Archive for netflix

Cable Cars

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on July 13, 2017 by Tom Steward

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I heard the news that a television adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was in development at Netflix a matter of weeks after seeing the West Coast Premiere of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin in San Diego (shame on you, San Francisco!) which documented the author’s life and work. Much lamented in the film were the circumstances surrounding the PBS broadcast of the miniseries version of the original Tales collection which subsequently prevented future adaptations of all the books in the series. Aided by a selectively salacious highlight reel of the first miniseries – which in some markets would be the best possible trailer – Senator Jesse Helms (Maupin’s former boss, in a Dickensian coincidence worthy of the author’s serial fiction) led a campaign against taxpayer funding of a series which he argued was an affront to family values (of the homophobic, ultra-conservative, religious fundamentalist variety, of course), resulting in PBS dropping the show. The subsequent two collections were later televised by Showtime, but in dramatically ineffective and (eventually) severely truncated formats that tipped the balance into TV movie-esque melodrama. Getting even three of the collections televised was a notable success – especially in the nineties – but somehow still unsatisfactory.

I’d suggest that the latent disappointment stems not just from completism but the natural home in television for the Tales of the City books. First published in a format copacetic to television’s repeated regularity, the newspaper serial, the continuing episodic storytelling that drives much TV fiction is inbuilt. Tales derived from the tradition of newspaper-based serial fiction written by authors such as Charles Dickens, which would later inspire the broadcast soap opera (so much so, in fact, that the very title was chosen by Maupin over alternatives because of its Dickensian quality). It’s a lineage that the BBC’s successful radio serial adaptation of recent years only serves to reinforce. You only have to look at how many times the characters in the Channel 4/PBS original miniseries are caught watching the late 1970s daily satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to see how much the producers felt this was a convergence waiting to happen. In a TV “binge” culture, the sheer amount of literary material available for adaptation becomes a selling point for the franchise rather than the drawback it had been in previous decades. But Netflix will still encounter problems of adaptation due to the period of time elapsed.

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It’s been reported that the stars of the original three TV adaptations Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis will be returning, which raises a lot of difficult questions about what the new series will be. A good quarter-century has passed since Further Tales of the City aired on Showtime, which limits what can be done with the characters in certain age ranges. Their casting strongly suggests that we will pick up the series from Michael Tolliver Lives, a belated sequel from 2007 that spawned a (supposedly) final trilogy of Tales novels, since this timeline would find Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal somewhere near the same age as the actors playing them (in all but appearance). Of course, it’s entirely possible Linney and Dukakis will be playing different characters, as is conventional in a remake. This seems unlikely to me, as, unlike other (frequently re-cast) characters in the canon, the Tales of the City fanbase tends to find the two leads inseparable from their performers. It was, after all, Laura Linney (albeit dressed as Mary Ann Singleton) who rode alongside Grand Marshal Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride in 2003. Re-casting these actors would be highly problematic.

If my suspicions are correct, a (more or less) contemporaneous Tales of the City TV series is in the works. There are gains and losses here. TV thrives on being able to hold up a (broken and vaselined) mirror to current events, and the original Tales serials had that very cultural commentary in mind. It would then be the first time that a television version of Tales of the City played the same role in society as the original literature. Viewers would, however, miss out on three novels’ worth of character and story development. They will particularly feel the absence of Babycakes, the first novel to discuss AIDS. Though, with its vacation vibe and self-standing storylines, the third in the series is probably the only Tales of the City novel that would work as a feature film. Either way, Looking is the modern-day heir to Maupin’s San Francisco no more.

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Nineties Degree

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by Tom Steward

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This isn’t the first post I’ve written about nineties nostalgia in television but at the time of writing I had no idea how contagious it would be. Consider the evidence. The most innovative program on TV remains Twin Peaks (I’ll hold off on saying the best until it’s over). There is a television revival of Fargo which not only seems determined to re-capture every iconic moment from the golden decade of The Coen Brothers, but also currently stars Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor (incidentally, this is too much for someone who once owned VHS of both movies with the other film’s trailer before them). Louis C.K’s experiments with television comedy, both on and off the air, channel nineties indie cinema auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, and what is Horace & Pete but a serialised soundstage version of star Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge? Factor in a Friends revival and you couldn’t be more nineties.

