatness to carry on.

The Second Sets

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

When it comes to certain aspects of American popular culture, I feel I’m in a Twilight Zone of opinion. The stark commercialism, gross sentimentality and tasteless sensationalism that many Americans take for granted remain horribly apparent to me. And so it is with the casual objectification and sexual mapping of women’s bodies in American media. Watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl at the weekend, it occurred to me than even in a movie about how women suffer under men female bodies are still routinely exploited. What alarms me just as much as its ubiquity is how little it is commented on. There are many similarly horrific depictions of women in the British media (The Sun’s ‘Page 3’ for example). But whereas in Britain I felt the right people said it was wrong and the wrong people said it was right, when it happens here I’m not even sure if anyone cares!

Who's the commodity?

Who’s the commodity?

On television there are a number of ad campaigns that are content merely to have semi-nude women comporting in erotic poses and engaging pseudo-sexually with the objects around them. They are pornography in the raw, images of pure titillation designed to elicit perverted gazing and deployed without a hint of irony or subversion. Some of these are for businesses like Hooters where female objectification is ingrained in the brand, and would be somewhat expected, but others such as fast-food chain Carl’s Jr and electronics outlet Radio Shack have taken it upon themselves to invent this associative imagery. I’ve seen clips from these commercials appear in articles and videos attacking the media’s treatment of women – and I don’t discount those as notable protests – but what I don’t see is a recognition in everyday discourse of how problematic these campaigns are but rather a blind eye to or complicit acceptance of them.

I’d like to believe that the pornographic impulses of advertising account for the way that women appears in these commercials but looking at the programming around them, television must shoulder some of the responsibility. On the ABC ballroom reality competition Dancing with The Stars, group numbers featuring the female dancers invariably call upon the imagery of the strip club and the peep show, turning each of their bodies into platforms of sexual consumption for the cameras rather than a medium of artistic expression. Two recent TV awards shows even thematically incorporated the treatment of women’s bodies as sexualised objects. The Emmys had actress Sofia Vergara exhibit her body on a revolving pedestal for the sake of a half-baked pun about ‘giving viewers something compelling to watch’. The MTV Video Music Awards united female performers Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea by having them each ‘twerk’ during their respective performances.

The turn in American media towards over-sexualisation is not lost on everyone in television. On their eponymous Comedy Central show, sketch comics Key & Peele recently featured a razor-sharp piece of pop satire in which a Minaj-like artist is confronted by young female fans on a cable music television show who are confused as to how her feminist polemic equates to her lyrics, which all revolve around women demeaning themselves sexually for men. The artist is then revealed to be a man in a wig (which, of course, he already is!) who is embarking on a dastardly scheme to convince women that overt sexualisation is the same thing as empowerment. The skit reveals a sad truth about how the attractive façade of feminine authority and independence attached to the most successful women in the media offers not sexual freedom but further bondage, and might as well be from a man.

Key & Peele have a real knack for unearthing the contradictions in mainstream American culture, so we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that they pick up on these gender problems. Vergara and The Academy got roundly panned, as did Seth MacFarlane two years ago for a song about female star nudity when presenting The Oscars. It fascinates me that criticism is reserved for the higher end of television – like awards shows celebrating the best in the popular arts – and directed at instances that have some level of play and self-knowledge about them, while the same when done in the name of entertainment and spectacle, like the VMAs, does not warrant reproach. Of course, a knowing objectification of women is not much better than an oblivious one, but by dwelling on the more self-conscious examples, we threaten to leave the habitual exploitation of female bodies unchecked and trickling down into the mainstream.

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