Archive for portlandia

Remote Possibilities

Posted in American TV (General), Internet TV, Reality TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2014 by Tom Steward

After months of watching TV on instant video applications like Netflix and HuluPlus, G and I have subscribed to cable. This meant shouldering an extra financial burden to meet the inflated monthly service costs but in both our eyes it was worth it. When we watch television, we want to watch television not find a programme to watch. We’re far more interested in watching television just because we can than seeing something specific. Internet TV was supposed to free viewers from the unwanted content of on-air broadcast (advertising, interstitials, filler programming) but to G and I TV only makes sense when they put the crap back in. I, for one, had no idea that the fake commercials in Portlandia appear in the middle of ad breaks where they serve a greater satirical purpose than popping up mid-episode. Also, the choice afforded to viewers by instant video had become a burden on us. So much so that we’d rather leave it to the bigoted, money-grubbing idiots who programme the TV schedules to decide what we watch.

Local advertising during IFC’s Portlandia.

The change isn’t as drastic as you might imagine. The notion of bingeing and marathons has now become so ingrained in the way TV schedules are created that you often find networks showing the same programme back-to-back throughout the day. As such, cable TV sometimes resembles a protracted version of what you might do on Netflix if given the chance. Perhaps the biggest difference is the licence cable TV gives you to stumble upon some of the strangest programmes you’ll encounter outside of a parallel reality. These are not programmes you would ever seek out or patiently endure buffering for, but when they are handed to you as samples that come free just for touching a button repeatedly you don’t feel you’re losing anything to give them a try. But don’t think these programmes are abnormal. They are indicative of precisely what television does when it’s not a one-in-a-million show like True Detective or Justified. It’s the act of filling time with a formula that works entirely on its own terms. That’s why we have…

Rev Run’s Renovation (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Rev Run’s Renovation: Not exactly Cribs!

A programme seemingly pitched on the basis of alliteration and anagram possibilities, Rev Run’s Renovation follows Run DMC rapper Rev Run as he renovates his New Jersey home. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a stylised reality show about the ridiculous and extravagant re-modelling that rappers do on their property a la MTV’s Cribs. Think again. It’s a completely matter-of-fact home improvement programme where the ins and outs of house renovation are laid out for viewers with an eye to budget and practicality. What does Rev Run have to do with renovation? Beats me.

Vanilla Ice Goes Amish (DIY Network, Saturdays)

Spot the Amish guy in this photograph.

Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss. It’s not even that much of a mismatch. Vanilla Ice doesn’t programme code for Apple, he’s a rapper from the last century. He’s anachronistic enough now to have more in common with the Amish than differences from them. And it seems the Amish people aren’t as dated as we think. It should be called Vanilla Ice Does Nothing Different.

Wahlburgers (A & E, Wednesdays)

A 12-inch Wahlburger!

You know those businesses founded on a pun (‘Hair We Are Barbers’, ‘The Codfather Fish & Chips’ etc.) that won’t be there the next time you pass by? Well, this is a reality show about one of those businesses and the television equivalent of it. Wahlburgers is a chain of burger restaurants run by Chef Paul Wahlberg and his celebrity brothers Mark and Donnie. Wahlburgers is a show about Wahlburgers. The show and the restaurant are called Wahlburgers because they are Wahlbergs who make burgers. Expect nothing more complicated than this and you’ll be fine.

Unknown (Can’t Remember, Saturdays I think)

It’s not often I make an appeal to readers but as with many shows you encounter while channel hopping I only have a very sketchy memory of its name and where and when it aired and I’ve not been able to find it again nor any mention of it in the public domain. So please send me a comment or tweet (@wtvamericans) if you know what show I mean. It’s a tone-perfect, late-night digital cartoon parody of a morning news show which featured a location report from Legoland depicting it as an independent nation.

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Telly-picking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Tom Steward

As someone who has spent the best part of their life enthusing, studying and writing about television, I often get asked what’s best to watch, as if I have access to a secret channel that only the TV wing of Mensa are eligible to subscribe for. I’m always hesitant to answer. As a self-confessed TV snob, I know that whoever’s asking will have dipped their toes into far more shows than I ever have and experimented with titles I would have simply dismissed. When you teach the tube (if you’re doing it properly) you learn to embrace more of the spectrum of what we might call television. So I’m worried I would answer with something insane like CBS’ coverage of the NFL or a public access schools programme about surrealism. It’s also because there’s now so much choice in television that it’s possible (at least as a middle-class white man) to find a show that caters exclusively to you. I genuinely couldn’t say whether or not Boardwalk Empire is great TV since it features just about everything I love in this world (gangsters, American history, HBO, Steve Buscemi), achieving distinction in my eyes just by being made in my lifetime.

Boardwalk Empire: If you don’t like it, you’re not me.

