Archive for lost

The Balking Dead

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

I didn’t blog yesterday as usual because I was at my first (American) football (not soccer/football) game, which coincidentally took up the whole day due to stoppages for television. I’m glad though because now I get to talk about something that happened on TV last night. WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT UP TO DATE WITH THE WALKING DEAD OR ARE PLANNING ON BINGEING THE SERIES IN THE FUTURE (UNLESS YOU TEND TO FORGET TV DRAMA CHARACTERS AS IF THEY WERE CONTESTANTS ON THE BACHELOR).

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find...

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find…

On Sunday’s The Walking Dead, everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic pizza delivery boy – with the possible exception of Fry from Futurama – Glen Rhee apparently died. I say ‘apparently’ because while visually we seem to have seen his demise (and intestines), the storytelling, which continues intertextually in post-show discussion program Talking Dead, left Glen’s fate ambiguous, despite the unlikelihood of his escape from a throng of hungry, handsy walkers. In a series where every character is already to some degree dead, the writers and directors are obliged to be specific about what character is in which state of death. Moreover, the emotion surrounding certain leading characters, including Glen who has been there from the start, means there is an unwritten rule that they be killed visibly and memorably, so as to not play with or minimise those feelings.

Last night, when it came to ‘killing’ Glen, The Walking Dead did neither. Add this to the absence of the character death rituals on Talking Dead of having the actor appear as a guest and a slow-motion replay of their death on the mock-mournful ‘In Memoriam’ section of the show, and it appears that either the producers are playing a dangerous game with Walking Dead fans or floating the possibility that we didn’t see what we think we did. A note read out on Talking Dead by producer Scott M. Gimple hedged their bets even further, saying that ‘a version…or part’ of Glen would return to ‘complete the story’. Lost creator Damon Lindelof was a guest on the show – which is perhaps another clue that in a show where everyone is already dead anything is possible (OH YEAH DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN LOST) – and found it hard to believe that The Walking Dead would pull a Dallas and have Glen return from the dead against all conceivable odds.

Not that it will surprise anyone who suffered through all six seasons of Lost but Lindelof may be overstating the case here. The Walking Dead is rather fond of melodramatic cliffhangers, as the final ‘how do we get out of this’ moment of Season Four nicely illustrates. The show is not above waiting off on spoiling the death of a character if it helps heighten the drama. In Season Five, we didn’t know Bob had been bitten for nearly a whole episode until he finally revealed it to the cannibals who had just eaten his leg for dinner. The quality seal of the Mad Men network (which is also a guarantee of having to watch crappy action and horror movies back-to-back) sometimes makes us forget that what we’re watching here is popular genre television – quite literally a televised comic strip – in which such matinee-style twists and turns are not only possible, but rather their stock-in-trade.

Don't take it out on me, it's this guy's fault!

Don’t take it out on me, it’s this guy’s fault!

No-one doubts the class of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories yet the author had the Great Detective return from the dead in implausible circumstances. More to the point, I can see about three or four different ways Glen could have escaped from the pile of walkers he was crowd-surfing on. A couple of those have already been tried and tested in the series, so while the Talking Dead panel saw the callbacks to Glen’s earlier episodes as signs of his impending death, they may also spell the solution to his survival. All of this rhetoric might be my way of deflecting deep-seated sadness about seeing Glen depart The Walking Dead, and of course I’d rather all this conspiracy theorising be true rather than false (as anyone who purports a conspiracy theory does). But don’t underestimate the extra-textual games that TV producers in the digital age are willing to play to maintain interest in their program. One day we might be talking about the ‘Glen hoax’ in the same way we talk about affinity-based publicity stunts like ‘new Coke’. On a story level, if Glen does survive the unsurvivable, it’s a sure sign he’ll be the last man walking.

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Orange is the New Flashback

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by Tom Steward

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!

http://videos.nymag.com/video/Opening-Credits-Homeland#c=GPW04R137JDPW6CY&t=Opening%20Credits:%20’Homeland’

Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of  main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.

Jazzing up Terrorism.

In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empires beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.

The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.

Image grab longer than actual title sequence.

Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.

Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.

Jazz in a 9/11 beat, daddy-o!

Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.

I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.

Murder 1 24:7 Damages

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2013 by Tom Steward

G: Is he dirty?

 

T: You’re not supposed to know either way yet.

 

G: Is she dirty?

 

T: You find out later.

 

G: Oh…Is he dirty?

 

T: They want you to think that now but he might not be.

 

G: So she’s dirty?

 

T: Yes!

 

G: I knew it.

