Archive for the sopranos

The Finale

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2021 by Tom Steward

New Blog 15.1

Ten years is a long time for a show to be on the air. I don’t even know if blogging still exists after ten years.

I started this blog to connect better with the woman I was going to marry and the country I was going to live in through the medium I knew best – television. I was already a US TV scholar by the time I began, but I had never lived in it. I had looked at it through binoculars. After seven years from the inside looking out, I now don’t know any other way to watch television except with Americans.

I’ve been fighting the redundancy of this endeavor for some years now. That’s why the blog has changed so much recently. I experimented with “Watching TP with Americans” – an 18-part series about Twin Peaks: The Return that was as strange and incomplete as the program itself, though far less brilliant. I knew the format had to change and had to match what it was talking about, hence the popcorn-style blogging that took us to the present day. My hope was this could accommodate the rise of social media. I didn’t clock that this was a tacit admission of blogging being too broken to survive.

Every good Pilot has a trigger and all good Finales need a button. For me, this is divorce. When the Seinfeld cast got imprisoned, there could be no more Seinfeld (except as a Curb Your Enthusiasm meta-world). There were enough reasons for it to end – not least the end of the nineties – but this was the point of no return (the end-credits version of Jerry in jail is enough for me). American TV is no longer a mystery to me and blogging is an anachronism, but I could conceivably carry on in that knowledge. Cable and Outlook are supposedly dead in the water too, but I still have both of those. I can’t go further because I’m no longer married to the woman I started this blog with and for.

New Blog 15.2

I always wanted to end the blog by writing about The Sopranos. I will, but I’m really writing about my marriage. David Chase said The Sopranos would end after four seasons. At the end of the fourth season, Tony and Carmela were separated. Two worthwhile if imperfect seasons followed. Then the series ended in a way that pleased no-one. There was no therapist in the finale. As time passed without The Sopranos, we stopped focusing on the final scene and began to appreciate what there was in the episode we liked. Stories were worked out sadly but well. Time was spent with the family. I don’t know where Lilyhammer fits into this analogy. Maybe that’s my bachelor future.

Finales are never good. They are often bad, occasionally transcendent, and invariably passable. I think of Justified, which ended as it began, which is to say perfectly. Six Feet Under broke all the rules of what makes a good series ending in that in offered on paper nothing but errors and on screen nothing but joy. I respect the finale of Breaking Bad because it refused to end any other way than it possibly could, but it was already a story told. Steven Bochco passed while this blog was live and I admired the finales of NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues for trying to be normal episodes for as long as they could get away with it. Let’s face it, most shows aren’t intact by the time they get to their finale. They’re in a slow limp with a false leg.

This blog too ends far removed from whence it came. One look at the Zoom-fatigued faces of awards show attendees will tell you that TV itself is also a shadow of its own interconnected liveness. It remains a fascinating object in the best and worst of TV times, and providers will soon hold the balance of corporate power over movie studios as they did in the 1960s. I’ll keep my social media accounts open and comment when and where I think it is deserved, but not regularly. I still keep a Creed’s Word Document Blog in my mind of what I want to say about American TV. But, even for the internet, it’s … pretty shocking.

My life was shaped by American TV. Now my life is American TV. I lost a lot in getting here. I still have “Cosby’s sex smirk and Roseanne’s sarcy liberal mum laugh”, but they are forever tainted.

New Blog 15.3

Remote Viewing

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Dreams with tags , , , , on June 12, 2015 by Tom Steward

Quite often, my dreams take the form of anticipating event television. If the finale of Mad Men had played out according to my subconscious, the series would have ended with an elderly Don Draper boarding a Concorde in a Madison Avenue version of the last scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had a vision of the new season of Twin Peaks picking up from the season two cliffhanger, with Agent Dale Cooper suddenly exorcising Bob and then explaining to Sheriff Harry Truman how he deliberately trapped the serial killing spirit inside him to draw him out into the open and destroy him forever. If Showtime were hesitant about giving David Lynch a generous budget for making the season, I doubt they’d be willing to fork out for circa-1991 digital avatars of Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean. This is where dreams become necessary. Sometimes they’re simply an improvement on what we eventually got in reality. My dream projection of the Season 8 premiere of Doctor Who was something akin to Peter Greenaway’s film of The Tempest, with Peter Capaldi Toyah Wilcoxing it in full new romantic regalia. At least it was portentousness done well and not by Steven Moffat.

Have you ever had a dream with a midget?

Have you ever had a dream with a midget?

Stranger still is when dreams you have had appear on television. Louie recently aired an episode in which the comedian is pursued in his dreams by a naked man with invisible eyes who charges at him from the darkness. I’m sure everyone will recognise the dream-like pacing and movement that Louis C.K. managed to cultivate in these sequences, and it’s about the best simulation of a dream state I’ve seen since Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You. But Louie and I have the same Freddy Krueger as I’m frequently stalked by the same figure in exactly the same way night after night. It once became so vivid that I started screaming uncontrollably in bed. But the experience of seeing the inner-workings of my subconscious laid out onscreen was actually rather therapeutic. I laughed the laugh of recognition that usually accompanies my viewing of Louie but with greater hysteria and mania, as if repelling a demon. Louis C.K. and I are so evenly matched in looks, outlook and social reaction that I shouldn’t really be surprised that we dream the same dreams. We want the same thing…lots of bad food to eat quickly! It’s better than a support group.

