Archive for lifetime

Deadliest Watch

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , on June 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

Next time you’re wondering why broadcast television still matters, consider A Deadly Adoption. This perfectly pitched pastiche of Lifetime original movies would entertain if accessed from any platform, but aired on Lifetime during the Saturday evening timeslot reserved for premieres of genuine original movies it pushes the limits of hoax or even cultural terrorism. As a Brit with an interest in the history of television, A Deadly Adoption reminded me of Ghostwatch, a pre-recorded BBC TV horror drama from the early 90s styled as a live factual special of the kind that were popular on the BBC around those years.

Nothing funny about this.

Nothing funny about this.

Ghostwatch and A Deadly Adoption exploited their network and timeslot to convince audiences of their veracity, the former as a piece of primetime public service television and the latter as a legitimate original movie ‘inspired by a true story’. Both programmes used, at cross-purposes, a mixture of familiar faces from the genre they were approximating and those that you wouldn’t expect to see. In both cases, the anomalies were supposed to tip off the audience as to the subterfuge. But while widely-known comic actors Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig nudge the viewers in the direction of parody, the same couldn’t be said for the jobbing BBC character actors that Ghostwatch’s producers naively assumed would lead a Saturday evening audience to conclude it was a drama. Ghostwatch recruited actual BBC presenters of the moment to play themselves while A Deadly Adoption called upon veterans of the casts of Lifetime movies. Again, this had mixed results. The agency of presenters affiliated with a broadcaster reputable for its trustworthiness contributed to viewers becoming disturbed, confused and angry while watching. Having Erik Palladino play the cop he always plays asking the questions he always asks increased the plausibility but was also a satirical detail.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two programmes lies in the execution of the deception. Neither seems to let the mask drop, and yet they seem to be pointing you to the inauthenticity all the time. Crucially there is no over-acting, at least none outside the conventions of infotainment or TV movies. In Ghostwatch, direct address to the camera is a two-way street. It’s part of the fraud and also tells viewers to their faces that what they’re doing is tantamount to a hoax. It even has the audacity (and foresight) to pre-emptively chide parents for letting their children stay up to watch. Like any skilled comic actor (I’m put in mind of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy here too), Wiig and Ferrell’s faces can simultaneously pay lip service to the earnest drama around them while sporting an inner smirk that lets the audience know they’re in on the joke. While they (wonderfully) break character in the final scene, the leads in A Deadly Adoption are generally content to merely stand near the entrenched clichés and overwrought conventions of the Lifetime movie canon and gesture to them discreetly. The comic agenda, like Ghostwatch’s dramatic one, is effaced.

Another lesson that A Deadly Adoption learnt from Ghostwatch is that the most effective spoof is the one that runs like the real thing. Ghostwatch should have been by rights shot on film but the choice was to make it as if it were at every stage a piece of factual television broadcast live from a studio. That meant both the audience and the ‘actors’ were reacting as they would to the very thing it was not. I think this is also why Police Squad! is such an exquisite send-up of Dragnet, largely because it wasn’t much different in production values. Apparently, some BBC executives didn’t get what the Ghostwatch directors were trying to do and rejected some of the shots as cheap and amateur. A Deadly Adoption is going for the clunky symbolism and magazine-plate portraiture of the Lifetime in-house style, not trying to improve on it. To expect A Deadly Adoption to live up to the cinematic comedy of Ferrell, Wiig and director Adam McKay’s previous work is to miss the point. It’s a clever move, and one that demonstrates confidence in the art, that the movie was poised to allow audiences to occasionally forget it was parody.

He ain't 'fraid of no disgruntled viewers.

He ain’t ‘fraid of no disgruntled viewers.

Ferrell and Wiig’s IFC mock-miniseries The Spoils of Babylon played a similar game, invoking a phony industry backstory through trailers and faking-of documentaries, and playing on a network that revives obscure cult media. However, I stick with my Ghostwatch comparison. The aim is never truer when you become your target.

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King Of The Chill

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘Horror has not fared particularly well on TV, if you except something like the 6 o’clock news, where footage of black GIs with their legs blown of, villages and kids on fire, bodies in trenches, and whole swathes of jungle being coated with good old Agent Orange.’

That was writer Stephen King in 1981, talking about putting horror on television (thanks to my mentor and go-to for gothic television Helen Wheatley for the quote!). Despite King’s reservations, his horror stories have found a natural home in TV as series, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies in the last four decades. Ironically, it is precisely because television is so ‘full of real horrors’ that King’s work fits so well there. Perhaps it’s not vivid images of war on the news anymore, but there are still certainly plenty of reports of murderous violence, human cruelty and sexual abuse on an array of primetime infotainment programmes. King is particularly valid in this context since he is perhaps the writer most famous for bringing horror into touch with the contemporary world.

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

King has been adapted for the cinema significantly, but none of those movies quite captures the lingering terror of his writing as the miniseries versions. Something about having to stop and resume watching episodes of It and Salem’s Lot offers a prolonged, almost masochistic quality of fear unavailable in all but the books themselves, which, as Joey Tribiani has shown, are best stored in the freezer when not being read. Television has such affective qualities as a medium – many of which are connected to horror – that merely the act of televising can induce dread. What Pennywise the Clown can do to you in the cinema is no match for the monkeyshines he gets up to in and around your living rooms each and every night.

Genre aside, TV adaptations of King’s books give us pause to consider which visual medium is best suited to accommodate the novel. For best-selling authors like King, the natural route is feature films, not necessary because they are the best platform for his work but due to their popularity and potential (at one time!) for box-office success. But the bulkier novels suffer inside the constraints of a two to three-hour movie, and the best film adaptations of King’s writing have generally been those extrapolated from his short stories. TV series that want to appear classy and cultured often compare themselves to novels with episodes the equivalent of chapters. But when applied to King’s shlockier fare, we can see it’s about what fits not what elevates.

