Archive for king of the hill

Zappy Holidays

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

Like the most innocuous word in the English language, the phrase ‘holiday TV special’ means something very different in Britain and America. Christmas specials on UK television are typically bloated extrapolations or unwanted revivals of popular programmes while in the US they tend to be family-friendly entertainment specially made for the occasion. In Britain, the runs of TV series are normally over by Christmas meaning that each show is unnaturally forced back into the schedules. However, in the US Christmas falls slap-bang in the middle of the network season, allowing for a festively-themed episode preceding the mid-season break that incorporates the holiday rather than the other way round. American holiday specials tend to go straight for spectacle and showmanship, something we’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate with musical versions of our soap operas and star performances where you text the Bee Gees for no apparent reason. I’m sure we Brits used to do this better in the days when vaudeville ruled our airwaves but US TV remains far less hesitant and bashful about pure, uncomplicated show. With the help of my wife G, who has been willingly indoctrinated by American holiday TV fare since childhood, I’ve been watching some classic specials.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

 

The oppressed in 1960s American society.

 

What begins as a music video for the beloved Christmas song soon transforms into a scathing indictment of racism, homophobia and sexism. Appropriately for a TV movie made in the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed, Rudolph’s ostracision is an issue of skin colour. There’s also Hermey, a gay elf (acknowledged by seldom-used codeword ‘Dentist’) whose good hair, handsome looks and ambitions for a white-collar career make him a social misfit in the North Pole. It’s one of the few occasions in mainstream entertainment you’ll see a gay man as our closest link to normality. Such prejudices are shown to be a symptom of the stagriarchal society in which women are kept out of decision-making processes. The bare bones of the song are fleshed out with references to every children’s story and American myth you can think of: The Abominable Snowman, The Gold Rush, Narnia. There’s also a scene with disabled toys that could keep Pixar in court with the Rankin-Bass estate for the rest of existence. Add in transcendent stop-motion animation and wonderfully offbeat characters (like the prospector looking for silver and gold in the North Pole) and you have a deserved classic.

 

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

 

Stomach pump, please.

 

Having some of the best jazz piano riffs ever, ever, ever (courtesy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio) would be enough to destine this cartoon for greatness. But it’s so much more. A Thanksgiving variation on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, the special has that perfect blend of wit and slapstick that distinguishes the very best cartoons. The combination of intelligent adult humour and childish situations sets an enduring template for some of the finest animation of the last thirty years: The Simpsons, Rugrats, King of the Hill. Schultz’s genius premise of a child with the malaise of a middle-aged man and friends who act like dinner party guests in a Woody Allen movie has one of its most memorable outings here, as Charlie tries to avoid social awkwardness by hosting an en-masse Thanksgiving dinner. Helped immeasurably by the wistful score, there’s a deep-seated melancholy here, which gives the special an unusually dark adult tone for family entertainment, making it the heir of troubling holiday movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and appropriate for Conan O’Brien’s deleted suicide scene parody. The painful deadpan on Charlie’s face was my own expression after a Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far gone…

 

A classic of you’ll-think-you-dreamt-it television, this Thanksgiving spectacular featuring characters and actors from the original Star Wars movie was never re-broadcast and recordings were suppressed for decades by creator George Lucas in his ongoing quest to change history. Thanks to fans’ recordings of the original broadcast that can now be shared via the internet, we’re able to see the special in all its eminently bizarre glory. It’s the only time you’ll ever see an elderly wookie orgasming watching a helmet porno of Diahann Carroll, Golden Girl Bea Arthur tossing drunks out of the cantina, and a space drag queen TV chef cooking bantha meat while spinning her bosom. There’s a nice idea in here somewhere about using TV to bring the domestic verisimilitude of everyday life to the Star Wars universe but it gets drowned out by the tonal confusion and unintentional avant-garde of the execution. It also features some of the oddest dramatic choices in the history of TV (probably culture) such as dialogue-free, grunt-based scenes of Chewbacca’s family at home. At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it.

