Archive for the golden girls

Controvers-TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , on June 19, 2015 by Tom Steward

One of the historic functions of American sitcoms has been to deal with taboo issues in the society of the time. This purpose has been all but forgotten as network television becomes increasingly more conservative, both on the production and audience side. Although, it’s not as if cable TV is stepping into the breach. Cable channels tend to use their license to push boundaries on representation for infantile laughs rather than a progressive cause. I suspect that increased conglomerate ownership of TV stations has something to do with this too. If you’re appealing to the same judges, you’re bound to get the same verdict. I bring this up because I just happened to come across episodes of two 1980s sitcoms based around controversial topics on TV recently, although the rate of re-run on some channels does rather push the odds in favour of that happening. I was first struck by how committed each sitcom was to serious treatment of the issue in question, as opposed to today when it would need to be discussed by proxy. Then what stayed with me was the contrast between the ways the sitcoms handled delicate subjects, though neither seemed to proceed with much delicacy.

Yes, this really happened...

Yes, this really happened…

The first was a two-part episode of Different Strokes called ‘The Bicycle Man’. It’s a notorious episode of an already pretty notorious sitcom. You may think there’s nothing creepier than a grown man with an ageing disorder being made to play a child but there is, and it’s a grown man with an ageing disorder being made to play a child being pursued by a paedophile. It’s a classic case of wanting to have your cake and eat it, appropriately enough as that’s what the child molester uses to try and get into Arnold’s pants. The sitcom is earnest about educating the audience (especially children) on the dangers of paedophilia, and the final scene, which seems to go on forever, is basically a PSA. But the producers are also clearly reluctant to disturb the conventions of the studio sitcom, and so we still have a laughter track and one-liners about paedophilia. Some of this works in regards to the molester himself, who uses comedy to cosy up to children, but most of the time it feels like the episode is pulling in different directions. That said, the pathological profiling of the paedophile is the most sophisticated I’ve seen in television.

The second was an episode of The Golden Girls called ’72 Hours’ in which Rose is informed she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and has a three-day wait to find out. Unlike Different Strokes which doubled its length and set aside screen time to outline the issue, Rose’s predicament is a subplot of a normal episode rather than an issue-based special. This underlines the fact that the sitcom dealt with taboo topics like racism, sexism and homophobia all the time but was also indicative of how the writers wanted the audience to calm down about HIV rather than obsessing over it. This was 1990, so it’s not exactly typical at this point to portray HIV as an everyday part of contemporary society that affects straight as well as gay people, yet that’s exactly the jumping-off point of this episode. Not that the writers are in any way idealistic about how people of an older generation respond to the threat of HIV. Rose is understandably scared and turns to scapegoating promiscuous gay men while Sophia starts labelling her cups and using different bathrooms. No-one is condemned for acting irrationally here but no-one is let off the hook either.

HIV and The Golden Girls

HIV and The Golden Girls

It’s a shame these episodes stand out in today’s TV. Look at Modern Family. We have a gay couple at the heart of the show yet the Christian ownership of ABC by Disney means that we’ve never had a storyline which draws attention to their struggles in society. We only got a kiss between them after gay marriage became culturally acceptable, five seasons in. You might argue that the permanent presence of previously marginalised characters in a sitcom is a bigger step forward than a devoted storyline to issues in their community, but, again, take Modern Family. Have any of the clichés or misconceptions about gay men disappeared by having Mitch and Cam as protagonists? When it comes to taboo issues in sitcoms, I think concept and execution are polarising. Many sitcoms like The Middle address agonising social problems because of what they are and not what they talk about.

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.

Marathon Man

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

It was while looking for something to do with my first Labor Day in the United States-except working, ironically-that I learned about the tradition of spending the holiday watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show in what is termed (I’m assuming for reasons of endurance rather than fitness) a TV marathon. Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible.