The best of nineties nostalgia TV is also a cultural commentary on it. Netflix’s transcendent sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the device of a woman kidnapped and secluded for fifteen years in a bunker to retrofit the majority of the program’s points of reference to nineties pop culture. There are so many I’ve lost track but imagine an alternate universe where the apotheosis of pop culture remains Kelsey Grammer. It’s a satire of our arrested development that also manages to capture the (albeit anachronistic) zeitgeist, as any successful sitcom must. Though not specifically aimed at the early nineties, Twin Peaks processes its nostalgic appeal in fittingly gothic ways. In the reboot, the Sherriff’s Department receptionist Lucy has a debilitating phobia of cell phone use, which she regards as some kind of witchcraft, while her son Wally Brando (an unusually well-used Michael Cera) delivers an eerie ventriloquism of namesake Marlon.

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In some sense, it was only a matter of time. We’re about as far now from the nineties as we were from the fifties when movies and TV shows romanticising the decade like American Graffiti and Happy Days started to dominate pop culture. We may be waiting a while for the nineties-set equivalent of the explicit love letter to the fifties that is Back in the Future, which is to say this phase probably hasn’t peaked yet, but it can’t be far from saturation point. Enough time has passed that any piece of media dealing with the nineties can now legitimately be seen as a work of history. Indeed, this very Summer CNN premieres the graduation of its decade-based documentary series The Nineties, the trailer for which positions the CD player as the relic of a bygone era and The Backstreet Boys as detached from the present as The Beatles.

Nineties nostalgia is also a by-product of a TV ecology where the past is always present. Though claiming to revolutionize the reception of television, Video-On-Demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu have done more to take TV content back in time than any oldies station ever did. Entire canons of popular (and not so) TV shows from the 1950s onwards are now instantly accessible to a vast viewership, and without the bitter pill of catheter commercials to swallow. The appeal of such platforms is as much being able to binge on Cheers as House of Cards. If lifespan permits, such extensive replay creates a natural demand for revival, which the VOD platform’s business models are always more-than-happy to accommodate, with a slew of fannish resurrections. Done so routinely online, the on-air networks are now spicing their season line-ups with revivals of nineties properties, as shown by the upcoming return of Roseanne.

The 2017-2018 ABC Television Upfront Presentation

I was a teenager in the nineties and those were my formative cultural years. At the time, I thought the best of film, TV and music had been and gone, though it turns out that’s a very nineties way of looking at things. Now I fetishistically relish what came out of that decade, and regard it as a far more sophisticated era in mainstream media arts than we are currently experiencing. I think I’m pretty typical of my generation, if we can be uniformly tantalised by the prospect of a Minnesota-based police procedural coming to primetime or react excitedly when one of the most belaboured sitcoms of all time returns to network TV. There’s no doubt we’re the demographic that television executives are targeting with their retroactive approach to commissioning, and that producers find common ground with their fragmented audience based on a shared love of the decade’s cultural output.

 

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

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Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

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Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

Crimetime

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, TV News, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by Tom Steward

Ever since Homer Simpson purred the words ‘Wow, Infotainment’, true crime has been the beating heart – or lack thereof – of American television. In the last year or so, a high-end alternative to the video-looking, cheaply put together true crime documentaries echoing the trite, uncomplicated and sensational timbre of news has emerged. This sub-genre of true crime TV looks more like the production value-laden, multi-layered serial dramas we’ve seen with exponential regularity in the past two decades and plays without loss on boutique networks and video-on-demand services. The prime suspects are HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Though both series seem to herald a new trend in televised crime, in many ways they are polar opposites. As G remarked, the former is about how privilege and money can get around the justice system no matter what a defendant may or may not have done while the latter is about how poverty and low status count against you legally regardless of your guilt. But their differences go further, speaking to a gulf in the quality and character of the dramatic television produced by these two non-traditional television services. While both appear to have changed the face of television documentary overnight, the nature of the filmmaking involved means that they have been in the works for several years and play off and into TV crime dramas perhaps more than other documentaries in the field.

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This guy is the Durst!

At ten hour-long episodes, Making a Murderer lasts about long as a typical high-quality TV drama season and offers the same compelling serial narrative we look for in them. Each episode is prefixed with a rich, stylish and lengthy credits sequence equal to and clearly modelled on those that have announced standalone masterpieces in series on such elite platforms as HBO and Showtime. As many of my partners in crime television – including Squeezegut Alley and Dolly Clackett have already observed – this documentary following the trial of exonerated rapist Steven Avery and his nephew for murder in Wisconsin, plays out like a real-life Murder One. Further to the interplay between drama and documentary in crime television, however, Murder One was in no small part indebted to the televised trial of O.J. Simpson, which had concluded a few months before airing and proved that a single trial could hold the attention of audiences for months on end. To complete the circuit, FX are soon to air the first season of their factually-based drama anthology series American Crime Story based around the trial of O.J. Simpson. Critics of Making a Murderer have pointed to the filmmakers’ omission of key pieces of trial evidence and one-sided view of Steven Avery as an innocent patsy. I’m all for directors declaring their biases rather than pretending they don’t exist but it would have been a far better documentary if the emphasis had been on the reasonable doubt about the Averys’ guilt and the distinct whiff of police misconduct surrounding the case rather than conspiracies and frame-ups.

