Archive for louie

Remote Viewing

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Dreams with tags , , , , on June 12, 2015 by Tom Steward

Quite often, my dreams take the form of anticipating event television. If the finale of Mad Men had played out according to my subconscious, the series would have ended with an elderly Don Draper boarding a Concorde in a Madison Avenue version of the last scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had a vision of the new season of Twin Peaks picking up from the season two cliffhanger, with Agent Dale Cooper suddenly exorcising Bob and then explaining to Sheriff Harry Truman how he deliberately trapped the serial killing spirit inside him to draw him out into the open and destroy him forever. If Showtime were hesitant about giving David Lynch a generous budget for making the season, I doubt they’d be willing to fork out for circa-1991 digital avatars of Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean. This is where dreams become necessary. Sometimes they’re simply an improvement on what we eventually got in reality. My dream projection of the Season 8 premiere of Doctor Who was something akin to Peter Greenaway’s film of The Tempest, with Peter Capaldi Toyah Wilcoxing it in full new romantic regalia. At least it was portentousness done well and not by Steven Moffat.

Have you ever had a dream with a midget?

Have you ever had a dream with a midget?

Stranger still is when dreams you have had appear on television. Louie recently aired an episode in which the comedian is pursued in his dreams by a naked man with invisible eyes who charges at him from the darkness. I’m sure everyone will recognise the dream-like pacing and movement that Louis C.K. managed to cultivate in these sequences, and it’s about the best simulation of a dream state I’ve seen since Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You. But Louie and I have the same Freddy Krueger as I’m frequently stalked by the same figure in exactly the same way night after night. It once became so vivid that I started screaming uncontrollably in bed. But the experience of seeing the inner-workings of my subconscious laid out onscreen was actually rather therapeutic. I laughed the laugh of recognition that usually accompanies my viewing of Louie but with greater hysteria and mania, as if repelling a demon. Louis C.K. and I are so evenly matched in looks, outlook and social reaction that I shouldn’t really be surprised that we dream the same dreams. We want the same thing…lots of bad food to eat quickly! It’s better than a support group.

Sometimes I think there is method to my madness. My dreams honed in on the one aspect of Twin Peaks that could not be done in a revival 25 years later, while acknowledging that whatever I dreamt was almost certain to be less weird than what will air in 2016. The finale of Justified consumed my thoughts perhaps more than any other show has or will, and yet it never intruded into my dreams. Perhaps it’s because there was no anxiety or insecurity about how fulfilling it was going to be, whereas I couldn’t say the same for Mad Men and Doctor Who. I don’t want you to think that there’s a TV set in my head (but wouldn’t that be lovely?) and that my dreams are broken down into life and TV shows. Often the two merge. The other night I was in a car with Manny from Modern Family at the wheel, trying to stop an irresponsible relative (no-one specific) from letting him drive us to our death. Now a lot of the kids on my street look exactly like Manny so I don’t know which part of my memory my subconscious was laundering at that particular moment.

There's a horse loose aboot this hoose!

There’s a horse loose aboot this hoose!

I’m aware of the futility and irony of dreaming about shows that are already dreamy or fantastic. Neither Twin Peaks nor Doctor Who adhere to any real-world logic (though the latter is supposed to nod to it from time to time) and Mad Men was always going to end on a note of ambiguity rather than come to any definite conclusion. I’ve yet to see that endless passive flow of dreaming captured in a TV show, which is odd since endless passive flow is exactly what TV is. Even Louie’s dream is a temporary psychological condition caused by guilt at abandoning a divorcee in need, rather than an ongoing haunting. The Sopranos came close with an episode-length dream sequence which drifted in and out of real-life and popular fiction, but the pat Freudianness of everything we saw made it somehow unappealing to watch. It’s as easy as going to sleep.

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Cry Me A Rivers!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

Look, I never said this was a news blog (except in applications for paid blogging positions!). Besides, I have to leave a period of time between a celebrity’s death and blogging about it so it doesn’t look like I’ve been knocking off television legends to give me something to write about. Three weeks ago, at age 81 comedian Joan Rivers died, as she lived…in surgery (don’t you dare tell me Joan wouldn’t appreciate a joke like that!). She will undoubtedly be remembered as a stand-up who, unlike many of her generation, was as relevant the day she died as when she first started out. Let’s not forget that Rivers was the comedian who said the unsayable about the widows of 9/11. But she had a real gift for television, and was particularly adept at using everyday formats – talk shows, entertainment news, red carpets – to sneak in provocative and edgy comedy.

Here's Joany!

Here’s Joany!

Rivers got her big break on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1965, where she would continue to appear as guest and guest host until the mid-1980s when a rift between her and Carson caused her to be blacklisted from the talk show until this year. Her caustic manner and matter-of-fact handling of other personalities on this and her Fox talk show vehicle The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was a refreshing departure from both the sycophantic hosting and demure women associated with the genre. It paved the way for her later television career spent trashing celebrities both to their faces and in absentia on the E! shows Live from the Red Carpet and Fashion Police. It also showed that Rivers could insert her brash, no-holds-barred comedy into regular television without ever disrupting it. She didn’t revolutionise late-night talk shows but made them far less deferential and more assertively direct.

Joan Rivers never seemed to be snobbish about what kind of television she was prepared to do. In later years, she would frequently appear on home shopping network QVC to hock her line of costume jewellery. In 1996, she became a reporter on E!’s Live from the Red Carpet, a job more usually reserved for young, up-and-coming, vacuum-brained celebrity enthusiasts. This was as much because she knew television was a business as it was to do something interesting and shocking with bland, formulaic TV. Playing herself on Louis C.K.’s artful sitcom Louie, Rivers castigates the stand-up for leaving a gig in a casino because of its corporate and commercial diktats, addressing her reputation as a ‘sell-out’. Her red carpet interviews are proof enough that Rivers could transform the most banal role into comic art. Acerbic, fast and wounding, she made it entertaining and intelligent with savage mockery replacing awed reverence.

