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UK with Me: Part 1

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2016 by Tom Steward

I spent Christmas in England, which meant that for the majority of my trip I was under or adjacent to water. This – coupled with apples not falling far from family trees – left me watching a lot of television. After going cold turkey with British television in my first couple of years living in America – literally in the case of the daily cooking shows I opted out of when I left – returning this time I felt as if I had been missing out, not just because of what British TV makes but also what it shows. Here’s my travel watch list:

 

The Bridge –BBC Four

 

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Sex is Sex

 

It might seem perverse that the first program I watched upon returning to the UK was Scandinavian but that’s testament to the BBC’s policy of screening the best in European television crime drama, which is currently the best in the world. The third season of the police detective show about crimes that cross the Danish and Swedish border remained as flawlessly acted, written and photographed as the first two, even following the departure of star Kim Bodnia in the run-up to filming. As in previous seasons, a repertory of outstanding Scandinavian character actors were there to play supporting roles but were given more screen time and development, particularly Nicolas Bro formerly of The Killing who guarantees at least one laugh-out-loud moment per episode. Sofia Helin’s new co-star Thure Lindhardt (or Saga’s new partner Henrik) is still the perfect counterpoint to TV’s twitchiest detective, but his sardonic cynicism is also much-needed relief from Martin’s increasingly grating emotional naivety. Creator Hans Rosenfeldt has talked about the rule of three in Scandinavian TV drama in relation to The Killing and Borgen but with both Saga and Henrik having story arcs in progress, he can afford to break with tradition.

 

Tim Peake – BBC News

 

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Ground Control to Major Tim

 

I woke on the first full day of my trip to catch TV news coverage of the launch of the rocket that took British astronaut Tim Peake to the International Space Station, the first Briton to do so. Never mind how visually unstimulating and uneventful the launch was as television or how difficult it was to extract a milestone from the seventh British person to enter space, but it says something about how little there is to be proud about in Britain in years that don’t have major international sporting events that Peake’s journey into space was such big news in the national media. A live transmission from the space station with the inevitable satellite delay was some of the most tedious television you’re ever likely to witness.

 

Peep Show – Channel 4

 

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No more kicking off

 

I didn’t even know the final season of Channel 4’s longest-running and possibly finest sitcom was on the air, and was even less aware that the episode I started watching mid-way through was the finale. It says something about my ignorance but even more about how good the writing on the series is. No need for self-aggrandising, Peep Show left us with as unassumingly brilliant an episode as it had ever produced, with a nod to the perpetuation of a gloomy cycle of immature repetition that dooms Mark and Jeremy to a life of wanking and watercolours. Nine seasons – especially in British terms – of a sitcom is impossible without a foolproof concept and filtering the action through Mark and Jeremy’s first-person perspective – some early camera tomfoolery aside – was innovation that lasted. Even so, the key to sustaining the show was gradually escalating the abhorrence of the character’s life choices from jilting spouses to attempting murder, and happily the finale continues to raise the stakes.

 

Gogglebox – Channel 4

 

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Talking Heads

 

A reality show about people watching TV was always the sleeping lion of television pitches, but it needed exactly the right execution to succeed, and that’s exactly what Gogglebox did in 2013 when it blended fly-on-the-wall and sitcom formats to a perfect consistency. Since I last saw the show, however, it has bloomed into Channel 4’s flagship Friday night program and even spawned (quite literally) a spin-off in the shape of Gogglesprogs, which marries Gogglebox to another immaculate format; children obliviously saying funny things on TV. One particular sprog who looked like an Alan Bennett doll appeared to have already figured out how David Cameron rose to power through pre-existing privilege and public apathy and was the mouthpiece of abolitionists young and old throughout Britain when remarking on Queen Elizabeth’s record-breaking reign as British monarch: ‘Doing what? She just walks and waves.’ From the mouths of babes…

 

 

 

 

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Dog Shows and Cat Boxes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

