Archive for sherlock

Bridging The Map

Posted in Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV Culture, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I address Americans as a separate entity – at least not since I went native – for that way lies cultural imperialism. But in this case I feel vindicated because I know it’s for your benefit. Besides, I come from a land with a tradition of broadcasting that tells you what you need rather than giving you what you want. I’m not going to tell you to watch British TV, because you’re already doing that and it’s a problem. Instead, I’m going to ask you to embrace television from countries where you don’t – theoretically – share a common language.

...and brains!

…and brains!

Americans, you need to end your embargo on television subtitles. European TV drama is now so good you cannot afford to ignore it just because of an outmoded preference for television in your (our, sorry!) native tongue. You know this because you’ve spent the last five years remaking European TV shows, from Scandinavian police drama (The Killing, The Bridge, Those Who Kill) to a litter of official and unofficial remakes of the French horror series The Returned (yes, I’m looking at you Damon Lindelhof!). You might assume that TV drama from another culture will lose something in translation, and that’s why it’s better to remake them in American settings. Well, not only are these English-language remakes invariably inferior, in my experience they tend to ham up their European origins to the point where they seem more foreign than their forbearer. And that’s beside the point. It’s just a waste of resources. Get over having to read instead of listen (and you can still listen – the soundtracks are always gorgeous) and simply cut out the middleman.

It’s not as if you don’t already have subtitles on TV. Though it copped out of subtitling in Russian in its pilot episode, FX’s The Americans soon switched to subtitles for all the dialogue between native Russian speakers, and it helps the atmosphere and realism of the show no end. Even ABC’s sitcom Fresh off the Boat feels its Tuesday night audience can handle a beat or two in Mandarin without rushing to cancel their cable subscription. You might think that greenlighting European remakes and co-productions, like NBC’s sold-short summer experiment Welcome to Sweden, is meeting the demand halfway, but it’s actually more like going off at the deep end. As far as content goes, there’s nothing American audiences haven’t seen before: Obsessive police detectives, serial killers, cat-and-mouse games, labyrinthine murder investigations. The Returned is just dead people walking and you can’t move for them in American TV currently. It’s not new, just done extraordinarily well, and once you acclimatise to the foreign accents on your screens, nothing else will jar with your TV experience.

British TV imports might seem like a happy medium, since the country is close enough to continental Europe to share similarities with this new wave of television drama (which shows like Broadchurch and The Fall attest to) and yet can be more or less understood by speakers of American-English. British shows are certainly more popular than ever in the States and fill the vacuum for foreign TV that everyone’s told they should watch. Historically, I’d defend British TV drama but when it’s the dire Sherlock, overrated Broadchurch, and diminishing The Fall against what Denmark, Sweden and France has produced over the past few years, there really is no contest. There’s a level of comfort about British TV in the eyes of American audiences that outweighs quality. The memories of cosy sitcoms and period pieces on PBS Sundays cannot be brushed aside in one stroke, no matter how successful the replacement. And that’s the other advantage. TV drama from continental Europe is far more conducive to the American taste for procedurals and portentous horror than Britain.

The Walking Dead en francais!

The Walking Dead en francais!

Hopefully, this argument will soon be moot. Internet video-on-demand services like Hulu and Netflix sell themselves to subscribers – at least those who have been profiled as viewers of sophisticated drama – on the basis that European series are available in bulk. Some of the arthouse movie channels like Sundance and Showtime have found ways to incorporate subtitled TV drama into their remit. And don’t discount the viewer’s desire to bypass network boycotts of foreign-language imports with simple, straightforward piracy. But there really are shows for everyday television. Inevitably, censorship will be a problem but what’s shown wouldn’t be too much trouble for one of the big cable networks like FX and AMC. There really is no reason compelling enough to hold back the revolution…sorry la revolution!

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Doctor No

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Tom Steward

Last night, new episodes of Doctor Who began airing in Britain and America. This is not a review of the season opener because I didn’t watch it. I didn’t watch it, because for the first time since the series re-launched in 2005, I won’t be watching Doctor Who. I don’t – like some fans – have an aversion to Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. In fact, I’ve said here before I think he’s probably the best actor to have played the role. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had serious issues with the direction that the showrunners have taken the series in, or some of the casting. And I’m not so naïve as to think that the ‘classic’ series – which I greatly prefer – wasn’t at times just as unwatchable as the new series is today. So why am I boycotting it now? Well, it’s for the same reasons that I don’t eat at McDonalds or (knowingly) use Nestle products. There are just too many reasons not to.

'What do you mean you're not watching?'

‘What do you mean you’re not watching?’

