Archive for ronald reagan

450 Words from our Sponsor

Posted in American TV (General), Reviews, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2013 by Tom Steward

You can watch all the imported programmes you want but you’ll only truly know what TV is like in a country by watching it with commercials. After a week of conspicuous consumption, here are my highlights:


Kindle Light:

Man on beach holiday complains to wet, bikini-clad woman that he can’t read an e-book on his tablet computer because of the light on his screen. Woman recommends her Kindle Light and man orders one electronically. Woman fends off a presumed advance before discovering he is married to another man. The pro-gay marriage sentiments sit uneasily with the heterosexual allure of the dripping swimsuit. Why does she mention that the Kindle has a light? That’s the problem! The tablet comes out of the commercial looking indispensable and a handy alternative to a mirror. And you know what’s great for that…a book!



I’m sure Harry Enfield will be relieved to know that after decades of writing and performing some of the best character comedy and social satire in Britain he is finally known in America…as a talking gnome with goggles.

No it’s not a web-savvy Charlie’s Angels spin-off. It’s a company offering a permanent hair growth solution to those thinning on top. According to the commercial, you can cut your new hair as much as you like. Because removing hair is the first thing you want to do to after years of it falling out. As the before and after photographs attest, Bosley products don’t just restore your hair, they also stop you photographing like you’re in prison.



Overprotective dad takes daughter to bus stop on her first day of school. In scenes reminiscent of Speed, dad drives alongside the school bus watching his daughter until he knows she’s having fun. A heart-warming commercial that nonetheless works just as well as a public service announcement about reckless driving. Also, a balding bearded man in a suit following a school girl in a car has connotations other than ‘father’.



Ronald Reagan went from corporate spokesperson to President-of-the-United-States and now Dennis Haysbert is doing it the other way round. Having been eclipsed as America’s first black Commander-in-Chief by a real-life David Palmer (who unbelievably has more people working against him than his fictional predecessor), Haysbert took his natural authority into commercials for AllState, one of America’s biggest insurance companies. In several ads, his grizzly-bear-that-learned-to-talk voice possesses the body of some just-hanging-out guy, endowing his retorts to urban myths with truth and reason. Even as a corporate shill, Haysbert connotes more credibility than the man who put him out of office.



Why settle for bread when you can have pastry? It’s this mindset that’s made me switch my fruits to Jujy.

TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!’Homeland’

Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of  main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.

Jazzing up Terrorism.

In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empires beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.

The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.

Image grab longer than actual title sequence.

Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.

Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.

Jazz in a 9/11 beat, daddy-o!

Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.

I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.

Do not adjust your set!

Do not adjust your set!

Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.

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