Archive for netflix

Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

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Remote Possibilities

Posted in American TV (General), Internet TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2014 by Tom Steward

After months of watching TV on instant video applications like Netflix and HuluPlus, G and I have subscribed to cable. This meant shouldering an extra financial burden to meet the inflated monthly service costs but in both our eyes it was worth it. When we watch television, we want to watch television not find a programme to watch. We’re far more interested in watching television just because we can than seeing something specific. Internet TV was supposed to free viewers from the unwanted content of on-air broadcast (advertising, interstitials, filler programming) but to G and I TV only makes sense when they put the crap back in. I, for one, had no idea that the fake commercials in Portlandia appear in the middle of ad breaks where they serve a greater satirical purpose than popping up mid-episode. Also, the choice afforded to viewers by instant video had become a burden on us. So much so that we’d rather leave it to the bigoted, money-grubbing idiots who programme the TV schedules to decide what we watch.

Local advertising during IFC’s Portlandia.

The change isn’t as drastic as you might imagine. The notion of bingeing and marathons has now become so ingrained in the way TV schedules are created that you often find networks showing the same programme back-to-back throughout the day. As such, cable TV sometimes resembles a protracted version of what you might do on Netflix if given the chance. Perhaps the biggest difference is the licence cable TV gives you to stumble upon some of the strangest programmes you’ll encounter outside of a parallel reality. These are not programmes you would ever seek out or patiently endure buffering for, but when they are handed to you as samples that come free just for touching a button repeatedly you don’t feel you’re losing anything to give them a try. But don’t think these programmes are abnormal. They are indicative of precisely what television does when it’s not a one-in-a-million show like True Detective or Justified. It’s the act of filling time with a formula that works entirely on its own terms. That’s why we have…

Rev Run’s Renovation (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Rev Run’s Renovation: Not exactly Cribs!

A programme seemingly pitched on the basis of alliteration and anagram possibilities, Rev Run’s Renovation follows Run DMC rapper Rev Run as he renovates his New Jersey home. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a stylised reality show about the ridiculous and extravagant re-modelling that rappers do on their property a la MTV’s Cribs. Think again. It’s a completely matter-of-fact home improvement programme where the ins and outs of house renovation are laid out for viewers with an eye to budget and practicality. What does Rev Run have to do with renovation? Beats me.

Vanilla Ice Goes Amish (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Spot the Amish guy in this photograph.

Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss. It’s not even that much of a mismatch. Vanilla Ice doesn’t programme code for Apple, he’s a rapper from the last century. He’s anachronistic enough now to have more in common with the Amish than differences from them. And it seems the Amish people aren’t as dated as we think. It should be called Vanilla Ice Does Nothing Different.

Wahlburgers (A & E, Wednesdays)

A 12-inch Wahlburger!

You know those businesses founded on a pun (‘Hair We Are Barbers’, ‘The Codfather Fish & Chips’ etc.) that won’t be there the next time you pass by? Well, this is a reality show about one of those businesses and the television equivalent of it. Wahlburgers is a chain of burger restaurants run by Chef Paul Wahlberg and his celebrity brothers Mark and Donnie. Wahlburgers is a show about Wahlburgers. The show and the restaurant are called Wahlburgers because they are Wahlbergs who make burgers. Expect nothing more complicated than this and you’ll be fine.

Unknown (Can’t Remember, Saturdays I think)

It’s not often I make an appeal to readers but as with many shows you encounter while channel hopping I only have a very sketchy memory of its name and where and when it aired and I’ve not been able to find it again nor any mention of it in the public domain. So please send me a comment or tweet (@wtvamericans) if you know what show I mean. It’s a tone-perfect, late-night digital cartoon parody of a morning news show which featured a location report from Legoland depicting it as an independent nation.

Orange is the New Flashback

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by Tom Steward

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

The End of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve just finished watching The Fall, BBC2’s new police drama miniseries. Or have I? The open-ended nature of the last episode watched had me rushing to IMDB to see if Netflix had failed to purchase the series’ remaining instalments. This being a fairly common occurrence with an online content provider which faces rights restrictions preventing them from making the latest episodes of TV series available to users. My online search concluded this was in fact the final episode and that this ending was considered ‘controversial’. The word used to describe an adverse response to something offensive or provocative having been done or said but now simply means that a lot of people with Twitter accounts don’t much like it. While searching, I found vigorous defences of the ending by creator Allan Cubitt on grounds of authenticity, arguing that the ambiguous ending gestured plausibly towards the ongoing difficulty of police work and the lengthy timeframes of major investigations. This made sense. The series regularly disturbed and played with the conventions of its genre. It puts The Fall in league with TV crime series like The Wire and The Shield which were equally determined to show policing as a messy, unresolved business.

‘This is DSI Gibson. Do we have an ending in custody?’

Case closed. But wait a minute. I’ve just read that the BBC has commissioned another series of The Fall to be broadcast in Autumn 2014. I’m assuming this will continue the story of the first series and not be a totally different crime drama under the banner of The Fall nor merely a new case for DSI Gibson. There is certainly precedent for these latter options in British crime miniseries. BBC1 multi-arm legal strip Criminal Justice created a completely new set of characters and storylines for its second run and there’s a tradition of detective dramas like Prime Suspect and Cracker holding on to their lead detective whilst continually updating the cases they investigate. It is, however, unheard of to not wrap up the previous case before moving on to the new one and if the next season of The Fall were to do this the show would be genuinely breaking new ground. So if it is to be a continuation, then the ending of the (first) series should be thought of as more of an end-of-season cliffhanger, a suspense-mongering technique designed to keep viewers hooked until its return-an echo of serial TV melodramas like Dallas-and only realistic by default.

