Archive for talking dead

Coen Artists

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV News with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by Tom Steward

As someone who once publicly stated that hiring Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who was a good move by the BBC, I’m not used to my predictions about television coming to anything. So I was even more surprised to be vindicated about two separate predictions I’ve made on this blog in recent weeks. However, the ways in which they both came to fruition was enough was enough to make me think I should be more careful in what I wish for. As with the posts where these predictions were first made, this one comes with a lot of spoilers:

No guts, no glory

No guts, no glory

After weeks of waiting, on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead we finally found out what had happened to Glenn. Which was nothing. Despite it looking as if his guts were being eaten by a herd of walkers the last time we saw him, it was in fact Nicholas whose insides were being devoured, giving Glenn time and space to hide under a dumpster until the coast was clear. Like all those who appreciate Steven Yeun’s performance in the show, I’m relieved that he’s still around and believed he would be. But, unlike many, I’m not convinced this was the masterstroke of storytelling it’s currently being spun as, largely by people involved in the series. In fact, I think it’s cheap. Teasing the death of a beloved character for a month exploited the goodwill of fans towards the show for the sake of publicity and added nothing dramatically to it.

Post-show discussion program Talking Dead (boy, Chris Hardwick must really think I have it in for him!) did its usual whitewashing of the drama’s shortcomings, re-imagining Glenn’s death hoax as some kind of statement about the mindset of characters in the world and aligning the audience with it. Frankly, it smelled worse than Daryl surely does. I know the entire remit of Talking Dead is to make every artistic decision taken in The Walking Dead seem purely creative and exponentially meaningful – and feel the collective silence if like Kevin Smith you dare to critique some of the choices made – but this isn’t an artistic decision. At least it’s no more artistic than publicity stunts like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ or whatever they do on Scandal each week to keep people coming back to that steaming pile of crap. It amounts to fixing something you purposefully broke just for the inevitable attention.

Last week’s episode of Fargo could’ve been dubbed a musical tribute to The Coen Brothers. While the FX series is always prone to the borrowing of visual imagery from its cinematic forbearer, more recently it has been honoring its muses through the aural. In the first season, there was an effort to connect Fargo to the timeline of the original movie, but in the second what seems more important is a – specifically musical – link to the Coen universe. Versions of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘O Death’ from O Brother Where Art Thou and ‘I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ from The Big Lebowski litter the soundtrack. At points, characters paraphrase or precis lines from Coen Brothers movies, as if quotations belong to the lexicon. It’s about half as satisfying as it sounds, and yet another distraction in a show full of them.

I was writing about Fargo in reference to playing with our understanding of what is TV and what is cinema. I seem to have given the series far too much credit since it is evidently more interested in propagating the cult of the auteur, something not even The Coen Brothers are that concerned about doing with their movies. It recalls the worst excesses of Quentin Tarantino, when the director decides to reference his own movies rather than other people’s. Or how Steven Moffat (because there’s only a few people I can ever write about) would remind audiences that all his garbage comes from the same bin. It’s a more style-conscious season, as anthology demands change, and I suppose intertextuality has got more on-the-nose as a result. But there’s a sense that the story doesn’t really stretch to ten episodes this time, and this – like shootouts – may be a way of prevaricating.

A style-conscious season of 'Fargo'.

A style-conscious season of ‘Fargo’.

I saw it coming and now I feel responsible. Whether it’s the survival of Glenn or the cinematic engagement of Fargo, it happened more or less as I expected it to. But perhaps that’s the problem. I think I saw through what these programs were doing, rather than seeing them.

 

 

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Acts of Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by Tom Steward

In the week following terrorist attacks on Paris, Beirut and Lebanon, the response of American television to these events is of little importance. But this is a blog about American television and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. To make this blog about the attacks – as if that had been its dormant purpose all along – would do a severe injustice to what is a complex geo-political situation. Sometimes I wish American television knew its limitations as well as I do. News and current affairs programs obviously must deal with what has happened – unfortunately for those of us who don’t think that refugees are responsible for the crimes of their persecutors – but TV entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to engage unless the latter’s remit crosses over into the former’s. Nonetheless, all entertainment programming, at least that which has been made since the attacks, seems to have an unwritten obligation to comment on the human tragedy. This sounds like an altogether good thing, suggesting that the genre isn’t as trivial as we suspected, but what it actually discovers is that entertainment formats are simply not equipped to handle this level of political discourse. Many of the results have been frankly insulting.

paris

Jean Oliver!