When people ask I’m pretty sure they want a good drama to sink their teeth into and aren’t asking for advice on what rolling news service they should tune to. Givens that, (pun not typo) my go-to is always Justified which I can universally recommend with more, ahem, justification than my TV make-your-own pizza Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that’s off a lot of people’s radar, or at the bottom of their list, so I feel I might actually be telling them something they don’t know rather than sounding like I’m reading from a list of trending tags. There’s plenty for me to get excited about as an Elmore Leonard aficionado and lover of TV westerns and cop shows but there’s something for everyone here. Every character from walk-on to lead is immaculately written and acted (even Bubba from Forest Gump) and there are beautiful men and women to gaze at, whether you like rough or smooth, or both. If you like your CSIs and your SVUs there’s a whole, complete and expertly crafted story each week. If you’re more of a long game person, behold the four seasons of onion-peel plot development and character works-in-progress like the ever-elusive Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Without sounding like all the good things are in the past-to paraphrase Stevie Wonder-Justified represents a kind of television there’s a severe shortage of today. A medley of action, story, humour and character that’s entirely entertaining and yet never lacking in quality and complexity, not seen fully since The Rockford Files. With kicking dialogue and music to boot, you can’t go wrong. And you’ll be in love with from the first scene.

A Justified choice!

I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years. How can I tell someone to start watching Breaking Bad in full knowledge that nothing compelling will happen until the third season? Sons of Anarchy doesn’t even come together until the fifth season! That’s roughly fifty hours of television to tunnel through before seeing any kind of daylight. In all but the rarest cases, we’re talking about shows that you can’t tell someone to jump into already knee-deep in story so you’re really signing them up for work as much as enriching their lives. You see people that you’ve recommended slow-burning TV series to and you can see they’re worn down and trying to think of something nice to say in order to match your enthusiasm but sweating pure ambivalence. If I think someone has the strength of character to endure the grind, I may nod them in the direction of The Walking Dead purely because it’s only a mini-series worth of mediocrity before it all starts to fall in place, a comparative blink of the eye. Fancy a bet on a rank outsider? Try Portlandia. Ostensibly a location-specific sketch show, it’s actually more freely artistic and socially incisive than most TV comedy or drama. You can keep asking me what’s good but most of the time either you know or you don’t want to know.

The Place to TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by Tom Steward

In an interview with the BBC some years ago, Sopranos creator David Chase, speaking of his first writing gig on The Rockford Files, remarked that what set the private eye series apart from most TV at the time was that it was recognisably set in Southern California and not some ersatz non-place. This innate sense of place trickled down into Chase’s later TV work. One look at Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey and it’s obvious that the landscapes and body shapes that feature in The Sopranos could only be from the Garden State. It’s also something that distinguished Rockford creator Roy Huggins’ TV shows. His previous creation The Fugitive (one of the other only TV programmes Chase admits to enjoying) was always specific in its geography, be it small town or vast metropolis, no mean feat for a series which had to change location every week.

Jim Rockford, a resident of Malibu

Place is increasingly becoming the backbone of American TV. The unique appeal of shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad is inseparable from their choice of setting. The meth-drenched desert hazes and border town hinterlands of Albuquerque provide not just a backdrop to the action but the pathetic fallacy of the characters’ moral decay and corruption. Other programmes like Portlandia build their very concepts around a place rather than a set of characters or situations. It may be that the IFC sketch show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein relates to something bigger than just the Oregon city-like the hipsterfication of everyday life-but such observations are always squarely aimed at Portland’s grunge-throwback ways. The Wire (and the lesser known but not lesser in any other way Homicide: Life on the Streets) may speak to people as a microcosm of American social problems but in the end it’s a programme about a place, Baltimore, Maryland, and impossible to truly appreciate without a working knowledge of that city’s local political scene. So is this a new development in American TV and, if so, what changed?

The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland!

It’s tempting to put the recent emphasis on place in American TV down to historical shifts in the way that programmes are produced. For much of its existence, TV was filmed predominantly in studios making it difficult to manufacture an authentic impression of place. When location shooting was added into the mix, the ability to suggest events were taking place in a distinct locale improved drastically, even when programmes were still studio-bound. Cop drama NYPD Blue seemed firmly planted in the many and varied neighbourhoods of the Big Apple despite being the majority of it being filmed on the Fox backlot in L.A. simply because of the documentary-styled location footage of the ongoing life on New York streets that pre-empted each scene. Now that the technology of production has advanced sufficiently to shed the studio, putting place at the centre of a TV show should be everywhere by now, right?

NYPD Blue or LAPD Blue?

Possibly not. Location shooting is used more readily to invite a sense of reality without necessarily specifying the geography. It was used in Hill Street Blues to project a (radical) urban grittiness but stopped short of saying what city events took place in (we can assume Chicago but are never told for sure), even going as far to create a fake district of this unknown metropolis. The ability to film on location doesn’t always mean you can film anywhere you like. Think about how many American TV shows are needlessly set in the vicinity of L.A. Often this isn’t an artistic choice but a local one. It’s plainly easier and more economical to find somewhere to shoot near the production base, in this case Hollywood, and use that to justify the setting. It’s the only way to understand why a show like 24 about federal counter-terrorism agents is set in the City of Angels and not Washington or some more suitable hub of government activity.

24 in L.A…for some reason

It’s clearly still a choice at the discretion of programme makers whether or not to push place and yet it’s happening more and more. I’m not sure what the explanation is. Perhaps it’s a product of multichannel television narrowcasting to niche audiences, allowing programmes about specific parts of the US to become popular regardless of broad national appeal. Maybe basing a show around a place is another way to create a programme’s distinctive brand in an ever-more competitive market. Most commentators agree with Chase that a sense of place is a sign of television quality. It’s certainly more important than it used to be.

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