The symbiotic relationship between Stephen King and television was on my mind as I watched the Lifetime movie Big Driver based on his novella. The network that once bore the slogan ‘television for women’ doesn’t necessarily seem like the place for Stephen King adaptations but the subject matter complimented Lifetime’s penchant for celebrities, scandals and sex crimes in its programming perfectly. The target audience, which still more or less holds today, ensured that none of the rape scenes ever approached the voyeurism or perverse pleasure they achieve in many horror movies. Though fiction, it was fluent with the showbusiness biography strand of original movies on Lifetime. In fact, it’s quite striking how King’s work seems malleable to a wide range of TV genres and formats.

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

King’s novel Under the Dome has been adapted and expanded into a primetime CBS TV series, which blended into the current fashion for fantasy and science-fiction television in the network schedules. A decade ago, King developed a re-make of Lars Von Trier’s surreal medical drama Riget called Kingdom Hospital which heralded a trend for American versions of European (mainly Scandinavian) TV series that has yet to see an end. King’s short stories were regularly fodder for half-hour dramas in the revived series of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits during the fantasy anthology renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His contribution to the modern gothic even came full circle as King penned an original screenplay for Fox’s paranormal detective series The X-Files in 1998. The tribute is fitting as we can see the influence of Stephen King miniseries in contemporary TV horror such as the self-contained first season of The Walking Dead or the season-long anthology dramas that comprise American Horror Story. It might not be an affinity King is particularly proud to boast – although now would be the time to jump on the pioneer bandwagon – but it’s one that, like the repressed, will always return to haunt him.

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.

US News You Lose!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by Tom Steward

 

 

Two superficially dissimilar international new stories dominated American television during my stay: the recession-distraction English wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton and the American-inflicted death of pesky terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. I tried to avoid both of them as much as possible for different reasons. It embarrasses and depresses me that Britain’s international image is so dominated by such a ludicrous, dull and anachronistic institution such as the Royal family. The triumphalism and party atmosphere surrounding the coverage of Bin Laden’s demise on US news channels was alarming and bloodlusty, and I wanted no part in it, even as a spectator. So when I did come into contact with these stories it was primarily by accident and outside the domain of news. I’m not going to slam American TV news outright as so many foreign interlopers do. The cliché of US news channels failing to mention or appropriately cover key international events has a ring of truth to it, and that was increasingly evident while I was there with the lack of information circulated about Gaddafi and the Libya rebellion when in retrospect it seems, in the words of Superhans, it was ‘all kicking off’. But this also means a lot more time for local news reporting, meaning civic or regional matters are extensively covered and debated on TV (however banally), and from a country where regional TV news is in jeopardy, this makes it even more treasurable.

News Coverage of the Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding is US TV News

But these stories were difficult to escape. All my morning shows on the day of the Royal Wedding were attended or discussed by the hosts with a bizarre royalty-envy that ill fits a country founded on telling the King of England to fuck off. Hard to take was Barbara Walters’ live reporting from London, which spat on her American colleagues’ intentionally comic captions as ill-informed nonsense. She then laboriously took us through the correct Royal conventions and traditions in an extreme case of racial Stockholm Syndrome not seen since Madonna starting drinking Timothy Taylor. Regis and Kelly press-ganged their audience into Royal Wedding approval, nationally humiliating those who dared to question the ceremony’s success. At least there was an appreciation of the camp value of the ceremony in some quarters, with the ladies on The View and the panel on Kathy Griffin’s Insightful and Hilarious Take on the Royal Wedding mock-recoiling at the Queen’s garish outfit, head-shaking at the cartoonish behaviour of the Duke of Edinburgh, and hand-rubbing about the potential upstaging of the bride by Middleton’s bridesmaid sister Pippa. Some of this TV detritus actually came upon some accidental insight when The View’s Sherri Shepherd pointed out the blatant racial segregation of the wedding guests, which felt more like the latent anti-monarchism I had hoped would rears its head.

Other commentators had similar problems. The barrage of Royal biography programmes preceding the Wedding on celebrity magazine channels like E! featured voiceovers done in a strange Anglo-American Esperanto, a vocal non-space between peppy MTV VJ and female Tory junior minister. The highlight of the Royal Wedding tie-in programmes was undoubtedly the Lifetime TV movie ‘William and Kate’. Not only were the two lead actors as physically unlike their real-life personages as a pint glass is to a donkey, but the actors cast as their relatives looked completely unlike them also. According to the film, William and Kate studied at The Department of Narnia Studies at The University of Hogwarts, regularly time-travelled to 19th Century rural Ireland for nights out, and William’s fraternity played a daily game where they may only speak in dialogue written by P.G. Wodehouse.  

Princes William and Charles

 

During Dancing with the Stars on the Monday following the killing, host Tom Bergeron somehow managed to crowbar in a reference in response to guest judge Donnie Burns’ remark ‘Nobody but nobody does showbusiness like you Americans’. Bergeron’s face said ‘fuck, yeah’ as he tangentially retorted ‘We Americans have shown ourselves to be good at a few things these past couple of days’. This was followed by an uncomfortable driftwood of applause smelling faintly of public ambivalence, or at least massive unease with Bergeron bringing such a brutal thought into a light entertainment package. Though evidently not the place or time, the pukewarm reception on Dancing with the Stars was far more representative of the melancholy most intelligent adult Americans feel about this than the news footage of masses of young party people using the death of Bin Laden to squeeze another Spring Break out of the calendar.

Dancing with the Stars' Tom Bergeron

'Mission Accomplished' says Tom Bergeron

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