Take, for instance, Chris Hardwick’s gabbled epilogue of pseudo-Churchillian platitudes no doubt compiled from a graphic novel about Dunkirk in the closing moments of AMC’s Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of The Walking Dead. This resembled one of those rushed disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. For events of this magnitude, you either have time to talk about them or you don’t. I’m all in favour – as my younger self would not have been – of cancelling scheduled shows in favour of extended news coverage, though this is one of the few times that a 24-hour news cycle is justified in my view. TNT made the decision to postpone the broadcast of an episode of Sean Bean vehicle Legends set in Paris, which though it may appear overly-sensitive also takes into account the fact that a terrorist act is represented. CBS’ Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles also shelved episodes that involved bombings and terrorists. Networks tend to err on the side of caution in these instances, reducing TV to a set of trending keywords and then disseminating entire programs that use them incidentally. It’s one of the few occasions that networks admit outright that their programming is not socially responsible.

Some responses were more judicious. As you might expect from our ironic culture of news, parodies of broadcast journalism did far better than the real thing in their treatment of the attacks. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kept the talk of war cultural, badgering ISIS into taking on the global leaders of art, food and music with their apocalyptic asceticism. While this is one of the few shows on TV that had the time and scope to offer a full account of the attacks and their significance, the suddenness of the events and their proximity to airtime meant that the program was safer – and more effective – to be as schoolboy as possible in its response, exploiting the other boutique quality of HBO: Obscenity. While broader as befits its appeal, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert adopted a similar tact, leaving it to New Orleans-based house jazz band Jean Baptiste and Stay Human to pay tribute to the French origins of their musical culture. Colbert has always played both sides of the American political sphere and, whether scheduled or not, the pairing of Bill Maher and Medal of Honor recipient Flobert Groberg kept the extremists on both sides at bay.

Vive la Rat!

Vive la Rat!

But what made Colbert’s response particularly powerful was its self-reflexive commentary on how to respond to events such as these. There was an affectionate poke at the tweeters who had the combination of compassion and ignorance that makes watching Ratatouille an act of solidarity with the French and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dilemma over whether to keep the booking of feline circus act The Acro-Cats on the first show since the attacks. Since taking over from Letterman at CBS, Colbert has made himself a defender of both American high culture and light entertainment, and so the ISIS attacks were a real (surely unwanted) test of his mettle in his dual function as cultural commentator and ringmaster, which he passed with high-flying colours. Colbert is unusually thoughtful for a talk show host, Oliver a journalistic powerhouse. It’s the ones who think they’re being thoughtful through acknowledgment that are the problem.

The Balking Dead

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by Tom Steward

I didn’t blog yesterday as usual because I was at my first (American) football (not soccer/football) game, which coincidentally took up the whole day due to stoppages for television. I’m glad though because now I get to talk about something that happened on TV last night. WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT UP TO DATE WITH THE WALKING DEAD OR ARE PLANNING ON BINGEING THE SERIES IN THE FUTURE (UNLESS YOU TEND TO FORGET TV DRAMA CHARACTERS AS IF THEY WERE CONTESTANTS ON THE BACHELOR).

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find...

As spoiler-free a picture as I could find…

On Sunday’s The Walking Dead, everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic pizza delivery boy – with the possible exception of Fry from Futurama – Glen Rhee apparently died. I say ‘apparently’ because while visually we seem to have seen his demise (and intestines), the storytelling, which continues intertextually in post-show discussion program Talking Dead, left Glen’s fate ambiguous, despite the unlikelihood of his escape from a throng of hungry, handsy walkers. In a series where every character is already to some degree dead, the writers and directors are obliged to be specific about what character is in which state of death. Moreover, the emotion surrounding certain leading characters, including Glen who has been there from the start, means there is an unwritten rule that they be killed visibly and memorably, so as to not play with or minimise those feelings.

Last night, when it came to ‘killing’ Glen, The Walking Dead did neither. Add this to the absence of the character death rituals on Talking Dead of having the actor appear as a guest and a slow-motion replay of their death on the mock-mournful ‘In Memoriam’ section of the show, and it appears that either the producers are playing a dangerous game with Walking Dead fans or floating the possibility that we didn’t see what we think we did. A note read out on Talking Dead by producer Scott M. Gimple hedged their bets even further, saying that ‘a version…or part’ of Glen would return to ‘complete the story’. Lost creator Damon Lindelof was a guest on the show – which is perhaps another clue that in a show where everyone is already dead anything is possible (OH YEAH DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN LOST) – and found it hard to believe that The Walking Dead would pull a Dallas and have Glen return from the dead against all conceivable odds.

