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Live Another UK

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

Perennial bad penny of television 24 returned to our screens last week, four years after the show’s cancellation, which everyone – other than flagging network Fox it seems – felt was already long overdue. Along with being cut in half (12 must not be a sellable number these days), one of the more remarkable changes to the series, sub-titled Live Another Day, is its re-location to London. In the later years of the series proper, 24 left America’s centre of terrorist activity L.A. to tour the East Coast with seasons seven and eight set in Washington and New York respectively. The show only ever ventured from U.S. shores when its many presidents would harangue middle-eastern statesmen by phone to reveal their country’s official secrets in order to avert a nuclear attack they know nothing about. African-set spin-off TV movie 24: Redemption is the exception here, but everyone concerned would I’m sure like to write that abomination out of the show’s history along with ER’s excursion into the dark continent of television. Besides, 24 was always characterised more by rampant xenophobia than cosmopolitanism. So why on earth would the producers of 24 want to re-launch the series in The Big Smoke?

24 solves mystery of London's traffic problem.

24 solves mystery of London’s traffic problem.

Well, the official explanation is that setting Live Another Day in London pays tribute to the UK TV audiences and critics who championed 24 in its early years when the US was still ambivalent. The first and second seasons of 24 were essential cult viewing when they aired on the free-to-air channel BBC Two in the early 2000s, gaining a large and devoted viewership, incessant national media attention and even a digital BBC sister show in a mould recently revived by AMC’s Talking Dead. The Guardian’s TV critic Charlie Brooker even had to be asked by his editors to stop writing about the show in his weekly column. 24 was lost to the nation as a watercooler show once premium satellite channel Sky One bought the exclusive rights to air the series from season three onwards, but Britain doubtless helped to ensure renewal in the years before the show was a signature Fox mainstay, and became too big to cancel. If this is the case, then speaking for the entirety of the UK – which as an ex-pat I do daily – we’re flattered. But will Britain end up resenting 24 in a manner previously reserved for Dick Van Dyke?

Three episodes in, it’s too early to tell but the signs are encouraging. Live Another Day has so far conspicuously avoided the axis of bobbies, minis and red phone-boxes that still dominates the representation of Britain in American popular culture. Sometimes, it even looks like it was conceived by someone who knows London, or has at least obsessively Google-street-viewed it. The season premiere opened with an East-London street market scene that authentically captured the area’s large Asian population, a fact of our diversity that Americans often miss. Whether or not the Prime Minister would have been a caricature of the privileged classes anyway I’m not sure, but that’s what we currently have, and Stephen Fry’s neckless bumbler is a suitably Cameronesque figure. Apart from some tourist traps like assuming that someone could pursue a Tube train through Central London by driving, the show is pretty faithful to the city’s geography and infrastructure and, at the time of writing, we’ve seen way more of London’s liminal council estates and industrial wastelands than its tourist hardware. We don’t see natives often, but when we do they have the sarcasm and cynicism towards America’s intelligence melodrama that I expect from my fellow Britons.

Jack's in a pickle again!

Jack’s in a pickle again!

Sadly, the cinematographers have CSI’d the show’s colour palette, making London more grey than it actually is, which I didn’t think possible. As revelations about the origin of the attacks unfold, I’m beginning to worry that we’re about to be portrayed as a country that harbours and sympathises with middle-eastern terrorism, rather than one that benignly questions the motives of US foreign wars from time-to-time. Given 24’s scapegoating of anyone East of Alaska, I’m not sure those Asian and Eastern-European Londoners are going to stay innocent bystanders for long. Of course, this London layover is symptomatic of a broader reverse-colonization of American television by UK popular culture, with a quota of British acting in every new show. It comes at a time when Bravo is launching the reality show Ladies of London looking at the city’s transatlantic socialites. As self-appointed visual archive of the rich and famous, Bravo is hardly likely to offer us a London in accordance with social realities. Preview material of a barrow boy speaking entirely in cockney rhyming-slang more or less confirms this. So at a time when American TV is obsessing over Britain without ever attempting to understand it, should we be grateful for Jack?

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Frame Vs. Frame

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles arguing about whether TV or cinema is better. They don’t start off like this. Usually they begin as a debate about which medium is in better shape but they quickly descend into partisan defences of one or the other. Those in the film corner like to base their arguments on what cinema can do rather than what it’s currently doing. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s absurd defence of cinema’s dominance over TV (not that it needs it, of course!) argues that cinema is better than TV because the big screen can do anything the small screen can, even if it tends not to, and that when it does the same thing as TV, cinema is always better because you’re out of the house. There’s no impassioned defence of contemporary film just a retreat into the past to blind readers with movie nostalgia. Guardian Film’s Tom Shone can’t find a director more contemporary than Ang Lee to substantiate his case for cinema (though many more recent names come even to my mind).

The Golden Age of Television…or whatever happens to be on!

Critics defending the box in the corner have the opposite problem. They are so preoccupied with what today’s television says about the quality of the medium there’s no acknowledgement of how TV’s history might also be useful in arguing the point. While critics like Turan can throw off allusions to Gance and Cocteau, TV’s advocates rarely reminisce further than Weiner or Gilligan (the Breaking Bad creator not the TV cast away). This may be because TV critics are not asked to be historians in the same way film critics are but why is that? Well it’s down to the profound disrespect we have for old television and the widely held belief that TV is ephemeral. TV critics don’t seem to understand that if they argue TV is great because it’s better than it used to be, they leave themselves open to these rebuttals from cinema’s proud history. Throw in a Serling and a Huggins occasionally and maybe you’ll convince a cineaste that TV is good because it’s always been capable of being good not by accident of circumstances. And you’re at a severe disadvantage against someone with a photographic memory when you’re an amnesiac.

It’s all part of a critical bigotry that resorts to casting aspersions on a field of culture you happen not to cover (but probably would if commissioned to) rather than taking a cold, hard look at the industry that you do. Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe. But the behaviour of TV critics irritates me more, because in a way they’re maligning television far more than any film critic has done – with the possible exception of Mark Kermode, who writes about TV like an unreasonable drunk. TV has been, for the most part, wildly excellent for a good thirty years now and was always pebble-dashed with artful gems throughout its long, ignominious history on the air regardless of the creative problems of the era. Yet TV critics keep trying to carve out this idea of an ever-beginning ‘new golden age of television’ that is just about now. This assertion that good TV is periodic is insulting enough as it strongly suggests that it’s uncharacteristic of the medium but the refusal to see the best of TV as connected by the medium rather than just a point in history is absolutely baffling to me.

It’s a new golden age and has been since 1999!

Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian film and TV blog suggesting that the golden age of television may already be over turns a matter of quality into one of timeline. Instead of seeing a historic tapestry of TV that lets us see the magnitude of what has been accomplished, we’re disputing the dates of hermetically sealed and arbitrarily compiled golden ages. The ‘golden age’ thesis is also a very weak argument if you’re trying to build a case for the quality of television. I wouldn’t let the continuous stream of terrible new releases I encounter at the movies on a regular basis lure me into thinking that cinema wasn’t one of the great gifts humanity has given to culture and art. Equally, I wouldn’t think any more of television than I already did if I found out it managed to put together a few good shows back-to-back. I would think twice if I knew it kept happening.

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