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Sitcommunication

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

Those looking for objectivity in this blog (if they’ve ever found it) will be sorely disappointed by this post. The attachment I have to the programme I’m writing about today cannot be quantified by my predilection for well-made, heartwarming American sitcoms. Everything I think about it has something to do with the way I feel about the person who is my life. So my account of watching it is also a story of how I found love in a strange land I’d known all my life. It’s not unknown for me to remember the past through American TV. Memories of my early life are intertwined with images of American family sitcoms. I now see my upbringing through the prism of Roseanne and The Cosby Show. In the future when I look back on this past year, and the love that has changed my life, I know there will be a little bit of Modern Family mixed in.

The Cast of Modern Family

A diverse and tradition-defying family

In the irksome tradition of G introducing me to and then lambasting me for not knowing American TV shows that she (and I secretly also) think should be a part of my mental archive (‘How can you call yourself a Doctor of American TV and have never seen Full House?’) and because of Rupert Murdoch’s caste system for imported TV that puts US shows in the unreachable noble classes, I was first shown Modern Family on US network TV during the virtual epoch that is Halloween in the States. The Halloween episode is usually a low point for the American sitcom, a season nadir where character and story get pushed aside by wardrobe people indulging in their own sweep stakes week. But even this seasonal pageantry couldn’t disguise its obvious quality. And it was pretty obvious from the outset that this sitcom was going to be for and about me and G. But more of that later; what is this show that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t want you to not to pay to have to see?

Modern Family is ABC’s answer to the NBC mockumentary sitcom, with the same vague sense of a documentary film crew presence, interludes of straight-to-camera interviews and frequent acknowledgements of the camera. It re-imagines the American family as diverse and tradition-defying; made up of interracial spouses and families, gay couples with adopted children, and multiple divorces and remarriages. While it gets a lot of comic mileage out the cultural and character clashes that inevitably result, it never rests on its concept or lets its formula become obvious. This is largely because of the sharp and clever writing with quality character gags fired out at screwball rhythms and preconceptions about stock characters upturned with them losing their pleasing familiarity. The show has a healthy sense of slapstick and appetite for absurd coincidences, a combination which echoes cutting-edge sitcoms like Arrested Development and Curb your Enthusiasm.

Despite its representational radicalism and fashionable form, the show’s strengths are quite traditional ones. It is frequently and unashamedly heartwarming, a quality all family sitcoms should have in some measure lest they leave a gaping hole of humanity at their centre in the manner of Family Guy. It is also a very conventional sitcom in many ways. The casting of Ed O’Neill, formerly America’s premier maritally dissatisfied slob husband and father Al Bundy in Married with Children, as family patriarch Jay signals that the producers want a contemporary sitcom that plays by the rules. Indeed, the pairing of white-American Jay and Columbian Gloria which sparks so brilliantly plays like a gender-reversed Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy. But what really makes Modern Family truly special is how it became the medium of mine and G’s relationship.

Gloria and Jay

Gloria and Jay: the medium for our relationship

Leaving aside that I’m a none-too-stunning white man who’s somehow managed to attract a ridiculously hot Latina woman, so much about Gloria and Jay’s marriage defines our relationship. They’re both loves propelled by laughter from awkward cultural and linguistic miscommunications (and we’ve got American-English as well as Mexican-British!), to the point where I forget which is the TV one and which ours. G’s translation of a romantic sentiment from Mexican into English with the caveat that ‘it involves dead sheep’ could’ve come straight from Gloria. And G knows when I laugh at Sofia Vergara, I’m inadvertently making fun of her. We also know we will one day be Claire and Phil; the no-nonsense-with-children woman married to a goofy man-child playing at adulthood. G thinks of me like a grown-up Luke, the semi-autistic scruff, even though I know that as a kid I was more like Manny, the self-aware sophisticate allergic to physical exertion. Modern Family is not just an outstanding sitcom in a TV milieu that’s increasingly looking and sounding the same, it’s also mine and G’s secret language, one which we will always understand completely.

 

 

Born in the USA

Posted in BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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