Archive for the americans

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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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.

Special FX

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

Not the 10th in the Fargo movie franchise!

It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.

The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

The Sopranos of Cop Shows

FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.

I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.

The hype is Justified!

The hype is Justified!

So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.

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