Archive for mad men

Selling TV to Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by Tom Steward

My unofficial job title for the last couple of months has been PR Officer for American TV. Recently I’ve been introducing G to a number of my favourite US TV shows using the vast-if routinely inaccessible-archive of programming on Netflix and HuluPlus as well as my DVD collection, which lies within a handful of colossal CD carry cases in an object-fetishist’s version of efficient storage. Some programmes sold themselves. It didn’t take long for G to figure out that Northern Exposure was an engaging, endearing and intelligently written piece of television and not the geriatric-baiting fodder she suspected. Despite its nausea-inducing camerawork, the viscerality, complexity and wit of The Shield also won G over instantly. But there was always a fly in the ointment, and in every application. G took issue with the titles of both shows, Northern Exposure for its meandering moose and The Shield for its kid-friendly jingle. I tried to explain that these were some of the most iconic and beloved aspects of these shows but it fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Much as I love them, I can see why G thinks these gimmick-driven, one-dimensional titles might be doing a disservice to the shows.

‘Stupid moose’-G

But sometimes G’s sales resistance is difficult to break down. Her response to the Pilot of Breaking Bad was ‘That’s it?’. I wanted to argue with her but it did seem slight in comparison to later episodes and I didn’t think my observation that it was a ‘postmodern version of MacGyver would make it seem any more profound. Twin Peaks was apparently ‘all dialogue’, which is a new one for Lynch critiques, and only became visually stimulating when the donuts came out.  In these instances, I did what every good salesperson should and tried to associate the product with something the customer knows and likes. ‘It’s like Northern Exposure…but with murders’ I said of Twin Peaks. ‘It’s Malcolm in the Middle on meth’, I said of Breaking Bad. ‘You watch Malcolm in the Middle? What are you, 10?’ G responded. I guess my cold reading skills aren’t as good as I thought. Or maybe the prospect of Bryan Cranston in underpants isn’t as alluring to the rest of the world as it is to me.

Just me, then…

On other occasions I became a victim of my own salesmanship. I’ve managed to hook G on a hoard of arresting novelty shows that I’m fast losing interest in. This means I’m watching their tiresomely protracted runs again as exactly the point when I’ve given up on them. 24 and Damages are the chief culprits here, both of them wildly overlong elaborations on an initially brilliant premise. I didn’t think I could lose much more respect for 24 than had already gone but sitting through those final few seasons again with their automated scenarios and tedious twistiness I think it went subterranean. Worse, as the gruesome compulsion to clear all the episodes in as little time as possible accelerated, the show became like wallpaper in our house, an ever-present wall-adornment barely noticeable to our jaded eyes. G is still at the point in Damages where the promise of finding out what will happen in the ongoing story arc is yet to be beaten down by the knowledge of what does happen. But I can see this fading fast. G’s already worked out that they’re only keeping a serial story strand so as not to lose Ted Danson from the series.

A reason for sticking with Damages.

Although G came to Mad Men much later than me, thus allowing me to cherry-pick the most tolerable episodes from the dreary first few seasons, we’ve both turned sour on the series at about the same time. Actually, G got there first before I was willing to admit that the party was over. Midway through the most recent season, the sixth overall, I remember her asking ‘Where’s the advertising gone?’, which should have been enough of an alarm bell given that it’s the equivalent to Cheers forgetting to feature beer. For me, though, it was the sexual reunion of one of the series’ estranged couples that signalled the end of quality. Breaking a rule of good television established in Northern Exposure, it haphazardly thrust (in every sense of the word!) two characters together whose entire function was to carry the suggestion of romantic involvement without ever reaching that point. G turned to me the other day and said ‘I miss British TV’. I think it might be time to start offering a new product line.

 

If you like these blog posts why not follow my new twitter account @tvinaword where I create new words to describe TV shows. Send your own and if I like them I’ll retweet them!

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad Men To Work Here

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Dreams with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m sure the last thing you all want to read is another blog post on the Mad Men Season 6 premiere and there are lots of people who read this blog who won’t want to know what happens in the episode. So instead of a review with spoilers, I’ve compiled a list of unconnected observations about the feature-length opener:

 

Giving nothing away as usual!

 

1. Despite being a pointedly metaphysical episode, the mystical flow associated with the series is absent and it feels quite choppy, almost like an extended ‘Previously On’ re-cap.

 

2. There are so many non-sequiturs and sections focusing on a single character that you keep expecting it to be revealed that we are watching a montage of everyone’s dreams.

 

3. We get a glimpse of what catching up with TV was like in the days before DVR.

 

4. Unsurprisingly Roger has the best scene, another one in which he is comedian and straight man simultaneously. And we learn that his knowledge of Pacific Island culture comes straight out of From Here to Eternity.

 

5. Harry walking up stairs in a huff is hilarious.

 

6. The opening twenty minutes is like the film spin-off of a sitcom.

 

Mad Men on tour

 

7. Burt is better with buildings than people.

 

8. Don falls back into old habits…and it’s not (just) what you think.

 

9. Peggy ruins New Year for Freddy Crane.

 

10. Nothing is more tense than not knowing how Don will react to a situation outside his comfort zone.

 

11. In male grooming style in late 60s America, you were either a Morrison or a Zappa.

 

12. Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce storyboard the titles for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

 

13. Joan gets more screen time in her Johnnie Walker commercials than in the episode.

 

 

14. Don enters the cast of Scooby-Doo.

 

15. Megan is forced to take work as a maid but turns to violence against her employer after her hours increase substantially.