Sometimes I think there is method to my madness. My dreams honed in on the one aspect of Twin Peaks that could not be done in a revival 25 years later, while acknowledging that whatever I dreamt was almost certain to be less weird than what will air in 2016. The finale of Justified consumed my thoughts perhaps more than any other show has or will, and yet it never intruded into my dreams. Perhaps it’s because there was no anxiety or insecurity about how fulfilling it was going to be, whereas I couldn’t say the same for Mad Men and Doctor Who. I don’t want you to think that there’s a TV set in my head (but wouldn’t that be lovely?) and that my dreams are broken down into life and TV shows. Often the two merge. The other night I was in a car with Manny from Modern Family at the wheel, trying to stop an irresponsible relative (no-one specific) from letting him drive us to our death. Now a lot of the kids on my street look exactly like Manny so I don’t know which part of my memory my subconscious was laundering at that particular moment.

There's a horse loose aboot this hoose!

There’s a horse loose aboot this hoose!

I’m aware of the futility and irony of dreaming about shows that are already dreamy or fantastic. Neither Twin Peaks nor Doctor Who adhere to any real-world logic (though the latter is supposed to nod to it from time to time) and Mad Men was always going to end on a note of ambiguity rather than come to any definite conclusion. I’ve yet to see that endless passive flow of dreaming captured in a TV show, which is odd since endless passive flow is exactly what TV is. Even Louie’s dream is a temporary psychological condition caused by guilt at abandoning a divorcee in need, rather than an ongoing haunting. The Sopranos came close with an episode-length dream sequence which drifted in and out of real-life and popular fiction, but the pat Freudianness of everything we saw made it somehow unappealing to watch. It’s as easy as going to sleep.

Party Like It’s 1990 Time

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Tom Steward

90s TV is back in vogue, appropriately enough. Twin Peaks is soon to be revived in such exacting detail that Showtime even sought to bring back David Lynch’s fights with the network. Cali has been fornicated enough by David Duchovny – and his series Californication has been cancelled – while Gillian Anderson appeared to be getting her life together but is going back to her abusive ex; thus The X-Files is returning to Fox, it now seems as a replacement for the network’s all-too-rare new-thing-that-people-like Empire. Even The CW’s version of The Flash recently featured Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Trickster from the original early 90s live-action TV adaptation, now father to the heir to his title, allowing the Star Wars actor to cathartically wail the words that every kid in a Darth Vader mask has been saying to him since 1980.

That the decade that time did not give us time to forget is coming back to TV doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The 90s was when the cup of quality American television first runneth over, never to be empty again. Contemporary Hollywood is increasingly dependent on rebooting classic pop iconography. In fact, Hamill was filming his scenes as The Trickster at virtually the same time he was reviving Luke Skywalker for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But the choice of series has so far been disappointing. The 25-year gap in Twin Peaks was always part of the story, but in truth much of the second final season was completely unwatchable, with the Lynch-helmed finale the only saving grace (and he may not even be directing this time round). If the cast continue to protest Lynch’s absence, we may be looking at a spin-off about The Log Lady’s Log.

Everyone has signed back on for The X-Files but the series was to TV sci-fi what Judd Apatow is to movie comedy. The original series was a good few years too long, and that’s even before Billy Connolly came into the picture! Yes, TV needs more X-Files about as much as literature needs more books about killing heads of state written by Bill O’Reilly. Maybe it’s my comic apathy or that The CW’s demographic version of the flashing lifeclock from Logan’s Run has already gone off in the palm of my hand, but I found nothing to enjoy in The Flash to enjoy apart from Hamill’s scenery-chewing performance (forever to be known as ‘Hamillery’). So if there are any TV executives out there reading (either this blog or just in general) here are some 90s TV shows that are far more worthy candidates for revival:

Murder Three

'My blinds...LaPaglia!'

‘My blinds…LaPaglia!’

The first season of Steven Bochco’s Murder One was a compelling, narratively experimental, impeccably cast piece of TV drama. The second, which I will call Murder Two – not because the crimes prosecuted were lesser but because the quality was – proved altogether more formulaic, B-casted and conventional. Murder Three could right these wrongs. I foresee a pre-credits teaser in which respective season one and two leads Daniel Benzali and Anthony LaPaglia fight Sunshine Boys-like over the configuration of the furniture in the firm’s office, culminating in Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman throwing LaPaglia’s not-Teddy Hoffman out of the window, before lowering the blinds…and then peering through them ominously. We would revive the first season’s 23-episode serial arc, with a case that begins as Murder Three…and ends up as Murder One!

The Critic (Or It’s Not That Tough Being a Film Cricket)

Together at last!

Together at last!

At the time we might have thought that the 90s were the summit of all that was ridiculous about Hollywood movies. But given how extra inflated and predictable blockbusters have become since, surely Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ animated comedy about a TV film critic would now have plenty of kindling for the movie parody fire. Cancelled after one season, there’s still plenty to do with the format and reviving the character of the Ebert-like Jay Sherman would be a greater tribute to the late film critic than any statue.

Murder She Wrote

History's greatest serial killer!

History’s greatest serial killer!

Still alive and acting…all I’m saying.

Cop Rock: Laboured Musical Premise Unit

A spin-off of the quickly-cancelled musical police drama about a special team of cops who investigate off-colour musical episodes in other TV series.

Paulie Loves Pussy

A buddy comedy featuring Paulie Walnuts and Pussy Bonpensero from The Sopranos based on this HBO commercial:

We’d figure out the timeline stuff later!

The Cosby Show

I drank from the wrong glass...

I drank from the wrong glass…

Worth pitching just to see the look on the executives’ faces. ‘Drink this, Mr. Greenblatt’.

The Music Box

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.

God only knows why they picked that song!

God only knows why they picked that song!

There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.

Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!

A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.

May you stay forever Dylan!

May you stay forever Dylan!

The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.

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.

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