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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. 

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!

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.

 

 

 

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