Archive for parks and recreation

Queen Me

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s Christmas so TV is all about messages. Though if you know your McLuhan, then you’ll already be aware that TV itself is the message. Far be it from me to buck seasonal television trends, so as this is the final blog post of the year I’ve prepared a Christmas message. As I hail from the land of tea and war (where do you think we got the tea?), the message will be delivered as if it were Queen Elizabeth II’s televised Christmas address to the nation, which all British subjects watch devoutly each year without ever ignoring it completely.

What are all you people doing in our house?

What are all you people doing in our house?

In the House of Commons this November, MPs debated whether to change the symbol of Britain from a lion to a hedgehog or, to put it another way, whether to write off the country by tying its fate to a species with a rapidly declining population. We are reminded of our long-lost children in the colonies who this year lost iconic hosts of late-night on their moving billboards. Like changing a lion for a hedgehog, the replacement may not seem as strong as its predecessor – and more difficult to pick up – but the more they stick out their noses and appear at our doors each night, the more the infants of the new world will grow to love them. We are also reminded of this because a couple of the new hosts look like hedgehogs.

Nocturnal hedgehogs

Nocturnal hedgehogs

If Britain does decide that it’s only economic salvation – following the debacle of a government I could’ve stopped if I had wanted to – is Beatrix Potter brand synergy, then we are reassured by the success of spin-offs in the living room magic lantern shows of the Europe’s emancipated teenager. As hedgehogs to lions, such derivations seemed paltry and incidental creatures yet they possess a unique quality all of their own that has been resting in the shade of bigger animals for so long it comes to light as soon as they shift their lumbering rears from view. Except CSI: Cyber.

There is always the possibility of reinvention – look at us, we’re much more cheery than we used to be – as the recent trend in the wall-mounted viewfinders of Columbus’s Indies for season-long anthology series reminds us. It is difficult to adjust to change – especially if one writes for HitFix – but we should remember that, like that bloody hedgehog we wish we’d never used as a metaphor in the first place, transformation has the potential to preserve a species that would otherwise have died out a lot sooner, or ended up on Hulu. It takes a true detective to see the worth in exchanging a tried-and-tested point of pride for something offbeat and challenging, but we must fargo our trepidations in order to save what we love while it still has a slim chance of survival.

The year of my lord – well he is technically my employer – 2015 was the end of an era, although not for me as we became the longest-reigning British monarch, of which we would like to say on record: ‘suck it, time’! But those less fortunate than us, such as everyone, have had to endure the loss of the many sinful delights that sit within the devil’s hatbox, especially those that hail from the land of not-having-one-of-me-in-charge. We are justified to feel sadness though we would be mad men if we didn’t notice that Parks & Recreation was just shit now.

Lions – for my speechwriter says that you’re simply all too stupid to handle more than one metaphor per message – are lazy and parasitic as well as strong and proud, so it is not with complete regret that we see two and a half of these individually wrapped entertainments make way for an animal that isn’t quite so boring and doesn’t steal from others…like a mentalist! There are those who say it is a scandal that those animals with such a grey anatomy should get away with murder, but here’s the catch. The ecosystem needs every animal – no matter how much it feeds off a rotting carcass – so, however much they induce dread, the lions of this world are just as important to the hedgehogs and, yes, my butler does mix drinks that badly as well.

To play us out, we have the Christmas TV movie carol ‘Edelweiss’ which this year reminds us of a world which my uncle would have been proud of. A very happy Christmas to you all… except those of you who want me to pay taxes.

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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.

From Diego To A Slow Newsday

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Local TV, TV News, TV Sports with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by Tom Steward

If there’s a pop culture albatross hanging around the neck of my adopted home San Diego, it’s that of bad local television. Not only is the successful Anchorman movie franchise about a San Diego news station – with Will Ferrell’s hapless broadcaster Ron Burgundy a composite of local newsmen – but iconic American late-night sketch show Saturday Night Live currently runs a series of skits called ‘Inside SoCal’ parodying magazine shows on San Diego public television. It seems too much of a coincidence for San Diego to have been arbitrarily picked twice to represent the worst in local TV by the nation’s leading comedians. Before moving here, I thought Anchorman was set in San Diego by accident not design. It didn’t take long to rectify that misnomer.

San Diego: A Dolphin's Vagina!

San Diego: A Dolphin’s Vagina!

It must be acknowledged, however, that this comedy works on national and international levels and clearly doesn’t require affinity with local San Diego stations to be enjoyed. Anchorman and ‘Inside SoCal’ can be identified as broad mockery of the ineptitude of provincial media, applicable to whatever region the audience happens to be in. But in each case, the portrayal captures something unique about the TV coming out of San Diego, which gives them greater weight as parodies, whether you are aware of what they’re referring to or not. It’s presumably why so many of the best media satires (Alan Partridge, Parks & Recreation, Wayne’s World) have a recognisable geographical point of origin, even if the native in-jokes go over the majority of the audience’s heads.

