Archive for the cosby show

Party Like It’s 1990 Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Tom Steward

90s TV is back in vogue, appropriately enough. Twin Peaks is soon to be revived in such exacting detail that Showtime even sought to bring back David Lynch’s fights with the network. Cali has been fornicated enough by David Duchovny – and his series Californication has been cancelled – while Gillian Anderson appeared to be getting her life together but is going back to her abusive ex; thus The X-Files is returning to Fox, it now seems as a replacement for the network’s all-too-rare new-thing-that-people-like Empire. Even The CW’s version of The Flash recently featured Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Trickster from the original early 90s live-action TV adaptation, now father to the heir to his title, allowing the Star Wars actor to cathartically wail the words that every kid in a Darth Vader mask has been saying to him since 1980.

That the decade that time did not give us time to forget is coming back to TV doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The 90s was when the cup of quality American television first runneth over, never to be empty again. Contemporary Hollywood is increasingly dependent on rebooting classic pop iconography. In fact, Hamill was filming his scenes as The Trickster at virtually the same time he was reviving Luke Skywalker for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But the choice of series has so far been disappointing. The 25-year gap in Twin Peaks was always part of the story, but in truth much of the second final season was completely unwatchable, with the Lynch-helmed finale the only saving grace (and he may not even be directing this time round). If the cast continue to protest Lynch’s absence, we may be looking at a spin-off about The Log Lady’s Log.

Everyone has signed back on for The X-Files but the series was to TV sci-fi what Judd Apatow is to movie comedy. The original series was a good few years too long, and that’s even before Billy Connolly came into the picture! Yes, TV needs more X-Files about as much as literature needs more books about killing heads of state written by Bill O’Reilly. Maybe it’s my comic apathy or that The CW’s demographic version of the flashing lifeclock from Logan’s Run has already gone off in the palm of my hand, but I found nothing to enjoy in The Flash to enjoy apart from Hamill’s scenery-chewing performance (forever to be known as ‘Hamillery’). So if there are any TV executives out there reading (either this blog or just in general) here are some 90s TV shows that are far more worthy candidates for revival:

Murder Three

'My blinds...LaPaglia!'

‘My blinds…LaPaglia!’

The first season of Steven Bochco’s Murder One was a compelling, narratively experimental, impeccably cast piece of TV drama. The second, which I will call Murder Two – not because the crimes prosecuted were lesser but because the quality was – proved altogether more formulaic, B-casted and conventional. Murder Three could right these wrongs. I foresee a pre-credits teaser in which respective season one and two leads Daniel Benzali and Anthony LaPaglia fight Sunshine Boys-like over the configuration of the furniture in the firm’s office, culminating in Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman throwing LaPaglia’s not-Teddy Hoffman out of the window, before lowering the blinds…and then peering through them ominously. We would revive the first season’s 23-episode serial arc, with a case that begins as Murder Three…and ends up as Murder One!

The Critic (Or It’s Not That Tough Being a Film Cricket)

Together at last!

Together at last!

At the time we might have thought that the 90s were the summit of all that was ridiculous about Hollywood movies. But given how extra inflated and predictable blockbusters have become since, surely Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ animated comedy about a TV film critic would now have plenty of kindling for the movie parody fire. Cancelled after one season, there’s still plenty to do with the format and reviving the character of the Ebert-like Jay Sherman would be a greater tribute to the late film critic than any statue.

Murder She Wrote

History's greatest serial killer!

History’s greatest serial killer!

Still alive and acting…all I’m saying.

Cop Rock: Laboured Musical Premise Unit

A spin-off of the quickly-cancelled musical police drama about a special team of cops who investigate off-colour musical episodes in other TV series.

Paulie Loves Pussy

A buddy comedy featuring Paulie Walnuts and Pussy Bonpensero from The Sopranos based on this HBO commercial:

We’d figure out the timeline stuff later!

The Cosby Show

I drank from the wrong glass...

I drank from the wrong glass…

Worth pitching just to see the look on the executives’ faces. ‘Drink this, Mr. Greenblatt’.

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Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.

 

‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.

