Archive for rod serling

Frame Vs. Frame

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles arguing about whether TV or cinema is better. They don’t start off like this. Usually they begin as a debate about which medium is in better shape but they quickly descend into partisan defences of one or the other. Those in the film corner like to base their arguments on what cinema can do rather than what it’s currently doing. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s absurd defence of cinema’s dominance over TV (not that it needs it, of course!) argues that cinema is better than TV because the big screen can do anything the small screen can, even if it tends not to, and that when it does the same thing as TV, cinema is always better because you’re out of the house. There’s no impassioned defence of contemporary film just a retreat into the past to blind readers with movie nostalgia. Guardian Film’s Tom Shone can’t find a director more contemporary than Ang Lee to substantiate his case for cinema (though many more recent names come even to my mind).

The Golden Age of Television…or whatever happens to be on!

Critics defending the box in the corner have the opposite problem. They are so preoccupied with what today’s television says about the quality of the medium there’s no acknowledgement of how TV’s history might also be useful in arguing the point. While critics like Turan can throw off allusions to Gance and Cocteau, TV’s advocates rarely reminisce further than Weiner or Gilligan (the Breaking Bad creator not the TV cast away). This may be because TV critics are not asked to be historians in the same way film critics are but why is that? Well it’s down to the profound disrespect we have for old television and the widely held belief that TV is ephemeral. TV critics don’t seem to understand that if they argue TV is great because it’s better than it used to be, they leave themselves open to these rebuttals from cinema’s proud history. Throw in a Serling and a Huggins occasionally and maybe you’ll convince a cineaste that TV is good because it’s always been capable of being good not by accident of circumstances. And you’re at a severe disadvantage against someone with a photographic memory when you’re an amnesiac.

It’s all part of a critical bigotry that resorts to casting aspersions on a field of culture you happen not to cover (but probably would if commissioned to) rather than taking a cold, hard look at the industry that you do. Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe. But the behaviour of TV critics irritates me more, because in a way they’re maligning television far more than any film critic has done – with the possible exception of Mark Kermode, who writes about TV like an unreasonable drunk. TV has been, for the most part, wildly excellent for a good thirty years now and was always pebble-dashed with artful gems throughout its long, ignominious history on the air regardless of the creative problems of the era. Yet TV critics keep trying to carve out this idea of an ever-beginning ‘new golden age of television’ that is just about now. This assertion that good TV is periodic is insulting enough as it strongly suggests that it’s uncharacteristic of the medium but the refusal to see the best of TV as connected by the medium rather than just a point in history is absolutely baffling to me.

It’s a new golden age and has been since 1999!

Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian film and TV blog suggesting that the golden age of television may already be over turns a matter of quality into one of timeline. Instead of seeing a historic tapestry of TV that lets us see the magnitude of what has been accomplished, we’re disputing the dates of hermetically sealed and arbitrarily compiled golden ages. The ‘golden age’ thesis is also a very weak argument if you’re trying to build a case for the quality of television. I wouldn’t let the continuous stream of terrible new releases I encounter at the movies on a regular basis lure me into thinking that cinema wasn’t one of the great gifts humanity has given to culture and art. Equally, I wouldn’t think any more of television than I already did if I found out it managed to put together a few good shows back-to-back. I would think twice if I knew it kept happening.

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Your Pilot Speaking

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Tom Steward

In the meta-textual disappearing act that is the season 4 finale of Seinfeld, real comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduces his fake eponymous sitcom in the world of his real one to a studio audience (who may or may not be real), asking ‘Does anyone know what a pilot is?’. A self-satisfied heckler responds ‘Yeah, he flies the plane’, receiving a half-laugh for a gag which is clearly meant to be funnier than anything in the butler and insurance themed meta-sitcom that follows. This self-referential scene makes a good point. Pilot episodes are generally made for the television industry not its audiences.

A show about butlering

Many pilot episodes are not even broadcast to the public but instead shown to executives to help them decide whether or not to commission a series. Those of you who are selling a house imminently or coming into an inheritance will be able to purchase the exorbitantly priced Twilight Zone box set where you can watch the non-broadcast pilot in which producer, writer and host Rod Serling does his best Don Draper in a filmed introduction that addresses network sponsors directly. He assures them the programme will hold audiences just long enough to decide which of their products to buy.