 

16. Betty stars in her own version of Trading Places but it isn’t her face she’s blacking.

 

17. A shine box makes a better heirloom than a ring.

 

18. Ken’s conversation at funerals is on message.

 

19. Don nearly finds out what it’s like to die.

 

20. Who the hell knows what is going to happen next, if anything?

Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. 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.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

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.

Downton Empire or Boardwalk Abbey?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

 

Downton or Boardwalk?

 

Mr. Bojangles (formerly ‘Managing Director Boris Manjangles’)

SYNERGIES (formerly ‘SYNERGY INDUSTRIES’)

No. 2

Blind Alley

Londonshire (formerly ‘Great Britain’)

LOL BFF

 

Dear HBITVO,

 

I am addressing you using your synergy name-an amalgamation of HBO and ITV-which despite sounding like a new strain of a sexually transmitted virus will undoubtedly become your company acronym once I have informed you of the synergistic possibilities between two of your flagship programmes. A scan by our patented synergy-finding computer application-or SY-FI CRAP for short-has detected a 110% probability (the machine was the creation of retired football managers) of synergy between HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and ITV’s Downton Abbey. SYNERGIES believes that although the former is an obscene and offbeat historical crime drama and the latter a gentle and safe period soap opera, their worlds are colliding in ways that can only be described as ‘pointless’, a synergy word meaning both ‘poised’ and ‘relentless’.

 

Both programmes have featured scenes in Ireland in the 1920s during the ‘troubles’ (Idea for Programme: ‘Aving a Bit of The Troubles/Frank Spencer travels back in time on magic roller-skates to Bloody Sunday). But rather than having such scenes to make it look like these programmes give a damn about the country and its history, the results of our scan show that they are prime opportunities for synergy. SY-FI CRAP has projected a scenario in which Downton’s chauffeur-turned-in-law-turned-resident Uncle Seamus Tom Branson discovers his long-lost brother-from-another-overrated-show, the IRA soldier-turned-slutty bodyguard Owen Slater, has been killed by gangsters in New York and delivered in a crate to his employers (further offence was caused by listing him as ‘UK Cargo’) and leaves for the U.S.A. to exact his revenge.

 

At SYNERGIES we understand that the process of synergisation should attempt as much as possible to preserve the unique identity of the synergees. Hence SY-FI CRAP recommends that Tom recruit the help of several doughy white middle-aged character actors in exacting his revenge and that they should be introduced as they are sweatily entering much younger women. It is further suggested that when the perpetrator Joe Massereti is found by Tom he is taking tea with an elderly British film star who camply disparages him for his race and class and makes facial movements that looks like she is being buffered on iplayer.

 

SYNERGIES applaud previous efforts by ITV to synergise Downton Abbey with other HBO series. It has not gone unnoticed by our researchers that the producers had been planning a crossover with prison drama Oz. Why else would the valet Bates have been kept in jail for so long unless it was for him to eventually volunteer for a cryogenic freezing experiment offered to prisoners by an American scientist (Triangular Synergy Prospect: The scientist is Norm from Cheers reprising his role as an unconvincing 1940s inventor in Forever Young) and be defrosted in a 1990s Baltimore high-security prison? SYNERGIES appreciates that it was only Ofcom’s enforced removal of a scene in which Bates was raped with a potato-masher by Noel Coward that prevented this merger.

 

The SYNERGIES family (the cloned specimens that power SY-FI CRAP’s artificial intelligence are technically relatives) know that Downton Abbey depends on the American market and that, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister of Synergy (‘Synister’) conglomerate media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Boardwalk Empire is a hit on British TV…at least for those who have sold their souls for Mad Men. These audiences must be synergised as soon as possible. Our survey says that this could be achieved by Boardwalk Empire having dancing chimney-sweeps become bootleggers rather than WWI veterans as well as posh Englishmen who don’t understand things not understanding flapjacks. Downton Abbey would need to re-cast Lady Grantham’s mother with Kathy Bates shouting raucously in a Southern drawl while her boobs hang loose in a t-shirt.

 

Those who resist the synergy movement, which at time of writing our statisticians rounded up to ‘the population of the earth’, may consider such a crossover detrimental to the integrity of each individual programme. To those who defy progress, I say remember those pioneers of TV synergy (or ‘TV-Gy’ not to be confused with the rating or the budget-conscious gay channel) who boldly cross-fertilised Inspector Morse and Masterchef to produce the policious hit series Pie in the Sky and economised by re-using cooking show credits sequences. Who could forget the genius producer who decided that CBS should try to sell CSI to the audience demographic for The Golden Girls and call it NCIS, a title which innovatively uses ‘anagriarism’ (a cross between ‘anagram’ and ‘plagiarism’) with the N standing for ‘nodding off’.

 

SYNERGIES awaits your response in all possible forms of media (including pigeon) simultaneously. We offer consultancy on a pro bono basis, which is a synergy word combining ‘prostitution’ and ‘bonus’.

 

Yours disingenuously,

 

Mr. Bojangles

 

(Synergy Date/Time Conversion: 2for1/1score/dozen)

 

Boardwalk or Downton?

 

 

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