Archive for law and order

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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Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

Flipping Channels

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Tom Steward

When adjusting to TV in another country foreign viewers need all the help they can get. Even something as basic as the name of the channel can provide indispensable clues to the kind of programmes likely to appear. Unfortunately after flipping through the channels on American TV I’m none the wiser. The naming of networks here seems to be ironic. All I found on The Travel Channel were programmes about the excessive intake of high-calorie foods which make Americans less able to move. When I turned over to The Learning Channel I saw wall-to-wall programming about people without formal educations. By the time I got to The History Channel I wasn’t at all surprised to find a show about the latest cars on the market. Given that the networks score hit-after-hit by commissioning against type, I’ve come up with a list of channels that might benefit from a bizarro re-brand:

 

Current Network Name: HBO (Home Box Office)

‘It’s still TV’

New Network Name: OGSD (Outdoor Gas Station DVD)

 

New Slogan: ‘It’s still TV’

 

Changes to Network: The channel ident will have to be changed. Instead of celestial white letters burning transcendently out of the white noise of a TV screen against the sound of a heavenly choir, there will be a pixelating logo of a limp hot dog on a pirated DVD menu (with only a ‘Play Movie’ option) for a 90s thriller starring Ice Cube and the sound of a trucker dumping audible in the background.

 

Marketing Strategy: Subscription free with any Slurpie.

 

Current Network Name: USA

‘Characters arrested on sight’

New Network Name: The Islamic Republic of Iran

 

New Slogan: ‘Characters Arrested on Sight’

 

Changes to Network: The network will commission a new Law & Order spin-off called ‘State Torture Victims Unit’. They will also develop a home-cooking themed reality show called ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Ahmaddinejad?’ in which the Iranian President drops by to share the evening meals of families across America.

 

Marketing Strategy: Sell original programmes to a rival network until they become hit shows on the other channel and that network starts to make its own original programming. At this time the network president will appear in public denouncing the rival network’s original programmes and demand that they cancel them. If this strategy fails the network will threaten their rival with a ratings war by putting on all-day back-to-back re-runs of Two and a Half Men.

 

 

Current Network Name: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)

‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

New Network Name: The Romney Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘Funded by Hostile Takeovers’

 

Changes to Network: Bert and Ernie will need to be evicted from Sesame Street in accordance with network president Romney’s views on gay marriage. Downton Abbey will be pulled and replaced by Downtown Antimony, a historical drama about the Utah metal mining industry.

 

Marketing Strategy: Instead of telethons, funding for the network will come from Super Pacs and rather than a free tote bag, viewers will receive a visit from a Mormon minister, whether they contribute money to the network or not.

 

 

Current Network Name: The Weather Channel

‘Weather has never been less important’

New Network Name: The Air Conditioning Channel

 

New Slogan: ‘The Weather Has Never Been Less Important’

 

Changes to Network: Reporters will now do their segments to camera indoors standing in front of the draft from a dehumidifier for dramatic effect. Al Roker’s ‘look at the weather where you are’ will become a close-up of a thermostat.

 

Marketing Strategy: Are you kidding me? How the hell do you market weather anyway?

 

 

Current Network Name: Fox News

‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

New Network Name: Fox Unsubstantiated Rumours

 

New Slogan: ‘Distorted and Unhealthy’

 

Changes to Network: None.

 

Marketing Strategy: Anchors will no longer have to pretend that they don’t agree with everything Karl Rove says or concede to statistical facts like election victories. Otherwise, on message.

 

 

Current Network Name: Lifetime

‘Your death. Your purgatory’

New Network Name: All Eternity

 

New Slogan: ‘Your Death. Your Purgatory’

 

Changes to Network: To compliment the feeling of burning in hell forever original movies will run continuously on a loop without episodes of Frasier to break up the torture. Dance Moms will have a themed episode in which the students re-create the Thriller video and Abby Miller, hopefully, decomposes.

 

Marketing Strategy: Re-tool all original reality shows to include death. One Born Every Minute gains a sister programme called Make Way for Babies in which new parents have to decide on an old person to kill in order to balance the population. The Week the Women Went takes on a darker aspect as it becomes clear they’re not coming back.

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