If I’d have known running a marathon was this easy…

G and I had a season’s worth of The Walking Dead to catch up on so this seemed the obvious candidate for our route on this marathon. Hell, the roads are already empty! But it may have been the least appropriate choice. Something doesn’t sit right about a marathon based around slow, lumbering bodies and if the series was ever going be used in an armchair simulation of a sporting event, it should be a zombie walk. What’s more, a couple of episodes are enough to convince you that everyone you see outside the next day over forty is a Walker (the show’s overly literal nickname for zombies). A day of it could have you stabbing the nearest stranger with an overbite in the eye.

‘This Life’ fan cancels operation for photo opp!

Watching an entire season of a TV programme in one day also made it clear to me that what you make of a show depends entirely on the time it takes you to watch it. Staggered over several months of the year or even spaced out over a few weeks, a single season of a TV series can seem exhaustive in content and myriad in meaning, even if the show itself takes place in a short timeframe. Season Three of The Walking Dead may seem this way if seen over time, but compacted into twenty-four hours it seems like a fable, an elaborately told yet simple story where everything goes towards illustrating a singular moral revealed at its end.

Who’s the Governor?

The Labor Day TV marathon doesn’t depend on DVD ownership nor does it require streaming from an online content provider. You can sign up for the race with a cable subscription. You can’t always choose what you eat but you’ll never go hungry. It’s common practice for US TV networks to have multiple episodes of the same show playing continuously throughout Labor Day. But this is only a slight adaptation of what many networks do already. USA and TV Land regularly air a day of episodes of Law & Order and The Golden Girls at a time, allowing them to get their money’s worth from what they laid out for the syndication rights. The ‘marathon’ banner merely themes and brands economic processes that are ingrained in network scheduling.

‘Really? We’re still on?’

TV marathons are often used tactically as part of a last-ditch effort to get straggling viewers to defect from a piece of event television, like the annual Super Bowl. So what happens on Labor Day when networks program marathons against other marathons? Well, in the spirit of a nuclear détente (the heyday of the network era was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after all) nobody gets a marathon and instead you end up with a stalemate in which viewers cross back-and-forth through the networks to cram a range of their favourite shows into a day of viewing. And, again, these concurrent marathons make it seem like every other day on network TV. Whichever network has the best show on tap will prevail. But the competition for timeslots suddenly becomes redundant.

So many choices…but no chance of a marathon!

Marathons don’t just change our perspective on the shows that are aired but on how we watch television. We’re not tuning in at a certain time for the beginning of a programme that lasts a set number of minutes; we’re arbitrarily jumping into the middle of something and then jumping out when hours later we’ve had enough. Despite turning individual episodes into one amorphous strip of television, marathons re-focus our attention on the programme rather than the time it plays or how long it’s on for, weirdly enough. It’s easy to forget while we’re in mid-marathon whether we’re watching a Tuesday or a Friday night show, whether it plays weekly at 8 or 9. Rather we’re made to look at the show we’re watching as content for content’s sake.

TV Old

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

The pleasures of American TV are not confined to seeing new episodes of great shows as they air. They are also to be found in the re-discovery of some of the best TV from years gone by. This is aided considerably by a host of cable channels that do nothing but re-circulate old TV. Given that such stations are generally found in the undiscovered country of niche cable, these shows don’t exactly float to the surface. Their scheduling is hardly conducive to life as a functioning member of society either. With a little sifting, there’s gold in them there hills:

The Fugitive (MeTV Mondays 12.00am)