 

 

And so it goes, the Abbott and Costello routine that accompanies G and I’s 24 marathon, a programme predicated on not knowing if the characters are traitors. Having seen these episodes many times over I know full well that without the promise of these mysteries being solved there’s absolutely no reason to stay through to the end of each season. G needs something to hang on to in order to get through the shark-jumping contest the series bi-annually stages. Without the mirage of end-of-season plot twists, there’s no way she’ll make it through Season 1’s amnesia storyline, by which I mean the storyline written by people who have forgotten the last 20 years of TV drama. There’s even less chance of her surviving Season 2’s surprise wild animal attack, or indeed any of the disproportionately perilous adventures a certain blonde teenager experiences in a post-nothing-actually-happening Los Angeles.

Happy Day!

These frustrations were the price we’d have to pay. We needed story stimulus and audio-visual distraction to prop up our day-long sessions of Uno which, thanks to my filibustering strategy of hoarding +4 wild cards, usually consist of 1 or 2 games. With our playing reserve  extended to two packs (misguidedly introduced to reduced game time!), our short-term recall seemingly non-existent, and our below Jenga-code surfaces, we had played enough Uno to whip through the first season of legal soap Murder One in less than two days. This is a series with a reputation for quick conversion, a mere 2 or 3 episodes into the run enough for discipledom. But I’ve never seen anyone so utterly brainwashed by a programme as G was by this show. The initial 45 minutes of endless exposition and prevarication which for most people is simply the salesman lowering your resistance until you let him into your home was for G the Jehovah’s Witness being invited to stay for dinner. I’m sure this had something to do with it being the perfect sideways-glance television. If anything important is about to happen, the French-door clattering and microphoned drone bee sound effects will let you know in advance. Plus, the screen will turn a different colour.

Luther and Associates

Like any TV hand-me-down, the joy is always the first-time viewer’s observations that have never crossed your mind. I’d never thought to ask what Teddy Hoffman, played by Lex Luther-in-waiting Daniel Benzali, was always looking at out of the blinds of his office windows (our consensus was squirrel) or why the county court had employed a harpsichordist rather than a stenographer. It’s also good to come at a show without your blinkers of pure reverence. Thanks to G’s unfazed eyes, I could see how our continuing fascination with the ambiguous motives and behaviour of businessman Richard Cross is not simply down to the fine character work of trans-generationally-underrated actor Stanley Tucci but also the script refusing to show us anything of his world beyond his mini-operetta performances in Hoffman’s office. I have an unflinching admiration for Benzali’s performance which may well be tinged with sadness at his subsequent lack of fame and being replaced as the series lead by Daphne’s brother from Frasier. This precluded me from seeing-as G did-the actor’s delusion that he was in a Mario Puzo mini-series and that in the scenes with his young daughter, his interpretation of paternal warmth is genuinely disturbing to watch. In fact, if you turned down the sound on the TV in those scenes and had to write one word on a post-it note to stick on his face, chances are it would be ‘paedo’.jko

Danson in the Dock

Just as soon as we’d cleared Murder One we were into the dregs of 24 Season 1. Do we dare plumb the depths of Murder Two, the hard-to-believe-it-exists second season based on the assumptions that what was holding the series back was its beloved lead actor and breakthrough storytelling and that everyone wanted more of the nervy Jewish guy who prepares writs? Was it too soon to plough through 48, the unnecessary-but-surprisingly-competent sequel which at least keeps the super-violent interrogations to an alternate-episode minimum, and thereby sacrifice the last morally justifiable season of this literally tortuous programme? Lest our faith in the foresight of TV writers is Lost we couldn’t let our lasting impression be these failures in planning for a sustainable future. Something had to fill the gap. G was adamant it had to be another one-season wonder with a continuing storyline that wrapped things up in a neat little package…give or take a couple of loose ribbons.

 

 

G: I’m gonna find out what happens this season, right?

 

T: Yeah, it all gets resolved. A couple of threads are left hanging, but nothing important.

 

G: Good, I don’t want to do all this work for nothing.

 

 

I petitioned for Damages. I’d always thought this off-courtroom legal drama should have been kept as a mini-series and this was confirmed in subsequent seasons where the writers can’t think of a good reason to bring Ted Danson back into the show. It seemed perfect for our casino cabaret purposes. Despite Glenn Close’s Cruella de Overkill performance which grates almost immediately, there’s enough intrigue in the sub-plots involving the TV movie Tom Cruise Peter Facinelli and quality TV’s J T Walsh Zeljko Ivanek to make a two-deck shuffle go a little faster. It was also a welcome reminder of the unique screen presence of the silver horse that is Ted Danson. His series-stealing turn as morally suspect millionaire Arthur Frobisher veers beautifully between the effortlessly comic and the unnervingly understated with a douse of inimitable idiosyncrasy. And so it went as quickly as it came. And so did G, with 24 Season 2 as inappropriate in-flight viewing. Everything else was just too damn consistent!

 

 

 

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