Archive for roy huggins

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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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.

TV Old

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

The pleasures of American TV are not confined to seeing new episodes of great shows as they air. They are also to be found in the re-discovery of some of the best TV from years gone by. This is aided considerably by a host of cable channels that do nothing but re-circulate old TV. Given that such stations are generally found in the undiscovered country of niche cable, these shows don’t exactly float to the surface. Their scheduling is hardly conducive to life as a functioning member of society either. With a little sifting, there’s gold in them there hills:

The Fugitive (MeTV Mondays 12.00am)

Though you might be more familiar with the 1993 movie re-make with Harrison Ford (which unusually for a Hollywood revival of a classic TV show doesn’t disgrace its predecessor), this long-running series from the mid-1960s is a classic in its own right. Falsely accused of his wife’s murder, Dr. Richard Kimble (played by a perpetually constipated-looking David Janssen) escapes from custody and drifts from town to town doing a variety of blue-collar jobs until his identity is discovered by the locals-who somehow don’t spot him by his iconic tweed jacket and jet-black hair-at which point he moves on. Kimble is occasionally pursued, when he can be bothered, by Lieutenant Gerard (the coathanger-jawed Barry Morse) and his wife’s murderer, a one-armed man played by a fat Worzel Gummidge. Each episode is an impeccably crafted chamber drama and the weekly guest stars are amongst the best character actors of their era. It’s also a scathing indictment of American society. Those in the justice system are invariably the villains of the piece and Kimble wanders an America full of corrupt institutions where the scum of society has risen to the top. It would be the highlight of anyone’s career, if it weren’t the creation of Roy Huggins, the man behind Maverick and The Rockford Files.

The Golden Girls (TVLand, whenever you turn on the channel)

It’s easy to be put off by the dated production values, air of tackiness and cloying music of this 80s sitcom but it would be a shame to let cosmetics get in the way of a show that otherwise is pure joy. Four senior ladies, sour divorcee Dorothy (Bea Arthur), her old school insult comic mother Sophia (Estelle Getty), southern belle-in-waiting Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and naïve farm girl Rose (Betty White), share a house in Miami looking for love and late-life fulfilment. It’s sharply written with an underlying sarcastic wit that counteracts the mandatory sentimentality beautifully. The show was utterly fearless about confronting issues facing people in later life, like dementia and disability, as well as those that matter specifically to women-one memorable episode has Dorothy facing down a male doctor who misdiagnosed her based on her age and gender in a restaurant. In this sense it harks back to the socially responsible American sitcoms of the 1970s but it has a streak of misanthropic humour we more readily associate with sitcoms today. It’s impossible to underestimate how important the central performances are to the success of the show. I’m particularly enamoured of Getty’s pinpointed quick-fire delivery and White’s knowingly played bravado turns of bumpkin innocence.

Star Trek (MeTV, Saturdays 9.00pm)

After countless sequels and movie versions, it’s good to get back to the ground floor of this franchise and see exactly why people think it so worthy of resurrection. Enduring iconography aside, I was struck by how captivating the storylines of each episode were, and the perfect pace at which the mysteries unravelled while still leaving space for that surreal and colourfully psychedelic camp that people treasure about the show. One episode I caught, ‘The Corbomite Manoeuvre’, is structured like a poker game and ends with Captain Kirk having cocktails with a grown-man baby alien played by Ron Howard’s brother. It’s also quite remarkable how the character flaws of the main cast are highlighted as much as, if not more than, their heroic qualities. I always had it in my head that Kirk’s chronic womanising was a fan fiction add-on that got recouped as canon after nudie-freak JJ Abrams got his pervy little hands on the franchise. But here Kirk is cruelly lascivious without apology or remittance. If like me you grew up with the relatively co-operative crew of The Next Generation, you’d be shocked at the amount these guys argue with each other. Dr. Bones in particular is more insulting to his fellow crew members than a drill sergeant with piles.

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