Though you might be more familiar with the 1993 movie re-make with Harrison Ford (which unusually for a Hollywood revival of a classic TV show doesn’t disgrace its predecessor), this long-running series from the mid-1960s is a classic in its own right. Falsely accused of his wife’s murder, Dr. Richard Kimble (played by a perpetually constipated-looking David Janssen) escapes from custody and drifts from town to town doing a variety of blue-collar jobs until his identity is discovered by the locals-who somehow don’t spot him by his iconic tweed jacket and jet-black hair-at which point he moves on. Kimble is occasionally pursued, when he can be bothered, by Lieutenant Gerard (the coathanger-jawed Barry Morse) and his wife’s murderer, a one-armed man played by a fat Worzel Gummidge. Each episode is an impeccably crafted chamber drama and the weekly guest stars are amongst the best character actors of their era. It’s also a scathing indictment of American society. Those in the justice system are invariably the villains of the piece and Kimble wanders an America full of corrupt institutions where the scum of society has risen to the top. It would be the highlight of anyone’s career, if it weren’t the creation of Roy Huggins, the man behind Maverick and The Rockford Files.

The Golden Girls (TVLand, whenever you turn on the channel)

It’s easy to be put off by the dated production values, air of tackiness and cloying music of this 80s sitcom but it would be a shame to let cosmetics get in the way of a show that otherwise is pure joy. Four senior ladies, sour divorcee Dorothy (Bea Arthur), her old school insult comic mother Sophia (Estelle Getty), southern belle-in-waiting Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and naïve farm girl Rose (Betty White), share a house in Miami looking for love and late-life fulfilment. It’s sharply written with an underlying sarcastic wit that counteracts the mandatory sentimentality beautifully. The show was utterly fearless about confronting issues facing people in later life, like dementia and disability, as well as those that matter specifically to women-one memorable episode has Dorothy facing down a male doctor who misdiagnosed her based on her age and gender in a restaurant. In this sense it harks back to the socially responsible American sitcoms of the 1970s but it has a streak of misanthropic humour we more readily associate with sitcoms today. It’s impossible to underestimate how important the central performances are to the success of the show. I’m particularly enamoured of Getty’s pinpointed quick-fire delivery and White’s knowingly played bravado turns of bumpkin innocence.

Star Trek (MeTV, Saturdays 9.00pm)

After countless sequels and movie versions, it’s good to get back to the ground floor of this franchise and see exactly why people think it so worthy of resurrection. Enduring iconography aside, I was struck by how captivating the storylines of each episode were, and the perfect pace at which the mysteries unravelled while still leaving space for that surreal and colourfully psychedelic camp that people treasure about the show. One episode I caught, ‘The Corbomite Manoeuvre’, is structured like a poker game and ends with Captain Kirk having cocktails with a grown-man baby alien played by Ron Howard’s brother. It’s also quite remarkable how the character flaws of the main cast are highlighted as much as, if not more than, their heroic qualities. I always had it in my head that Kirk’s chronic womanising was a fan fiction add-on that got recouped as canon after nudie-freak JJ Abrams got his pervy little hands on the franchise. But here Kirk is cruelly lascivious without apology or remittance. If like me you grew up with the relatively co-operative crew of The Next Generation, you’d be shocked at the amount these guys argue with each other. Dr. Bones in particular is more insulting to his fellow crew members than a drill sergeant with piles.

Downton Empire or Boardwalk Abbey?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

 

Downton or Boardwalk?

 

Mr. Bojangles (formerly ‘Managing Director Boris Manjangles’)

SYNERGIES (formerly ‘SYNERGY INDUSTRIES’)

No. 2

Blind Alley

Londonshire (formerly ‘Great Britain’)

LOL BFF

 

Dear HBITVO,

 

I am addressing you using your synergy name-an amalgamation of HBO and ITV-which despite sounding like a new strain of a sexually transmitted virus will undoubtedly become your company acronym once I have informed you of the synergistic possibilities between two of your flagship programmes. A scan by our patented synergy-finding computer application-or SY-FI CRAP for short-has detected a 110% probability (the machine was the creation of retired football managers) of synergy between HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and ITV’s Downton Abbey. SYNERGIES believes that although the former is an obscene and offbeat historical crime drama and the latter a gentle and safe period soap opera, their worlds are colliding in ways that can only be described as ‘pointless’, a synergy word meaning both ‘poised’ and ‘relentless’.