The main reason, of course, is Steven Moffat. Still showrunner and head writer after six years – with his creative control increasing annually – Moffat’s scripts and season arcs are incoherent, ramshackle rubbish and his dialogue is formed of soundbyte-friendly non-sentences. You can count the good ideas he’s had during his time on Doctor Who on one hand, and yet they do the job of keeping him afloat while he peddles plagiarism of everything from Source Code to That Mitchell and Webb Sound inbetween lightbulb moments. That’s before we get on to his politics. Moffat is incapable of writing strong women without sexualising them, sabotaging the progress made by breakthrough characters like transgender Timelady Missy with nymphomaniacal nonsense. His treatment of the material is invariably tasteless and perverted, encompassing romanticized suicides, desecration of dead Who actors like Nicholas Courtney, and treating time travel as some sort of incestuous gangbang! It was bad enough when this was in the name of change, now it’s billed as a return to the classic formula.

Much as I would like to, I can’t blame Moffat for all that’s wrong politically with Doctor Who. The series has had two women writers since 2005, a record easily beaten during the classic era which is often held up for being unfair to women and stretching back to the tenure of showrunner Russell T Davies, who supposedly opened the show up for a female audience. That said, Moffat did do a Lorne Michaels when it came to the issue of hiring women as writers, claiming that the entire gender did not have the appetite (nor presumably the talent) to take on the job much as the Saturday Night Live did when confronted with the absence of women of colour on the late-night comedy institution. Missy is not enough of a concessionary flip-flop, and certainly not when she’s this badly written. The Bechdel Test and various academic studies have singled out the sexism of Moffat’s era, though Davies set the idea of women talking adoringly about The Doctor in motion.

If I’m being honest, it’s actually the way that Moffat has tried to rectify the female companion’s Adam’s Rib relationship to The Doctor that has made Doctor Who so difficult for me to enjoy. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara has a domestic and work sphere independent from The Doctor and his TARDIS, albeit one that still centres around her romantic interest in another man. The upshot of this is that one of the most shoddily conceived – and irritatingly portrayed – lead characters in the series’ history is at the heart of the concept in virtually every episode. There’s nothing innovative about The Doctor being The Companion’s sidekick, for that’s the status William Hartnell had when Doctor Who began, and it is a good bit of Bechdel-proofing, but for Clara to get that privilege – and, crucially, not Amy, the previous companion – is a kick in the teeth. For the past couple of seasons, Moffat has been working back from Clara’s original introduction as a mere plot device, and still can’t make her sufficiently human.

A Missied opportunity!

A Missied opportunity!

It’s no surprise that the creator of Sherlock and writer of The Adventures of Tintin re-boot can’t organize a piss-up in a brewery when it comes to Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has inherited perfect pop fiction formula time after time, and always drops the ball. So when he finally goes – and providing Jenna makes good on her recent promise – I’ll come back to the best concept on TV. Because we Whovians live to be disappointed.

Justified And Ancient

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

Currently my two favourite shows are both revivals of iconic literary characters and new twists on old TV genres. Justified features Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap as well as the short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ from which the FX series sprung. As Justified aired, Leonard wrote his final novel Raylan about the character. Elementary is based around scatological-saying sleuth Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas, re-located and updated to present-day New York. Both are ostensibly police procedurals, a genre spanning the history of television, but they also resurrect some more archaic formats, such as the western and the mystery drama. These are shows that can appease snobs and slobs. Elementary goes under the radar while Justified will soon fall in the woods without sound. So why don’t people like them as much as I do?

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I’m not saying that Justified and Elementary are in any way reviled, but neither are they exalted like the offerings of AMC, HBO and Showtime. Despite being on a network with a stellar reputation for original drama, Justified is continually overshadowed by series like Fargo and The Americans, both of which are unlikely to have existed without Justified blazing the trail. Elementary has the disadvantage of being on CBS rather than cable, but it is still far from being considered a giant of well-made, middle-of-the-road entertainment like The Good Wife. This is what they get for doing everything a complex, mature character-driven drama would without disturbing what makes good television. Surely that is more remarkable than trying to produce something worthy without regard to what works on TV (American Crime, I’m looking in your direction!) or even accomplishing great art on networks that are purpose-built to challenge mainstream television conventions.

Maybe they’re a victim of the times. Elementary comes in the wake of the BBC’s Sherlock, a contentless self-hyping publicity machine that has established itself as the worthier successor to the Sherlock Holmes name without any claims between opening and closing credits to that title. Justified began as an episodic procedural and grew into long-form storytelling, and may have looked to those who think good TV comes in serial boxes as unfashionable. Maybe they care too much about history. Justified is pulp fiction comedy in the noble tradition of The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. and homage to the TV westerns (and disguised police westerns thereof) of the 1960s and 1970s, underlined by Timothy Olyphant borrowing Clint Eastwood’s legs for the project. Elementary doesn’t contemporize like Sherlock, or at least it doesn’t fetishize new technologies as a substitute for coherent storytelling, and at its best it’s Columbo in a brownstone.