Rivers has been on TV screens weekly since 2010 in E!’s panel show Fashion Police. The highlight of each episode, for both viewers and co-hosts it seemed, was the comedian’s throwaway similes about celebrity dress sense, which would frequently incorporate a ruthless and tasteless commentary on pop culture. No death appeared to be too soon to joke about, no disaster or ailment a taboo, no imperfection beyond satire. Year upon year, the show demonstrated perfectly how Rivers could condense her act into TV’s rigid dimensions without becoming any less sick and twisted. Her 2011 appearance on a Season 2 episode of Louie was a long overdue recognition of Rivers’ standing in comedy, as she becomes Svengali to the disillusioned comic. But she is represented according to a tension between commerce and art that has always been part of her persona, and one that she has managed to resolve without fuss.

The goon squad are coming to town!

The goon squad are coming to town!

Like most celebrities who want to survive in contemporary TV, Rivers allowed her life to be scrutinised onscreen in a reality series. Her relationship with daughter Melissa was the subject of Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best and her family dynamic was addressed in Celebrity Wife Swap where she swapped her daughter for Bristol Palin (for reasons best known to the producers). Perhaps her most unremarkable television work, if only for the foot-binding conventions of reality shows that do not permit idiosyncrasy, they are still testament to Rivers’ canny understanding of where to be in TV at the right time. With all the low-end TV she’s been involved in; some might be inclined to write off much of Joan Rivers’ time on the box. But she definitely found her niche in each genre she tackled, and never sacrificed what made her comedy special for the sake of being on television.

Robin’s Best

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Acting, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by Tom Steward

Since the untimely death of comic and actor Robin Williams last week, I’ve been looking back at his performances on television. I’ve been continually surprised and impressed at how as a sitcom actor, guest star and chat show guest he was able to take command of the medium, especially as Williams’ talents were always thought best suited to the dynamic scope of cinema and unbridled spontaneity of the live stage. I was struck by how he accommodated his manic act and style to the contours of the small screen, used television to test his mettle as a character actor, and realised TV’s capacity for intimacy to bring his audience closer to Williams the man. The passing of James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams in the past weeks is worsened by the knowledge that all were unusually good at doing television and have been lost to more than art form.

Mork Who?

Mork Who?

The significance of science-fiction sitcom Mork & Mindy to Williams’ career seems to have been regarded by most obituaries I’ve encountered as simply his stepping stone to popular exposure. This assumption drastically underestimates how important the role of Mork was to Williams’ development as an actor. In it, he learned to temper his aggressive bombardment of the audience with pathos thanks to the show’s romantic core and fable quality, a balance that would come to define his movie persona (and one that when tipped would sink him artistically). The sitcom wasn’t always the lightweight fantasy people perhaps remember, more Twilight Zone than Bewitched (if Williams’ catchphrase humming of the anthology’s theme tune wasn’t enough to sway you). There was hard science-fiction in there, unsettling biological imagery, and hard-hitting issues like mental illness and addiction. Seen now, Mork & Mindy prepared Williams for darker material he later turned his hand to.

Williams’ portrayal of Mork had an enduring impact on science-fiction television. Watching episodes of the series now, particularly when Mork is in his formal bow-tie and suspenders, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Smith’s incarnation of time-travelling extra-terrestrial The Doctor in Doctor Who. Common to both performances is the essential idea of a character who is not alien in appearance but in his social naivety, fashion missteps and absurd physicality. The success Williams achieved in depicting an otherworldly strangeness and difference without the aid of make-up, prosthetics or effects must have been a boon to anyone wanting to make science-fiction within a budget-dependent TV format. It took a concept as extreme as alien visitation to contain a freestyling comedian like Williams within a studio sitcom, but at its heart Mork & Mindy nailed that mix of the fantastical and the mundane that distinguishes all good and great science-fiction TV.

Williams was deep into his acting career before he started to take on purely dramatic parts, even though the ability to play emotion straight in his early movies was crucial to their appeal. However, years before his acclaimed deadpan turns in Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Williams played a tourist whose wife is shot on the streets of Baltimore in an episode of complex cop show Homicide: Life on the Street. Williams’ demonstrated ability to completely disappear into a character without a trace of his conspicuous comic persona left really opened the industry’s eyes to his value as a serious actor. The gut-wrenching emotions experienced by his character were performed credibly, and without fuss, which undoubtedly marketed his ability to do strong emotion well. Thought something he and his directors did not always taken advantage of, it nonetheless signalled that he was a rounded actor of range.

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

Robin, Robin, Robin, Robiiiiiin!

I’m grateful to OWN for repeating full versions of interviews with Williams from the ‘80s and ‘90s on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not only is it apparent that Williams’ could transcend limitations of television space and time, no matter how cardboard the set and videographic the production values, it is also notable that when disarmed with Oprah’s frank questions about his personal life (she was a different proposition as interviewer in those days!), he can exploit the potential for television to be a confessional medium to admit to a darker side to the always-joking persona he presented in public. Clearer than in any other medium, TV was privy to the qualities of Williams’ personality that would eventually consume him. One of William’s last TV appearances on Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie cemented his legacy as a character actor, playing a fictional creation in a show full of comics playing themselves.

Special FX

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.

The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.

I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.

The hype is Justified!

The hype is Justified!

So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.

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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