I begin with a broadcasting history anecdote but bear with me. In Britain in the late ‘80s, a debate was held on what constituted quality television ahead of a broadcasting White Paper proposing the introduction of television outside public service regulation in the form of a satellite service to the UK. Unsurprisingly given what would go on to happen with Downton Abbey, business won over art and the agreed-upon definition of British quality television was pseudo-literary period drama with an easily exportable ideal of British national identity based on our imperial past. But during the debate, a definition of quality television offered by scholar Geoff Mulgan was ‘usable stories’, an idea consonant with broadcasting that television should tell its viewers something that could help them personally or collectively in their society. This understanding of quality in television has always stuck with me and it’s come to mind recently as a way of defending several American TV programmes I’ve been watching that are otherwise badly made, poorly written and artlessly executed. But is that justification enough?

Dog Daytime TV

Dog Daytime TV

I’m a dog-owner and I used to be a cat-owner. Hence I’ve been watching a lot of Nat Geo Wild’s The Dog Whisperer and Animal Planet’s cartoon riposte My Cat from Hell. Both shows tackle the same premise but are – quite literally – very different animals. In each, pet-owners call in behavioural specialists or PWCs (Psychologists Without Credentials) for their animal, Cesar Millan for the dogs and (apparently on return from the 23rd Century) Jackson Galaxy for the cats. The pets in question are usually engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, although the sub-Scooby Doo twist is always that it’s the owners who are really screwed up. Cesar controls the dogs by making them more obedient, calm and submissive and Jackson makes the cats easier to live with by compelling owners to hand over the entirety of their house to their new feline landlords. Different strokes for different pets. Both programmes are shoddily constructed, replete with ham-fisted set-ups, and full of duplication, laboriously eeking out a handful of choice moments into an hour of blink-and-you’ll-never-miss-it television.

That said, there’s more here that’s relevant to my daily life than in all the shows I’ve ever feted as quality TV. And I’m not just speaking selfishly. I’m a better citizen because of these shows, and with the possible exception of The Wire there’s not many ‘quality’ programmes you can say that about. My dog (by marriage) A is by no means a handful but nor is he entirely obedient, and sometimes he has to be because he’s a big boy and a breed that ignorant people (and that’s large sections of the public) mistakenly think of as a vicious dog and so there’s less chance any harm will come to him if he’s never out of our control. Thanks to The Dog Whisperer, I know that I can subdue A in any situation by calming myself first and that dogs need to respect as well as love you before they obey. Thanks to My Cat from Hell, I know that if I get a cat, I should just hand them the house keys.

Marriage Boot Camp is a truly awful TV show by anyone’s reckoning. Everyone involved is a horrid caricature (self-made or portrayed) of their social type and their relationships ugly distortions of what marriage is really like. The format and its ‘exercises’ (we should say games) don’t help anyone, and the whole debacle is thickly lacquered in anesthetized self-help dross. G and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary and we’re both ecstatic about each other and the institution. So whereas once I would see Marriage Boot Camp as a simple lie perpetuated by a periodically lazy medium, I now see it as a cautionary fable of what happens when married couples become grotesque circus-mirrors of loving unions. It’s the same old shit but my relationship to it has changed. Perversely, the show may even help our marriage, not because of the guidance it offers but because I now have a high-definition image in my mind of what a bad marriage looks like and I refuse to ever let myself resemble one single pixel of it.

Balls and Chains!

Balls and Chains!

I never thought I was that concerned with the use-value of the TV shows I watched. Then I think how little British TV I now watch compared to when I lived in Britain. Sure, it’s harder to get British programmes here and much easier just to go with the flow (50 television academics just telepathically high-fived!) but frankly it’s very possible these days and the shows themselves are no less for me being here. It’s only because they don’t seem relevant to my life as it is now that I don’t watch them as regularly. Most of the British shows I’ve lost in translation are the ones I used to sync myself to the national calendar. You can tell that from the titles: The Great British Menu, The Great British Bake-Off, Coronation Street. What remains is everything I watch for content and style (Doctor Who, The Fall, Peep Show) not because they speak to me in my immediate surroundings. I don’t think I’ll ever completely confuse useful programming with good TV, but it’s tempting sometimes.

 

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