Archive for the simpsons

Time for TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2016 by Tom Steward

As Fuller House demonstrates, TV is always eager to flex its nostalgia muscles but recent programs have shown that it’s still the timeliness of the medium that puts it above others. While Donald Trump scapegoats Mexican immigration for America’s problems and builds his “policies” (and I use that word as broadly as it will stretch) around a wall dividing America and Mexico, Fox is airing an animated sitcom about a racist border agent living in a town called ‘Mexifornia’ who remains oblivious to the generous spirit of his Latino neighbor. Meanwhile in the post-Snowden age, a basic cable drama explores the anti-heroism of the hacker terrorist. But television can never shed anachronism completely and while these shows might be current they are far from new.

border

Deport thy neighbor!

Bordertown is a blatant callback to the ‘bad neighbor’ sitcom that has been one of the most common formats for the genre and usually the vehicle for discussing vast social, racial and political differences between characters. The British sitcom Love Thy Neighbour in which a working-class racist white man lives next door to a middle-class African-Briton is perhaps the best (if that word can ever be used in conjunction with the show) example of this, though Hitler-Jewish couple neighbour sitcom Heil! Honey I’m Home is certainly the most extreme. Previous animated Fox comedies have used this device, forging dynamics between church-hating slob Homer Simpson and God-loving puritan Ned Flanders in The Simpsons or button-downed Texan Hank and extravagant Laotian Kahn in King of the Hill.

The ethics of hacking may not have been addressed as cogently as they have in USA’s Mr. Robot but the act itself has traditionally been a means to an end in TV drama. State-sanctioned hackers like Chloe in 24 helped to move the plot along in real-time, even when the character was faced with the drudgery of coffee shop Wi-Fi. On CBS, there’s a CSI about hacking (the only one left, believe it or not) and something called Scorpion which puts hacking at the centre of story development, even though the show seems designed to make tech people seethe with rage at the inaccuracies. Plus whoever made this has a raging Fight Club fetish, with a delusional loner embroiled in terrorist activities as social protest.

To fight the hate-fuelled bile of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, we need an alternative that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to condemning the Caucasian culture that engendered his political triumphs. In that sense, the bigotry and ignorance (#bignorance) of white characters in Bordertown is more of an antidote than the polite questioning of Trump on news programming, which ensures their ratings cow remains sacred. While partisan liberal news networks like MSNBC can be counter-attacked for projecting ideology, Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane’s politically incorrect comedy cannot, since it extends its satire to the left and Latino culture, rather than cowering from it. The lack of controversy may be because it is little-watched, but it also could be a sign the public accept its truth.

Like its pre-9/11 cinematic predecessor, Mr. Robot may not have a political perspective as much as simply throwing around politically charged words and ideas. That’s fine, as drama shouldn’t be propaganda, but there’s no doubt it captures our ambivalence as a culture about digital whistleblowers. I’m pushing through the first season slowly so excuse me if I’ve already been debunked but hacker Elliot has neither been confirmed as a hero or villain, nor has his direct action yet been given moral deniability for us as an audience. I’m not sure it’s because the writers can’t make their minds up, but rather that we can’t. They may not have predicted the Apple terrorist phone unlocking crisis but they can count on its like in the news.

roboto

Domo arigot!

Not that I want to draw a false equivalence between the two shows. Mr. Robot is a huge departure for USA, who have typically relied on a bunch of slick ricks to fill their original programming vacuum. Bordertown is familiar territory for Fox, who are the leaders in mainstream adult animation (though Adult Swim is snapping at their heels) and will only enhance a pre-existing reputation. But they are united in their contemporaneity, and the ability to deliver that in a style that seems like it’s always been with us. Because it nearly always has. Both programs test the limits of modern-day American culture, straddling its violent past and technological future. But crucially they also know how to appeal to our overriding sense of nostalgia.

