Archive for the office

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

unbreakable

Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

unbreakable 2

Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

The Apprentice’s Apprentice

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…’

I’m quoting Joni Mitchell not (only) because I’m reading Morrissey’s autobiography and have the urge to paste song lyrics into prose when I’ve run out of things to say but rather as a description of the way I feel about The Apprentice. It’s rare in our culture to prefer the re-make over the original but even rarer that we admit to preferring another country’s version of an idea to ours, regardless of which came first. It’s this paradoxical thinking that draws me to the BBC adaptation of The Apprentice and makes me resent the NBC original. Now that I live in America, the latter is my bread-and-butter and the former feels too distant from my daily existence to be relevant viewing anymore. As I sit writing this on a winter’s day with the sun beating my back, I don’t ask for sympathy. But I do rather feel like the person who bought the last painting before they discovered perspective.

From the arse's mouth!

From the arse’s mouth!

Like most shows sold overseas, the format remains largely unchanged. But there’s something about the translation of American corporate-speak and aspirational diatribe into the laughably misjudged self-esteem of Britain’s business classes that gives The Apprentice on the BBC an ironic quality which bends a celebration of capitalism into a critique of the ideology. Goebbels once said that no-one could watch an Eisenstein film without becoming a communist. Well, I severely doubt anyone could sit through an episode of UK version of The Apprentice and still think capitalism is going to last. It’s not hard to believe we have economies based on nothing because The Apprentice UK tells us the people who front it are never less than vacuous. While the American original has the product placement and commercial saturation of a major US network in its arsenal, the BBC version is broadcast on a British public service station which prohibits advertising. The former is mired in a web of cross-marketing, while the latter seems inhospitable to the idea of a TV programme as a commodity.

Go waste the President's time instead...

Go waste the President’s time instead…

This is not to say that The Apprentice UK is some sort of subversive attempt by the imagined leftist conspiracy at the BBC to undermine British entrepreneurship. It’s more accurate to call it ‘private service television’, a mode of broadcasting addressed to a society dominated by privatised industry and designed to make the best of it (even that is being a touch generous!). But neither does it use its airtime to consolidate a corporate empire through media exposure, like its forbearer. The Donald Trump Apprentice never misses a chance to tell you how powerful and glorious the various business enterprises of the Trump family are, whereas the Alan Sugar counterpart (which sounds like the greatest 80s garage band that never was!) makes his company look like a loosely connected network of 1940s-style spivs and barrow-boys. The tasks assigned by Trump are publicity-centric busywork (especially in the current Celebrity variant) but Sugar’s are about the hard graft of street selling and face-to-faces with customers. You’re the apprentice of a swindler learning how to avoid being swindled.

Sugar doing my job for me!

Sugar doing my job for me!

Perhaps this is because ivory-towerism doesn’t sit so well with the British public, while it taps into the ultimate aspirations of many Americans. The British version is certainly not intended as satire (though the directors do like to puncture with visual gags anyone who takes self-assessment as business elites too literally) but it is playing to a crowd who like sarcasm, wit and darkly awkward comedy. Sugar and his associates are fans of linguistically inventive cruelty, the directors eek every ounce of uncomfortable voyeurism out of the documentary filming (in a style borrowed from pioneering UK sitcom The Office), and the show itself is framed as a sadistic prank played on those who applied to appear. It’s marginally better now the prize is a sizeable investment in a business venture a la Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank (delete monster and monster holding cell as appropriate) but I remember when winners were rewarded by an internship at a digital signage company amid the electro-magnetic subjugation of Tottenham Court Road. Somnambulist losers of Touch the Truck have it better. No-one expects Donald Trump to say anything intelligent, funny or creative (even his racist metaphors lack flair) and the verbal garbage emerging from the Ridley Scott-alien mouths of his children is a generation stupider. Mavericks are praised not parodied and the mere act of aspiring is deemed worth the risk.

TV Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’ve been (hardly) working my way through Breaking Bad, one of the more remarkable American TV shows of our time, and one of the most striking features of the series is its timeframe. Eschewing the TV rule of thumb that the time onscreen runs parallel with the duration of the initial broadcast, all 5 seasons of AMC’s family crime dramedy take place over the course of a couple of years (there’s a few episodes left but all indications are we’ll go no further ahead than that) effectively making the series a period piece by the time it finishes in 2013. This jeopardises Breaking Bad’s plausibility. The tectonic shifts in character and flurry of cataclysmic events which transform a high school chemistry teacher into an international druglord would be far more credible if spread over a vast number of years. Inside an 18-month window, it puts the series in the realms of bizarre melodrama. We also can’t take what happens to the characters as development as no-one has the luxury of time for any significant growth to occur. Instead, we’re witnessing how the cast of characters react to crises and trauma and watching them expose the existing depths of their personalities.