 

Both programmes have featured scenes in Ireland in the 1920s during the ‘troubles’ (Idea for Programme: ‘Aving a Bit of The Troubles/Frank Spencer travels back in time on magic roller-skates to Bloody Sunday). But rather than having such scenes to make it look like these programmes give a damn about the country and its history, the results of our scan show that they are prime opportunities for synergy. SY-FI CRAP has projected a scenario in which Downton’s chauffeur-turned-in-law-turned-resident Uncle Seamus Tom Branson discovers his long-lost brother-from-another-overrated-show, the IRA soldier-turned-slutty bodyguard Owen Slater, has been killed by gangsters in New York and delivered in a crate to his employers (further offence was caused by listing him as ‘UK Cargo’) and leaves for the U.S.A. to exact his revenge.

 

At SYNERGIES we understand that the process of synergisation should attempt as much as possible to preserve the unique identity of the synergees. Hence SY-FI CRAP recommends that Tom recruit the help of several doughy white middle-aged character actors in exacting his revenge and that they should be introduced as they are sweatily entering much younger women. It is further suggested that when the perpetrator Joe Massereti is found by Tom he is taking tea with an elderly British film star who camply disparages him for his race and class and makes facial movements that looks like she is being buffered on iplayer.

 

SYNERGIES applaud previous efforts by ITV to synergise Downton Abbey with other HBO series. It has not gone unnoticed by our researchers that the producers had been planning a crossover with prison drama Oz. Why else would the valet Bates have been kept in jail for so long unless it was for him to eventually volunteer for a cryogenic freezing experiment offered to prisoners by an American scientist (Triangular Synergy Prospect: The scientist is Norm from Cheers reprising his role as an unconvincing 1940s inventor in Forever Young) and be defrosted in a 1990s Baltimore high-security prison? SYNERGIES appreciates that it was only Ofcom’s enforced removal of a scene in which Bates was raped with a potato-masher by Noel Coward that prevented this merger.

 

The SYNERGIES family (the cloned specimens that power SY-FI CRAP’s artificial intelligence are technically relatives) know that Downton Abbey depends on the American market and that, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister of Synergy (‘Synister’) conglomerate media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Boardwalk Empire is a hit on British TV…at least for those who have sold their souls for Mad Men. These audiences must be synergised as soon as possible. Our survey says that this could be achieved by Boardwalk Empire having dancing chimney-sweeps become bootleggers rather than WWI veterans as well as posh Englishmen who don’t understand things not understanding flapjacks. Downton Abbey would need to re-cast Lady Grantham’s mother with Kathy Bates shouting raucously in a Southern drawl while her boobs hang loose in a t-shirt.

 

Those who resist the synergy movement, which at time of writing our statisticians rounded up to ‘the population of the earth’, may consider such a crossover detrimental to the integrity of each individual programme. To those who defy progress, I say remember those pioneers of TV synergy (or ‘TV-Gy’ not to be confused with the rating or the budget-conscious gay channel) who boldly cross-fertilised Inspector Morse and Masterchef to produce the policious hit series Pie in the Sky and economised by re-using cooking show credits sequences. Who could forget the genius producer who decided that CBS should try to sell CSI to the audience demographic for The Golden Girls and call it NCIS, a title which innovatively uses ‘anagriarism’ (a cross between ‘anagram’ and ‘plagiarism’) with the N standing for ‘nodding off’.

 

SYNERGIES awaits your response in all possible forms of media (including pigeon) simultaneously. We offer consultancy on a pro bono basis, which is a synergy word combining ‘prostitution’ and ‘bonus’.

 

Yours disingenuously,

 

Mr. Bojangles

 

(Synergy Date/Time Conversion: 2for1/1score/dozen)

 

Boardwalk or Downton?