Thinking Outside The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

The Simpsons Are Going To Yellow Air!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

We’re currently halfway through the most embiggened television event of the summer. Every. Simpsons. Ever. is FXX’s 12-day marathon of all 552 episodes of The Simpsons in order, a feat which will require more than even a hundred tacos for adequate sustenance…and a bigger wheelbarrow. I refuse to rhapsodize about the quality of these episodes, partly because it is so astoundingly self-evident that anyone who can’t see it is already a lost cause and also because if you’re yet to be convinced it will take Hypnotoad therapy (it’s still Groening!) to convert you, not the arbitrary superlatives of a fan-blogger.

Doh! A deer. A female deer...

Doh! A deer. A female deer…

What struck me watching the series from the beginning is how fully-formed it arrived. A few episodes in and the refined notes of sitcom, satire, slapstick and emotion had already found a blended chemistry. I’ve always suspected the idea that series take place in a coherent fictional universe was just World of Warcraft for TV critics, but looking back it’s remarkable how every line of dialogue or character action is layered with a thousand future meanings and significances. The day is not far off when, as in Shakespeare or The Bible, a reference to everything in existence will be found in The Simpsons.

You don’t need me to remind you of this. In fact, I didn’t need to remind myself. I just did it because the TV told me to, and it’s hard not to listen because it spent so much time raising me. What I do need to remind you is that The Simpsons is still good and should not be cancelled. Whenever anyone involved in the show is asked whether they should call it an epoch – an inevitable question after 25 years on the air – they invariably defer to what is most unprecedented and unrepeatable about The Simpsons.

The show’s original contract with Fox contains a clause stipulating that the network cannot interfere in its production. This clause still holds today. To end the series would be to forsake a kind of creative freedom not seen before nor possible since in network television, or any other corporate media for that matter. Of course, if The Simpsons wasn’t doing anything valuable with their autonomy, then it shouldn’t be kept on the air just to make a point. But I would argue, fervently, that it is. Perhaps not as well as it once did, or as consistently, but cromulently enough.

In recent years, the abuse The Simpsons receives at the hands of the internet (eh?) has become so ritualised that the show even has a running gag about it (which is reason enough to keep the series on the air, if you ask me). I was probably in their camp a couple of years ago. But when I think about, the time I disliked the series most was when I was denied a steady flow of new episodes by Rupert Murdoch restricting UK premiere rights to channels I didn’t have (the Sith Lord giveth and the Sith Lord taketh away).

Since I moved to the US, I get daily back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons on my local station which are all from 2010 onwards and shown on a continuous loop. For some time now, this is what The Simpsons has been to me. Rather than experiencing melancholia for the show’s golden age, my appreciation and enthusiasm for the series has been renewed and revitalised. The writing remains acerbic, the satire of contemporary folly is as punchy and provocative as that of the first Bush administration, and contrary to popular belief there is as much feeling for the characters as ever.

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Even The Simpsons refuse to pay to watch their show now!

Rupert Murdoch will no doubt need all 552 episodes of The Simpsons as evidence in his defence when he is eventually tried by The Hague but I only need one to defend the series against charges of loitering that may come its way. ‘Steal This Episode’ is the ninth episode of the 25th season of The Simpsons and aired this January. It is one of the most recent episodes and one of the overall best. It contains a nuanced and insightful commentary on the moral contradictions and hypocrisies of media piracy, spot-on critiques of Hollywood’s recent output (‘I like that James Bond is ugly now’), and pinpoint social observation (I have lived the Raiders’ fan with the baby at the 9pm screening!). It has an emotional centre and yet draws intelligent laughter from what we know of the characters and what is true of life. They’ll never stop The Simpsons.

Watching Americans with TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last Christmas when I was back in the UK I became obsessed with Channel 4’s Gogglebox, a reality show where we watch people watching television. An unbeatable premise executed to perfection, it was just the right mix of sociology, sitcom, soap opera and vox pop. Upon returning to the US, I learnt Gogglebox was to be re-made in America as The People’s Couch by socialite reality cable network Bravo. Bravo has never cared about representing the American public before so it seemed a curious choice of import. Saying that, Channel 4 is not exactly a public service channel anymore either.

