Archive for the shawshank redemption

Jumping The Arc

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m not one to ignore the advice of Public Enemy but I believe the hype. American television is as good as it’s ever been. Full of rich and varied programmes that are as emotionally compelling as they are artfully composed, flush with writers, directors and producers who recognise and understand the craft of good television (many of them the same) and boasting a success rate that easily surpasses American cinema. It’s only because I feel this way that I’m willing to tolerate the abominations of storytelling that even the finest shows on the air serve up on a weekly basis. The people behind American TV have a right to be complacent, and with complacency comes bad habits. A plague of lazy short-cuts and downright sloppiness has spread exponentially through US TV writing and several worrying tendencies have emerged. Here’s a run-down of some of the worst inclinations and their hosts:

Flashbacks/Flashforwards:

I’ve seen the future…and it is confusing!

As far as I’m concerned, if you need to use a flashback or a flashforward at any point in your screenplay you’ve not written the scenes in the present well enough. There are exceptions-like biographies-but the TV shows I’m talking about don’t fall into any of those categories. Great new series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead regularly go back and forth on their timelines, and increasingly wield these digressions as banners for the programme. Going back in time serves to fill in story gaps, underlining how badly communicated previous episodes were and alerting viewers to missed opportunities. Looking ahead creates an enigma then made comprehensible by the subsequent action, betraying a (usually undue) lack of faith in the material of the episodes to sustain interest in their own rights. Moreover, these displacements in time interrupt the forward momentum that these shows thrive upon to compel further viewing.

Cast Montages:

There’s only one way this can end…with a montage.

Ever wondered what all the characters in a show are doing at a given time? Me neither. Yet still the most common device for bringing a programme’s ensemble cast together within a single scene is a montage sketching each character’s activities at a time of day (typically morning or night). While this technique usually reveals something essential and often surprising about one or two of the characters, others are left to make up the numbers as they can’t all be doing something profound at exactly the same moment. Most shows manage to keep this tendency to a single scene at the beginning or end of an episode but series like Sons of Anarchy now feature multiple cast montages scattered randomly throughout each instalment, the only means of keeping track of the show’s surplus of sub-plots. There must be subtler, more sustainable ways of getting everybody in one place.

Song Overlays:

Coldplay: ruining American TV since 2002.

Nothing dates faster than music. Despite this truism, American TV shows continue to overlay scenes with contemporary songs that will likely only be considered respectable in the moment they’re first transmitted. Remember when The Shield ended its first season with a musical montage using Coldplay’s ‘Spider Webs’. That was in 2002 when the band still had cache and fed into the alternative style the show was cultivating. Now that Coldplay embody corporate bland, the sequence looks and sounds like middlebrow advertising. Series continue to make the same mistakes by selecting the latest hipster warbles rather than looking for the transcendent instrumentals that will preserve them throughout history. The choices tend to reflect the producers’ record collection rather than being linked to character or place. The Walking Dead would like us to believe that a teenage girl from a remote Atlanta farm has committed Tom Waits B-sides to memory.

Showrunners Writing:

‘Mr Darabont…step away from the script!’

While I’m grateful for all they do to put a programme on the air and keep it in good shape, I wish showrunners would keep their hands off the teleplay. They seem to have a knack for writing the weakest and most mechanical episodes and the ones most concerned with the image of the show not the art of television. Without the might of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont behind it, The Walking Dead may never have reached TV screens but the couple of episodes he wrote that headed up the series seemed incapable of articulating how the show would progress as a long-form narrative (rather than a 2-hour zombie movie) which is essential to establish in the pilot stages of a series. As soon as the writing responsibilities passed to serial TV veterans Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee, the ongoing vision for the programme became evident.

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Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

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When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

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At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

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