Archive for the mindy project

In With The Who

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by Tom Steward

Here we go again! In August, Peter Capaldi replaced Matt Smith in the iconic title role of the British family science-fiction series Doctor Who, a programme that’s changed actors more times than a Mindy Project midseason re-tool. Capaldi is joint-oldest to play the part with the Sean Connery of Doctors William Hartnell. His age, along with his otherworldly physicality and fannish investment in the history of Doctor Who have led some to assume that Capaldi will resurrect some of the mystery, mastery and manipulation seen in the earliest incarnations of the character. While this is undoubtedly the case, it forgets that Matt Smith’s performance – an actor nearly half Capaldi’s age – was always pushing in that direction, even if the writing for him was not. Smith had managed to convince us that age was no obstacle to playing The Doctor. Now it seems the show is happy to pass The Eleventh Doctor off as some reckless young buck to help viewers come to term with an older Twelfth. It’s double standards, and a very dangerous game!

Who Needs You?

Who Needs You?

Capaldi is probably the best actor to have played the role, and I don’t say that lightly. Unlike Christopher Eccleston – another actor I admire greatly – he also seems a comfortable fit for the role. But essentially this is a repeat of what Doctor Who did in introducing Colin Baker as The Sixth Doctor; a more sinister, less personable variation on the character. Despite Baker’s best (and loudest!) efforts, it was a sea change they were never really able to pull off. So is the show making the same mistakes as before? Short answer: No. Long answer: They’re making different mistakes. This time, the writers have remembered to round out the edges of the character early on, rather than leave character development for a time that may never come. However, somebody needs to tell Steven Moffat that the moral ambiguity of a character is best represented in their actions not in constantly talking about how morally ambiguous they are. Hence, genre pieces like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘Time Heist’ have been this season’s most successful episodes.

We’re halfway through Capaldi’s first season and it’s hard not to notice the discrepancy between the quality of his performance and the material he’s given. As the absurdist, Godot-like vignette between The Doctor and a Victorian tramp in debut ‘Deep Breath’ indicated, Capaldi’s actorly flow offers new dramatic possibilities for the programme (and puts the show’s use of Eccleston to shame!). But there’s only so much even the finest actor can do when compelled to speak in Moffat-ese baby talk for the majority of episodes, although the head writer has shown some restraint in contracting his idiomatic ‘thingy’ to ‘thing’. Moffat presents the biggest obstacle to Capaldi’s success. Now micro-managing most of the season’s scripts, in addition to several of his own sole pen, the same laziness and hackery that beset Smith’s tenure is already starting to permeate Capaldi’s after only five hours of television. While Capaldi is completely fresh, Moffat’s schtick after five years as showrunner is tired, and tiresome; never more evident than in laborious, tenuous allusions to a familiarly mechanical-looking season arc.

Waiting for Who?

Waiting for Who?

There’s dead weight in the cast too. I sincerely hoped that the character and performance of companion Clara would improve once she was released from her status as story point in the ill-advised ‘impossible girl’ arc. But between the clipped, garbled diction of the dialogue and exponentially annoying inflections of actress Jenna-Louise Coleman (and the smugness…can’t get over the smugness), she’s a lost cause. I’m glad the writers haven’t resorted to the bickering married couple dynamic that made The Doctor and Peri’s TARDIS scenes so unwatchable, and I’m grateful for the buffer that teacher Danny Pink (a considered performance by Samuel Anderson) provides – yes, if there’s one thing Moffat can write well it’s awkward men! But as long as Clara’s the main focus of Doctor Who, which she is more and more since the show revived the autonomy of The Doctor’s companions, it’ll always feel like there a little Moffat running around in the world of the programme. It also doesn’t help Capaldi that the writers insist on keeping the spectre of Matt Smith around.