When Gogglebox starting airing last year, the idea of watching TV viewers on TV was already familiar to British audiences. The Royle Family, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the last 20 years, largely consisted of a family sitting in their living room with the TV on. Football fans have been watching pundits watch Premier League games on Sky Sports Soccer Saturday for decades now. The notion of TV re-capping TV wasn’t news either. One of our biggest comedies of recent years TV Burp was a retrospective of the week’s TV with irreverent commentary from offbeat entertainer Harry Hill.

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday: Watching pundits watch football.

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday: Watching pundits watch football.

Gogglebox wasn’t the first attempt at this idea on British television, just the first version of it that people wanted to watch and channels would want to commission. In the early 2000s, the live late-night Channel 4 panel show Flipside TV had celebrity guests providing running commentary on TV programmes airing at the same time. Its graveyard slot meant there was no danger of losing viewers to other channels, but Gogglebox eased the format into primetime by having it recount the previous week’s TV. Flipside TV also didn’t have two of Gogglebox’s prime draws; the public and TV clips.

The concept is not exactly unheard of in American TV either. The couch-potato sitcoms of the ‘80s and ‘90s such as Roseanne and The Simpsons added a layer of realism to the depiction of American family life by showing characters in front of the TV, although the shows they watched were largely invented or embellished. E!’s The Soup trawls through clips of the week’s TV with mocking commentary from comedian Joel McHale, in a format very similar to TV Burp. But it’s invariably a specific kind of bad and bizarre reality TV that’s always seen ironically and functions as material.

Who are we watching?

Who are we watching?

The format of The People’s Couch is virtually the same as Gogglebox. We watch reactions to and conversations about TV programmes of the past week from different sets of viewers (families, couples, friends) who re-appear each week. Participants all watch the same programmes; although we suspect some of them have been prompted to. Each segment centres on a specific show, which tends to be popular, new or somehow different. We flip between viewers depending on who has the most interesting or entertainment reaction, and we get substantial extracts from TV shows so we know specifically what they are reacting to.

There are, however, minor changes that make all the difference. Gogglebox tries to be as representative as possible of the diversity of British society in terms of class, race, age, ethnicity, sexuality and region. This is a legacy of Channel 4’s social concern and inclusivity as a broadcaster which it used to have in spades and still rears its head occasionally. The People’s Couch tries to be as representative as possible of the diversity of Bravo viewers, which means sassy women and gay men of more than one ethnicity. This is the difference between broadcasting and narrowcasting in a nutshell.

Before there were people's couches there was Gogglebox!

Before there were people’s couches there was Gogglebox!

Gogglebox shows viewers from all over the UK while The People’s Couch doesn’t stray far from the Hollywood axis preferred by TV producers for geographical convenience. It’s remarkable to see middle-class families on a network that typically won’t bother with people worth less than a million but there’s a socio-economic cut-off point in The People’s Couch that there isn’t in Gogglebox. This is probably more about the relative affordability of digital TV in Britain compared to exorbitant US cable costs, which prevents many lower-income homes from getting extensive TV service and disenfranchises them from participation in the national TV conversation.

The biggest mistake made by The People Couch was chopping Gogglebox’s running time of an hour in half and losing the original’s voiceover. Our attachment to and affection for the viewers we see every week is what makes Gogglebox so compelling and moving. Without a voiceover giving us backgrounds and biographies of the people featured and the time to get to know them, their relationships and routines, The People’s Couch only manages superficial glimpses of its real-life stars. It makes them seem shallower than their UK equivalents, which is regrettable because they’re not (necessarily), just represented without depth or empathy.