For those of you without a dowry, here’s the episode:

Making up that shop window for prospective buyers often detracts from what viewers will grow to love about a programme. It is why there’s too much Rob Lowe in the pilot of The West Wing at the expense of characters who will become the heart of the show, and crucially the President himself, here envisioned as an occasional speechifying Martin Sheen cameo. Going back to a pilot can also be a jarring and disconcerting experience for long-time viewers. The characters are uncooked, the details are all wrong, the tone is as yet uncertain. Sometimes the actors aren’t even physically identifiable.

‘Hold him there Toby while I deprive him of screen time’

Take the pilot of The Sopranos, for example. There’s no doubt it’s one of the best out there, for reasons I’ll go over later, but it’s still an incredibly alienating watch for fans. The lapse in time between filming the pilot and the series means that the actors look considerably younger than in even the first season. Star James Gandolfini still has a majority hairline and Nancy Marchand as his mother has yet to develop her decrepit ferocity. Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Tony’s daughter Meadow had a nose job before resuming season 1 filming and looks like her own sister here. Irksome differences from the series abound. The meat market Tony uses as a cover operation has a different name, Father Phil is played by another (more anonymous) actor and Silvio’s backstory is different from future episodes. The pilot needs resolution so the signature pleasures of serial narration are unavailable.

Of course it’s entirely possible to make a great pilot though a very different discipline from penning the perfect episode. Classic episodes thrive on their distinctiveness, their ability to transcend the humdrum of series fare, and fulfilment of the show’s potential. Pilots have the rather more onerous task of encapsulating the premises, ideas and tensions that will run through the entire series while hinting at the direction the show may take. Pilots have the additional burdens of doing all this work without guarantee that any of it will actually come to fruition and within a severely restricted episodic time frame.

The Sopranos pilot was originally a nature documentary

This last limitation is probably why so many pilots are in the form of feature-length episodes or prologue mini-series. Both are something of a cheat though I have sympathy in certain instances. How does Quantum Leap demonstrate the formula of Dr. Sam Beckett jumping into the bodies of different historical personages each episode in one instalment? The decision to stretch the pilot to two episodes with a short leap at the end of the second part was probably a good compromise. But why LA Law needed a 90-minute film (complete with Hitchcockian cameo from producer Steven Bochco) is beyond me.

Similarly I’ve got mixed feelings about starting a programme with an expository mini-series. Yes, in Battlestar Galactica a lot has to happen to get us to square one and being science-fiction more care is needed to introduce us to the laws of the fictional world, not to mention casting off the legacy of the campy 70s original. But a 3 hour serialised pilot? It’s like the feeling you get ordering a starter of garlic bread with tomato and cheese in a pizza restaurant. It’s enjoyable and you wanted a starter but it’s also what you’re getting for the main course.

It’ll be the future by the time the pilot’s over.

The Sopranos had an hour to establish the series (generous by network standards but still bound by the clock) and created one of finest pilots ever seen on TV screens. Every emotion, thought and theme expressed in the next 7 seasons of the programme is present in that first hour. It signals all the forthcoming character clashes and antagonisms first time round and invests the show with the tonal complexity that carries it to greatness. A mere 50 minutes is available to introduce Justified, a modern-day western law series based on the writing of Elmore Leonard. Frankly, it nails the tone of the piece before the opening credits have rolled. All good pilots have that ‘trigger’ moment, an event that brings the show into being and catalyses everything that follows. Here it is a ‘justified’ shooting that sends a federal marshal back to his hometown, racked with tension and inevitability.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Box-Set Collections and TV Themes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2012 by Tom Steward

Despite foetally premature chatter about TV being on its way out thanks to new media-which often forgets that many people use new media to get closer to TV-television is still pervasive in our culture. But it only struck me recently how much the culture and leisure sector rely on and are influenced by TV. During my last visit to the US, I didn’t just get my TV fix from the flatscreens in the many living rooms I patronised as housesitter-cum-benign intruder but from museums and theme parks.  Fascination with TV is widespread and so is the way it underpins our entertainment.

Out of the Box and all over the carpet!