Doctor Who has always surrounded new Doctors with familiar elements of the series to cushion viewers in times of transition. Indeed, this season began with a Victorian-set adventure featuring the ‘Paternoster Gang’ who were regulars in Smith’s era. But Moffat went so far as to have Smith in the episode (calling Clara from the past) and allusions to the actor in later episodes. As wonderful and apposite as these moments are – because they feature Smith – they’re holding viewers back from really embracing Capaldi’s Doctor. You begin to suspect that Moffat’s vanity is partly behind this effort to build a dramatic whoniverse unified around his time as showrunner. Prior to his debut, I suspected that Capaldi, an Oscar-winning director no less, might excise a little more control over the show than befits his brief, as did auteur Orson Welles who liked to put scare quotes around the term ‘actor’. I can see Capaldi’s influence on the change in pace, the contraction of melodrama, and even the language…in that it sounds like language! Long may it contin-who.

And Finale…

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2014 by Tom Steward

American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy. Before the Christmas break, there’s the mid-season finale, which desperately tries to manufacture a television event out of a show taking a brief holiday. Some shows have started to invent finales and talk about them as if we somehow know what they’re supposed to signify. Fox’s The Mindy Project has just had its Winter Finale, which is apparently what you now call putting the show on hiatus for a couple of months at the end of January. Season finales only seem like a big deal because all a show’s stories build towards it as a point of climax. In reality, it’s only a matter of months before the show is back on again. Even series finales don’t preclude a show returning through revivals, spin-offs, movie sequels and reunions. The cast of Seinfeld have managed to reunite twice since the sitcom went off the air, firstly in a fictional reunion episode within the world of Curb your Enthusiasm and then in a sketch for this year’s Superbowl coverage. That’s a lot of endings for shows that never quite finish.

Seinfeld cast reunite at superbowl, which is also the name of Jason Alexander’s haircut.

I’ve been thinking about finales because American TV has just had a big one. After 23 years in the host seat, last week Jay Leno finally said goodbye to The Tonight Show. Like most finales, however, nothing is really ending. Jimmy Fallon will take over as host, which has been a forgone conclusion for years now given the high-profile and staggering popularity of his late-night NBC talk show. Few people would be prepared to believe that Leno is even giving up the show. Leno first left the job in 2010 ceding hosting duties to Conan O’Brien. Within a few months, he had clawed back the job from his successor, as acknowledged in O’Brien’s Olympic-themed jab at his predecessor on the eve of Leno’s departure. Yet everyone acted as if something was in fact ending. Leno cried, celebrities queued up to say goodbye, and Garth Brooks played – which really is the nuclear option. The Tonight Show is going back to its home in New York and is now hosted by someone capable (though bafflingly so!) of gaining consistently huge ratings for a show whose popularity has balked in the last decade. Sounds more like a salvage operation than a send-off.

You can never come back from Garth Brooks.

Another American TV finale was in the news recently. The latest season of weight-loss game show The Biggest Loser held its final weigh-in last week, with the winning contestant having undergone a loss of weight so severe that she appeared to have another kind of eating disorder. The usual Muppet-mouthed looks of aghast pride from the trainers were replaced by horror, concern and confusion when they laid their eyes on her emaciated body. The show has always been self-righteous about the good it does for public physical and mental health. Yet by incentivising maximum possible weight loss without any healthy weight caps and filling its contestants’ heads with cod psychobabble in motivational-speak, The Biggest Loser falls prey to the pitfalls of many reality shows in neglecting its responsibilities of care to the members of the public it features. The season finale is usually a cause for self-congratulation as the show parades its reduced-sized versions of that year’s contestants and pats itself on the back for helping them, all the while of course revelling in sensational images of obese people eating cake naked. But this year’s finale revealed the dangerous and unhealthy extremes that the show’s premise could be taken to.

Trainers on The Biggest Loser react to body-shock win!

It’s good to have an end in sight. TV is such a massive and sprawling thing that it’s helpful to set limits and boundaries now and again. But rarely do they actually represent something that could be actually be called an ending. Finales help TV continue, renew and keep track of itself but all their talk of being done for good needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Like The Tonight Show goodbye might just mean adieu and as we’ve seen with The Biggest Loser finales might take you further than ever wanted to go in too short a time. And with that, Watching TV with Americans enters its Valentine’s Finale followed by its mid-mid-year finale. It’s time for me to say an emotional, longwinded goodbye as I leave you…for a couple of weeks. Remember to eat in the meantime and only play Garth Brooks while I’m away.

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.

 

‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.

 

Rod Serling would have been proud

 

 

 

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