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Acts of Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by Tom Steward

In the week following terrorist attacks on Paris, Beirut and Lebanon, the response of American television to these events is of little importance. But this is a blog about American television and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. To make this blog about the attacks – as if that had been its dormant purpose all along – would do a severe injustice to what is a complex geo-political situation. Sometimes I wish American television knew its limitations as well as I do. News and current affairs programs obviously must deal with what has happened – unfortunately for those of us who don’t think that refugees are responsible for the crimes of their persecutors – but TV entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to engage unless the latter’s remit crosses over into the former’s. Nonetheless, all entertainment programming, at least that which has been made since the attacks, seems to have an unwritten obligation to comment on the human tragedy. This sounds like an altogether good thing, suggesting that the genre isn’t as trivial as we suspected, but what it actually discovers is that entertainment formats are simply not equipped to handle this level of political discourse. Many of the results have been frankly insulting.

paris

Jean Oliver!

Take, for instance, Chris Hardwick’s gabbled epilogue of pseudo-Churchillian platitudes no doubt compiled from a graphic novel about Dunkirk in the closing moments of AMC’s Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of The Walking Dead. This resembled one of those rushed disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. For events of this magnitude, you either have time to talk about them or you don’t. I’m all in favour – as my younger self would not have been – of cancelling scheduled shows in favour of extended news coverage, though this is one of the few times that a 24-hour news cycle is justified in my view. TNT made the decision to postpone the broadcast of an episode of Sean Bean vehicle Legends set in Paris, which though it may appear overly-sensitive also takes into account the fact that a terrorist act is represented. CBS’ Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles also shelved episodes that involved bombings and terrorists. Networks tend to err on the side of caution in these instances, reducing TV to a set of trending keywords and then disseminating entire programs that use them incidentally. It’s one of the few occasions that networks admit outright that their programming is not socially responsible.

Some responses were more judicious. As you might expect from our ironic culture of news, parodies of broadcast journalism did far better than the real thing in their treatment of the attacks. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kept the talk of war cultural, badgering ISIS into taking on the global leaders of art, food and music with their apocalyptic asceticism. While this is one of the few shows on TV that had the time and scope to offer a full account of the attacks and their significance, the suddenness of the events and their proximity to airtime meant that the program was safer – and more effective – to be as schoolboy as possible in its response, exploiting the other boutique quality of HBO: Obscenity. While broader as befits its appeal, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert adopted a similar tact, leaving it to New Orleans-based house jazz band Jean Baptiste and Stay Human to pay tribute to the French origins of their musical culture. Colbert has always played both sides of the American political sphere and, whether scheduled or not, the pairing of Bill Maher and Medal of Honor recipient Flobert Groberg kept the extremists on both sides at bay.

Vive la Rat!

Vive la Rat!

But what made Colbert’s response particularly powerful was its self-reflexive commentary on how to respond to events such as these. There was an affectionate poke at the tweeters who had the combination of compassion and ignorance that makes watching Ratatouille an act of solidarity with the French and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dilemma over whether to keep the booking of feline circus act The Acro-Cats on the first show since the attacks. Since taking over from Letterman at CBS, Colbert has made himself a defender of both American high culture and light entertainment, and so the ISIS attacks were a real (surely unwanted) test of his mettle in his dual function as cultural commentator and ringmaster, which he passed with high-flying colours. Colbert is unusually thoughtful for a talk show host, Oliver a journalistic powerhouse. It’s the ones who think they’re being thoughtful through acknowledgment that are the problem.

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