Following an overnight stay in Hollywood where we saw J-Lo and Enrique Iglesias at the Staples Center and lodged in a pre-smoking ban nostalgia-themed hotel, G and I braved the dystopian traffic and anti-social contract of LA driving to make our snail-like way to the Paley Center exhibition ‘Warner Brothers’ TV Out of the Box’. This was billed in the relationship vaudeville program as a ‘me’ act, or as much as a trip that involves a bigger-than-life Lego Conan O’Brien (one of G’s no-questions-asked celebrity one-night-stands) can be. Though the plethora of sets, props and memorabilia from hit network shows and cult classic series and a karaoke theme-tune box have broad appeal for anyone in America with a sense memory and an aerial, for a TV historian this was Porky Pig’s heaven.

You had to have the biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig salad!

To my archaeological delight, historical documents-including production memos and patents-were liberally scattered around the exhibition. Other TV treasure chests, such as network preview catalogues sent to local affiliate stations, were also available to view. To say these gave an insight into US TV history would be an understatement tantamount to ‘Clint Eastwood could do with a teleprompter, couldn’t he?’ or ‘That Romney fellow might have a bit of an image problem’. It felt more like a journey into the unknown of how the American TV industry worked, and to some extent still works, with exhibits testifying to the power affiliates, many in anti-progressive states, have to decide what gets made and what doesn’t. It illuminated the little-known and widely ignored facts of TV’s origins, with memos pointing to the attempts of movie studios to control TV from the beginning and beam transmissions into cinemas rather than homes.

It’s funny how such an innocuous and populist-looking exhibition can be so revealing. I have to admit that I had my doubts. I was wary of Warner Brothers’ sponsorship of the exhibition and how it might skew history in favour of the studio. They made their case, though, with a timeline pointing out that they were pioneers of TV drama in the 1950s and led the line on the classic genre fare of the so (not) called (for) ‘vast wasteland’ with the inimitable Maverick. But I also appreciated that the exhibition was a TV playground. Not because it was ‘interactive’ (I hate that word!) but because it let you run around and sit down on your favourite shows.

You are now entering The Tweenlight Zone

Speaking of playgrounds, G and I went on a 16-hour ride-and-dine binge  at Disneyland and its now-with-booze sister theme park Disney’s California Adventure. Disneyland was built on TV in many ways. Its construction in the 1950s was televised in interstitial promotional segments between instalments of an anthology drama series of the same name presented by America’s bigamous uncle, the mouse-loving anti-Communist Walt Disney. While Disney’s canon of seminal animated movies provide the blueprint for most of the rides, as well as the psychological experiments on human endurance which no doubt provided the inspiration for It’s a Small World, TV still gets a look-in.

Disneyland: built on TV!

Nowhere is this more evident than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a dropper-downer ride (it neither rolls nor coasts) inspired by the classic fantasy horror anthology series produced and presented by Rod Serling, whose voice can be simulated by trying to impersonate Ronald Reagan while whistling. One of the most impressive-looking and exquisitely designed rides at either park, the mock elevator lies within a purpose-built high-rise fitted with a customised exterior made to look like a decrepit Hollywood hotel…though it smelt considerably better than the one G and I stayed at. It’s easily the most disturbing and traumatising (animatronic uncanniness aside) experience available at the parks, and it’s the skilful interweaving of the original TV series into the fabric of the ride that causes such anxiety and fear. For starters, the elevator-attendant attired steward (or ‘death ombudsmen’ as I call them) cranked up the tension by letting fly with a groan-inducing patter of darkly comic puns about ‘dropping off’ the passengers that captures perfectly the black irony and sick sense of humour The Twilight Zone used to deal in. This is the show, after all, that once put the fate of humanity in the hands of the double meaning of the phrase ‘To serve man’ (Spoiler alert; it’s a cookbook!).

‘We’ll be dropping you off soon’

But what really unnerves you is the use of a Rod Serling voiceover (seamlessly cut together from his many introductions) as a prelude to the ride. This narration compels you to sit comfortably as if you were still in your armchair at home and makes you believe you are settling down for the evening snoozily watching some late-night retro TV before the elevator drops the depth of the building without so much as a warning. As you yo-yo through the building, the walls open up, ripping you from the safety of your living room and out into the murderous world that network news warned you about.

Serling’s Gold.

And though I have no hard evidence for this, I’m convinced the designer who created the digitally hyperreal set of the Atlantic City promenade pier for Boardwalk Empire got the idea from Disney’s California Adventure ersatz 1920s-era American fairground, right down to the in-period advertising hoardings. If it was the HBO field trip I’m imagining, then they probably got the idea for a show about conspicuous drinking during Prohibition from mixed messages about consuming alcohol in public places in the Disney parks.

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