Not that it will surprise anyone who suffered through all six seasons of Lost but Lindelof may be overstating the case here. The Walking Dead is rather fond of melodramatic cliffhangers, as the final ‘how do we get out of this’ moment of Season Four nicely illustrates. The show is not above waiting off on spoiling the death of a character if it helps heighten the drama. In Season Five, we didn’t know Bob had been bitten for nearly a whole episode until he finally revealed it to the cannibals who had just eaten his leg for dinner. The quality seal of the Mad Men network (which is also a guarantee of having to watch crappy action and horror movies back-to-back) sometimes makes us forget that what we’re watching here is popular genre television – quite literally a televised comic strip – in which such matinee-style twists and turns are not only possible, but rather their stock-in-trade.

Don't take it out on me, it's this guy's fault!

Don’t take it out on me, it’s this guy’s fault!

No-one doubts the class of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories yet the author had the Great Detective return from the dead in implausible circumstances. More to the point, I can see about three or four different ways Glen could have escaped from the pile of walkers he was crowd-surfing on. A couple of those have already been tried and tested in the series, so while the Talking Dead panel saw the callbacks to Glen’s earlier episodes as signs of his impending death, they may also spell the solution to his survival. All of this rhetoric might be my way of deflecting deep-seated sadness about seeing Glen depart The Walking Dead, and of course I’d rather all this conspiracy theorising be true rather than false (as anyone who purports a conspiracy theory does). But don’t underestimate the extra-textual games that TV producers in the digital age are willing to play to maintain interest in their program. One day we might be talking about the ‘Glen hoax’ in the same way we talk about affinity-based publicity stunts like ‘new Coke’. On a story level, if Glen does survive the unsurvivable, it’s a sure sign he’ll be the last man walking.

Attack The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

This week is the midterm elections, which means that currently TV is awash with attack ads where political candidates exploit their opponent’s capacity to look sinister as a slow-moving black-and-white still. But attack ads aren’t restricted to the world of politics. AMC is running a campaign targeted at DirecTV in which subscribers are encouraged to petition their satellite provider to renew their partnership with the cable network. DirecTV have countered with a Walking Dead-themed rebuttal aimed at AMC’s ‘scare tactics’. On AMC’s post-show discussion programme Talking Dead, Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple and host Chris Hardwicke couldn’t help but think of Carol’s bid for leadership of the group in the zombie drama without reference to the libellous voiceovers and gravelly sneer of election advertising. As it seems entirely appropriate to think about TV shows in terms of attack ads (and perhaps better since, you know, no-one real’s being unduly slandered!) I’ve come up with some voiceovers for campaign spots attacking characters from TV shows:

Breaking Bad

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

‘Skyler White says she had nothing to do with her husband’s crimes, so where’s the money for her son’s education coming from? And if she’s so sympathetic, why do men with fake names on the internet hate her so much? @Misogynist63 on Twitter said ‘I hate Skyler White so much’ and Guy Withwomenissues on Facebook called her ‘unthankful scum’…because Skyler White made him too angry to use the correct antonym for ‘grateful’. The IRS refused to prosecute Skyler White because as an accountant she was too clueless to understand she was breaking the law. Her performance review said that she waited until the firm nearly went under before she put on a low-cut top to save her boss from jail. Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque.’

Downton Abbey

Branson's Fickle!

Branson’s Fickle!

‘Tom Branson wants you to think he’s part of an aristocratic family, but not only was he once a socialist and a terrorist, he was really really bad at being both. Tom Branson claims he’s changed but all it took was a schoolteacher with too much lipstick to bring his pro-Russian outbursts back to the Downton dinner table. At a Town Hall debate, Tom Branson said ‘I don’t know what I am anymore’…and hasn’t stopped saying it for over two years now. Tom Branson voted against Lord Grantham’s terrible financial decisions 90% of the time. And what’s keeping Tom Branson from emigrating to America, the land of freedom? We think we know. Branson’s fickle. Paid for by The Committee for The Preservation of Cora’s Entail.’

Homeland

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

‘Carrie Matheson denies all knowledge of putting a pro-American regime in Iran. Why would a secret agent do that? What is she trying to hide? Carrie Matheson sometimes sleeps with terrorists for fun…and not just work. And why does her baby look exactly like a shrunken doll of America’s enemy #1 (and honoured marine and US senator) Nicholas Brody? According to her family, Carrie Matheson prefers living in Islamabad to being in America. Just like someone who might not like America that much would. And why was she seen desecrating a heroes’ memorial with a magic marker? Doctors expressed concern that Carrie Matheson couldn’t do her job because of her mental illness…a love of atonal jazz. Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat.’

Mad Men

Don Draper: You don't have to be mad to vote for him...but it helps!

Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!

