Archive for pbs

Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

Downtown Abbey

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

No wonder Americans think we still live in castles. Thanks to one of Britain’s most popular TV exports to America, the nation would be forgiven for assuming that the downtown areas of our cities look like the grounds of stately homes. Being as British and American accents differ, or that we ‘have an accent’ as I’m more readily informed here, G and I’m sure others were led to believe that the ‘Downton’ in Downton Abbey was not a place but a direction. The downtowns of US cities are comparable to the restaurant, nightlife and shopping quarters of UK city centres and high streets. If it really was Downtown Abbey, Central London would be some sort of class-system role-play theme park where in order to get lunch visitors would have to adorn Edwardian clothing playing either the aristocracy or servants and compete to see which side could repress more of their pasts.

Carson da Butler

Downton is in fact the fictional Yorkshire-based setting of Julian Fellowes’ (the egg-shaped man who apologises for aristocratic misdeeds on UK talk shows) and Gareth Neame’s ITV Sunday-night period drama series Downton Abbey. It’s clear from very early on that things tend to come to Downton rather than the other way around; people, cars, war, Spanish flu. It seems that 1912 to 1919 in British history was just people arriving at doors. Unlike most geographically-fixed locations for TV shows, like Jersey Shore,which seem able to go virtually anywhere in the world, DA probably won’t venture further than that the post office in the village where the servants receive blackmail letters. When war ‘came to Downton Abbey’ it went by so fast that it seemed to have actually been fought in the grounds of the building, like a game of Risk gone awry.

War has come to Downton Abbey

One of the most pleasing aspects of the programme is that it is unashamedly soap opera. The BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House in 2005 tried to show viewers how period drama could work as soap opera by flagging up similarities between serialised 19th Century novels and modern-day soaps, putting each episode on twice-weekly like Eastenders or Coronation Street. DAonly runs at 8 or 9 episodes per season but its eccentric storylines delivered in intimate conversations between paired characters which then cyclically wind around a single location like a tape spool leave a distinctly soapy residue. It seems it’s not just the form but the content of soap opera that works in period costume. G likens DA to the ‘Telenovela’, continuing dramas on TV in Latin American countries which have much of the melodrama and contrivance of soaps but have shorter runs that end definitively.

Just like Downton

For lovers of classic British TV, movies and books there’s not much new here. At times it feels like an infomercial for a Greatest Hits album of historical great house stories-isn’t this Upstairs Downstairs?-that’s just Mrs Danvers from Rebecca-didn’t they do that in Brideshead Revisited?-but not available in the shops, just illegal download in the US. For many in America, however, DA seemed new and different. Maybe it was the absence of a certain stuffiness in British period drama that can be off-putting to lay viewers. DA in contrast is jokey, emotionally engaging and accessible. Perhaps it taps into the same demand for stories of wealth and status that brought Dallas back to TV, with added topical pleasures of seeing the rich dragged into the mud of reality through war, inter-class marriage and scandal. Or could it be that Americans are more comfortable with us as things of the past?

Look familiar?

Whatever the source of DA’s appeal, it has a novelty currency in the US that British TV viewers wouldn’t necessarily see. Sunday-night, period-set serials are ten-a-penny/a dime-a-dozen (delete as appropriate) in the UK and I’d say Downton Abbey succeeds by virtue of the quality of its performances, dialogue and loving ridiculousness of storyline which sets it apart from never-classic fare like 60s-set rural emergency services dramas Heartbeat and The Royal. Propping up the first two qualities with a cane she’d-use-if-she-had-to is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Maggie may be bribing the script editor as she’s been given enough witticisms, barbs, jibes, punchlines and put-downs to make Groucho Marx seem politely reserved, delivering them with a ‘who me’ innocence that befits the roundest eyes in showbusiness. As a measure of the third there is Bates (Brendan Coyle), the unluckiest man to have lived in the existence of the world, dinosaurs inclusive. With a slight shift in tone, he could be Oliver Hardy.

Who.S.A

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m always surprised and impressed when I encounter Americans who adore Doctor Who. Surprised because it must have been such a pain to track down on TV that animosity would be a more natural response and impressed because they always seem to revere the qualities of the show that many British viewers have forgotten ever existed. But let’s go back in time. The BBC had wanted to sell Doctor Who to American television networks right from its inception. In fact, it was once touted as a replacement for CBS’ heavyweight science-fiction series The Twilight Zone. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans finally got a run of the show, thanks in large part to PBS purchasing a block of Tom Baker serials. However, the series was being shifted around the schedules so regularly and so routinely butchered by editors that it became difficult to follow or enjoy.

Doctor Who at US Customs

The Doctor and Friends fall foul of US Customs

Despite these viewing challenges, a fan culture emerged around Doctor Who in the US at this time. In the 1980s, the BBC and the producers of the show started actively courting American viewers; having an American companion in the series, organising US conventions and tours, and looking to the states for money for specials e.g. The Five Doctors. When the show was cancelled in Britain in 1989, it was American television that attempted to revive it. In 1996, a TV movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast by Fox with an eye to launching an American version of the programme. Roundly regarded as a failure critically, commercially and conceptually, it nonetheless laid many of the foundations for the show’s BBC revival in 2005, not least the still sacrilegious notion of The Doctor making out with his companions, which is virulent in the re-launched version of the programme.

 The export of post-2005 Doctor Who to America has been more straightforwardly successful. This is thanks to popular showings on BBC America, new episodes being bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, and interminable spin-off Torchwood being co-funded by US network Starz (formerly known as Starz!). Now we are in a situation where the first two episodes of the 2011 series are co-productions with BBC America set (as far as we can tell) in the American West and involving the White House.

From my own experience talking to Americans about Doctor Who it seems that the devoted cult following might have actually been consolidated by the patchy US scheduling of the series in the 1970s. As a seller in a second-hand bookshop in San Francisco said whilst handing to me a copy of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Autons ‘You had to want to see it’. It’s also striking to me how much the Americans I’ve spoken to treasure the ‘classic’ series (or, more accurately, Doctor Who before 2005) and seem resistant to it being reinvented for contemporary TV viewers. ‘I can’t watch it now’ said the shopkeeper ‘it’ll spoil the memory of me and my brother staying up late to catch it’. Again, there’s a sense that the obscure scheduling of the programme was part of the pleasure but it’s also clear that viewers had great emotional investment in those 1970s serials. Others I’ve spoken to seem nonplussed by the more recent series, even when recognising its achievements. ‘Yeah, it’s a smart show’ another interested party told me ‘but I miss the big scarves and those robots with the stalks’. It’s interesting that the Americans I’ve met light up when talking about those earlier serials but talk dispassionately about the latest episodes, even when their image of the series is sharper now than it was then.

Genesis of the Daleks

Floppy Scarves and Robots with Stalks

It’s doubly interesting to me, as I have this ‘American’ perspective on the series too (though less so now the wonderful Matt Smith and some very capable producers and writers have taken over), and surprising as I don’t really have much of a childhood attachment to the series, it’s just my opinion gained through watching the programme as an adult. This perspective on Doctor Who seems much more sophisticated to me than that of the hoards of British viewers who were happy to jettison the show’s past and fetishise the aspects of ‘New Who’ that were completely at odds with what made it great, the worst culprit being excess of emotion. It’s natural for Britons to be protective of such a remarkable part of our national culture and want to protect it from Americanisation, but given stateside attitudes to Doctor Who in comparison to ours, I do wonder sometimes.

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