 

 

Good (Late) Morning America!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2011 by Tom Steward

Waking up is hard to do. I always thought this was because of my sedentary lifestyle but apparently it’s because the TV in my country was never worth getting up for. Whereas in the UK, I’d be swilling cereal with bothered-looking hospital patients and those in the auction trade, here in the USA I’m champagne breakfasting with living legends and soap stars with heads so big they eclipse the painted moon backdrops they are so frequently mounted against. TV crumbles into the ashes of interest about 9am in the UK once the breakfast magazine and sitcom cycles are over but in the US (California time) this is when it starts to come alive. The stalwart of late morning TV is ABC’s Live! With Regis and Kelly, a talk and magazine show hosted by Bob Hope impersonator and male version of Blanche from The Golden Girls Regis Filbin and his co-presenter cum carer Kelly Ripa. A fairly mundane roll call of deathly dull competitions and perfunctory celebrity interviews are made immensely likeable by Regis’ endearing ineptitude and Kelly’s brusque-but-funny ushering that makes you want to purr ‘oh, she’s so good with him’. The top and tail of the show where the banter between the two hosts is allowed to flow freely is genuinely hilarious and frequently smart and witty, especially when Regis is irked by Kelly’s sarcasm and his latent insult comic lets rip. What’s more the show does skits and spoofs incredibly well, much more so that the cringingly appalling attempts at tomfoolery by other breakfast programmes like the Today show. This is mostly thanks to the arresting comic talents of the pair. Regis has that air of a hobbyist about him that distinguishes so many of the great TV presenters (Richard Whiteley and Terry Wogan would be the British TV equivalents) and is a walking argument against slickness and competence in TV hosting.

I have to admit I’m rather fond of The View, a flagship all-female fronted talk and magazine show that comes on after Regis and Kelly, which sports some pretty big cheeses in the world of news and entertainment like veteran comedienne Whoopi Goldberg and heavily medicated queen interviewess Barbara Walters. The format was plagiarized by ITV’s Loose Women and occasionally it’s just as banal and clichéd in its attitudes towards gender and reductive, applause-driven mwah-mwahs about politics. But The View is tons classier than its British mutant and sometimes it’s pretty challenging. In October of last year, Whoopi and co-host Joy Behar walked off in protest to Fox News’ Bill O’ Reilly’s badger-baiting bollock-mongering claim that ‘the Muslims got us on 9/11’ and the show is consistent in offering viewers a balance of liberal and conservative opinion, from the punchably swan-necked WASP Republican Elizabeth Hasselbeck to Behar’s fart-smell-faced social liberal skepticism. The interviews often take the form of grueling interrogations to the point that guests often bring gifts with them to try and pacify their inquisitors. Ricky Gervais had a remarkably tough time the other day with the interviewers scrutinizing every word of his Golden Globe jokes, a much rougher ride than he could ever expect from chortle-faced Graham Norton or celebrity chum Jonathan Ross.

The next couple of hours are dominated by soaps. Whereas British soaps tend to attempt social realism and end up peddling melodrama, American soaps seem much more in control of their ludicrous and overblown plots and characters, almost to the point of complete self-awareness. Nothing is too much, be it ghost, alien, dream or coincidencis-in-extremis. And they seem happy, nay even proud, to recycle the same old stories. In the episode of The Bold and the Beautiful I saw, a man was heard to say ‘You’re not the first women to come in here in a trench coat trying to steal me away’. I, for one, believe him. Thought of as drearily sentimental, what struck me was how completely nasty and Machievellian these soaps are; an impure celebration of conniving and conspiracy. What really stands out is how the soaps are (all identically) shot. Extreme close-ups on faces are the base line which, depending on your level of cynicism, could either signify budget-cutting in background set design or an almost schizophrenic immersion in the emotions of the characters being watched. It’s probably a combination of both and like all good TV is equal parts thrift and intimacy. The morning to lunchtime schedule on US TV is almost pathologically entertaining, and doesn’t make me feel bad for not appraising my attic space.

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