From Walter White to Heisenberg…in a year?

The time we watch TV is regulated and ongoing so it’s natural for most shows to try and match this for the sake of minimum disruption. Look how seasons of The Office begin with a re-cap of what happened to the characters during the Summer, when the show was off-air, simply to remind audiences that the onscreen and offscreen time syncs up and that the hiatus experienced by viewers was simultaneously endured by the characters. It’s especially important to make sure TV shows can capitalise on seasonally themed episodes (Christmas, Halloween) by juxtaposing them with the time they occur in the real world. Deviating from this scheduling ritual is a source of much innovation and originality in US TV. Unconventional uses of time can be the difference between cliché-ridded formula fare and mould-breaking masterpiece. People were happy to forget what a laboured potboiler 24 was because of its real-time season-as-a-day format and that the non-linear point-of-view narrated Boomtown was just another cancellation fodder cop show. It can even just be temporary relief from a format that is grindingly rigid in how it treats time. Brain-sparing cause-and-effect procedural CSI frequently throws in a flashback or reverse episodes to break the monotony.

Cliche + Time = 24

In a show like Breaking Bad, quirky time management isn’t the first blow of brilliance hitting you over the head but more like a gentle pat on the shoulder reassuring you of quality. If timing is the most noticeable characteristic of a programme, then chances are it will be a fast-fading novelty. 24 lasted 10 years on air but no-one in TV seems especially interested in using its format again. Boomtown was cancelled after 2 seasons once all possibilities of fragmented viewpoint-driven storytelling had been exhausted. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the entirety of Twin Peaks and Deadwood without acknowledging how each episode crafts its multiple storylines into one day’s worth of time and lose nothing of their artistic brilliance. Indeed it seems perfectly in tune with Twin Peaks’ satire of soap opera and tendency towards the supernaturally fantastic that such an overwhelming wealth of events occur in a ludicrously short space of time. More than that, equating a single episode with 1 day has subsequently become TV’s way of making it seem like it’s running alongside everyday life. Unlike the patchy coverage we get from calendar-linked shows, here we never miss a minute of the action.

30 Days in the Life of Twin Peaks

It would be wrong to assume that US TV shows deal with time in a way that is abstract or avant-garde. Even the most altered state of TV time is highly structured and controlled. The dream world of Twin Peaks may have ruptured the show’s real world chronology but it was only ever there in the first place to plug a gap in the middle of the screenplay of the pilot. The spread of TV might be amorphous and ever-expanding but individual programmes and their runs are tightly timetabled and time within them needs to follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the innovations of time in TV storytelling have complimented the scheduling of the programme. US TV dramas are an hour fitted into a run of 21-25 hence a thriller set over 24 hours with each episode an hour. So is Breaking Bad doing something genuinely outlandish? Time will tell.

 

Going out with a Clanger

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s official! The Office is now unwatchable. But since you can have this opinion any way you want on the internet-like eggs in a diner-I’ve decided against blogging about this (for the record, I blame hiring Catherine Tate, firing Mindy Kaling and too much Jenna Fischer) so instead here’s a rundown of some other US TV shows that tanked in their final season:

Catherine Tate giving an offhand lecture on how to ruin TV shows!

Northern Exposure-Season 6

A series about a New York doctor forced to take up residency in an Alaskan small-town should have conceivably ended when said doctor returned to New York. But when actor Rob Morrow, playing Dr. Joel Fleischman, wanted to leave the show, the producers decided it wasn’t the character, the performance or his rapport with the rest of the cast (including the driving-force storyline of Fleischman’s on-again-off-again romance with Maggie O’Connell) that was essential but the idea of a fish-out-of-water New York doctor in Alaska. It didn’t help that to ease Morrow out of the show the writers did a 360 on Fleischman’s character transforming him from a neurotic urbanite into a Zen wild man of the woods and that Maggie was soon randomly paired up with another of the show’s leading men.