 

Rod Serling would have been proud

 

 

 

Sitcommunication

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Tom Steward

Those looking for objectivity in this blog (if they’ve ever found it) will be sorely disappointed by this post. The attachment I have to the programme I’m writing about today cannot be quantified by my predilection for well-made, heartwarming American sitcoms. Everything I think about it has something to do with the way I feel about the person who is my life. So my account of watching it is also a story of how I found love in a strange land I’d known all my life. It’s not unknown for me to remember the past through American TV. Memories of my early life are intertwined with images of American family sitcoms. I now see my upbringing through the prism of Roseanne and The Cosby Show. In the future when I look back on this past year, and the love that has changed my life, I know there will be a little bit of Modern Family mixed in.

The Cast of Modern Family

A diverse and tradition-defying family

In the irksome tradition of G introducing me to and then lambasting me for not knowing American TV shows that she (and I secretly also) think should be a part of my mental archive (‘How can you call yourself a Doctor of American TV and have never seen Full House?’) and because of Rupert Murdoch’s caste system for imported TV that puts US shows in the unreachable noble classes, I was first shown Modern Family on US network TV during the virtual epoch that is Halloween in the States. The Halloween episode is usually a low point for the American sitcom, a season nadir where character and story get pushed aside by wardrobe people indulging in their own sweep stakes week. But even this seasonal pageantry couldn’t disguise its obvious quality. And it was pretty obvious from the outset that this sitcom was going to be for and about me and G. But more of that later; what is this show that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t want you to not to pay to have to see?

Modern Family is ABC’s answer to the NBC mockumentary sitcom, with the same vague sense of a documentary film crew presence, interludes of straight-to-camera interviews and frequent acknowledgements of the camera. It re-imagines the American family as diverse and tradition-defying; made up of interracial spouses and families, gay couples with adopted children, and multiple divorces and remarriages. While it gets a lot of comic mileage out the cultural and character clashes that inevitably result, it never rests on its concept or lets its formula become obvious. This is largely because of the sharp and clever writing with quality character gags fired out at screwball rhythms and preconceptions about stock characters upturned with them losing their pleasing familiarity. The show has a healthy sense of slapstick and appetite for absurd coincidences, a combination which echoes cutting-edge sitcoms like Arrested Development and Curb your Enthusiasm.

Despite its representational radicalism and fashionable form, the show’s strengths are quite traditional ones. It is frequently and unashamedly heartwarming, a quality all family sitcoms should have in some measure lest they leave a gaping hole of humanity at their centre in the manner of Family Guy. It is also a very conventional sitcom in many ways. The casting of Ed O’Neill, formerly America’s premier maritally dissatisfied slob husband and father Al Bundy in Married with Children, as family patriarch Jay signals that the producers want a contemporary sitcom that plays by the rules. Indeed, the pairing of white-American Jay and Columbian Gloria which sparks so brilliantly plays like a gender-reversed Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy. But what really makes Modern Family truly special is how it became the medium of mine and G’s relationship.

Gloria and Jay

Gloria and Jay: the medium for our relationship

Leaving aside that I’m a none-too-stunning white man who’s somehow managed to attract a ridiculously hot Latina woman, so much about Gloria and Jay’s marriage defines our relationship. They’re both loves propelled by laughter from awkward cultural and linguistic miscommunications (and we’ve got American-English as well as Mexican-British!), to the point where I forget which is the TV one and which ours. G’s translation of a romantic sentiment from Mexican into English with the caveat that ‘it involves dead sheep’ could’ve come straight from Gloria. And G knows when I laugh at Sofia Vergara, I’m inadvertently making fun of her. We also know we will one day be Claire and Phil; the no-nonsense-with-children woman married to a goofy man-child playing at adulthood. G thinks of me like a grown-up Luke, the semi-autistic scruff, even though I know that as a kid I was more like Manny, the self-aware sophisticate allergic to physical exertion. Modern Family is not just an outstanding sitcom in a TV milieu that’s increasingly looking and sounding the same, it’s also mine and G’s secret language, one which we will always understand completely.

 

 

Born in the USA

Posted in BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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