Archive for mad men

Queen Me

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s Christmas so TV is all about messages. Though if you know your McLuhan, then you’ll already be aware that TV itself is the message. Far be it from me to buck seasonal television trends, so as this is the final blog post of the year I’ve prepared a Christmas message. As I hail from the land of tea and war (where do you think we got the tea?), the message will be delivered as if it were Queen Elizabeth II’s televised Christmas address to the nation, which all British subjects watch devoutly each year without ever ignoring it completely.

What are all you people doing in our house?

What are all you people doing in our house?

In the House of Commons this November, MPs debated whether to change the symbol of Britain from a lion to a hedgehog or, to put it another way, whether to write off the country by tying its fate to a species with a rapidly declining population. We are reminded of our long-lost children in the colonies who this year lost iconic hosts of late-night on their moving billboards. Like changing a lion for a hedgehog, the replacement may not seem as strong as its predecessor – and more difficult to pick up – but the more they stick out their noses and appear at our doors each night, the more the infants of the new world will grow to love them. We are also reminded of this because a couple of the new hosts look like hedgehogs.

Nocturnal hedgehogs

Nocturnal hedgehogs

If Britain does decide that it’s only economic salvation – following the debacle of a government I could’ve stopped if I had wanted to – is Beatrix Potter brand synergy, then we are reassured by the success of spin-offs in the living room magic lantern shows of the Europe’s emancipated teenager. As hedgehogs to lions, such derivations seemed paltry and incidental creatures yet they possess a unique quality all of their own that has been resting in the shade of bigger animals for so long it comes to light as soon as they shift their lumbering rears from view. Except CSI: Cyber.

There is always the possibility of reinvention – look at us, we’re much more cheery than we used to be – as the recent trend in the wall-mounted viewfinders of Columbus’s Indies for season-long anthology series reminds us. It is difficult to adjust to change – especially if one writes for HitFix – but we should remember that, like that bloody hedgehog we wish we’d never used as a metaphor in the first place, transformation has the potential to preserve a species that would otherwise have died out a lot sooner, or ended up on Hulu. It takes a true detective to see the worth in exchanging a tried-and-tested point of pride for something offbeat and challenging, but we must fargo our trepidations in order to save what we love while it still has a slim chance of survival.

The year of my lord – well he is technically my employer – 2015 was the end of an era, although not for me as we became the longest-reigning British monarch, of which we would like to say on record: ‘suck it, time’! But those less fortunate than us, such as everyone, have had to endure the loss of the many sinful delights that sit within the devil’s hatbox, especially those that hail from the land of not-having-one-of-me-in-charge. We are justified to feel sadness though we would be mad men if we didn’t notice that Parks & Recreation was just shit now.

Lions – for my speechwriter says that you’re simply all too stupid to handle more than one metaphor per message – are lazy and parasitic as well as strong and proud, so it is not with complete regret that we see two and a half of these individually wrapped entertainments make way for an animal that isn’t quite so boring and doesn’t steal from others…like a mentalist! There are those who say it is a scandal that those animals with such a grey anatomy should get away with murder, but here’s the catch. The ecosystem needs every animal – no matter how much it feeds off a rotting carcass – so, however much they induce dread, the lions of this world are just as important to the hedgehogs and, yes, my butler does mix drinks that badly as well.

To play us out, we have the Christmas TV movie carol ‘Edelweiss’ which this year reminds us of a world which my uncle would have been proud of. A very happy Christmas to you all… except those of you who want me to pay taxes.

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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.

Mad Men, Crazy People And Invented Lies

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by Tom Steward

When I’m put in mind of advertising – which this week’s return of Mad Men for the final time has done – I think about two great gags in two terrible movies. The first is the direly offensive mental illness comedy Crazy People in which an advertising executive played by Dudley Moore is sent to an institution after writing honest campaigns for clients’ products. These include ‘Buy Volvos. They’re boxy but they’re good’, ‘Jaguar: For men who’d like hand jobs from women they hardly know’ and ‘United: Most of our passengers get there alive’. The second is Ricky Gervais’ tedious The Invention of Lying about a parallel reality where everyone tells the truth. So the TV spots for Coke have spokespeople saying ‘it’s basically brown sugar water’ and bus ads for Pepsi read ‘When there’s no Coke’. The use of real brands suggests this is as much a creative solution to product placement as a satire of it (and The Invention of Lying has plenty of unchallenged advertising throughout). On one level the joke is simple irony; ads tend to be dishonest so inverting this is subversively funny. But on another, the gag rests on the fact that these are legitimate alternatives to deceptive advertising. The twist in Crazy People is that the public prefer this style of advertising, and Dudley Moore is quickly hauled back from the institution. Depicting the products self-critically doesn’t make them off-putting in any way or at all harm the brands, and real advertising executives know this.