Who Shot J.R.? Much difference?

I’m put in mind of another couple of TV finales which blur the boundaries between cliffhanger and open ending. The first of these is the final episode of Twin Peaks, which lies at the close of its second season on the air. The series ends on a note of uncertainty about the fate of its protagonist, Agent Cooper. Given that the show’s co-creator was avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch and that the programme was challenging and innovative in its storytelling, critics and audiences alike were quick to assume that the ending was a deliberate subversion of closure and resolution and an artistic statement on the nature of TV endings. This belies the fact that the ending was written in full expectation of a third season which an abrupt cancellation, following a drop-off in ratings and acclaim, put pay to. This suggests the season ending was meant to work as a cliffhanger in the manner of the previous season, which left the lives of most of the main characters dangling in the balance. This is not to say that the cliffhanger wouldn’t have been met with something surprising and original, as with the last one, but it still reeks of conventional storytelling.

Was the ending of Twin Peaks really breakthrough?

The second of these is the ending of The Sopranos, following six seasons and eight years on the air. A suspension of narrative closure in the form of a literal blackout, it too bore the label ‘controversial’ although ‘uniformly hated’ would be closer to the truth. I initially thought the ending a technical error on the digital station E4 where The Sopranos was first broadcast in the UK, having become accustomed to its legacy of transmission problems which routinely turned my screen ratios into accordions. Alas, the mistake was on the behalf of creator David Chase who had sacrificed all that was good about the show (music, character arcs, engrossing storytelling) for an arch and pretentious modernist gesture, which put art before content. Or so I first thought. The cynic in me now thinks that the ending was merely an arty smokescreen for the kind of cop-out ending that refuses to make any big decisions about the characters in order that the franchise may live on. Think David Chase is above this? Lest we forget Chase presided over the mid-90s spin-off TV movie series of The Rockford Files. It is only James Gandolfini’s death that renders a revival an impossibility.

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!

It’s not TV…It’s Netflix

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

What am I watching? It’s the nature of the beast to find yourself in front of the television asking this very question. But usually when we ask we know exactly what we’re watching. It’s generally a comment on the poor quality of the programme we ended up watching or a realisation we drifted into something we didn’t choose to watch (like the time I accidentally turned over from The Terminator to Ordinary People and kept waiting for the robots to turn up). However, watching the Netflix series of Arrested Development, I found myself asking this question and genuinely not knowing.

‘Arrested Development’ delivered in one block.

I’ve grappled before with the question of whether content designed primarily for internet distribution can be considered television. When teaching media studies, I used to debate with students whether programmes that had all the characteristics of television but were being seen online-like the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner space jump-still qualified as TV. Since people are going to the internet to watch this content, on first impression it would seem not. But it’s the case with much television today that people will see it first-and often only-online. So is all the TV that is watched online disqualified too?

Impressive…but is it TV?

With internet content that originated online, you can argue it both ways. However, content that was previously a television programme but subsequently moved online should be a pretty clear cut case of television, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I saw the 15 30-minute episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix last Saturday night. The series, a revival of a Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s, heralds a new way of telling stories online, adopts a style based on how information is presented on internet devices and is fit-to-burst with points of reference from consuming media content via web technologies.

Flashbacks provided by Showstealer Pro!

It’s a lot to do with how the episodes are delivered to the viewer. Instead of 1 or more episodes broadcast once a week until the run is complete, Netflix make all episodes of the series available at once. Of course, this is a way of watching derived from the possibility of consuming TV series all at once that has arisen from DVD, on-demand services and internet file-sharing. But that was always an option not the primary port of call. The producers of Arrested Development have clearly identified the difference this makes to how viewers are likely to watch the series.

‘Arrested Development’…full stream ahead!

Each episode has been constructed in the knowledge that viewers are able to watch each of the instalments out of order and expect some gratification for watching the concurrently available episodes in their entirety. The full story of what happens is revealed fragment by fragment and at different stages of the series depending on which of the endless combinations of chronologies the viewer chooses. Whatever journey you take, you’ll encounter non-sequiturs which will eventually become comprehensible while what you’re seeing is clarifying an enigma in another later or earlier episode. However, this all assumes viewers will take advantage of the potential for viewing episodes in a random, non-chronological order. In the end, it’s the old Jurassic Park question; of course you can but should you?

TV from the Great Dark Period!

I’m guessing that most viewers wouldn’t know to watch the episodes piñata-style without having been told in advance. Pre-publicity made a big deal of the chronology-optional viewing pleasures, and we’ve been hearing about the revival for some time, but I’m not sure it would be most people’s natural inclination to watch the show like Tarantino storyboarding Pulp Fiction. Sure, Netflix’s catalogues of full series allow for cherry-picking episode highlights, but at the point of selection we’re still in the dark about what episodes these might be. Basically, watching through is as good a way as any of getting to the end.

Who’s story do you want to see first?

In its network TV days, Arrested Development made a big deal of what it meant to be on Fox, and the Netflix revival seems as keen on reminding viewers that it is now internet content. Flashbacks and cut-aways come in the form of online videos, hacked TV-rip software and Prezi-esque slideshows. At times we think we’re looking at the world through a camera only to find we’re looking through someone’s eyes at a webpage. Network TV is still there in the background, with spot-on sideswipes at CBS’ This Morning and NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the flow of US TV entertainment and news anymore, you feel like you’ve plucked what you’re watching from the annals of cyberspace.

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