Zappy Holidays

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

Like the most innocuous word in the English language, the phrase ‘holiday TV special’ means something very different in Britain and America. Christmas specials on UK television are typically bloated extrapolations or unwanted revivals of popular programmes while in the US they tend to be family-friendly entertainment specially made for the occasion. In Britain, the runs of TV series are normally over by Christmas meaning that each show is unnaturally forced back into the schedules. However, in the US Christmas falls slap-bang in the middle of the network season, allowing for a festively-themed episode preceding the mid-season break that incorporates the holiday rather than the other way round. American holiday specials tend to go straight for spectacle and showmanship, something we’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate with musical versions of our soap operas and star performances where you text the Bee Gees for no apparent reason. I’m sure we Brits used to do this better in the days when vaudeville ruled our airwaves but US TV remains far less hesitant and bashful about pure, uncomplicated show. With the help of my wife G, who has been willingly indoctrinated by American holiday TV fare since childhood, I’ve been watching some classic specials.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

 

The oppressed in 1960s American society.

 

What begins as a music video for the beloved Christmas song soon transforms into a scathing indictment of racism, homophobia and sexism. Appropriately for a TV movie made in the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed, Rudolph’s ostracision is an issue of skin colour. There’s also Hermey, a gay elf (acknowledged by seldom-used codeword ‘Dentist’) whose good hair, handsome looks and ambitions for a white-collar career make him a social misfit in the North Pole. It’s one of the few occasions in mainstream entertainment you’ll see a gay man as our closest link to normality. Such prejudices are shown to be a symptom of the stagriarchal society in which women are kept out of decision-making processes. The bare bones of the song are fleshed out with references to every children’s story and American myth you can think of: The Abominable Snowman, The Gold Rush, Narnia. There’s also a scene with disabled toys that could keep Pixar in court with the Rankin-Bass estate for the rest of existence. Add in transcendent stop-motion animation and wonderfully offbeat characters (like the prospector looking for silver and gold in the North Pole) and you have a deserved classic.

 

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

 

Stomach pump, please.

 

Having some of the best jazz piano riffs ever, ever, ever (courtesy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio) would be enough to destine this cartoon for greatness. But it’s so much more. A Thanksgiving variation on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, the special has that perfect blend of wit and slapstick that distinguishes the very best cartoons. The combination of intelligent adult humour and childish situations sets an enduring template for some of the finest animation of the last thirty years: The Simpsons, Rugrats, King of the Hill. Schultz’s genius premise of a child with the malaise of a middle-aged man and friends who act like dinner party guests in a Woody Allen movie has one of its most memorable outings here, as Charlie tries to avoid social awkwardness by hosting an en-masse Thanksgiving dinner. Helped immeasurably by the wistful score, there’s a deep-seated melancholy here, which gives the special an unusually dark adult tone for family entertainment, making it the heir of troubling holiday movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and appropriate for Conan O’Brien’s deleted suicide scene parody. The painful deadpan on Charlie’s face was my own expression after a Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far gone…

 

A classic of you’ll-think-you-dreamt-it television, this Thanksgiving spectacular featuring characters and actors from the original Star Wars movie was never re-broadcast and recordings were suppressed for decades by creator George Lucas in his ongoing quest to change history. Thanks to fans’ recordings of the original broadcast that can now be shared via the internet, we’re able to see the special in all its eminently bizarre glory. It’s the only time you’ll ever see an elderly wookie orgasming watching a helmet porno of Diahann Carroll, Golden Girl Bea Arthur tossing drunks out of the cantina, and a space drag queen TV chef cooking bantha meat while spinning her bosom. There’s a nice idea in here somewhere about using TV to bring the domestic verisimilitude of everyday life to the Star Wars universe but it gets drowned out by the tonal confusion and unintentional avant-garde of the execution. It also features some of the oddest dramatic choices in the history of TV (probably culture) such as dialogue-free, grunt-based scenes of Chewbacca’s family at home. At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it.

Watching TV with Americans will return in January…Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

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