Archive for the sopranos

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.

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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.

Memory Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs. Shows are incessantly reminding us of what happened minutes before, when we’re not being previewed we’re being recapped, and flashback has become the bane of television storytelling. Reality shows are the worst culprits, since their heavy-handed narration and editing permits them to insert extraneous references to past events at will. But dramas and comedies can be just as bad. Think about how many devices there are built into the fabric of fictional TV series to remind us about what just happened; ‘Previously On’ segments, duplicated action, flashbacks. Such repetition is almost certain to annoy viewers and make them feel patronised, so why does TV always think it’s addressing Guy Pearce?

Torture and racism, probably.

Torture and racism, probably.

When it comes to reality shows, it’s safe to speculate that there’s an element of killing time here. Visual call-backs are a good way of conserving footage through re-use and along with voiceover re-caps they can easily pad out a show to its allotted time. I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began! But there are also less cynical motives at play. It’s long been assumed by producers that people watch TV in fits and bursts and they don’t necessarily watch a programme from start to finish. It’s something we critics with our programme-based reviews still don’t really get. But it’s the impulse behind filling viewers in every few minutes.

Much as we would like to think for the sake of art that TV has fulfilled its potential as a serial medium, it’s still pretty much a halfway house between closed and ongoing storytelling. There must still be part-time and sporadic viewers out there or we’d have switched over to continuous storytelling a long time ago, given that it’s a feature common to all the great TV out there. We wouldn’t need to have these concessions to people who’ve missed a few episodes or were out of the room if we were all faithful and attentive viewers. As far as flashback is concerned, somewhere along the line it got mistaken for complex storytelling – even though the truth is the opposite – and the rest is history.

TV memory aids are where good television and quality television clash. It’s good practice to make TV that responds to the fragmented way a lot of us watch it. But all the shows we associate with quality television are about breaking away from that kind of audience spoon-feeding for something that challenges viewers, even their memories. And it goes to show that the type of television we’re always wanting more of and more like in television (The Wire, The Sopranos) is difficult to produce in most contexts. People are paying specifically for HBO so they’re going to watch everything and stick with a series for value alone. You couldn’t do a HBO show in a place with audiences that are constantly drifting in and out.

Of course, there are limits. It often feels like we’re being cheated of new content. Last week The Bachelorette ran a highlights package of its first three weeks in place of a new episode. It will do this again in a special prior to the finale, and then during the Judd Apatow-comedy length finale itself. Most reality show finales are season re-caps. There is a point beyond which you’re pandering to people who have missed some crucial moments and simply taking the piss out of the remaining audience. In this way, such shows are their own worst enemies, offering no reward to long-term viewing except seeing it all over again multiple times. You can’t count on TV viewers wanting nostalgia like an instant coffee powder.

Late-night talk show Conan has a regular bit called ‘Memba This?’ in which sidekick Andy Richter repeatedly asks the question in front of a slideshow of recent viral news images. As with many Conan skits, they’ve distilled how TV works in a matter of minutes. What TV pretends is a ‘trip down memory lane’ is actually a re-cap of things they haven’t had time to forget. Set up as a ‘new comedy bit’, regurgitation is posing as creativity. And when Conan keeps getting heinous news images, it reminds us that these memory aids are actually TV’s way of manipulating the past, not just repeating it. Damn, I’m twenty words short. It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs.

Viewer Discretion Televised

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reality TV, TV advertising, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

There can be little doubt that the internet has become the established medium for pornography or that TV with its subscription-based, restricted-run porn provision wouldn’t rival its online competitor which boasts free use and plentiful content. But as we’ve seen with TV’s co-opting of Twitter as an advertising platform, television is not above appropriating an online success story to secure its place in the ever-growing media marketplace, and there’s no success as runaway as internet porn. Because of the moral, political and religious imperatives of broadcasting regulations, putting pornography on television has always been problematic. It might slip through the net as the accidental by-product of experimental art or adult drama or a moment of bravado in a piece of titillating entertainment, but would rarely go unchecked or unchallenged. The more serious pursuit of pornography can be found in the pay TV channels available on the much less regulated satellite, cable and digital services as well as some of the content on graveyard networks at an appropriately late time of day, although this is porn in a modified form suitable for TV that’s much lighter on the graphic side that the equivalent in other media. In short, pornography is always fighting a losing battle with TV. Of course this doesn’t preclude TV from taking lessons in how the porn industry puts bare bums in seats.

This is about as pornographic as it gets on Showtime Preview!

Why am I talking so much about porn? It’s because I’ve started to notice how much American TV takes from pornography. For all the reasons listed above, most TV is not explicitly pornographic but neither is it free from the influence of porn in how it advertises, entertains and lures its audience. I have an internet TV hub and recently noticed there was an application called ‘Showtime Preview’ which ran free season premieres from the subscription network. I wanted to watch the first episode of Season 3 of the industry sitcom Episodes. Since this was a promotional device designed to draw me in to starting a series and getting a network subscription to keep watching, I was surprised when the episode was edited to remove all violence, sex, nudity and swearing, which you might say are Showtime’s unique selling points. But I was taken aback when a sex scene with blurred images of nudity and intercourse bore a caption at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Want to see what you’re missing?’ followed by a subscription link. The very point was to withhold all the explicit content of Showtime’s programmes that couldn’t be aired on network or basic cable TV and then wield it as capital for subscribing. This is exactly how the porn industry incites users to upgrade from softcore teasers to hardcore features.

It’s not TV it’s HB-ho!

The more I thought about, the less right I had to be surprised. Hadn’t HBO – the city on the hill of quality TV – pulled exactly the same trick when wooing subscribers? The difference between HBO and other TV wasn’t just quality and sophistication of programming but explicit representations of sex, violence, nudity and swearing. Often there isn’t even the cultural cache to justify such excess. For every self-legitimating spectacle of obscenity like the artful, challenging The Sopranos there’s pure exploitation like sex industry documentary G-String Divas. HBO is hardly ashamed. The title sequence to prison drama Oz packed as much blood, gore, sex acts and intimate body parts as it could into a minute and a half montage. There’s even an in-joke in Oz making it clear the network are aware of their pornographic reputation, as inmates start receiving HBO and cheer in unison as G-String Divas airs.

ABC launches new Bachelor sex cam.

Networks like HBO and Showtime operate in a very similar way to subscription porn channels so we shouldn’t be too surprised when their marketing techniques overlap. But what about network TV, which claims to disavow any resemblance to pornography with its excessive and self-righteous censorship of content? The Bachelor: Sean and Catherine’s Wedding in which two former contestants were married live on air did all it could within broadcasting regulations to make viewers at home visualise the couple’s wedding night in graphic detail. A live camera feed reminiscent of a sex webcam was set on the bed in Sean and Catherine’s honeymoon suite throughout the ceremony. The pre-recorded wedding build-up centred on the wedding night, including Sean shopping for titillating lingerie and Catherine posing for a wedding gift of boudoir photographs. The strong feeling was that if ABC could have kept the cameras rolling into the night, they definitely would.

Orange is the New Flashback

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by Tom Steward

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

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