Archive for northern exposure

Peak Viewing Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

There are TV shows we talk about too much. But Twin Peaks isn’t one of them. I’d say the endless chatter about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early 90s ABC drama by those besotted of the show (whom I suspect have cherry-pie-picked episodes and not endured the interminably drawn-out final quarter) was better spent on less-discussed yet equally worthy TV from this era…if it weren’t for how crucial Twin Peaks is in the history of television. Unusually for a show that ran for only two years and thirty episodes, no-one has ever shut up about it. The supreme production values and self-conscious artistry have ensured that there is never a reason not to re-air and re-box set the programme. Even compared to other 90s TV shows, which generally stand up well visually (especially compared to the previous decade), the colour, focus and cinematography are configured in such a way that HD could not possibly improve upon it. There’s been more talk recently because it’s the 25th anniversary of the series (although there always seems to be an excuse for a retrospective!) and plans are afoot for a revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. However, if the public statements of Lynch and most of the cast are anything to go by, the revival might have as much to do with Twin Peaks as 10 Things I hate about you does with The Taming of the Shrew.

A title colour only used in 90s television!

A title colour only used in 90s television!

Twin Peaks set in motion models of television storytelling that have been influential ever since it was on the air. Small-town quirk and paranormal procedural would dominate American TV throughout the 90s, through the ‘twin peaks’ of Northern Exposure and The X-Files. The legacy endures to this day with series like Parks and Recreation, Wayward Pines, Fringe and Grimm. The long-form murder mystery has been a staple of quality television internationally in recent years, with Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, Britain’s Broadchurch and America’s True Detective. Indeed, if HBO opened the floodgates of American quality television with The Sopranos, then Twin Peaks’ dream states and cine-literacy were an important precedent for the show. More broadly, Twin Peaks cemented many ideas that we now take for granted. It showed us that fantasy and realism can live alongside one another in TV without contradiction and that every character in an ensemble (no matter how ridiculous) deserved an inner life and a separate storyline to boot. Twin Peaks remains the benchmark for what constitutes good television. When Louis C.K. tried to generate an art movie feel for his sitcom Louie, he went to none other than David Lynch as guest star (and director in spirit) for a 3-part season finale. In 2010, mystery drama Psych aired an episode called ‘Dual Spires’ featuring cast members and storylines from Twin Peaks, acknowledging the longevity of the show’s mythology as TV to aspire to.

If we dwell too much on the originality of Twin Peaks (as a recent Radio 4 documentary did), we are in danger of forgetting how much the show took from television. References abound to classic American series from Dragnet to The Fugitive (complimenting the mid-century Hollywood intertextuality). As the meta-show Invitation to Love indicates, the characters and storylines in Twin Peaks could have easily come out of a daytime soap. But Twin Peaks was also acknowledging how soaps had graduated to primetime in the previous decade, with shows like Dallas and Knots Landing. In fact, the season one cliffhanger bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ storyline in Dallas that captivated TV audiences exactly a decade before. For all that is made of David Lynch’s ‘cinematic’ influence on the show, Twin Peaks was co-created by Mark Frost, whose formative experience had been writing for television, notably on Steve Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s soap copera Hill Street Blues. Twin Peaks is as remarkable for its adept handling of serial narrative arcs and gradual character development as for its experimental audio-visual style, and there is a clear lineage from Frost’s work on the continuing ensemble drama Hill Street Blues to his teleplays for Twin Peaks. But Lynch and his signature composer Angelo Badalamenti clearly understood the importance of sound to television, creating a soundscape that both compliments perfectly and stands terrifyingly alone from the image.

...or sooner!

…or sooner!

For better or worse, Twin Peaks stands for something bigger than it is. It is the nucleus of a fine art television and a prism through which to see the medium. Laura Palmer said she’d see us in 25 years. She was 25 years over.

Advertisements

It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

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!

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

%d bloggers like this: