Archive for the fall

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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Watching TV With Britons Part 1: Eee By Glum!

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Tom Steward

Goodbye! Like Seinfeld’s Elaine upon encountering a caring Jerry, selfless George and talented Kramer, I’m in the bizarro world. I started this blog as a Briton casting a foreigner’s eye over American television and the Americans who watch it. Now British television is foreign to me and the viewing habits of UK audiences are as curious to my mind as America’s once was. Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am now a resident of the United States (or have assumed I am the worst pirate in TV history!). While I’m still in the privileged position of returning to my homeland without the jarring feeling of alienation felt by most ex-pats, I cannot say the same about British television. It is not simply a question of being out of touch, but experiencing the TV I knew from the outside in. I see the problems more clearly, but I am less forgiving of them than a native now. Here’s Part 1 of my round-up of the TV I watched while I was back in the UK these past few weeks, which looks specifically at what I saw of and about the North while away:

BBC Northwest Tonight (BBC1)

If I had ever forgotten what a place of horror the North can be, I was scared straight by the top item on the local news about a priest who was arrested for murder. There was also a sub-plot about the various presenters switching roles that went clear over my head, and reminded me that local TV news is more parochial soap opera than neutral information source.

Remember Me (BBC 1)

Python Found In Sheffield!

Python Found In Sheffield!

Seasonal ghost stories are an overlooked tradition in British television, as is the utilisation of former Python Michael Palin as a TV actor. This Sunday-night 3-parter was a welcome return for both, and brought the haunting beauty of the Yorkshire coast to half-light. I’m always complaining about the lack of Britain’s multiculturalism in our flagship drama and South Yorkshire’s substantial Asian population should be represented in any depiction of the area, as it is here. But I couldn’t help feeling there were underlying xenophobic anxieties about immigration in the way the story unfolded (incidentally rather in keeping with the current normalisation of anti-immigration discourses in British politics) which undermined the diversity. It’s one thing to show the social harmony between the elderly white and Asian communities in Sheffield, another to envelope that in imagery concerning the vengeful spirit of an Indian colonial wreaking havoc on British shores.

Inside No 9 (BBC 2)

There's No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

There’s No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

Horror comedy writing-acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith may have left the North behind after the gloriously gothic sitcom The League of Gentleman, but their anthology-based follow-up to the macabre melodrama Psychoville is easily their best work yet. Classic British horror movies were as influential to the pair’s writing as the variously horrifying Northern towns they grew up in. But in this series of one-offs centred around buildings and rooms that bear the number 9, it’s easier to detect the legacy of great British dramatists like Harold Pinter and Mike Leigh than Hitchcock and Hammer.

Through The Keyhole (ITV)

This was once a beloved and genteel daytime panel show presented by British institution Sir David Frost in which middlebrow celebrities tried to guess which other middlebrow celebrity a house belonged to. It was easy-going, bland and offended no-one. To my horror, it’s been revived as a platform for crass Yorkshire-born comic Leigh Francis to showcase his abhorrent character Keith Lemon and brand of vulgar anarchy. Imagine if the cast of Jackass suddenly took over from the current hosts of 60 Minutes and you’ll have some idea of how inappropriate a mix of star and format this is. Tabloidization of classic British television standards has been and gone, but this is a new stage of perversion and travesty that befits a dystopian satire!

The Fall (BBC 2)

The Fall Of British Television

The Fall Of British Television

Belfast is a bleak yet glamorous backdrop for the most unremittingly downbeat police drama in TV history. Not even sexy elf Gillian Anderson can bring much more than the odd dry moment of wit to proceedings, as Christian Grey-in-waiting Jamie Dornan stalks the city’s streets and homes as a sexual serial killer and freelance social worker. Authentically Northern Irish, it also tops the genre for storytelling innovation. Dornan’s Paul Spector is as much the hero as the detective would be in any other cop show, making for deeply uncomfortable viewing. But, like the North, it remains gruesomely compelling.

Dog Shows and Cat Boxes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

I begin with a broadcasting history anecdote but bear with me. In Britain in the late ‘80s, a debate was held on what constituted quality television ahead of a broadcasting White Paper proposing the introduction of television outside public service regulation in the form of a satellite service to the UK. Unsurprisingly given what would go on to happen with Downton Abbey, business won over art and the agreed-upon definition of British quality television was pseudo-literary period drama with an easily exportable ideal of British national identity based on our imperial past. But during the debate, a definition of quality television offered by scholar Geoff Mulgan was ‘usable stories’, an idea consonant with broadcasting that television should tell its viewers something that could help them personally or collectively in their society. This understanding of quality in television has always stuck with me and it’s come to mind recently as a way of defending several American TV programmes I’ve been watching that are otherwise badly made, poorly written and artlessly executed. But is that justification enough?

Dog Daytime TV

Dog Daytime TV

I’m a dog-owner and I used to be a cat-owner. Hence I’ve been watching a lot of Nat Geo Wild’s The Dog Whisperer and Animal Planet’s cartoon riposte My Cat from Hell. Both shows tackle the same premise but are – quite literally – very different animals. In each, pet-owners call in behavioural specialists or PWCs (Psychologists Without Credentials) for their animal, Cesar Millan for the dogs and (apparently on return from the 23rd Century) Jackson Galaxy for the cats. The pets in question are usually engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, although the sub-Scooby Doo twist is always that it’s the owners who are really screwed up. Cesar controls the dogs by making them more obedient, calm and submissive and Jackson makes the cats easier to live with by compelling owners to hand over the entirety of their house to their new feline landlords. Different strokes for different pets. Both programmes are shoddily constructed, replete with ham-fisted set-ups, and full of duplication, laboriously eeking out a handful of choice moments into an hour of blink-and-you’ll-never-miss-it television.

That said, there’s more here that’s relevant to my daily life than in all the shows I’ve ever feted as quality TV. And I’m not just speaking selfishly. I’m a better citizen because of these shows, and with the possible exception of The Wire there’s not many ‘quality’ programmes you can say that about. My dog (by marriage) A is by no means a handful but nor is he entirely obedient, and sometimes he has to be because he’s a big boy and a breed that ignorant people (and that’s large sections of the public) mistakenly think of as a vicious dog and so there’s less chance any harm will come to him if he’s never out of our control. Thanks to The Dog Whisperer, I know that I can subdue A in any situation by calming myself first and that dogs need to respect as well as love you before they obey. Thanks to My Cat from Hell, I know that if I get a cat, I should just hand them the house keys.

Marriage Boot Camp is a truly awful TV show by anyone’s reckoning. Everyone involved is a horrid caricature (self-made or portrayed) of their social type and their relationships ugly distortions of what marriage is really like. The format and its ‘exercises’ (we should say games) don’t help anyone, and the whole debacle is thickly lacquered in anesthetized self-help dross. G and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary and we’re both ecstatic about each other and the institution. So whereas once I would see Marriage Boot Camp as a simple lie perpetuated by a periodically lazy medium, I now see it as a cautionary fable of what happens when married couples become grotesque circus-mirrors of loving unions. It’s the same old shit but my relationship to it has changed. Perversely, the show may even help our marriage, not because of the guidance it offers but because I now have a high-definition image in my mind of what a bad marriage looks like and I refuse to ever let myself resemble one single pixel of it.

Balls and Chains!

Balls and Chains!

I never thought I was that concerned with the use-value of the TV shows I watched. Then I think how little British TV I now watch compared to when I lived in Britain. Sure, it’s harder to get British programmes here and much easier just to go with the flow (50 television academics just telepathically high-fived!) but frankly it’s very possible these days and the shows themselves are no less for me being here. It’s only because they don’t seem relevant to my life as it is now that I don’t watch them as regularly. Most of the British shows I’ve lost in translation are the ones I used to sync myself to the national calendar. You can tell that from the titles: The Great British Menu, The Great British Bake-Off, Coronation Street. What remains is everything I watch for content and style (Doctor Who, The Fall, Peep Show) not because they speak to me in my immediate surroundings. I don’t think I’ll ever completely confuse useful programming with good TV, but it’s tempting sometimes.

 

TV in a Word

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by Tom Steward

If this were in print I’d feel obliged to emblazon the word ‘Advertisement’ over it but as all online writing is faintly promotional anyway I’m content to leave it at this bashful disclaimer.

A month ago I started the Twitter account @TVinaword which creates new words to describe TV shows by compounding three words that are synonymous with each individual programme. For example: ‘The Shield. Vic, Visceral, Vicious. In a word: Viscous’. The account had a long evolution. I originally wanted it to consist of reviews of films that were 1 sentence or 140 characters long (those of you who regularly read this blog know it could go either way) such as ‘Downfall: When you’ve seen one Nazi officer shoot himself in the head, you’ve seen them all’ or ‘Prometheus: 124 minutes of film to explain one dodgy special effect’. I quickly reconsidered upon realising that there were several accounts like this already, not surprising given that it’s only a slight adaptation of what Twitter does anyway. I also felt it was slightly peevish to create an account simply to allow me to take my revenge on a medium that hasn’t given me much to enjoy in the past few years. Cinema deserves better from its critics than simple mockery-even if currently worthy of it-and anything written about it should always stress how great it can be and look past momentary phases of decline.

The Viscous Vic Mackey!

Whatever the account was going to become I knew at that point it would be about TV. I’d be sending up the medium from a position of affectionate mockery and in light of my unadulterated admiration for it. I also wouldn’t mind being reductive about TV given that I devote hundreds of words a week to exploring it in excruciating detail. I still hadn’t figured out what form this Twitticism would take when after finishing BBC2’s detective serial The Fall I took to Twitter to try to describe what was unique about the programme. It wasn’t just that it was chilling; it wasn’t just that it was brilliant, but it was both these things and Gillian Anderson. It seemed to me that any word that tried to account for The Fall needed to have these three elements in play. That’s how the word ‘Chillian’ came about. After tweeting this new word, I realised this was exactly the problem with TV criticism. The same old words are trotted out each time we write about a programme (if I see the words ‘complex’ and ‘HBO’ in the same sentence again I may scream) and yet the programme itself is entirely unique.

The Fall…Chillian.

After coming up with a name and tweeting a few more words, I began to see that it was particularly effective when the word, despite being completely new, seemed to describe the TV show perfectly. Like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, the words make sense because of the imagery they evoke not because they have shared meanings. The breakthrough in this respect was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The word was ‘Connferscience’ which incorporated ‘Conn’ (the Enterprise’s command which is forever being transferred like a verbal Frisbee), ‘Conference’ and ‘Conscience’. If you were to ask what happens in Star Trek: The Next Generation Connferscience, despite its Newspeak qualities, would be as good an answer as any. Sometimes words arrange themselves in ways that sums up the show more directly that the three words they amalgamate. The Walking Dead was represented through the words ‘Humanity, Humidity, Stupidity’ which becomes ‘Humanstupidity’, a word that could conceivably work as the show’s subtitle. It’s always gratifying when the word resembles one we know, especially if that word is the opposite of what the show is. Three words that sprang to mind when watching Revolution were ‘Swords, Gourds, Bored’, creating ‘Sworgourdsbored’, which it most definitely is not.

Swords? Bored! Revolution.

Every TV show-good and bad-is different and they each deserve a different word. There’s always something that can’t be accounted for in existing language, like a character or an actor. What makes a TV programme is a cocktail of different energies and when one or two of those are removed from the mix, it’s not the show anymore. I’ve tried to make this problem disappear by writing a lot and hoping that enough combinations of words will eventually do justice to one programme. Now I’m doing the exact opposite, whittling these descriptions down to a few words and creating a brand new one distinctive to a programme. TV is a variety of individuals, each with a name.