But does it really matter that Anchorman is based in San Diego? On one level, no, since it tells the overarching story of how the sensationalism and kitsch of local news became the mainstream national norm, and could conceivably be about the foibles of broadcast journalism in any overlooked region of the US. Despite an acknowledgement of the city with some local filming at Sea World, San Diego barely features in sequel The Legend Continues, set in New York during the cable boom of the ‘80s. But then there are touches which suggest that Anchorman can’t do without the real thing, with sports reporter Champ’s catchphrase ‘Whammy!’ unnervingly close to KUSI weatherman (and notable global warming denier) John Coleman’s dancing and squealing to signature slogans.

Similarly, ‘Inside SoCal’ could surrogate for just about any poorly-made, small-minded public access show, and indeed you could just as easily locate the skit in the history of Saturday Night Live’s local TV parodies from Illinois-set ‘Wayne’s World’ to the Hampshire College students’ webcam series ‘Jarrett’s Room’. But, again, the self-conscious presenting styles and just-discovered-post-modernism of the editing hits right at the heart of many of the manchild-hosted late-night shows on San Diego’s local stations. The dress, talk and articulation of the East County twentysomething male is rendered to a tee, and G – a San Diego native – was particularly impressed at how convincing this was coming from East Coast comedians. Clearly, though, San Diego-born skit writer Kyle Mooney had a lot to do with this.

But is local TV in San Diego really that bad? Well, yes, but so is I suspect all the regional broadcasting outside the country’s media hubs (and probably in them too!). What distinguishes San Diego is its complete lack of self-awareness. Aside from the waltzing weatherman, KUSI also has an investigative reporter, Michael Turko (of a segment called ‘The Turko Files’ no less), who I will refuse to believe isn’t a parody until my dying day! Turko seems to have studied under Chris Morris’ Ted Maul at the Brass Eye School of Journalism and his voiceovers would be considered a broad spoof if they appeared in a Scary Movie sequel. The anchors are so Stepford I once saw a man present the news with himself.

News For Our Generation!

News For Our Generation!

It might be a welcome break from the surf and sun clichés that haunt San Diego, but the city’s synonymy with laughable local television doesn’t permit the world to take it seriously. Sure, the surfer tag can inadvertently make San Diego seem bland and vacuous too, even if the beach music and movies it stems from are among the best in America’s popular culture. However, there’s no such backhanded compliment in Anchorman or ‘Inside SoCal’, however affectionate they are. Since it puts San Diego on the map and heralds the rise of natives to national fame, I don’t think locals will put up too much of a protest. Given the state of TV here, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if they did.

Box Jumps

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by Tom Steward

With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television. Each idea that has any kind of success with or impact on viewers will be re-circulated more or less unmodified until the imitation has paled to the point it recalls the scene in Moulin Rouge where Nicole Kidman pretends to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. This is why there are currently five series airing on US television (that I can name!) about software developers and why so many recent TV dramas use flashback, even though it runs counter to the logic of television’s simultaneous time. A particularly alarming television trend doing the rounds at the moment is arbitrary jumps in time that leave huge gaps in series timelines. Rather than heralding a new style of TV storytelling, these flashforwards seem more like afterthoughts designed to resolve awkward continuity problems.

Fargo the year!

Fargo the year!

It was recently announced that the final season of HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire would take place in 1931, seven years after the end of the previous season, which had covered the late teens and early twenties in its first four seasons. The final few minutes of the latest season of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation jumped three years ahead, omitting Leslie Knope’s pregnancy, the birth of her triplets, and the first years of her new job. FX’s thriller mini-series Fargo skipped a year in its last few episodes, this time allowing police Deputy Molly to get pregnant and criminal conspirators Lester and Lorne to start new lives. After nine episodes out of twelve, we’re still waiting for the belated revival of 24, Live Another Day, to jump a few hours to get us to the end of the day before the season ends, as promised by the show’s producers.

When TV shows did this in the past, it always smacked of desperation. It was no coincidence that Desperate Housewives jumped five years in its fifth season the same time as viewers were leaving the show in droves. Nor was a secret that One Tree Hill’s skip ahead four years halfway through its run was a thinly veiled attempt to bring characters’ ages into touch with the actors playing them. The time jump might be being deployed in a slightly smarter way these days, with Parks and Recreation’s implication that the nation has missed out on a three-year recurring guest role from Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who is fired from Leslie’s office seconds after the ellipsis. But if you look at where the jumps are situated in the runs of these series, and think about why they should happen at that exact point, you’ll see they are no less crude.