I suppose what’s layers to some people is packaging to others. But what would it take to understand how holistic a television experience it is to watch Justified and Elementary? I’m watching TV now and in the past, a pleasurable formula alongside a gruelling psycho-drama, good television and the cherry-pickings of popular culture. I look to other TV shows that currently fascinate people like Scandal and Empire and the common denominators are melodrama and outrageous behaviour. Perhaps Justified and Elementary are too straight-faced and plausibly written to stand out in primetime. Maybe the success of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is not so much in the transformative character arcs (which both my faves provide in equal measure) but the Dickensian coincidences and lunacy of the protagonists. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and characters doing stupid things to create drama. Characters in these two shows are drawn not sketched.

'Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!'

‘Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!’

Because Justified and Elementary derive from a body of work outside of themselves, perhaps audiences assume they need prior knowledge of the characters and authors’ previous works in order to enjoy these series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary eschews the fan-fiction qualities of Sherlock in favour of original content utilising the character dynamics of the literary cycle. You do not feel like you have to be a devoted reader of Conan Doyle nor worship the cult of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate Elementary. Yet it is an authentic introduction to the Holmes stories in a way that Sherlock refuses to be. Elmore Leonard is simply a point of departure for Justified and his characters and storylines have been reinterpreted, interwoven and extrapolated to the point where they are born anew (for copyright reasons just as much as artistic ones). Leonard is the midwife here not the overprotective mother.

The Signal of Foreign

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

With so little British television watched in America, at least knowingly, it often seems more important to be an ambassador than a critic. However, some British programmes make that act of intercultural liaison a difficult proposition and it doesn’t help that in particular cases the American equivalents are far better. Now in its third season on CBS, Elementary is an updatation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories transferred from London to New York and in keeping with the conventions of the police procedural. Given the timing of its arrival and modern-day take on the Holmes mythos, Elementary could be thought of as an American remake of the BBC’s Sherlock. To my mind, though, the latter has simply served to make the former completely irrelevant.

Now that's progressive!

Now that’s progressive!

Really, you don’t expect the American version of a British TV series to be more progressive and edgier and yet Elementary is the series in which Watson is an ethnic woman and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. While Sherlock is groping around in the annals of fan fiction desperately searching for storylines, Elementary offers concrete mysteries week-after-week. Elementary stands confidently in the generic traditions and weekly nature of television but Sherlock seems to be constantly pushing against the logic of TV flow. The supporting characters in Sherlock are severely underdeveloped and generally passed off as morons that reaffirm Holmes’ superior intelligence. Elementary’s ensemble cast is full of fleshed out, complex and relevant characters providing a different perspective on Holmes’ investigations that frequently proves crucial.

Sherlock is surrounded by an incredible fandom than feeds off itself as the series incorporates and invites cult audience activities in its name. As such, the writing is often problematic or inept from a story viewpoint, since it must always gesture to this extra layer of self-gratification. Conversely, Elementary makes the mechanics of plot its priority rather than the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which seems to pique the interest of Sherlock fans. Characters and their dynamics emerge as the storylines advance, and the series never takes the re-gendering of Watson as a cue to slash fiction romance. In doing so, the scripts achieve the rare balance of Conan Doyle’s storytelling where character and plot are equally stimulating, yet neither yields power over the other.

In light of Elementary, I no longer have anything good to say about Sherlock. I can certainly see the attraction to American viewers, as the former homogeneously blends into network primetime programming while the latter seems to defy those very conventions. I daresay this is probably why Top Gear is so popular here, because the American equivalent would be so bland and corporate in comparison. Yet a more informed and less ignorant version of Top Gear is no bad thing, and does more justice to the matter in hand than a faux-sitcom peppered with cultural insensitivity. I suspect the curiosity of Sherlock is what blinds viewers here (British viewers you have no excuse!) to the fact that there’s a more interesting adaptation in their backyard.

It’s also a matter of salesmanship. Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat like to write in a way that aims to convince you of the quality of what you’re witnessing in the hope you will ignore the lack of basic competence in the craft. Success is measured in the same way it would be for an ad campaign rather than an individual artwork. It’s hard not to be impressed or enticed by television that is so convinced of its own transcendence. Elementary is rather more discreet in self-estimation and should be judged over time. Regardless of calibre, most imported British dramas make it on to American screens through the PBS Masterpiece strand, which automatically bestows worthiness upon them in ways that Thursday night on CBS does not.

I'm a fan!

I’m a fan!

There’s so much British television that beats America hands-down, especially the regular kind, but the case of Sherlock and Elementary suggests we cannot make broad assumptions about the inherent superiority of British television. Whatever promise of distinction Sherlock offers to American viewers does not conceal its dysfunction as drama and Elementary is not to be confused with the swathes of mediocre procedural television that surrounds it. I want American audiences to buy into the alternative appeal of British TV, but as someone who cares about quality I’m wary of advocating programmes that offer nothing but a sideways look, especially when there’s stronger material in even their most elemental of programming. I can’t help think that only British TV will suffer if America fetishizes our worst.

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