 

The End of TV?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve just finished watching The Fall, BBC2’s new police drama miniseries. Or have I? The open-ended nature of the last episode watched had me rushing to IMDB to see if Netflix had failed to purchase the series’ remaining instalments. This being a fairly common occurrence with an online content provider which faces rights restrictions preventing them from making the latest episodes of TV series available to users. My online search concluded this was in fact the final episode and that this ending was considered ‘controversial’. The word used to describe an adverse response to something offensive or provocative having been done or said but now simply means that a lot of people with Twitter accounts don’t much like it. While searching, I found vigorous defences of the ending by creator Allan Cubitt on grounds of authenticity, arguing that the ambiguous ending gestured plausibly towards the ongoing difficulty of police work and the lengthy timeframes of major investigations. This made sense. The series regularly disturbed and played with the conventions of its genre. It puts The Fall in league with TV crime series like The Wire and The Shield which were equally determined to show policing as a messy, unresolved business.

‘This is DSI Gibson. Do we have an ending in custody?’

Case closed. But wait a minute. I’ve just read that the BBC has commissioned another series of The Fall to be broadcast in Autumn 2014. I’m assuming this will continue the story of the first series and not be a totally different crime drama under the banner of The Fall nor merely a new case for DSI Gibson. There is certainly precedent for these latter options in British crime miniseries. BBC1 multi-arm legal strip Criminal Justice created a completely new set of characters and storylines for its second run and there’s a tradition of detective dramas like Prime Suspect and Cracker holding on to their lead detective whilst continually updating the cases they investigate. It is, however, unheard of to not wrap up the previous case before moving on to the new one and if the next season of The Fall were to do this the show would be genuinely breaking new ground. So if it is to be a continuation, then the ending of the (first) series should be thought of as more of an end-of-season cliffhanger, a suspense-mongering technique designed to keep viewers hooked until its return-an echo of serial TV melodramas like Dallas-and only realistic by default.

Who Shot J.R.? Much difference?

I’m put in mind of another couple of TV finales which blur the boundaries between cliffhanger and open ending. The first of these is the final episode of Twin Peaks, which lies at the close of its second season on the air. The series ends on a note of uncertainty about the fate of its protagonist, Agent Cooper. Given that the show’s co-creator was avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch and that the programme was challenging and innovative in its storytelling, critics and audiences alike were quick to assume that the ending was a deliberate subversion of closure and resolution and an artistic statement on the nature of TV endings. This belies the fact that the ending was written in full expectation of a third season which an abrupt cancellation, following a drop-off in ratings and acclaim, put pay to. This suggests the season ending was meant to work as a cliffhanger in the manner of the previous season, which left the lives of most of the main characters dangling in the balance. This is not to say that the cliffhanger wouldn’t have been met with something surprising and original, as with the last one, but it still reeks of conventional storytelling.

Was the ending of Twin Peaks really breakthrough?

The second of these is the ending of The Sopranos, following six seasons and eight years on the air. A suspension of narrative closure in the form of a literal blackout, it too bore the label ‘controversial’ although ‘uniformly hated’ would be closer to the truth. I initially thought the ending a technical error on the digital station E4 where The Sopranos was first broadcast in the UK, having become accustomed to its legacy of transmission problems which routinely turned my screen ratios into accordions. Alas, the mistake was on the behalf of creator David Chase who had sacrificed all that was good about the show (music, character arcs, engrossing storytelling) for an arch and pretentious modernist gesture, which put art before content. Or so I first thought. The cynic in me now thinks that the ending was merely an arty smokescreen for the kind of cop-out ending that refuses to make any big decisions about the characters in order that the franchise may live on. Think David Chase is above this? Lest we forget Chase presided over the mid-90s spin-off TV movie series of The Rockford Files. It is only James Gandolfini’s death that renders a revival an impossibility.

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