...except Dudley Moore

…except Dudley Moore

The delivery chain Domino’s Pizza based an entire campaign around apologizing for the poor quality of their product, even including negative comments from social media in their ads. Dated electronics store Radio Shack launched a series of ads called ‘The ‘80s want their store back’ in which various celebrities from the spandex decade, such as ALF, Hulk Hogan and Cliff from Cheers tear the antiquated shop floor apart. Where these campaigns differ from the ones in Crazy People and The Invention of Lying is that the former insist things are going to change, while the drawbacks of the products advertised in the latter are inherent, tolerable and even desirable. The notion that ad executives can pull off this complex interplay of tone and address is at the heart of Mad Men’s somewhat utopian vision of the advertising industry. Yes, only a handful of creatives who work at an agency containing the names ‘Sterling Cooper’ seem to get it, but from the beginning Matthew Weiner always insisted that the art of advertising was to turn disadvantage into a unique selling point. In the pilot, Don Draper tells the Lucky Strike owners that federal rulings on the dangers of smoking put them on a level playing field with their competitors since no-one can brand their cigarettes as safe anymore.

In honour of Mad Men and its comic forbearers, here are a few of my own campaign slogans telling the truth about a brand in a way that makes you admire their forthrightness:

Peroni: Disgusting with anything but pizza.

Taco Bell: We do to Mexican food what Robocop did to Officer Murphy.

Wells Fargo: With ATM charges like this, you know your money’s safe.

McDonald’s: There’s too many reasons to hate us, so save yourself the trouble.

Cox: The alternative is just as bad.

Little Caesar’s: Working around the craft of pizza-making since 1959.

Amazon: We’re going to send you a package anyway, so you might as well order it.

Disneyland: Once upon a time…when infant mortality was higher.

Carl’s Jr.: Women lose rights in every bite.

Uncle Ben’s: For when convenience beats out white guilt.

Nescafe: What’s the use of ethics if you’re not awake to have them?

Amtrak: Inconvenient and expensive but what else would we do with the tracks?

Stella Artois: For the continental wife-beater in you [this is only marginally more honest than the brand’s real slogan ‘Reassuringly expensive’]

Chik Filet: You have homophobes in your family whose chicken you eat!

Google: The thing you type because it’s the thing you type.

San Pellegrino: Brine never tasted so good.

Apple: You buy it, you break it.

Starbuck’s: Hatred for us distracts you from worse inequalities.

PayPal: We won’t tell you how we make money if you don’t.

Bud Light: It works better as a light than a beer.

Esurance: We stopped John Krasinski from making more shitty movies…you’re welcome!

Yahoo: You have an email with us to get an extra Twitter account.

Twitter: Keeping Yahoo in business since 2008

The Music Box

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.

God only knows why they picked that song!

God only knows why they picked that song!

There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.

Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!

A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.

May you stay forever Dylan!

May you stay forever Dylan!

The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.

One Pundred Hosts (Without Typos Or Cheap Puns)!!!!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV Sports, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by Tom Steward

We’re into syndication! With 100 blogs under my belt, I can now sell the rights to the A.V. Club who will publish the same three posts over and over again – with every third sentence removed – for the next twenty years. In the true spirit of American TV, I’ve decided against celebrating this milestone with a piece of considered, original writing (why break with tradition now?) and instead hastily assembled and artlessly compiled a list of extracts representing the best (or at least most comprehensible out-of-context) of the blog…and split it into two parts. Thanks for watching and enjoy!

A specially-created TV series just for this milestone!

A specially-created TV series just for this milestone!

‘Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity’

‘My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that “we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV”. “Fox News” I thought, but didn’t say’

‘So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television’

‘Yes, Chantix is apparently not just a wonder-drug but a porthole into an alternative universe of Marxist dialectic or, if that’s too posh a reference for you, the Bizarro World’

‘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’

‘After weeks of sounding like a malfunctioning motivational speaker robot, Celebrity Apprentice contestant and consecutive mental-of-the-week Gary Busey was appointed project manager on a task’

‘For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word “Mummy”’

‘When war “came to Downton Abbey” it went by so fast that it seemed to have actually been fought in the grounds of the building, like a game of Risk gone awry’

‘Now I’m starting to think that I was in some sort of hallucinogenic fever state the night before because I could’ve sworn I saw Hollywood actor-director Clint Eastwood hold a conversation with a chair while an audience of magenta elephants cheered him on’

‘TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die’

'Memba them?

‘Memba them?

‘After prolonged exposure to American TV news, however, I now long for a token alternative viewpoint and the masquerade of even-handed commentary’

‘Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom episode 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’

‘Like anything in life which I have no direct experience of, I looked to American TV for advice on how best to handle the situation’

‘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’

‘I’m sure Harry Enfield will be relieved to know that after decades of writing and performing some of the best character comedy and social satire in Britain he is finally known in America…as a talking gnome with goggles’

‘But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course’

‘I mean, what exactly is gained showing Goodfellas at 2 in the afternoon?’

‘It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it’

‘Early in his career, artist Roy Lichtenstein produced a series of paintings based on advertisements. In one of the great cultural ironies of our times, advertising started appropriating Lichtenstein’s paintings. Something similar is going on with Mad Men

‘To those who know football from the European or Latin American leagues, watching a US soccer team play feels like the moment in Futurama where Fry finds that in the 30th Century baseball has become ‘Blernsball’, a barely recognisable Twilight Zone twist on the sport where spectators try to catch players instead of balls and giant spiders roam free through the diamond’

‘It’s a perfectly normal road to marriage…if you’re James Bond’

 

Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

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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