As with flashbacks, part of the problem is that time jumps upset the way time works in television. It’s conventional that TV time runs concurrently with the time in which we live out our lives, and pleasurably so since much of the joy of watching TV is the way it syncs with what we’re doing. Time jumps invariably put a show ahead of the time of viewing, which makes it a kind of science-fiction, and would be fine if that’s what the programme-makers were going for. Aside from problems of realism and plausibility caused by the time jump, it also puts viewers at odds with programmes rather than it seguing with their daily and weekly lives. It’s also more of a placebo for story problems than a panacea. Things take time to work themselves out in television, and television should remain a record of that not a remedy for it.

Look what we missed!

Look what we missed!

A time jump might have relieved Parks and Recreation viewers of another pregnancy storyline but it also cheated them of character development. It’s very much a self-written corner since no-one asked the writers to put two pregnancies back-to-back. The loss of a full year in Fargo deprived the series of the suspenseful and tightly-knit storytelling that held the show together, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying denouement. We’ve yet to see how 24 will skip ahead to later hours of the day, but it’s bound to disrupt the real-time orthodoxy of the premise. The producers of Boardwalk Empire may feel they have more justification to move forward in time since it is a historical piece. My initial thoughts are that the 1930s is a very different animal historically, and that Boardwalk Empire can’t help but become a different programme. Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?

 

Jumping Jacks & Sharks and Recreation

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, which is TV-speak for when something happens in a TV series that precludes any subsequent developments from being taken seriously. The term derives from a scene in the fifth-season premiere of 1950s-set American nostalgia sitcom Happy Days in which Dad-aged TV surrogate of cool The Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis. The phrase did not come into popular usage until the late 1990s – twenty years after the episode aired – when radio and web personality Jon Hein compiled a list of TV shows that declined badly in quality on his website jumptheshark.com. It’s been on my mind because the condition seemed to be peculiar to television series, especially the American ones that go on too long, and yet lately I’ve heard ‘jumping the shark’ used in connection to all walks of life. Also, there are some shows currently on the air that reminded me how easy it is to ‘jump the shark’. Can shark-jumping apply to anything but television and what does it mean for a TV show when that fin appears above the water?

Choppy Days!

Choppy Days!

First of all, it’s unfair to implicate Happy Days in this phraseology. People didn’t watch Happy Days for realism but rather nostalgia, kitsch and fun. The series always had room for flights of fancy, like the special science-fiction episode which introduced Robin Williams’ alien Mork to TV. If we were to go back and coin another phrase that better describes what we’re talking about, we might go instead with a reference to a show that genuinely lost its way. We could talk about TV shows that ‘found a dead man in the shower’, recalling the time that super-soap Dallas made an entire season worth of episodes a dream in order to bring star Patrick Duffy back from the dead as Bobby Ewing. The producers of Dallas forgot that just because melodrama isn’t always convincing, it can’t simply be nonsense. We might even say that a series has ‘won the Illinois lottery’ in lieu of the lottery win which made the working-class Conner family in the sitcom Roseanne into millionaires for the entirety of the final season, duly sabotaging the show’s uniquely stark and undiluted portrayal of blue-collar life.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron use ‘jumping the shark’ in reference to social media when describing the show’s ‘shirt on/shirt off’ Twitter voting campaign for one of its male dancers but not, strangely, when discussing the tanking ABC series Agents of Shield. In his casually amazing stand-up special Obsessed shown on Comedy Central over Easter, comedian Jim Gaffigan accused Yum Yum Donuts of ‘jumping the shark’ on business names. Apparently, the phrase has been widespread in media, business and politics for years now. There’s not really much you can do once a phrase has infiltrated popular culture (or we’d have redacted ‘selfie’ from history by now), but we should remember its roots in TV. TV shows don’t ‘jump the shark’ intentionally but as a symptom of a worn-out format, a capitulation of principles or a desperate need to survive. So much of American TV is about keeping shows on the air at any price and prolonging their natural lifespan that ‘jumping the shark’ is inevitable, and much more so than in other forms of culture.

Sitcom of the Future?

Sitcom of the Future?

Season six of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation recently had its finale and in its final few seconds arguably lost all credibility as a sitcom grounded in contemporary reality. From this point on, we’ll be watching a sitcom set in the projected near future, and nothing can undo that. This all happened for the sake of resolving story problems that the writers had themselves created and a few discontinuity gags. It’s pretty clear that a TV show doesn’t need a grandstanding spectacle to ‘jump the shark’; it can do it casually under viewers’ noses. This week marks the return of 24, which probably holds the water-speed record on shark-jumping throughout its previous eight seasons of amnesia, faked deaths, nukes and conspiracies. Yet audiences still bestow the show with the legitimacy that graced its first, and only truly believable, season. There are even websites that count the number of times a TV show has ‘jumped the shark’ during its run. Even though we may assume a show can’t come back from ‘jumping the shark’, clearly it can and we might just have to accept that it’s something that happens organically to TV shows.

Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.

 

‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.

 

Rod Serling would have been proud

 

 

 

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