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Avery complicated case!

Though The Jinx shares many visual and narrative similarities with Making a Murderer – not least their elaborate curtain-raisers – in almost all ways HBO’s documentary miniseries is superior to its Netflix counterpart. This six-part account of how business heir Robert Durst became a prime suspect in multiple murder investigations yet remained a free man had greater sophistication in its handling of the subject. The documentary factored in the impact that media coverage of Durst has had on the various cases, including his own attraction to the spotlight which allowed filmmakers direct access to him. They refuse to be drawn on the question of Durst’s guilt until a smoking gun presented itself, at which point the filmmakers are forced into the position of interrogators. The Jinx has also accomplished more for social justice than Making a Murderer, as Durst was arrested for murder following the broadcast of the series while the post-show discussion of the Steven Avery case has yielded an ill-advised petition to The White House which they are powerless to act upon and rancour against the filmmakers for cherry-picking evidence – which is bad documentary practice anyway but given the stakes is a criminal act all of its own. The Jinx might be the reason Durst is under arrest but it may also be the reason he beats jail. Any decent defence lawyer could argue that the documentary has already branded Durst a murder and therefore he cannot get a fair trial. The prosecution would need a jury without HBO subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

The Endless Summer

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, hiatus, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m back after being away for the summer…just like TV! Or so I thought. Summer used to be a dumping ground for cancellation fodder, but something has changed. Many of the year’s most important programmes now air over the summer and momentous TV events are just as likely to play in the spring and summer as fall and winter. No doubt some of this is down to cable channels disrupting the old network seasonality, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that TV critics can’t take summer off any more if they want to stay current. So what’s been happening?

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

Colin Farrell after reading the reviews of True Detective Season 2

True Detective Season Two

Another reason why TV critics can’t go away for summer is because they’d all miss doing their favourite thing – bashing the follow-up to a universally praised piece of television with no particular motivation other than convention. Season Two of HBO’s anthological police procedural was torn to pieces by most critics, with so-called fans and lovers of quality television just as vociferously negative. It really has nothing to do with the season itself, just a tired old game that critics like to play, one that immunised us against the self-evident pleasures of Treme simply because it followed The Wire and even made us question the quality of The Wire when it entered its second season. Worryingly, it suggests critics and viewers of the serial age have serious trouble evaluating television when it deviates from formula, and really aren’t ready for the anthology revolution happening in TV.

Jon Stewart leaves The Daily Show

After fifteen years as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart could simply be remembered as the person that brought the art of fake news – cultivated in Britain by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris – to the US. But he leaves behind him an even greater legacy. When TV news polarised into partisan platforms with MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, Stewart’s Daily Show was just about the only source of news that had any semblance of objectivity (as rocky a term as that is) left to give. He was trumped by his own protégés. First Stephen Colbert, who transformed himself into a living doll of satire, viscerally exposing the ugliness of the media conservative while manifesting the winning naivety that makes them attractive. Then John Oliver who – with the help of HBO’s unsegmented formats – brought satirically slanted news reporting into the realms of investigative journalism and political activism.

Cilla Black/Rowdy Roddy Piper (delete as nationally appropriate) died

It’s only accident that these deaths occurred in summer, but taken together they are tantamount to transatlantic television tragedy. The British light entertainment host and Canadian WWF star died within a week of each other, which means nothing until you put together that their stretches as reigning TV personalities from the 1980s to the early 2000s is virtually identical and that they generate the same fuzzy nostalgia (in warmth and confusion alike) from the generations that grew up watching them. For me, it was a sharp reminder of how separate American and British cultures can be. Nobody mentioned Cilla – a contemporary of America’s beloved Beatles – stateside. Roddy Piper remains unfamiliar to me…and to all 90s British kids who didn’t have Sky.

Netflix Summer

The charms of hyper-inflective prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black continues to elude me, but it’s Netflix’s most valuable commodity and the June release of its third season was not an anomaly. The star-studded prequel series to cult comedy movie Wet Hot American Summer was made available in July as was season two of the critically acclaimed cartoon BoJack Horseman. Orange is the New Black was even streamed a few days early, just to remind Netflix subscribers that they can do shit like that. It’s pretty cocky behaviour, and somewhat backfired when fans who had booked time off work to binge-watch the season found themselves in a socially impossible situation. I don’t think this surge of summer activity at Netflix (nor the summer-theming of its releases) is at all a coincidence, more an attempt to dominate TV distribution in these months of the year. For all their talk of liberating viewers from the tyranny of scheduling, Netflix keeps subscribers under the yoke of its idiosyncratic calendar.

