Archive for seinfeld

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

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.

 

 

 

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.

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper

 

So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

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