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Thinking Outside The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

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Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

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