Watching TV with Americans will return in January…Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Christmas TV: The low-low-lows

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

Christmas is a time for being trapped at home. Naturally, the choice medium of the housebound-the television-comes into play to provide mental escape from physical confines, as a side dish to gluttony, and because, like Eat-Me Dates, it is there and demands to be consumed. Demographically-desperate TV channels are sure to know about this literally captive audience and yet it often seems schedulers pay less attention to the festive period than they do their nightscreens (even the test card changes its kid and midget clown during puberty and pantomime season). It’s a response to the crisis in broadcast television reminiscent of the Fiscal Cliff; ignoring opportunities to prevent impending austerity until the situation gets so desperate that either television ceases airing at Christmas or the stations compromise and show a torn-out magazine photograph of Bing Crosby for two weeks. So how has TV cancelled Christmas? Here’s some of the low-low-lows:

1. Shows about old comedy

When G was here last Christmas every comedy programme we saw was a) a documentary b) about comedy from at least twenty years ago and c) featured men dressing up as women. If funds were directed towards making memorable new seasonal comedy instead of commissioning tribute shows that are the television equivalent of trapped wind, then perhaps we’ll have something other than nostalgia to be nostalgic for in twenty Christmases time. In an episode of King of the Hill, Peggy tries to explain the sophistication of British comedy to Bobby, whose response is ‘Why’s that man wearing a dress?’. G may well have asked the same question. It is not one I can answer, having been born in the 1980s.

2. Channel 5’s Scrooge

Scrooge in the form of a colouring book.

After showing every single made-for-TV movie version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol during the Christmas holidays, including one starring Kelsey Grammer that looks like a Frasier dream sequence, the UK’s leading Hitler documentarians Channel 5 try to redeem themselves every Christmas Eve by showing the 1951 Alastair Sim original. However, to add insult to injury, they choose every year to show a colourised Turnervision version of the film where the colour schemes have been taken from a box of Quality Street. The haunting black-and-white of the film is lost to garishly misjudged colours that would seem gaudy in Yellow Submarine. It’s been so many years now it can’t be an oversight, just a slight tantamount to putting lipstick on Dickens’ corpse.

3. Christmas line-ups

Christmas is a ritual of ruttish repetition and the line-up of programmes on TV tends to follow suit. Now I’m not saying we should have Adam Curtis documentaries about caged turkey farming in the middle of Christmas day but since we know the kinds of programmes that are going to turn up each year, why not re-jig them a little for the sake of novelty? They’ll doubtless be a seasonal special of an obsolete sitcom, a premiere of a film that has been watched in every conceivable medium (including cave art), and a freak edition of a programme re-formatted to include singing. Can’t we have once have a different set of names to make the purchase of a Christmas Radio Times worthwhile?

4. Christmas advertising

‘You may leave the kitchen to present the turkey but return immediately or I’ll lamp you’

If you’re boxed in for Christmas, chances are you’ll have to witness some hefty seasonal TV advertising. These are all-or-nothing flagship campaigns for British stores, brimming with celebrity, extraneous art direction and turkey ham-fisted attempts at cinematic grandeur. Or at least they were. The theme this year has been budget-consciousness, with high-end supermarket Waitrose giving us a bare set and donating filming money to charity and middle-range shop Asda giving us snapshots of everyday family life at Christmas. Except Waitrose’s spread-the-wealth ethos says nothing about reducing advertising costs to make food more affordable and Asda’s vision of family life is so horribly sexist it could be storyboarded from a Victorian manual for women. Extravagant or sincere, TV advertising still loses the public.

5. No Christmas Ghost Stories

Midnight Mass will never be the same again!

Britain has a long, weird and slightly sadistic tradition of using Christmas TV to scare the shit out of people. Throughout the 1970s BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas with its adaptations of classic supernatural yarns delivered with brutal realism chilled the nation to the bone and some later homages to these ho-ho-horror stories, such as The League of Gentleman Christmas Special showed that at Christmas we need to be afraid, no matter what Bob Geldof and Midge Ure might say. But alas, and thanks in part to a frankly rubbish revival of Ghost Stories that looked like it was filmed on a special camera left over from the CSI set, they are deceased and haunt us from a DVD afterlife.

 

 

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.

 

‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.

 

Rod Serling would have been proud

 

 

 

Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

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