Rob Morrow celebrates being allowed to wear a tie again

Seinfeld-Season 9

Don’t get me wrong I’ll happy sit through any episode of this final season of the groundbreaking sitcom and it’s not short of classic moments (‘Serenity Now!’, Festivus etc.). But two years after the departure of creator Larry David, much of Season 9 feels like a cartoon parody of Seinfeld, continuing to hit all the misanthropic notes that its creators insisted the show couldn’t do without (if not more) but without the easy-going naturalism of previous seasons. The storytelling relies far too much on fantasy rather than contrived coincidences, diluting the carefully crafted multi-stranded writing with lazy shortcuts. Though I’m not as down on the finale as some, the decision to make its second half a thinly disguised clip show following an hour-long tribute the previous week was deeply ill-advised.

Oh come on guys, it wasn’t that bad!

 Roseanne-Season 9

There isn’t space here to list all the mistakes family sitcom Roseanne made in its final season but here are some of the major gaffes. There’s no John Goodman. Imagine Lucy without Desi or Samantha without Darrin (the first one at least!). What’s more, Dan is written out of the show by Roseanne leaving him, which completely goes against the unshakeable strength of their marriage established in the previous 8 seasons. It makes what went before seem like a dream. And while we’re on the topic of dreams, there’s way too many of them here. Every other episode is an extended dream sequence, something we would previously get only once or twice a season. The storyline of the season is that Roseanne wins the lottery which hits the jackpot of bad sitcom ideas, the episodes are basically strung-together celebrity cameos, and the finale rivals Lost in the incomprehensible endings stakes.

I wish it had been a dream…rather than making the rest seem like it was!

ER-Season 15

Legend has it that the long-running hospital drama managed to maintain its quality of cast and writing right through to the end but those who actually watched those final few seasons-as opposed to rounding up from the first 12 years-have a very different story to tell. ER always prided itself on effectively replacing beloved cast members time and again. After all, this was the series that survived the loss of George Clooney. But by Season 15, there are no more heroes, admirable adults or esteemed actors left in the show but just a thin residue of the leftover comic sidekicks and kids, running around quipping and accidentally killing people like Bugsy Malone in a hospital. And when a series is relying on a revolving door of guest stars to fill the lead roles, it’s time to pull the plug.

‘Where did all the good characters go?’ 

Murder One-Season Two

Steven Bochco’s TV series are usually synonymous with longevity and the first season of this innovative courtroom drama which covered a single trial over 23 episodes set in motion a formula that seemed destined for ongoing success. And it probably would have achieved it had it not been for the series producers changing everything that made it great. Star and heart of the show Daniel Benzali was axed and replaced by Anthony LaPaglia, an actor with far less gravitas playing a character without the compelling presence of Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman. The season was no longer one trial but three, thus the unique selling point of the series was gone, and so was a reason for the audience to care.

We’re back…minus everyone you like!

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

 

 

 

Just a quickie (that’s what she said)

Posted in American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2011 by Tom Steward

Sorry to tear you away from your viewing (Columbo, I assume) but I just wanted to do a quick one about my favourite depiction of blogging on American TV. TV has always had trouble knowing how best to incorporate the internet into its programmes, often simply resorting to compiling clips from YouTube and putting them into a chart countdown format. And this makes the clip I’ve chosen doubly impressive. The Office: An American Workplace is a remake of the seminal British sitcom The Office that has surpassed the original in many ways, particularly in its development of the supporting cast of characters, two of whom are central to this clip.

 So Ryan the put-open (and later Machiavellian) office temp fools the unassumingly sinister paper salesman Creed into thinking he’s writing a blog when in fact he’s merely harmlessly firing away heinous observations into a word document. This vignette brilliantly captures the way that many people get so overawed by the wonder of new technology and so willingly buy in to the myth of absolute convenience that they fool themselves into believing that anything can be done for a minimum of effort. The fake blog is a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes; Creed knows nothing about blogging except that it’s the fashion and although he’s never seen it with his own eyes he believes his blog’s out here. And this is in an age where every commercial debut of a new device feels exactly like the unveiling of a naked royal. The characterisation of the internet as a place where the dark recesses of the human psyche gain full expression is a familiar one to anybody who’s ever scrawled down a set of user comments on a blog or news page. But the disturbing suggestion that Creed’s thoughts are too extreme ‘even for the internet’ is one that brings out perfectly the latent terror of the character while tantalising us with an unseen Pandora’s Box of hateful prose.

But what I really love about this clip is that it reminds me of me. Like Creed, I’m writing this blog whilst being completely in the dark about how it really works. I too feel like I’m pouring out copy into a word document and hoping that internet fairies like Ryan will be scrupulous enough to ensure it makes it out on to the web. I’m always surprised other people read it.

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