‘Don Draper won’t make his war record public. That’s because it reveals things he doesn’t want you to know. Like his compassionate support of war widows and embodiment of the American dream. He’s just pretending to be privileged and uncaring to get your vote. Don Draper has worked at three different(ly named) firms in the last five years, and is so incompetent he now works under his former secretary. Don Draper would rather drink and take drugs at home than in a workplace where it is company policy. He’s flip-flopped on the issue of smoking and airline preference, and campaigned for Nixon who he’s yet to find out is a criminal. Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!’

The O’Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly talks about things as if they really happened. But did you know that everything he says is bullshit? The first thing he said on his show today was bullshit. The second thing was described as ‘bullshit’. Even the third thing he said was bullshit, according to a poll. He’s voted with people who are wrong about everything 100% of the time. Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really.

There’s no law against smearing a smearer…

Live Another UK

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Perennial bad penny of television 24 returned to our screens last week, four years after the show’s cancellation, which everyone – other than flagging network Fox it seems – felt was already long overdue. Along with being cut in half (12 must not be a sellable number these days), one of the more remarkable changes to the series, sub-titled Live Another Day, is its re-location to London. In the later years of the series proper, 24 left America’s centre of terrorist activity L.A. to tour the East Coast with seasons seven and eight set in Washington and New York respectively. The show only ever ventured from U.S. shores when its many presidents would harangue middle-eastern statesmen by phone to reveal their country’s official secrets in order to avert a nuclear attack they know nothing about. African-set spin-off TV movie 24: Redemption is the exception here, but everyone concerned would I’m sure like to write that abomination out of the show’s history along with ER’s excursion into the dark continent of television. Besides, 24 was always characterised more by rampant xenophobia than cosmopolitanism. So why on earth would the producers of 24 want to re-launch the series in The Big Smoke?

24 solves mystery of London's traffic problem.

24 solves mystery of London’s traffic problem.

Well, the official explanation is that setting Live Another Day in London pays tribute to the UK TV audiences and critics who championed 24 in its early years when the US was still ambivalent. The first and second seasons of 24 were essential cult viewing when they aired on the free-to-air channel BBC Two in the early 2000s, gaining a large and devoted viewership, incessant national media attention and even a digital BBC sister show in a mould recently revived by AMC’s Talking Dead. The Guardian’s TV critic Charlie Brooker even had to be asked by his editors to stop writing about the show in his weekly column. 24 was lost to the nation as a watercooler show once premium satellite channel Sky One bought the exclusive rights to air the series from season three onwards, but Britain doubtless helped to ensure renewal in the years before the show was a signature Fox mainstay, and became too big to cancel. If this is the case, then speaking for the entirety of the UK – which as an ex-pat I do daily – we’re flattered. But will Britain end up resenting 24 in a manner previously reserved for Dick Van Dyke?

Three episodes in, it’s too early to tell but the signs are encouraging. Live Another Day has so far conspicuously avoided the axis of bobbies, minis and red phone-boxes that still dominates the representation of Britain in American popular culture. Sometimes, it even looks like it was conceived by someone who knows London, or has at least obsessively Google-street-viewed it. The season premiere opened with an East-London street market scene that authentically captured the area’s large Asian population, a fact of our diversity that Americans often miss. Whether or not the Prime Minister would have been a caricature of the privileged classes anyway I’m not sure, but that’s what we currently have, and Stephen Fry’s neckless bumbler is a suitably Cameronesque figure. Apart from some tourist traps like assuming that someone could pursue a Tube train through Central London by driving, the show is pretty faithful to the city’s geography and infrastructure and, at the time of writing, we’ve seen way more of London’s liminal council estates and industrial wastelands than its tourist hardware. We don’t see natives often, but when we do they have the sarcasm and cynicism towards America’s intelligence melodrama that I expect from my fellow Britons.

Jack's in a pickle again!

Jack’s in a pickle again!

Sadly, the cinematographers have CSI’d the show’s colour palette, making London more grey than it actually is, which I didn’t think possible. As revelations about the origin of the attacks unfold, I’m beginning to worry that we’re about to be portrayed as a country that harbours and sympathises with middle-eastern terrorism, rather than one that benignly questions the motives of US foreign wars from time-to-time. Given 24’s scapegoating of anyone East of Alaska, I’m not sure those Asian and Eastern-European Londoners are going to stay innocent bystanders for long. Of course, this London layover is symptomatic of a broader reverse-colonization of American television by UK popular culture, with a quota of British acting in every new show. It comes at a time when Bravo is launching the reality show Ladies of London looking at the city’s transatlantic socialites. As self-appointed visual archive of the rich and famous, Bravo is hardly likely to offer us a London in accordance with social realities. Preview material of a barrow boy speaking entirely in cockney rhyming-slang more or less confirms this. So at a time when American TV is obsessing over Britain without ever attempting to understand it, should we be grateful for Jack?

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