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Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

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Mexican Stand-Off

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

This is a post about an episode of a TV show and an open letter responding to that episode. Please watch the episode and read the letter before reading the post, as my editorialising of the episode and the letter will not be sufficient exposure to form an opinion on them and it would be unfair to base a response to the episode on what this post and the letter have to say about it.

On Sunday night, CNN aired a new episode of the travel documentary series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown about Mexico City. The following day, travel blogger W. Scott Koenig published an open letter to Anthony Bourdain about the episode on his website agringoinmexico.com. Though the letter is reverent towards Bourdain’s writing and journalism in general, Koenig strongly contested the portrayal of Mexico in Sunday’s episode of the chef-writer-presenter’s signature travel show, now in its third season. Koenig accused Bourdain of a disproportionate emphasis on the drug-related violence and killing that takes place in the country and overlooking the richness of the culture, history, art and gastronomy in the regions he visited on the show. Koenig also hinted strongly at potential interference from the network and the programme’s advertisers to scaremonger about visiting Mexico and lumped in the episode with inaccurate press reporting on Mexican drug violence, with comparative statistics to boot.

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

Koenig has already swathed Bourdain in the kind of praise that I would have given him, so I don’t feel the need to defend for the latter’s impeccable record in TV, journalism and prose in both non-fiction and fiction. I do, however, feel the need to intercede somewhere between apologist and critic on his behalf. Koenig is right to be disturbed, unsettled and disappointed with the Mexico City episode, but perhaps not for the reasons the blogger outlines. Firstly, I do have to point out a disparity in quality between the two works, lest you think I’m creating a false equivalency between an intricately constructed TV documentary and a hastily-written blog post. If you are going to offer a riposte to such an artfully made and powerfully written piece of television, blogger’s ellipsis and internet grammatology isn’t going to cut it. Right or wrong, this was proof-correction of artistic meditation.

My initial reaction to the Mexico City episode of Parts Unknown was that Bourdain was trying to dispel some of the comforting myths people tell themselves about countries in the grip of violence and under the yoke of organised crime. The perception that gangster rule – in this case the cartels – protects the innocent from harm because of their predominantly internal conflicts was fundamentally altered with the stories of Mexican journalists, protestors, artists and bystanders who had perished or lived in fear for their lives. Any sense that the cartels are a rogue criminal element in Mexico was immediately quashed by the episode connecting the dots between drug operations and Mexican business and government. These are important distinctions, and not to be taken or shown lightly. If I had this as a documentarian, I’d feel obliged to lead with it, even if it meant a few less restaurants onscreen.

While Koenig (or wife Ursula, whom he credits with the bald synopsis) is not wrong about a motif of ‘bodies’ in the episode, I think they may have misjudged where this darkness is coming from. Rather than a SPECTRE-like network-advertiser conspiracy to inadvertently profit from tourism, the emphasis on violence and killing was more likely motivated by Bourdain’s anger and outrage at what’s going on in his backyard. As we saw in last season’s episode of Parts Unknown in Detroit, Bourdain is at his most livid when faced with the ruin of places closest to his home and heart, in parts of the world where remedy is within reach. It is not contempt but fear for Mexico that seems to drive this episode, the unjust feeling that a place of such beauty and brilliance doesn’t have the system it deserves, but also that a good neighbour needs a good turn.

Bourdain in Baja.

Bourdain in Baja.

I don’t think the episode should have sacrificed this raw, seething depiction of social problems for local culture any more than The Wire should have gone to more Baltimore crab shacks (Koenig is loath to admit that there is a great deal of food and drink in the episode). I would take issue with Bourdain’s attitude to Mexico, however. In the Baja episode of No Reservations a couple of years ago, Bourdain wore his ignorance about Mexico on his sleeve and let the natives surprise him. Here, he seems very certain of how the country can solve its problems, and doesn’t mind telling the locals. Crucially, we don’t see what the Mexicans he meets think of his suggestions! I was taken aback by the episode, if only because Bourdain has made more upbeat programmes about worse-off places (Libya, for example). Unbalanced, maybe. Sensationalist, never. Violent? Yes, but not without motive.

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