Fear The Walking Dead is set in LA...it's going to be a short show!

Fear The Walking Dead is set in LA…it’s going to be a short show!

Fear the Walking Dead Series Premiere

The unwanted spin-off of AMC’s The Walking Dead debuted in the last days of summer. As True Detective also switched from a rural southern locale to the L.A. metropolitan sprawl, I wouldn’t expect any glowing reviews forthcoming…

Crimewatch

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by Tom Steward

2014 will be remembered as the year American TV went on trial. I mean that quite literally. Three of the stars of Bravo reality franchise The Real Housewives have been given prison sentences for fraud in recent months, and earlier in the year another was arrested for an altercation on the show. In the last few weeks, American TV icon Bill Cosby has been accused of multiple historic instances of sexual assault by women, and his past and future TV shows have been pulled by Netflix, NBC and TV Land. TLC also made the decision to cancel their reality series Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo after star ‘Mama’ June Shannon reportedly started dating a registered sex offender. The reactions from the networks concerned have been variable.

Sopranos Remake Goes Ahead with Cast of Unknowns!

Sopranos Remake Goes Ahead with Cast of Unknowns!

Bravo appointed themselves unofficial court stenographers for the trials of Teresa and Joe Giudice on multiple bank, mortgage and bankruptcy fraud charges and Apollo Nida for bank, mail and wire fraud, following their court appearances on The Real Housewives of New Jersey and The Real Housewives of Atlanta and putting them on every conceivable sister show on the network before and after sentencing. It’s not exaggerating to say that the court cases have been the key interest for each of the series this year, or that Bravo has been unapologetically wallowing in their losses of freedom. The network has skirted around the issue of their guilt and culpability, wasting no opportunity to portray Nida and the Giudices as victims of circumstances, rather than knowing criminals

This is hardly surprising given how Bravo behaved when a criminal act took place on one of their shows. Porscha Williams was charged with assault after attacking Kenya Moore (or rather a tenuously linked appendage of hers) on the ‘Reunion’ episode of this season’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The end-of-season special brings the invariably estranged co-stars on to a studio stage and uses footage from the series (and typically social media baiting) to provoke conflict between the guests. The formula is such that violence of one kind or another is inevitable, and that the assault was less of a by-product of the show than a slightly cruder version of its desired effect. Bravo didn’t express the contrition appropriate to goading a person into criminality.

The different between the responses of Bravo and Cosby’s networks may be attributed to the gulf in the seriousness of the alleged crimes, but there could be more at stake. In 2012, it emerged that deceased TV personality Jimmy Savile, an entertainer equivalent in status to Cosby in British popular culture, had been one of the country’s worst ever paedophiles, a fact widely known during his lifetime but downplayed through his connections to the UK establishment. The revelations about Savile laid bare a culture of sexual abuse and assault in British showbusiness in the past few decades. Of course, I’m not suggesting that what Cosby is accused of doing is on the same scale as Savile’s serial child abuse, although both have a moral point-of-no-return.

I make the comparison because in their knee-jerk reaction to media-led allegations, Netflix’s decision to postpone Cosby’s special, NBC’s termination of a new Bill Cosby sitcom, and TV Land removing reruns of The Cosby Show from their schedules might be a tactic to draw a line under the controversy before it takes out any more of the entertainment legends their business depends on. There’s no reason to disbelieve the women who are coming forward to accuse Cosby, since they have all to lose and nothing to gain by smearing the comedian’s good name, but the networks have based their verdicts calls on unsubstantiated claims in lieu of a police investigation. If CNN’s reproach of Joan Tarshis is representative, it’s not about solidarity with Cosby’s alleged victims.

There Goes Honey Boo-Boo!

There Goes Honey Boo-Boo!

TLC cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo as June Shannon apparently resumed her relationship with Mark McDaniel, who was convicted of molesting June’s daughter Anna Cardwell. The network should be commended for sacrificing one of their most valuable properties in making a moral stance, but TLC’s rhetoric about their duty of care towards the Shannon children is disingenuous. A network statement said TLC was committed to ‘health and welfare of these remarkable children’ but they’ve never been conflicted about exploiting their socio-economic disadvantages for entertainment and, as E!’s TV review The Soup illustrated, the network haven’t made any interventions to prevent the children’s health problems. While Bravo is clearly the most exploitative network here, at least it doesn’t pretend to have anything but self-interest at heart.

Thinking Outside The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

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